No Heroes

Spending $22 million to crown yourself Emperor of the world's 9th poorest country: the essence of leadership.

My twelve-hour standing train ride to Den Chai afforded me the chance to read Martin Meredith’s most excellent “The State of Africa,” which provides an eminently readable and engaging account of the last fifty years in Africa.  Aside from the overwhelming tragedy of it all, Martin’s account strikes me for the way it pins Africa’s failures on African leaders themselves.  What makes the story so painful is the genuine lack of anyone to root for: over and over again, “revolutionaries” came in with promises of change and only proved to be more corrupt than their predecessors.  Aside from Nelson Mandela (who was himself deeply flawed), it is essentially a story bereft of heroes.

I can’t help but wonder why.  We’re all familiar with the maxim that “power corrupts,” and the endless parade of African leaders who went from “men of the people” to big-man dictators upon assuming control lends some truth to the notion.  While rarely articulated, I think there is also a widespread belief that there is something inherently wrong with the African personality—either a penchant for cronyism or a tendency to authoritarianism—that helps explain the nearly ubiquitous failure of Sub-Saharan states.

I don’t find either of these explanations for why Africa has had such a paucity of leadership entirely credible.  If all political power was so pernicious, then Western political history should also be without heroes, but it’s not.  As for the notion that there is a problem with the “African personality,” any look at the common people of the continent quickly dispels the notion.  The fact that Africans do make a living in the face of what most Westerners would find insurmountable circumstances is a testament to the dynamism, creativity, and initiative of the population.  Among them, then, there must be a few Washingtons, Jeffersons, and F.D.R.s.

I don’t think the problem of Africa is not so much that there are no people who would make good leaders.  The problem is that—for fear of political violence or simply from the seeming intractable problems they would face—these people don’t step up.  It’s a phenomenon we documented this summer in Uganda: community cooperatives floundered while the most capable individuals in the village sat on the sidelines.  And, looking at the state of Africa on both a macro and micro level, it’s hard to blame them: internal corruption and external manipulation make being a leader seem both dangerous and fruitless.

In one of my typically tenuous leaps of logic, I see a similar problem brewing in the United States.  A year ago, upon Obama’s election, The Onion offered the hilarious headline “Nation Gives World’s Worst Job to Black Man.”  It seemed apt at the time because the economy was in the tank and Afghanistan was a quagmire.  The irony is that neither The Onion not anyone else could possibly have even guessed how much the job would turn out to suck.  Seriously: being Obama must be awful.  Half of the country hates him because he’s a communist fascist (which is by definition impossible), his watered-down centrist health care bill got him screwed because it was ‘radical overreaching,’ and, out of the blue, the Supreme Court has substantively abandoned limits on control that we realized were needed back in the Gilded Age!

I’m not sitting around feeling bad for Obama, though, so much as I am worried about who would ever become president post-Obama.  No, I don’t mean whether it will be Palin or Huckabee.  There will always be someone who will take the job: after all, someone chose to be President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  My concern is what kind of person.  I fear that—much as in Africa—the only type of person who would want to helm such a broken system is someone who simply loves power and doesn’t care about anything else.  I am fearful of an America where the Roosevelts, Humpreys, and Wellstones stay on the sidelines, while we cede power to homegrown Mugabes and Mubutus.  Such a future without heroes seems pretty bleak.

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Jukebox: Subhumans – Joe Public

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