Government is a trust on behalf of the govern – John Locke
Many people do not have a full grasp about what public service, in the generic sense of the word, connotes. Public service is not just about working for and in the government. It is essentially about what that service is geared toward achieving. In this regard, it is important to know that public service is an organization whose primary objective is improving the welfare of the citizenry. Public service is the logic of government and governance. This is why public service is regarded as synonymous with government itself.
Regardless of the differences among the proponents of the social theory of state, one thing that is common is that, the machinery of the state (government) is expected to provide certain services to the people such as securing their lives and properties. The idea is that government is a manager of conflict; an institution that checks human excesses and works to ensure that resources are channeled towards providing the greatest benefits to the greatest number. Since in most cases the majority of the people in any country are the poor or belong to the lower class, government, therefore, aims at basically providing security (freedom from want and need) to those people. And this is what ideally public service is all about.
It is this very idea that inform the recurrent stand by any politician seeking elective political office as the defender of the poor masses or the one who pushed for the interest of the poor masses. It is also this very idea that inform the demands by the populace to the government; or rather blaming the government for any inconvenience one finds him/herself in.
Public service can broadly be categorized into three: One, carrier public service which is working in a Ministry, Department or Agency of government. Two, political appointment such as Secretary to the Government, Ministers, National Security Adviser and Special Advisers. Three, elective offices such as President, Governors, National and House of Assembly. It is like a pyramid. At the bottom is the carrier public servants who are mainly concerned with the execution of policies; at the middle are the political appointees who could be technocrats that are mainly concerned with the formulation of policies and supervision of policy implementation. And at the top are the elective officers who are usually politicians that consider, review and approve/decline policies push to them by the technocrats. This talk is essentially from the technocratic and political view point of public service, and the term public is use, subsequently, to simply refer to African public.
THE NEED FOR PUBLIC SERVICE IN AFRICA
Before I go further, I want you to know that this discourse is inform by my current experience in the high level of policy making in the Federal Government of Nigeria while serving as Special Assistant to the President on Development. While I am fully aware of the nuances in the nature of public service in other African countries, I staunchly believe that Nigeria embodies all that you may need to know about Africa, particularly, if the issue of concern relate to Sub-Sahara region. In other word, Nigeria is a good case study about what is Africa, the challenges and the successes that the continent is grappling with in its bid to attainment of modernity.
Africa has been facing hydra-headed challenges that cut across violent conflicts across religious and ethnic lines as well as the manifestation of poverty in all of its multidimensional ramification. Therefore, each problem is massive and requires lot of efforts and huge resources to address. And no single problem can be fully addressed without addressing the others. For example, ethnic conflicts cannot be addressed without addressing poverty and inequality. And inequality and poverty cannot be addressed without peace. The question is, who has the resources and the authority to influence and catalyse such radical change and leap forward? The answer is simple, government.
Government is the only institution, in any polity, that has the authority, thereby giving it the capacity and resources to intervene massively toward influencing the lives of millions of people with the aim of uplifting them from their sufferings. This can be done through provision of social services which serve to meet the needs of the people. It is significant to appreciate the importance of social services in Africa. Social services do not only facilitate decent living, but also, particularly those that come to be define as public goods, serve as a bond that hold peoples together as citizens. It also helps to check the gap between the poor and the rich. Therefore, public servant’s actions directly affect the lives of the people. This means that his/her competence matters a lot in the affairs of the state.
Government is a space of competing interests between and among all sorts of groups (ethnic, sub-ethnic, religious, sub-religious, regional, sub-regional etc) and classes (commercial, industrial, agricultural, workers etc). Policies are informed by lobbies from these groups, each trying to influence government’s actions to be favourable to them. The work of a public servant, in both the policy making and execution, is to balance these interests on utilitarian basis of providing the greatest benefits (happiness) to the greatest number.
THE DIFFICULTY OF PUBLIC SERVICE IN AFRICA
Public service is not an easy job. Managing African public is a complex task that involves a lot of personal skills as well as familiarity with constitutional and bureaucratic procedures. Indeed, it comes with lot of priviledges such as official car, official residence, recognition and respect both nationally and internationally. However, what most people fail to realise is that those privileges are not given in vain; with priviledges come responsibilities. The priviledges are given so that the public servant can focus on his/her job.
