The Arab Spring, Institutional Reform and Leadercentrism

In this IHS Academic podcast, I’m joined by Dr. Ajume Wingo, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. Dr. Wingo has done extensive research on the concept of leadercentrism and institutional reform in African nations, and explains how it relates to the Arab Spring.

Jeanne Hoffman:        Welcome to this Kosmos Online Podcast, I am Jeanne Hoffman. Today’s cast is Professor Ajume Wingo of the University of Colorado, who is joining us to talk about some of his research about institutional reform in African nations. Welcome Dr. Wingo and thanks for being on our podcast.

Ajume Wingo:             Thank you very much.

JH:       Could you explain what you mean by leadercentrism and why is an obstacle to reform in Africa?

AW:     Yes, I feel leadercentrism as a cancer of African reform or a cancer in African politics and that require a form of chemotherapy kind of cure for it. First what is leadercentrism? By leadercentrism, I mean the view that political system should be represented and analyzed in terms of individual, social and political leaders and the resorting tendency to think of problems and solution to political problems in terms of finding the right individual to feel position of power.

One of the particularly perverse effects of leadercentrism has been to mislead those who suffer most from it effects in trying to find to solution to the political problem. I mean to see what leadercentrism does? As ordinary Africans from Cape Town to Cairo from Mogadishu to Dhaka what is wrong with the modern states today and you hear in scores of languages and dialects from every corner of the continent the same reply: bad leadership. Turn to the very African who see leaders as their problem and ask them what they see as a solution and get the same answer: good leadership.

Turn your ears towards North Africa and listen to the chorus of protestor’s voices: Mubarak must go, Ben Ali must go, Gaddafi must go and if you turn and listen to sub-Saharan Africa you will hear the same thing: Phobia must go, Mugabe must go. Then ask them what they want to see happen after the leaders they so much want to go finally go and get a version of the same answer: elect new and presumably better leaders.

This is not confined to Africa. 2500 years ago, Plato asked who should rule? He, like modern day African political elite, pinned his hope on finding the right kind of people to lead. In fact Africa alone does not suffer from leadercentrism. The west also does. Across the United States of America for instance, you can find leadership seminars, leadership courses, leadership institutes, leadership centers and you can find universities that pride themselves on finding the leaders of tomorrow. Book shelves are stocked with the weight works on leaders and leadership.

Primary school libraries and classrooms also adorn with images and narrative of past leaders and heroes with a hope that the young would emulate. Indeed people may lack contribution of leadership qualities. For instance Barack Obama’s most toted temperament to trump their policy preferences when it comes to selecting candidates. Not surprisingly well-intentioned westerners will sometimes seek to ameliorate problems in Africa by finding the right individual leaders who will be good partners in reform.

Africans look for solution to leadercentrism in leadercentrism and this is one of the most serious problems of this leaders is so perverse; its almost in the DNA of Africa. To the point that leadercentrism being their problem they look for solution in leadercentrism. Think for instance of the African billionaire is Mo Ibrahim the Sudanese, British mobile communication entrepreneur.

When he thought of the problem to the depressing African political problem he immediately looked to leadership. He established The Mo Ibrahim Foundation to support African leaders who do their job by stepping down through elections. Who couldn’t commend his effort given the President for Life phenomenon in Africa and a coup from Heaven or death in office as the only surest hope of getting rid of an African President?

African presidents have staying in power through elections but hardly leave that way. In fact let me just point to you a little about the irony with Mo Ibrahim Foundation to solve African problem through leadercentrism. Mo Ibrahim offered 5 million dollars initial payment and subsequently 200 thousand a year for life to any African leader that step down through election or who stepped down legitimately from office.

But look at the problems here. The problem is that Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria’s net worth was between 10 and 12 billion dollars. Hosni Mubarak’s of Egypt, net worth between 40 and 70 billion dollars. Muammar Gaddafi’s net worth between 80 and 150 billion dollars. I mean what could giving an African 5 million down payment and 200 thousand a year for life mean to people of this sort?

In fact, not many African presidents has come forward for this price. At one point frustrated by president for life phenomenon I too so that Africa should institute gerontocracy with an eighty age requirement for the highest office of the land and then leave heaven to vote this president out and if you now tend to just look back in Africa, I want to establish this leadercentrism as a serious problem in Africa.

In 2008 there was disputed election between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga and which led to the death of about 1,500 human souls, perished, and sending away 70 thousand people on exile. They left their homes wandering around the bushes. Now when African elite including the former United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan, when they gathered together, what did they do? Well the problem was leadercentrism and this leader centrists what they decided was to create a new post of prime minister to give Raila Odinga.

Then a year later the same thing happened in Zimbabwe with Mugabe and Tsvangirai and what did African elite in southern Africa do? They came together and created a new post of prime minister for Tsvangirai. So this is a very, very perverse problem in Africa, one that if not checked Africa is doomed the way it is.

