Presidents. Prime Ministers. Chancellors. Taoisigh. Premiers. The rulers of countries, lords and ladies of the levers of government. Well to a point. Governments, in general, are run through consensus, through compromise, through institutions. As much as we may sometimes dislike them, the rulers of Western democracies, in general, can’t really do such a terrible job. Most fall within a range of “not so good for the country but more or less ok” to “very good for the country but more or less just fine”. The boundaries of what they can control or influence – for good or ill – are largely set by the terms of the constitution, the powers of the parliament or legislature, or what the courts will sanction. What they should do and/or decide on a topic are shaped by the institutions themselves; by what’s come before and the institutional memory of challenges past. There are plenty of people around to give advice and plenty of people around to pick up the pieces and make the best of it after a ‘bad’ decision. Perhaps that is some small comfort for our American brothers and sisters as they contemplate the possibility of a President Trump. Small comfort, I’ll grant you.
In the non-Western democracies, but still democracies, the situation is not quite the same. African presidents do a tough if much maligned job. Often this opprobrium is well deserved. But it’s a damn hard job. And can really directly affect their country – again, for good or ill. Constitutions are weak and sadly malleable, public servants are under-trained and sometimes dangerously under-motivated (and probably under-paid), tax bases are narrow, tax revenues are small, judges may be loyal to the last guy, there is a reasonable chance of serious civil unrest, war, or violence within the last generation at most, you’ve got a booming population mostly without jobs or much education, institutional memory is non-existent, everyone reckons you are on the take, and large parts of the world still thinks your country is called ‘Africa’. Welcome to your first day, Mr President.
The Economist ran an article last week about Tanzania’s new president John Magufuli titled Government by Gesture. President Magufuli has a bit of a tendency to act on impulse. Not in your office when he drops in – fired! Immigration papers not 100% in order – deported! The Economist took him to task for this intemperance. And it is certainly true. However, I believe they overlook the fact that Tanzania is not a normal Western democracy, at least not yet. For a variety of societal and cultural reasons the rule of the president is unusually strong and the country follows their lead; for better or worse. Would it be better if Magufuli ran a process driven, cabinet based government? Definitely. But living and working here we have definitely noticed the motivation levels through all levels of Tanzania have radically changed since The Bulldozer has been in charge. Hapa Kazi Tu!
Be under no illusions. The strongman is not the answer. But with weak institutions any old man can become pretty strong. And when they get something wrong it often directly affects people in a much larger way than citizens of Western democracies would be used to. African presidents – a mixed bunch for sure, but spare them a thought, it’s not your average “Leader of the Free World” position.