The fundamental challenge of public service is not essentially about finding solution(s) to societal problem but it is rather an agency problem. In other words, the major challenges that a public servant will face are from: (a) the public; (b) the individuals that make up the public service and; (c) Groups pushing for their interests. One must know that politics drives policy, but it is personality that drives politics. Policy making is more about the personalities of the actors involved than the content of the policy. It always involve a serious clash of interest among the public servants which is often a product of the influence of competing groups of elites. On the face of failing to influence policy in its favour, a group may sabotage the whole policy or sponsor a publicity against that policy using erudite and respected national figures. Therefore, what is professional is always personal
The public always want change and they want it now. The public often do not care how you make their lives better as long as it does not affect their comfort or ease. The public most often are misinformed and analyse issues on its face values and has a low level of trust on governmental officials. This results in misunderstanding of good policies and being victims of supporting bad policies.
Because most of public service work are confidential, the public does not know the reality of the government; that is, the capacity of the government to tackle problem or change their lives. Like it is stated in economics, human needs are unlimited and the things to satisfy them are limited, public service involves managing limited resources of the public for public interest. That is why each group competes to influence policies that will make them benefit from those limited resources. The reason for the confidentiality of public service’s work, among others, is because ignorance and impression are instrument of power. If you do not know the true nature of something, first, you will fear it; and second, you take it as it appears to you. The power of African governments lay in good impressions and, from time to time, show casing their capacity to unleash violence by using a scape goat. This is necessary as there is still a delink between the state and the society in Africa.
Competition among groups over government’s policies and programs makes public service to involve a lot of lobbying and sycophancy. In fact, sycophancy is arguably the biggest industry in Africa. Another word for lobbying and sycophancy is rentierism. Individuals desperately competes for contracts, licences and employment in lucrative position for their personal material benefits. This fuels almost the biggest problem of public service in Africa, corruption.
It is difficult to define corruption in African sense because it is essentially a moral issue not a legal issue. Moreover, what in the western sense is deemed corruption is not necessarily like that In Africa. For example, it is African culture to respond to kind gesture with courtesy. This could be in small gifts. In addition, it is African culture for the community to make tremendous sacrifices and put together lot of goodwill for one’s success. However, one is expected to return that favours by contributing to the development of the community at the time of his/her success.
This means that one is expected to favour his/her own community when he/she gets into the public service. It is important to know that Africans deem public service as an amoral space where the basic aim is to accumulate wealth. This is the reason what may not be morally accepted in the cultural spaces is deem acceptable in civic spaces. Any developmental theory on Africa must address the question of ‘how Africa can develop with corruption and indebtedness?’
From the above, you can deduce that leadership, which is what public service is all about, is not easy. Let me correct an impression, leadership is not a one man business; for one man can inspire social change but cannot bring social change. Leadership is a collective responsibility requiring everyone at each level of authority and social status to perform his/her responsibilities well. Leadership of a public institution involves balancing interests and being careful not to offend many people, and not to deviate from the bureaucratic procedures. It can be lonely at the top. Policies done with the best intentions will turn out to be sabotaged or worsen the situation. People that you trust will disappoint you. People that appear to be competent will turn out to be charlatans. Family and friends will turn you into a cash cow. But one should never lose the sight of what is right and should have the courage to always do what is right. You should take responsibility for your actions and be ready to face the consequences. In the end, the greatest peace is that of the mind.
Personally, I am learning a lot of things as a public servant. The following are some of the lessons I learnt:
You must be able to learn and learn fast.
You must be able to think critically, read voluminously, write persuasively and speak eloquently.
You must be firm and have a conviction. This will make you to be able to hold on to your moral and ethical values in face of enticement.
You must be ready fight to protect your position because sometimes survival is the most important thing in corporate politics.
You should learn to be stubborn in pursuit of a goal and flexible in your approach to the goal.
You should be rich in patience, courageous and open-minded.
For me, the greatest lesson I learn is, I still have a lot to learn.
From the above lessons, you will see the permutation or dialectics between professional and personal life of a public servant. As I stated above, though in different context, what is professional is personal. The qualities of a good public servant are not different from the values that defines a good man and good life. So, it fundamentally boils down to being good person. But it is not easy to be good. In fact, the differences between good and evil is quite blur and hazy. Indeed, Aristotle is right, “life is a gift of nature, but good living is a gift of wisdom.”