So the one thing that can happen to a people facing political problem is to pin their hopes on finding the right leaders. Recorded history tell us that these leaders are extremely, extremely rare and very, very, very far in between. In fact recorded history has only three of them.

The first one is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus of Rome who was a farmer and when Rome was plagued by the tyrant he left his farm, came, fought, drove the tyrant away and then stabilized the situation and once the situation was stabilized he immediately left and went back to his farm and he never came back.

The second one, George Washington of United States who fought the revolutionary wars we know, and then the time came he stepped in, stabilized the situation, everybody many people wanted him to become king of America it is said, and people wanted him to become maybe president for life and what did he do? He stepped down after four years went away and never came back to fight for power.

And the last one is from Africa. Aristotle always said that there is always something new coming out of Africa. Well something good came out of Africa and this Nelson Mandela who for over a quarter of a century fought apartheid and was locked up and then the time came when he was released, elected to office, he ruled for four years and left of his own accord. People wanted him to become president for life, went away and never came back again and so these leaders are a rarity in fact, to sit down and wait for heaven to send down someone for you to rule is to bet your life upon luck and this I believe is one of the biggest problem of leadercentrism and that is why it has for so long a time, so much stymied the creativity of Africans to the point that they cannot see anything beyond this leadercentrism.

JH:       So how much does your focus on the need for institutional reform come from insights and public choice theory?

AW:     Correct. Now, I believe that if once Africans or once people can see beyond leadercentrism they can begin to make a reform. But I wonder that issue…let me take this first and then go to public choice theory. In fact with someone who said something that I very much respect and that really hit my soul at the bottom was a business mogul Warren Buffet who said that “I try to buy stocks in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them, because sooner or later one will.”

I mean, some people respect him for his money, but I respect him for his mind for these sort of impromptu thing that will come out of his mind, because someone like Warren Buffet know that you are going to have an average, the average people that run businesses or if we extrapolate it to government, the average head of state or leaders are often, they are not beyond average and so what you need is to build a polity in which even any bad president can run.

What I mean here is that if there is reform to be had the reform should reorient African politics away from leadercentrism towards reform, towards institution, towards rule of law. They should de-personalize African politics and this problem has come because Africans ask the wrong question about polity. They ask the wrong question about political sovereignty or the sovereign power and they give the wrong answer.

The question is not who should rule, but how we can stop tyranny or how we can de-personalize politics to the point that we don’t need people because in the state of nature as characterized by Hobbes, real life is brutish, short, solitary, I mean this scary state of nature what the problem in the state of nature is not some animals, is not some dinosaurs, is not some walking dead people that come up.

It is a human being and therefore you cannot solve this problem of political sovereignty by putting a human being on top to take care when people surrender their legislative, executive and judicial power. The ideal is to de-personalize, the ideal is for nobody to be a charge, the ideal is to be a strong institution and a rule of law. But, now let me move to the question of public choice theory.

I like the public choice theory. In fact public choice theory is purely a descriptive theory. It describes the world as it is. Yes realistically, leaders will always follow their interests and it is rational for them to do so because their powers are so concentrated that they can make visible differences with their effort. For voters according to public choice theory it is always irrational to vote with a hope that one vote will change the world.

As such there are incentives for leaders to participate in politics and this incentive for voters to do the same thing for the honor system to participate. The idea of leadercentrism is, if one thing about it come out of public choice theory in the sense that leaders can always make a difference.

What is built into this is that in a democracy it is not rational for citizen to be actively involved though the way to change this is if they are actively involved. They are likely to be drawn by the realization that political action require a lot of work with little or no pay off. So leadercentrism then is a kind of objection to public choice theory. I think a way to get rid of public choice theory is to get rid of leaders thereby giving everyone equal opportunity.

Here are at least two particular pervasive effects of public choice theory now. With public choice theory you put bad people into power and then you replace bad people with bad people and you replace bad people with yet other bad people who are going to continue to abuse political power. Even if they don’t abuse power, even if they are good, even if they turn out to be good people there is this still something offensive about delegating or selling or surrendering your self governing or your responsibility or the care of yourself away or giving it to others.

Some one insisted that we need less democracy and this is a version of leadercentrism. That is we need some expert making decisions. We need some professional making decisions effectively or efficiently. The idea is to get rid of political process and get expert or professional to do it effectively. But there is something deeply, and I mean deeply right into the soul, offensive about this.

