When Barack Obama made his first trip to Africa as the first black president of the United States, he made some interesting observations. One, countries like Kenya once had a larger per capita economy than South Korea. Two, in Africa, the era of the strongman was over; it was now the era of strong institutions.
The truth, however, is that for strong institutions to succeed, they must be put in place by strong men and women. We have already looked at the Singapore example. When you have a president who can issue a ban on chewing gum literally making it as illegal as drugs and who can kill cattle belonging to herdsmen that stray into the city, that is a strong man at work.
Lee Kuan Yew was a strong man. He laid the foundations for the institutions that eventually made the country great. He said he was once the most hated figure in the media because of the things he was doing.
When the head of police knows that there is a strong man who can send him to jail if he breaks the law, it sets the pace for the entire police force to be transformed because the head will simply pass the same down the ranks. When the corrupt judge knows that his life is at stake when he embraces corruption, it will be passed through the rank and file of the judiciary.
No policy, no matter how good or how strong, can work without strong people to enforce them. Once enforced, such practices move from policy to culture over time, giving birth to strong institutions.
This line of thinking will often run into hurdles in the form of human rights but we need to determine what works based on the people. There is a reason why Africans traditionally believe in a king and that the word of the king is law.
The Libyan economy was one of the strongest in Africa. Egypt’s was one of the strongest in Africa. What do they have in common besides the fact that they were led by strong leaders?
They had strong men who were not there for four years but strong men who were able to understand the unique characteristics of their people and lead them.
On April 4, 2005, former inspector general of police of Nigeria was arraigned for stealing and laundering over $100 million. He was found guilty and sentenced. When a sitting head of the police can go through that, it should send a signal.
Unfortunately, because it was not followed up by others and because African democracy has so many levels of people who need to be pleased and people who should not be offended, it was a jailing in vain.
South Korea’s economic revolution is called the Miracle on the Han River. It was patterned after the Miracle on the Rhine used to refer to the economic rebirth of West Germany after World War II.
Just like in Singapore and in China, South Korea was moved from being a one talent nation to a five talent nation through strong leadership and policies.
Park Chung-hee, the South Korean strongman of the time was deliberate. He initiated policies like treating employees like family which many scholars believe laid the foundation for a corporate culture and indeed a national culture that created a performance environment. Just like Lee Kuan Yew had his chewing gum ban, Park Chung–hee also had his morality laws that had mandatory curfews and regulations on attire and music.
By the time he was assassinated in 1979, directives that were initially resisted as draconian had now become cultural and the economic transformation was on course.
He believed that what the country needed was not a perfect democracy based on Western parameters but an economic revolution that would make its position as a nation strong and ensure that it was not vulnerable.
What do China, Singapore, South Korea have in common today? They were once one-talent nations like most African nations. But today, they are among the world’s top economies.
They also had strong men who gave way to strong institutions which gave way to strong nations. No form of transformation is possible without strong leadership.