In a final note, I thank the officials of Future Africa, first, for this opportunity to share with my friends across the continent and in diaspora my perspective base on what I am experiencing in the public service of Nigeria. Second, for initiating Future Africa itself and creating this kind of avenue where public figures interact and exchange ideas with the cohort who are largely young individuals.
It has been the believe that African development depends upon collective progress of all its peoples. There is a strong interconnectivity and interrelation among Africans which dates back to the ancient times. At this digital era, this interconnectivity and interrelation is made easy and efficient. The challenge is how to shape our relationship toward collective development and shared prosperity. And this is what I see Future
Africa stand for by providing a platform for social network among the young generation across the continent; a cohesion of like-minded.
In the end, it remains as Frantz Fanon said “every generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.”
Being the talk presented at the Future Africa Forum on 19th February 2022.
Zambia is currently experiencing what could be one of its biggest defining moments since the re-introduction of political pluralism in 1990. This is because to many Zambians this change of government feels like freedom, hope and an opportunity for them to raise their standards of living after what felt like decades of suffering under the administration of the Patriotic Front led by former president Edgar Chagwa Lungu.
Mr. Hakainde Hichilema is the president of the new ruling party, United Party for National Development (UPND). UPND was formed in 1998 by Anderson Mazoka who died in 2006 and was succeeded by Mr. Hichilema who led the party to winning after 21 years of losing.
On the 12th of August, the Zambian citizens showed up in numbers to exercise their right to vote. This has been the biggest voter turnout since the ballot in 1991. This was due to the large number of young people that registered to vote. Despite having to stand in long queues for long periods of time just to cast their vote, one thing was unanimously clear: the Zambian people wanted change from a government that had failed them as a country.
The 2021 general elections were one of the most peaceful elections the country has ever experienced, however, not the most fair ones. During the election period, opposition parties were not allowed to campaign freely, there were unequal campaign conditions, and one-sided media coverage – whereby the media only covered the campaigns of the incumbent government. There was no freedom of speech. Those that took to the road to protest against political injustices were arrested and new cyber laws that restricted people on social media were enforced. All of these things created an uneven playing field for the opposition parties to compete against the incumbent.
Despite all of these injustices, this election was the embodiment of what democracy is: power to the people, the people spoke and they were heard. The youth made their voices heard, demanding for employment, education, good economic policies, reduced costs of living, the fall of political cadres, free press and the incarceration of politicians that plundered state resources, among other things. This election saw the rise of the youth determination to ensure a time for change, the Zambian youth understood the power they had, and made it clear to the president-elect that they were not loyal to a person but to their country. As a Zambian, I echo these sentiments, as we are loyal to the development of our country, to education for all, to youth inclusion and participation, to equal market share, gender equality and good governance with transparency and accountability; we are not loyal to a person. Mr. Hichilema was widely endorsed by many youths, he had the backing of a not-so-silent, silent majority, who campaigned for him using social media platforms. The youth took up the role of educating voters, making sure that they brought awareness on how to vote, reminded people of the oppression, the high costs of living and the violence that had been experienced during the rule of Mr. Edgar Chagwa Lungu. They reminded people to vote wisely encouraging them not to be swayed by the incentives given to them by “corrupt” politicians.
As a result of the huge social media reach carried out by many Zambian youth, Mr. Hakainde Hichilema gained momentum and sailed through the election, winning with over 2 million votes. Amidst the counting of votes former president Edgar Chagwa Lungu declared the elections not free and fair, but this was invalidated by the EU election observers that pointed to the effectiveness of the Electoral Commission of Zambia in carrying out the elections, and the biased campaigning conditions. Soon after the pronouncement of the winner on the 16th August 2021, Mr. Edgar Chagwa Lungu conceded defeat and agreed to a smooth transition of power. From these elections, one can learn from the resilience of the youth, they united and voted out what they termed a dictatorship. They practiced the power they had, the Zambian youth and the entire population at large are a reflection of what it looks like to practice democracy, to stand up to violation of human rights, corruption and the lack political freedom.
Yande Changala, a Zambian citizen, is a member of the 2021 cohort of the Future Africa Fellowship.