It is an acknowledgement that we can’t govern ourself and if we can’t govern ourself then we do not deserve a republic or a democracy. So leadercentrism gives this impression that ordinary citizens cannot govern themselves then you look for a next chief or king or sultan or imam or prince or queen as Africa does, hoping that when one come along things will be different. Following the public choice theory I would say that even if a leader we are motivated by the right interest or by public good, we would still be in trouble by the fact that we cannot take care of ourself, we become like kids on the cradle or worse like “fluffy the cat” or “Clifford the dog” on whose onus we fully rely for life or for death. They spare us, that is why we are alive. I don’t think that a polity is run that way and if this is the way things are, isn’t that a pathetic state of affairs for us as a human being? I am someone who believes in a republic. I believe that citizens should have a role to play and that each and every individual should have a role to play in politics and if we go by public choice theory then it is the case that it is difficult or if not impossible or irrational.

It might be , for ordinary citizens to do this, it might be what we need in politics, what we need are irrational citizens. Might be what we need as citizen who doesn’t sit around pondering on the citizen that we go around believing that one vote can make a difference. Believing that you can make a difference even though it is irrational to believe this in a population around 300 million people.

It might be that is what we need because to get rid of this you need people who are able to do this. So that in fact Africans are not alien to polity that are run by institution there are countless examples in Africa even as a fellow state, that is states without a head and you find them, you can find them in many places in Africa. The Fulanese of North Africa and some Igbo’s of Nigeria and many countless groups of people, they run their polity without a head, without a leader, without someone sitting on head.

Even in America here there was a case of the Iroquois confederation something like that of Native American, some Native American not all of them who run their polity in that way.

JH:       So elsewhere you mentioned both internet technology and a rising standard of living as factors fueling citizen resistance to governments in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Do you see an educated middle class growing in many African nations?

AW:     Correct. It is interesting that you asked because I for one am a philosopher so I decided to someone who believed that action on the ground should inform theory and theory should inform political actions, so I decided to take off and take off and went to Tunisia and Egypt and in fact I ventured into Libya and I wanted to know just to know what happened, but how it happened and when I went there, one of the thing that I noticed.

The first thing that I noticed around where internet cafes, they were ubiquitous. They were just omnipresent everywhere and then there were ATM machines in the whole place and so that what I noticed on close examination about a cause of this uprising or what you called Arab Spring now and I wanted to concentrate on North Africa on Africa mainly. What I noticed was that the uprising was not for reason that people often think, that it was not because of unemployment, not because the economy was doing bad, but it was quite the opposite.

In fact for a long time the economy in Tunisia and Egypt, they have been growing by leaps and bounds I mean compared to past time. I am not saying not like China or something of the sort and in fact because when this happened then you really get a paradigm change. You know some deeper change in the polity if this can be carried along and what has happened is that what people started looking for in Tunisia and Libya was not a kind of people that, is not a kind of thing that people would expect or some to think that they are driven by poverty, no.

They start looking for personal expression. They start looking for personal freedom in order to express themselves. They start wanting to represent the world to themselves, they are on their own way, rather than the way that is decreed by whoever and they start wanting jobs that are fulfilling and in fact if you think about this and you go back to the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s you will realize that most of the uprising used to be that people needed jobs and they needed sugar, they needed food, and all you needed to do with that the tyrant or the leaders or the so called leaders what they needed to do was just to increase subsidies for rice, for sugar, for all these things from China and the food come in and then you create some jobs. I mean pseudo jobs and then or you wait them out until they leave.

This is the solution that was generally given back then, but this solution does not work anymore because it’s not job that people want, is not just jobs, it’s not just sugar or milk or bread that people want, they want something far deeper and one of the thing and during that time around 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s what has happened is that the technology has often favored the leader. The ratio has been one to many, but with a leader monopolizing the radio house and that is why, coup makers in Africa the first place that you go to, if you can venture into a radio house and make the announcement, you take over power.

Now the ratio is now many to many. The internets are ubiquitous the cyber technology no one has monopoly over it. No one has control over it and people can easily broadcast what they want, they can easily, I mean you go down, you have YouTube, you have Facebook, you have twitter, you have texting, you have email all of these, they are all ubiquitous now and Egypt one of thing that I saw on that was very, very interesting was the rate of penetration of internet in Egypt.

Recent survey in Africa shows that and I am not very, I would just approximate these figures here that there are 100 million internet users in Africa in 2010 and 17 million Egyptians use the internet and this is about a fifth of the population of Egypt. In Tunisia penetration of the internet is even greater with about 3.6 million people out of a population of 10 million. Now compare this number, compare Tunisia and Egypt to the tyrant stricken country of Mauritania where only 2 percent of population has internet and you can begin to have glimpse into why you don’t have this kind of uprisings in this place.

So now what has happened is that the rate of education and the rising of the middle class in this country are phenomenal. I mean I still would like some social science to back this, but it is phenomenal as you have rising of middle class and they increase and as the rate of education increase then you begin to get these people that are not just looking for food, are not just looking for a job, they are looking for something else and this is in my own belief exactly what happened in Egypt and look at this again now. It is just impossible so to speak for the tyrant or for a person let’s say, Mubarak or Ben Ali to shut down the internet or to shut down this technology, cell phones.

