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Culture is an excuse for poor leadership in Africa

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This essay was originally written by me as part of my required coursework for the 2017 Tutu Leadership Programme.  It looks at the use of African 'culture' as an excuse for poor leadership.

He is supposed to be a leader in public office, in Africa. As soon as he was elected or nominated, he told his first wife that he was marrying an additional one and a third followed soon after that. His children were born in quick succession of each other and he boasts that he has fathered more children than the number of players who make up a soccer team. Seventeen, to be exact. On a typical day, he could easily wake up in one home, have lunch in another, and sleep at his third wife’s house. It is not necessarily true that his religion allows polygamy. He says it’s part of his “culture”.

At each of the houses where he spends his time, he is required to give plenty of attention to his wives and at least eat the food they have each cooked for his pleasure. He also attends to complex family issues that arose since he was last there. He must then allow his children the space to share their happy moments and concerns with him. In addition to the numerous concubines he entertains occasionally, his relatives come to pay their respects daily. They usually leave with a few “gifts” in their pockets because he needs to promote peaceful family dynamics and avoid pissing anyone off. Some of his colleagues meet him at his homes, especially during meal times. More eating and drinking is done than any substantial work. The total amount of time he spends seriously working on matters of national importance may be less than the ordinary person spends in the gym on a monthly basis. At the end of each day, he is exhausted by the demands of his personal life. He needs a steady and very large influx of money to support his lifestyle. He also needs a lot of time. Yet, he is supposed to solve his country’s most complex challenges in the sector for which he is responsible, come up with solutions that will move the country’s economy forward, and participate in global conversations that will have major implications on his country’s future.

How do some African leaders find the time and money necessary to impact a positive shift in our continent’s growth with the self-imposed and complicated demands they deal with on an individual level? I believe they use culture to justify poor work ethic and to construct the kind of personal lives that starve African people of the resources they need for development.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where I was born, the scenario I painted above is not unusual for a high-ranking government official. However, there is no way we can move the needle towards growth with public servants who have multiple wives, dozens of children and a slew of girlfriends to look after. Any self-respecting public servant who is truly dedicated to serving his country would not have the time nor the money to meet these kinds of obligations unless they are corrupt or blatantly stealing from public funds. It would be impossible for two reasons. Firstly, it takes an enormous amount of energy to keep so many people happy. We have all heard the joke: dealing with one intimate relationship is complicated enough, no one can handle three or four without losing an inch of sanity. The time that is spent managing the personal affairs of spouses, relatives, children and “side-chicks” who aspire to be added to the list of wives should be spent dealing with government affairs, which is what our leaders are paid to do. There can be no work-life balance when life becomes an overwhelming drama of managing people’s personalities, arguments, and multiple sexual partners.

Secondly, our leaders’ lifestyles require a lot of money to maintain. They believe they have no choice but to dip into government coffers. Their spouses must drive the best cars and wear the most fashionable brands. Their children must attend the best schools which, because our public schools are dilapidated and of poor quality, are often private schools that offer an expensive alternative. Their families must go on vacation to exotic places. They have to entertain and when they do, no expense is spared.

The wives of our government officials most likely come into their marriages with expectations and requirements for a lifestyle that is fit for a queen. They cannot be faulted for forgetting that their husbands are in fact public servants whose salaries are paid by the efforts of the citizens which they are meant to serve, because the society in which they live expects them to portray the wealth and opulence which comes with their newly acquired status once they have been elected or nominated to a public role. They become Bakonzi (Lingala for leaders) and their display of wealth is expected. If they value living in peace at home, they must ensure that their wives all enjoy the same standard of living and, when disputes arise about the matter, they must up the ante so that all their dependents can have more cars, more houses, more children, more status. This is, our leaders say, ‘the culture in which they were raised’.  

I once attended a New Year’s Eve party in Kinshasa where one of the highest-ranking government officials in the country arrived with a few wads of $100 USD bills and proceeded to throw them around for anyone in the vicinity to catch. His family and friends squealed in adoration and the servants who carried caviar and champagne trays around seemed to find the entire fiasco perfectly normal. “It is our culture”, they said. They earned salaries of less than $1 USD a day, but they were neither shocked nor disgusted. The arrogance of his gesture was never questioned, even though everyone knew where the money came from. In a context where lavishness and excess on the part of the people who are supposed to eradicate poverty in Africa are fanned away as culture, for a leader to build a palace as a family home using public funds would be perceived to be the most normal thing in the world. It’s no wonder the outrage in South Africa over Zuma’s Nkandla was received with bewilderment and surprise by many of his African counterparts and their citizens.

It is true that a complex personal story does not necessarily mean someone is a bad leader. But their choices, repeated over time, give an indication of their character and values. Self-discipline, a strong work ethic, time management skills, and critical thinking are all qualities we would like to see in our leaders, especially when their choices so drastically affect our lives. A leader who consistently makes poor personal decisions to the extent that they are detrimental to their followers, should not be trusted to lead. I have found that our leaders’ personal values do not reflect the ideals that Africans aspire to for the continent’s transformation. We have leaders in public office who are so embroiled in the complications of their personal affairs that doing their jobs and the wellbeing of their citizens come second-place. This is one of the major downfalls of the continent in terms of leadership, and we are too quick to accept our leaders’ indiscretions because we are afraid to challenge the narrative about the role of culture in our governments’ failures. The excuse of “culture” means that we overlook the obvious and accept the idea that our leaders are allowed and even supposed to behave a certain way in their individual lives, and view their expensive ways as divorced from our own development.

I believe we need a closer examination of our leaders’ tendencies to conduct personal lives that demand above and beyond what someone can reasonably afford on a public servant’s salary and time. However, many of us expect that our leaders will be extravagant and unavailable. We encourage it and we don’t hold them accountable for using our money to fund their lifestyles. We seek to emulate them given the same opportunity. We have been told, over generations, that it’s part of our culture for people in positions of authority to abuse our resources for personal gain. And we bought into the lie. We bought into a flawed narrative.

As a society, we should become self-critical enough to sift through the elements of our culture and traditions which work for us and keep practicing them. The parts that no longer serve us should be discarded because they create perceptions and behaviors that are harmful to our progress. I argue that, too many times, attaining a position of leadership in Africa is an objective for which the goal is to live the most financially lucrative life possible. Serving the people is an afterthought. Yet, leadership is about service. It becomes a challenge when one’s personal life requires persistent and sustainable resources and management. We must revisit our African cultures and traditions, and decide if they are likely to raise the kind of inspirational leaders who embody the personal qualities we need to truly transform this complex continent.

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