Some consider Omar al-Bashir as the most oppressive ruler Sudan has had since independence. Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989 after overthrowing an elected government. Since he was young, he was active in the military. In the 1980’s he went to war against the rebels in the south and in the same decade, al-Bashir dissolved an elected government after staging a coup and appointing himself chair of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation which was ruling the country. He adopted Islamic or Sharia law, which caused a lot of tension with the Christian South. This later became highly problematic to the point that South Sudan seceded.
In 1993, al-Bashir was appointed president and ruled Sudan for almost 30 years until 2019. Although, al-Bashir is facing multiple charges, the first time he was convicted of any crimes by the Sudanese government was due to corruption. The case brought up against him initially stated that there were unknown foreign currencies found in his home that amounted to almost over USD 90 million. Al-Bashir has denied this stating that it was “a gift from Saudi royals” and that it is not public funds. In addition, it is believed that he had GBP 9 billion in a private account in Lloyds Bank in the UK. This too al-Bashir has denied and the spokesperson of Lloyds has stated that transactions done with Sudan has been through legal means. Although, in 2009 American authorities fined Lloyds USD 350 million for assisting and hiding wire transfers originating from Sudan, Iran and Libya to avoid sanctions that were placed by the US on those countries.
However, to others including his defence team consisting of 96 people, this is nothing but a political stunt to strengthen the transitional government. In addition, he was also convicted of human rights violation by the ICC due to crimes committed in the Darfur region in 2001.
He was found guilty of money laundering and was sentenced to two years in prison. However, due to Sudan’s law, a person above 70 cannot serve in prison; therefore, al-Bashir was exempted from prison and instead was given detention (a facility for elderly). This may not have satisfied a lot of people who especially think not only is he a war criminal, but also the person who looted Sudan. Financial crimes were the least of al-Bashir’s convictions.
In this case, there are a lot of parties that are at stake. The local stakeholders include those loyal to him at all levels; in the political, administrative, and societal levels. Sudan’s system has been laid bare by al-Bashir and that there are those who are as corrupt as him. After his conviction and as the anti-corruption agency continued to investigate, ministers and close relatives of his have been found owning properties that were acquired through illegal means.
On an international level, these types of accusations can lead to strained relationships with foreign constituents. Gulf countries are highly tied to Sudan’s aid, this aid can linger in the form of political and economic output, becoming a breadbasket for Sudan. Although, Saudi is not to be questioned about al-Bashir’s corruption case, it is still important to clear out if he did receive that money as a “gift”.
Another foreign constituent is Lloyds Bank. As one of the oldest and biggest financial institutions in the UK, it may seem to have a tint of neo-colonial pursuit. The $9 billion that is supposedly stashed in the UK comes from looted money of the Sudanese people — although Lloyds have stated that all of the transactions done with Sudan are through legal means.
In African politics, it is rare to see a person of high influence come to justice in a legal matter. More than that, for them to stand trial domestically is rare. The case of al-Bashir did give hope to the people of Sudan that justice can be served. Part of the impact of this case, and a strength, is the sheer fact of seeing an ex-president stand for trial and be judged like a normal citizen. Owing to this case there has been an anti-corruption team created within Sudan to investigate. These are the small steps needed to dismantle the negative legacies left by al-Bashir. To some this can be seen as Sudan going towards a transparent state. I do believe that al-Bashir’s money laundering conviction is somehow politically motivated and is a way of keeping him close by before convicting him on a bigger scale—as recently he was given to the ICC.
Corruption in Africa is prominent and it is believed that more than anything what is plaguing Africa is not the lack of resources, infrastructure, stability or money, it is corruption. Corruption in Africa is not only labelled as cancerous but also ‘AIDS of democracy’. We are at a point where we have to accept a bare minimum for corruption as a step to eliminate it.
All in all, cleaning corruption in Africa is like cleaning an ocean—it is massive and takes time but, no matter what the step is (small or large), it can be done. For this to succeed a lot of people have to be on board—social responsibility is a must. Accountability, transparency and the rule of law is key for a “democratic” country to function properly and for corruption to be eliminated. Most African countries plagued by corruption are usually missing one or two if not three of the factors mentioned above. Therefore, minding the time given, African countries can eliminate corruption as long as there are willing participants. In the case of al-Bashir, although his conviction can have a different intention, the outcome can and is favourable to the people of Sudan—justice can be served.
Yordanos Woldesellassie is a member of the 2021 cohort of the Future Africa Fellowship.
