Power as a Right Rather Than a Responsibility: Africa’s Problem

At a recent conference in Tenerife, Spain on doing business in Africa, I had an intriguing conversation with a senior government official from east Africa regarding the reasons so many of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have failed to develop economically and politically, while Asian countries, many of them becoming independent around the same time as the former colonies in Africa, have surged ahead. Given that the Asian countries were for the most part economically behind many African countries at independence, this is puzzling.

My conversation companion offered a number of reasons, but, one in particular stood out in my mind. The problem, she opined, is that too many African political leaders and politicians view their positions from the perspective of privilege rather than responsibility. This attitude of privilege quickly becomes a ‘right,’ and the incumbents focus on retaining this right rather than exercising a sense of responsibility to the people of their country.

When those in power view their positions as ‘rights’ to be protected and not responsibilities to be fulfilled, they become consumed with staying in power. It becomes an exercise in protecting the privileges of a select few; family, clan, tribe, friends, or some other distinct subgroup of the nation, rather than ensuring the general welfare of the nation as a whole. The ‘we-they’ mentality that develops becomes the political norm in a country at the expense of general improvements in the living conditions for all citizens. An underclass of ‘outsiders’ and a ruling class of the ‘privileged’ few forms a feudal society in which the skills and talents of citizens are either ignored, or are used, not for the overall development of the nation, but for the maintenance of the class system.

This view was further illustrated during the conference that I attended when the subject of intellectual property rights came up. There was vigorous debate over which is more important, the protection of the rights of enterprises or protection of consumers from abuse and exploitation. Some held the view that economic rights of companies should be a priority, while others argued that the consumer’s protection should be the most important thing. The true answer is; when government devotes its energies to promotion of the general welfare, no one gets everything he or she wants, but everyone gets a level of protection and benefit, and in the end, the whole society prospers.

Governments rule with the consent of the governed; at least legitimate governments do. If a nation is to prosper, those in power must view their positions as responsibilities to the people they serve, and their every action should be carried out with that firmly fixed in their minds.

Authors Note: I wrote the above piece shortly after returning to Harare from the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA) Conference on Doing Business With Africa, in Tenerife, Spain, March 29 – April 3. It grew out of conversations I had with a number of African politicians and business people who attended the conference. With recent events in Libya, with a merciless dictator slaughtering his own people to cling to power, and in Cote d’Ivoire, where a leader who lost the election hides in a bunker under his house and refuses to give up power, the lack of leadership committed to the common welfare in Africa is an even more important factor in the continent’s lack of development, and an issue that Africans must come to grips with.