They cannot do it. Because when you do it then you shut down the banking system, you shut down the economy on which you rely in order to ameliorate the problem that you are facing in the first place. So this is the nature of technology and I also would say that this is the nature of rising middle class which I see as contributing if they can, if we can just put leadercentrism out of the way.

JH:       How easy is it for citizens to move from nation to nation in Africa because if movement is relatively free do you think Tiebout sorting would put pressure on countries with worst institutions to reform in the direction of greater freedom and rule of law?

AW:     Tiebout sorting is really is mind boggling to me. I see Tiebout sorting as also a descriptive theory and with some assumptions. Tiebout sorting assume that people are like liquid characterized by some osmotic movement. If people are really like liquid then the better governed places will pull people from the worst governing places I will observe that and I also observe that African people historically often vote with their feet.

An example of this is to show for is that Africa has the highest share of the world refugees today. Will this movement of people like liquid lead to better governance? I think it might sometime lead to higher population density in particular places than better governance given leadercentrism I want to emphasize.

As I indicated African vote with their feet and there is a problem with that. The way political reform works is if given three distinct things, flight which is the desire to leave where you are and go anywhere, I mean anywhere away from where you are, consensus which is agreement and fight, so given flight on one hand, given consensus on another and given fight on another people choose to stay where they are and fight.

If people choose to stay where they are and fight I believe that there would be more political reform. This happens. People choose to stay where they are and fight when they have invested a lot and claimed ownership of their investment in particular places and I would submit this: the way for bad places to get better is for good people to stay and make it better and now you can think of this in terms of brain drain also.

Example: African tyrants are clever indeed very, very clever. They realize that people will move like water in osmotic process so they open the flood gates so those with voices can exit allowing them to enjoy their tyrannical power the way they want. This is bad, not the least because those who get up and go are often they the one with the voices and they exit with their voices of reform as well.

A good example was, all the problems that were taken place in Africa around late 80s and early 90s and one of the discoveries that was made probably in my country, probably by the political elite, they realized that unlike before when you needed an exit visa to leave Cameroon, that is where I hailed, you needed an exit visa to leave Bahrain and people were stopped from going to places and these people that wanted to leave the middle class those able bodies, those with voices, those I called the limbos. The limbos, these people that don’t want to be where they are, they want to leave and go somewhere where they want to be that on the one side where they want to be, but the people on the other side they cannot accept them and so they are forced to stay where they are as these people in limbo.

These people they are forced to stay in place and they were serious trouble makers. Their voices were there and then one day the elite discovered a formula where just open the flood gate and let these people go out like liquid away and you open it and everybody left. It was easy to obtain a passport. It is easy to leave and where did they leave? They didn’t leave to other African countries, nobody went. They left for Europe and America. This is exactly what happened and this was actually exported to other African countries, so that as I said the way for bad places to get better is for good people to stay and make it better.

So that now there may be circumstance in which African countries may reform themselves to enter into competition for virtuous people, in this way the Tiebout sorting will work very well. When they have reformed themselves, when they have reached a point where, they can then so that then at that moment people can, that more people can fight. You know when people start moving from their country you start worrying why they are moving and you try to reform where you are so that they don’t move, so that and then people they will move away from bad governing place to good governing places and the bad governing places they would make sure they do everything to keep people where they are.

Well I now would say there is a virtue when people invest so much in their polity to the point that they are ready to stay behind and fight to change it and I will give a very good example. The good example goes back to 1215 to England. King John the monarch of England, the people had all these problems with King John and instead of leaving and going away they stayed behind and around in 1215 they forced the monarch to sign a Magna Carta and today we know what the Magna Carta means and the kind of reforms, the kind of impact that these have had in United States and around everywhere.

Also around the 11th and 12th century AD what happened is that there was this devastating crisis in Europe and Monk and people they were ready to stay in place. They were able in an attempt to fight in an attempt to get it right, in an attempt because they invested a lot. In England they invested a lot in the place and they owned it. They were not just going to leave and go, so you can begin to see the social contract that came out of that crisis and out of the people that were ready to stay in place.

So I see with you that the Tiebout sorting work very well in Africa and that you would not walk not right now, you would walk when Africa has gotten rid of leadercentrism, they have reformed themselves and Africa has started investing in their own homeland they have owning the polity. They have started acting as individuals and human rights has taken roots where the respect for the minority of which the utmost minority is the individual when institutions has taken roots, when the rule of law has taken roots away from leadercentrism.

JH:       Well thanks so much for joining us.

AW:     Thank you very much, it is my pleasure indeed.

JH:       And for more interviews with leading scholars visit providing career advice and intellectual resources for academics and this is Jeanne Hoffman, signing off.


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