President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is currently settling into his sixth term of office that will see him ruling the East African nation of Uganda for 40 years. He was sworn in on 12th May, 2021 after one of the deadliest pre-election crackdowns that saw over 30 Ugandan lives lost and his fiercest competition from Robert Kyagulanyi (39) alias Bobi Wine.
The 76-year-old veteran who came to power through an armed uprising in 1986 won the recently concluded elections in January with 53.3% of the vote with Kyagulanyi at 35% after being arrested multiple times during his campaigns giving rise to major questions about the fairness (or lack thereof) of Museveni’s proclaimed victory.
Uganda’s opposition, as has been the trend, boycotted the event.
But the issue in question is not the legitimacy of the election results. Why would a struggling economy with nearly 70 trillion Uganda Shillings (UGX) (21 billion U.S dollars) in debt spend 7 billion UGX (2 million dollars) to inaugurate the same president? Doesn’t every penny count? More on this later.
To put this into context, Uganda’s Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija and his officials have recently pointed out that nation is fast approaching the 50% threshold of the Debt-to-GDP ratio which poses a big risk to the country’s prospective repayment ability. You must know that that higher the debt-to GDP-ratio, the more difficult it is for a country to pay up its external and internal debts which means that in order to borrow more—which Uganda definitely will—the country ought to accept higher interest rates due to low credit ratings among creditors.
The recommended debt-to-GDP ratio from the Joint World Bank-IMF Debt Sustainability Framework for Low-Income Countries is 50 per cent. Uganda is fast approaching this threshold with an estimated crossover point somewhere set somewhere in 2022. However, countries like Kenya (which is already at a high risk of debt distress—where a country is unable to fulfill its financial obligations and debt restructuring is required) are way past it but on the other hand, some of them have strong inclinations towards domestic revenue mobilization, something Uganda is grappling with.
Ultimately, all this sets Uganda on the path to debt distress of which the risk is currently low, but may in the long run change.
Let us get back to the inauguration expenditures for a moment. The accumulated public debt in Uganda, which is nearly 70 trillion UGX as earlier noted—in the final analysis—means that of the estimated 43 million Ugandans, each one owes 1.5 million Uganda Shillings ($430). Why is it that a developing country so drowned in debt is spending billions on an inauguration of someone who will go back to the same house and office he has been in for 35 years? At least if it was someone knew this would be understandable and worth the celebration.
There was nothing to celebrate about the incumbent handing over power to himself. What this reemphasizes to the Ugandan people is that their President is so focused on retaining his seat that he will use much needed public funds during a time of economic downturn, to have a party. Let alone the fact that the event was attended by hundreds of people in clear violation of Covid-19 SOPs. If this was a celebration of any kind by the opposition, try to imagine what would happen.
One would only need to be a casual news follower to have heard about the drama-filled Gambian election of 2016/17. The incumbent president of the time, Yahya Jammeh, eventually lost a bid to reject the electoral results after initially conceding defeat. The weekly deep-dive of the Future Africa Fellowship took a very unique look at the crisis; the cohort took the Gambian electoral crisis a step further and simulated a Commission of Inquiry proceeding. All of this was in an effort to train the muscle of dissecting leadership issues with an analytical approach – one of the offerings the Fellowship aims to create for the participants.
Six key players were invited to testify in the Commission. The former president, Yayha Jammeh received the opening question before Alieu Momarr Njie, head of the Gambian Independent Electoral Commission had his turn. Next on the spot was the president-elect, Adama Barrow, who was followed by the Senegalese president, Macky Sall, before the head of the Gambian Army, Ousman Badjie, was put on the hot seat. The last testimony came from the Ghanaian president, Nana Akufo-Addo. Members of the audience were afforded a chance to ask their questions to the key players. One of the most intriguing questions was to the Ghanaian president who was interrogated on whether invoking the ECOWAS treaty to prepare for the invasion of another country, he negated the section of the United Nations’ Charter which prohibits member states from involvement in the territorial affairs of other member states.
