As has been the norm every year for the past 15 years, the annual government retreat took place last week. As usual, certain issues that weren’t considered major problem prior to the event made it to the national agenda, such as fighting malnutrition.
However, the most important was President Paul Kagame’s inquiry into the leadership culture and how it affects service delivery.
Decrying the behaviour of leaders, particularly ministers whom he said spend too much time on protocol and move with a lot of Kwiremereza (self-importance), the president wondered why it should be considered a favour not a responsibility when a minister visits citizens in provinces — to address their problems.
President Kagame blamed the problem on how the ministers perceive their leadership role. And this is spot on. Many leaders perceive being in positions of power, not as a privilege to serve, but as a way to be celebrated, project self-importance and power — and perhaps amass wealth.
That’s partly why, at most functions that are to be officiated by leaders, these officials in question often arrive late and when they do arrive, everything comes to a standstill. This is one way officials show how powerful they are.
There are cases of some of these leaders not only organising parties to celebrate their appointment, but also develop certain new habits.
Some change the way they walk, talk and relate to others, while others even change their circle of friends. This is partly why it’s sometimes difficult for some of these officials to “reintegrate” back in society once they have lost their positions and some end up isolated or in exile.
So, why do these leaders regard serving citizens a favour and how can this be changed to become a responsibility to serve?
First, in pre-colonial Rwanda, leadership was perceived to be a birthright (kuvukana imbuto) and ordained by God. And when democracy arrived, it was understood in ethnic terms where access to positions of power was an ethnic right rather than a responsibility to serve.
That’s why in the first and second republics (up to 1994), to become a leader was to get an opportunity to access privileges, resources and status (ibyiza by’Igihugu); since getting and holding positions of power emanated from belonging to an ethnic group and not through a social contract.
Low accountability and failure to build the spirit of public service are other reasons why some of these leaders do not serve. This is because their power and legitimacy is not derived from providing services, but remaining loyal to their ethnic group.
Thirdly, a weak media is unable to effectively expose non-performing leaders. But, even when media tries to question or expose leaders’ actions or failures, it is perceived as “unpatriotic” and ‘unprofessional” — again, partly due to a lack of a culture of accountability.
Finally, due to our underdeveloped talents in the arts and an underdeveloped economy with a semi-intellectual society, politicians and military generals have been turned into celebrities.
And since government remains the most critical source of upward mobility for many, demand for access to political leaders is high and hence fuelling the sense of self-importance among some of these leaders.
That’s also why, to many, being appointed to positions of leadership remains the ultimate prize; the definitive “achievement.”
The best way to end this culture it is to ensure greater accountability. That isn’t to say that there is no accountability; but to suggest that as currently constituted, accountability levels particularly for ministers and locals leaders is top-down and needs to be made bottom up to make serving ordinary citizens a responsibility.
For instance, the most effective level at which a minister is accountable to today is the presidency; parliament is less effective despite sometimes summoning ministers to explain certain decisions or actions. This means that parliament needs to raise its game and use its powers more effectively.
At the local level, it would help if district mayors and their deputies were directly elected by the people rather than by an electoral college.
Lastly, media needs to be empowered to engage in greater scrutiny of leaders’ actions and failures.
That also means elevating the media’s right to hold leaders accountable to a level where it’s cherished rather than propagated as “unpatriotic” or “irresponsible.”
Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website:www.mgcconsult.com