The leadership challenge – the office of the President

These are some of the questions that need to be addressed in the interests of economic, social and political progress.

The majority of African states have republican constitutions with the head of state and government being a President. Under such constitutions, the President is vested with the executive power of the government, the power to "preserve, protect and defend the constitution" and the power to see that the laws are faithfully executed.

The concept of a government and its role in African societies has to be understood in its proper historical construction and context. The nation state as we know it today in Africa was a product of the colonial system whose founding values and principles were opposed to concepts such as inclusivity, indivisibility and universality. The government was set up to preserve, protect and defend the interests of a defined racial group.

The head of state and government had to necessarily come from a defined class of people, as was the right to elect office bearers. The effectiveness of a leader had to be measured against his/her ability to advance the interests of the people he represented.

It was, therefore, necessary to create classes of citizenships based primarily on race informed by an ideology that held the view that black Africans had no inherent interest in a nation state. The right to participate in the nation state had to be restricted and means tested largely because it was felt that so-called uncivilized and non-propertied people could conceivably see no value in a nation state founded on a defined social contract.

The decolonization struggles were informed by a shared view that an ideology that treated human beings unequally was not only immoral but also unsustainable. No state can have legitimate jurisdiction on people without their express consent.

The people who led the decolonization struggle were in part inspired by the kind of noble ideas that led men and women to declare America as a land of the free and brave underpinned by a constitutional order that sought jealously to avoid giving the President or government too much power over citizens.

The citizens and not the government were to be the driver of social and economic change. America, therefore, had a government and not the other way round, as is the case, for example, in most African countries.

The emergence of an executive President in contemporary Africa has to be understood in its historical and political context. The relationship between human beings on the one hand and between citizens and the state during the colonial and post-colonial era only changed at the superficial level.

The founding fathers dominated the political space with citizens taking a subsidiary and residual role in nation building. The expectation informed by an observation that the colonial state was at the centre of social and economic change led many post-colonial states to look to the state and not the citizens for economic salvation.

It is not surprising, therefore, that African post-colonial superstars having mainly been political players. The political kingdom led by a head of state in the form of a President has dominated Africans news to the extent that a lot is expected from politicians notwithstanding the fact that no government can be successful if its citizens are not.

The notion that the success of any nation state is no more than the aggregate of the choices made by its citizens has never been properly understood in contemporary Africa. Most African states look to donors for economic salvation instead of looking to their citizens. The link between freedom and economic success is not just academic but is supported by abundant empirical evidence.

The seemingly lack of mobility at the Presidential level is easily explained by the fact that no consensus exists on what kind of person should be a leader. Although most of the constitutions are silent on the kind of qualifications required for someone to be a President, the expectation is that such a person must be intelligent and capable of solving people’s problems.

I have not known of any civilization where another person can be expected to solve one’s challenges. If citizens in Africa expect the government to be a fountain of wisdom and knowledge, then Africa’s prospects are doomed.

What is striking is that there is an expectation universally in Africa that a President must be armed with super skills and wisdom. Any failure must then be exclusively attributed to the leader as more is expected from the individual who is after all human like all of us.

The President has no more claims on time and life than any ordinary citizen and yet the expectation is that by assuming state office such individual must transform himself/herself into a super human being.

The link between the citizen and the office of the President is at best remote and at worst counter productive. On assuming office, a President becomes a prisoner of the system and each day in office often results in the person losing contact with the realities of life. The life of a President is not so free and rosy as we often imagine.

How well do we know the life of a President? How much have we invested in the knowledge about the office of the President? Many conversations that dominate African discourses focus on the failures of the person who occupies the highest office in the land and not on our collective failure to appreciate and understand the real value or lack of, of the person to social and economic change.

To the extent that the degrees of freedom of the President reduces each day he/she is in office, how then can we expect such a person to know what time it is outside the statehouse? It is not difficult to imagine that the eyes and ears of the President can only be as good as the source and credibility of the information brought to his/her attention.

In a Republic, the face of each citizen ought to be the face of a President and yet real human experience suggests otherwise. After all, the republic belongs to citizens in whom sovereignty is vested. The President should be no more than a representative of the governed and not a super human being. Citizens should know how to use the person in their own self-interest and not the other way around.

Citizens must take control of their project. A good President, therefore, is a person who must realize that staying long in power undermines the state not only because his circle of friends have the propensity to shape and distort his/her worldview but it is important to demystify the office of the President so that many more can aspire to serve and not dictate to the people.

Ordinary people if they are given the space are capable of accomplishing extraordinary outcomes. This is only possible not because the government compels them to dream big but because human beings have the capacity to create and innovate when they are assured that they will be able to reap the fruits of such endeavors.