I not only observed this session, but also took part as a panel member of the Commission of Inquiry. The neutrality of my position allowed me to listen most attentively to the diversity of perspectives and ingest each contribution with doses of empathy, sympathy, and at times frustration. When I heard Jammeh appreciate the role that the ECOWAS community played in dealing with the Gambian crisis, I could not help but question my preconceived perception of the president. I have thought of the man as an insensible dictator and assumed he was the sole culprit of the crisis. However, here I was, seeing him share his side of the story, and realizing at the same time that there were a variety of other factors that created the crisis, other factors that can even suggest that Jammeh himself was a victim! My takeaway was that there was insufficient room afforded to Jammeh to make a case for himself on the real occurrences of the crisis. Perhaps, the people of Gambia and their neighbors in the ECOWAS community were fed up with his presence which created an overwhelming effort to oust him at once.
Looking at the overall preceding of the Commission of Inquiry, I noticed that the phrase “to ensure the will of the people” was frequently used by nearly all of the testifiers. It prompted me to wonder if it was just a scapegoat or it simply surfaced how in a democracy, the will of the people could be interpreted differently by the various actors.
Editor’s Note: The Future Africa Fellowship is an 8-month learning experience that provides aspiring public sector leaders and social innovators with the knowledge, network and skills required to transform the African political economy. The Fellowship incorporates research, debate and rigorous analysis designed to empower Fellows to participate in developing implementable policy proposals for local, national and regional contexts. One of the case studies reviewed in the Fellowship was on the 2016/17 Gambian electoral crisis.
Takunda Ushe is Director of the Future Africa Ambassadors.
Ethiopia is at war within its own borders, Uganda is experiencing its worst unrest in years, and Nigeria is implementing a dishonourable campaign of retaliation against innocent citizens who dared to speak up for the right to not be killed indiscriminately. Once again, a leadership deficit threatens to destabilize our fragile democracies as we attempt to reconcile the past with the future. Military dictatorships and autocracies were characteristic of an era long gone when the voices of citizens were subordinate to the wills of strongmen. And even if those years were uncomfortable, they were deemed perhaps necessary in order to birth a future devoid of needless bloodshed.
There was a promise of a better tomorrow, the dawn of which appeared to arrive in Ethiopia in 2018 when the fresh-faced Abiy Ahmed manoeuvred through the murky political waters of Ethiopia to emerge as Prime Minister. For 30 years, Ethiopia had maintained a tricky balance in its ethno-regional political dynamic that relegated smaller voices to the background and allowed an imbalanced coalition to thrive. Surely, it was only a matter of time before the militarily agile Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) took over again in some form, but Abiy Ahmed had an ace up his sleeve. In a seemingly coordinated move, he disbanded the very coalition that brought him to power and presided over the launch of a new political party that eliminated the biggest threat to his dominance.
It appeared to be a masterstroke except that the TPLF was not going to fade away quietly. In a country that is as ethnically divided as it is distrusting of the other, the TPLF became an active volcano that could erupt without warning. And it did – after nearly two tenuous years of reported covert attacks, Abiy’s government delivered what became the death knell. In any ordinary nation, there would be some merit to the announced postponement of national elections in the midst of a global pandemic that had infected millions, but Ethiopia is no ordinary nation. This is a country that turns off the internet at will, kills journalists who are considered dissenters, and maintains one of the most sophisticated spy networks of any nation on earth. In Ethiopia, trust is premium. Therefore, there was no basis for the TPLF or any other group to assume that the postponement of elections was anything other than a ploy by Abiy Ahmed to illegitimately extend his government’s tenure. Chaos was inevitable.
So what should a Noble Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister do to stabilize a nation on the edge of conflict? What would be expected of a leader who presided over the calming of decades-long fraught relations between his nation and its closest neighbour, Eritrea? Anything but the deployment of the military within its own borders, you would say, but Ethiopia is not that simple to understand. Having traded words heavily and each party having accused the other of illegitimate actions bordering on treason, a Nobel Peace Prize was not going to be the answer. Uncommon leadership would be, yet it was not forthcoming.
Could Abiy have done more to prevent conflict? Could he have de-escalated tensions arising from the north with a recourse to dialogue over the blasts of rockets? Could he have governed in a more inclusive manner, so as to minimize the potential for a political eruption? As difficult as it might seem, the answer has to be yes. In politics, there must be no impossible situations for which the only recourse is conflict. That is the eternal burden of political leadership – setting aside all counter-arguments to pursue peace at all cost. But if Abiy would have followed this path, he would have found no role model in Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari.
