Why Africa needs strong leadership


Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s celebrated prime minister was labelled a benevolent dictator and many analysts would argue that what Africa needs today are a bunch of benevolent dictators to take our continent to the Promised Land.

Different indices show that Ethiopia and Rwanda in terms of Gross Domestic Product growth rates are the fastest growing countries in eastern Africa and they happen to be the countries we say have a democratic deficit. But one may ask why the two countries have not become the Singapore or Korea of Africa.

Let me first conjecture that there is a relationship between robust, firm and benevolent leadership and economic performance. It may perhaps explain why most Newly Industrialised Countries (NICs) of East Asia held back on political reforms as they pursued economic reforms.

In Taiwan politicians may be punching one another in parliament but the economy has kept its citizens busy and productive. This is where the rest of the world departs from our African experience where we are attempting political reforms as well as economic reforms at the same time.

Perhaps to explain where our shortcomings lie, two propositions by management experts contemplate our situation. The first one by Douglas McGregor who established what is commonly known as theory X and Y.


He describes people who fall within theory X as the kind that (a) dislikes work and will avoid it if they can, (b) must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives and (c) prefer to be directed; to avoid responsibility; are relatively unambitious, and want security above all else.

Lee Kuan Yew attributes his success to the no nonsense British system that administered corporal punishment whenever he failed in his duties. Without a doubt, this theory X characteristics are symptomatic of Africa and most of the developing world.

In theory Y, McGregor describes people who fall in this category as (a) people who will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organisational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment (b) people with the capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organisational problems, must be widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population (c) people who usually accept and often seek responsibility (d) people to whom additional effort in work comes naturally as work and play.

In this category McGregor presupposes assumptions of democracy and in general there are very few people who fall in this category in developing countries.

To succeed, we now know how to do it fast. But what is it that we need to do to succeed like Singapore? This is where I introduce a second thinker and humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, who in 1934 argued that our actions are motivated in order to achieve certain needs.

Maslow called his concept “A Theory of Human Motivation” which contains a hierarchy he suggested and that people are motivated to fulfil basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs.

Satisfying these needs therefore translates into a better general welfare for the people. His hierarchy of needs contains five categories but in our case we need just two, that is, Physiological Needs and Security.

Physiological needs include the most basic needs that are vital to survival, such as the need for water, air, food, clothing and sleep. Maslow believed that these needs are the most basic and instinctive needs in the hierarchy because all needs become secondary until these physiological needs are met.

Maslow argued that safety and security needs were important for survival, but they are not as demanding as the physiological needs. These include a desire for steady employment, health care, safe neighbourhoods, and shelter from the environment.

The issues around these two categories of Maslow’s hierarchy make the foundation stone for another Singapore in 2030. If we have clean water to drink for all, you make a saving of more than Sh10 billion from typhoid and other water borne diseases curative measures.

If there is food for all, you have fewer children with stunted growth and huge savings from emergency food purchase. If we have security, the economy grows. These cannot be done by persuading people to work. If we cannot accept responsibility, let it be enforced.

There is so much to learn from the NICs and some performing African countries instead of perpetual experimentation of regressive models. The best democracy is where each and every citizen has basic needs. Let’s find ways of achieving it.

As Peter Drucker said “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”

The writer is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi, and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.