The events leading up to the latest #EndSARS protests in Nigeria did not receive the widest attention, but they have gnawed for decades. Police brutality seems to be par for the course in most countries, but it takes a different dimension in Nigeria – an under-trained, under-resourced and under-motivated public security outfit collides with a disgruntled youthful generation determined to forge economic independence on its own terms in an underperforming economy caught in a global pandemic. Nigerians have never trusted the Police Force and decades of blind eyes turned by public leaders to the plight of the Police have done nothing to help. Policemen are left to fend for themselves from the proceeds of their daily street harassment campaigns, and that’s just how it goes. Equip a special tactical unit with the mandate to stop and search supposed criminals and you ignite a ticking bomb. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had been an uncontainable menace for years, and their excesses only got worse by the day.
Allegations of harassment, extortion, rape and indiscriminate murder trailed its officers nationwide, so what should have been the response of the Buhari-led government in the wake of yet another round of protests by frustrated citizens? Empathy, you would say. There was the semblance of it for a minute when the disbandment of SARS was announced, but as in Ethiopia, trust in politicians comes at a premium in Nigeria. The longer the protests went on, the shorter the fuse burned in the corridors of power. In the blink of an eye, a curfew was announced, the military was deployed, innocent protesters were killed and the lies kicked in. The twists and turns in the public statements issued by the government of Lagos state, the leaders of the army and the incompetent federal ministers who addressed the media would confuse Sherlock Holmes, but the focus here is on President Buhari.
Could he have done more to calm tensions with protesting youth before the crisis escalated? Could he have vehemently addressed the excesses of police officers and committed to speedy reforms in a manner that demonstrated genuine empathy for citizens? Could he have spoken as the father of a nation when he belatedly took to television to commiserate primarily with the few police officers who had lost their lives? By demonstrating disdain for his people and launching a vendetta against the brave souls who dared to expose his administration’s failings to the world (including CNN), he appears to be following in the footsteps of a man who has ruled his own nation since just after Buhari’s military regime came to an end three and half decades ago. One could say that Major General Muhammadu Buhari who orchestrated the military coup that brought him to power in 1983 was an inspiration for Yoweri Museveni who did the same in Uganda in 1986, and now the favour has been returned.
Uganda under Museveni has descended dramatically from a seeming economic miracle to a place of terror for dissenters. Much has been documented about Museveni’s tactics of stifling free press, quashing opposition political movements and repeated constitutional amendments to guarantee his never-ending hold on power. After signing the 2017 Constitutional Amendment Bill that removed the age limit on eligibility for contesting the presidency, he effectively guaranteed that he could rule the country for the rest of his life. One of the people determined to forestall that possibility is popular musician turned parliamentarian, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (known as Bobi Wine). Having suffered numerous arrests, physical torture and endless harassment by state security forces, Bobi Wine’s campaign for the presidency in 2021 has energized his base, sometimes beyond the boundaries of logic.
When Bobi Wine’s motorcade rolled into the streets of Luuka in eastern Uganda on Wednesday 19th November, it was decidedly igniting a violation of the government-imposed cap of 200 people at political rallies. With hundreds flocking after his vehicles while he raised a fist through the roof of his car, he appeared indomitable. That was until security forces swooped in and arrested him for the second time this month. The ensuing violence across the country has left more than 37 dead and several injured. It was only the latest turn in a political battle for the survival of democracy in Uganda.
However, while aggrieved citizens have argued that the cap on public gatherings is an attempt to stifle political opposition (and it may well be so), there is no justification for Bobi Wine’s refusal to encourage social distancing at his rallies. When people have been aggrieved for generations, it is understandable that defying public directives could be seen as an act of political liberation in itself, but the standards are higher for a person who aspires to the highest office. If Bobi Wine would one day lead Ugandans, he may well start shedding the toga of “ghetto president”, and demonstrate respect for public health guidelines. The stakes are higher now.
Africa’s leadership deficit has been the bane of our democratic progress to date, and it threatens to retain a stranglehold on our future. If Buhari and Museveni are guaranteed to not rule forever, could we look to Abiy Ahmed and Bobi Wine for better leadership? Could we expect that a new class of politicians would emerge who demonstrate not just competency in governance, but respect for human rights, care for the lowest class of citizens and decency in public dealings? Will there be a time when leaders do not indiscriminately mobilize the military against citizen uprisings as we have seen in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda this month? Will there ever be an African leader who is skilled at de-escalating conflict? Will that day ever come?