Our welfare is inevitably wedded to our choice of national leaders


Kiambaa residents queue to vote at Karuri Primary School. [George Njunge, Standard]

This week has witnessed heightened political jostling for the next tenant of the House on the Hill. As expected, the men who think they deserve the seat of power were holed up in cozy boardrooms, exclusive lodges, and/or premier residential addresses to share out the ‘nation’. The hoi polloi do not matter–after all, they can always be herded like sheep for slaughter.

The clique of about seven men who have traversed our public lives like a colossus over the past four decades seem and/or believe they are invincible. To them, the presidency and the perks that come with it is their birthright. The irony of it all is that we have walked this road over and over again since the 2002 General Election. No lessons seem to have been learned nor does there appear to be any change of tact to bring a sense of creativity or innovation.

In his book, The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene explores an intriguing discourse on how to access, apply and retain power. While many of the laws offer insights to those who aspire to rise to the pinnacle of political power, I find some to be inconsistent with modern societal norms and democratic governance structures. 

For instance, in law number 15 he argues for a case of crushing your enemies totally. Otherwise, they can retreat and prepare for decisive revenge. While this is philosophically sound, the practical application of the law in a constitutional democracy would be daunting. In our Kenyan context, for example, how can an elected president or governor who ran on a joint ticket with a deputy crush them totally without destroying their own power base?

Access to information

In a broader sense, several of the laws imply an autocratic leadership style and socio-economic dis-empowerment of the masses to hold on to power. This sounds familiar in our local case where, by default, no elected political leader wants enough of his people empowered. They loathe their voters having access to the right information, attaining economic independence, questioning their performance record, and/or demonstrating tangible achievements for the benefit of those that put them in power.

The practical relevance of these laws in the 21st-century knowledge and innovation-driven economies will require special leadership capabilities. The explosion of the power of social media and internet-driven gig economy has shifted politico-economic power balances within and across nations permanently. For economists, the impact of national leaders on economic growth and development, and hence the welfare of citizens, has been a hard nut to crack.

The primary challenges have been on finding exogenous (random) factors and comparative data to evaluate the leaders’ individual contribution to economic growth without bias. Nonetheless, there have been few credible studies that provide reliable evidence that national leaders influence economic growth and development.

In 2005, Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken adduced one of the most credible evidence on the importance of national leaders in influencing economic growth of a country. This effect can either be positive or negative, especially in autocratic regimes where the leader has fewer constraints in exercising their individual leadership power. A positive economic growth arises from the leaders’ ability to affect policy outcomes, invest in the right public goods and services, chose pro-growth policies, and overcome national scale coordination problems.

Furthermore, a national leader bears the sole responsibility to either attract well-intentioned and capable planners to run the government or select the vainglorious and/or thieves. The leader also has power to influence institutions that are empirically proved to influence economic growth. On the contra, the individual leader can cause negative growth through the tendency to steal, condone corruption and lead the country into war.

Equally, they can also destroy institutions of governance like Parliament, Judiciary and constitutional bodies, and fill strategic offices in government with cronies rather than meritocracy-based appointments. Other studies by Londregan and Poole in 1990 find coups are less likely when economic growth is good, while Fair Ray (1978) finds a president is less likely to be elected during a recession in the United States.

Investments in public goods

Weber Max’s (1947) theory of social and economic organisation argues that an individual national leader can stimulate growth be emphasizing on good investments in public goods. These include investments in education, health and infrastructure, or pursuing national policies that facilitate international trade and effective monetary policy. On the negative side, the capacity of the leader to make war or pursue systematic corruption suggests means of economic-wide influences.

In Africa, Frank Gyimah (2021) examines the impact of African leadership characteristics and regime transitions on economic growth. Using a sample of 44 sub-Saharan countries from 1970 -2010, he finds democratic leaders are able to attract direct foreign investments and hence cause positive economic growth. On transition elections, he finds business cycles that reduce growth. Overall, he concludes that there is a limit to which an aging leader can stay in office.

Given, leaders like Charles Taylor of Liberia, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe had huge negative impacts on the socio-economic welfare of their respective countries.

The fact that presidential candidates can unashamedly prioritize boardroom deals to share power among themselves without weighing the interests of the electorate speaks volumes. The rate at which they abandon their political vehicles to power also signifies a genuine lack of ideological persuasion to drive meaningful economic reforms. It is one thing to gain political power, it is a totally different ball game to use the power so attained to drive economic reforms that grow and redistribute wealth in an equitable, fair and just manner.

From the foregoing demonstrable evidence, there are three critical considerations that we the electorate must zealously guard in 2022. One, if the end justifies the means for the political elite, then it becomes our solemn duty and moral obligation to protect our individual and collective self-interest. If greed for power drives those that seek to lead us, then our socio-economic welfare must dictate how we exercise our freedoms and liberties at the ballot.

Economic self-preservation

Two, given the ability of individual leaders to influence policy outcomes, re-organize institutions, eradicate or abate corruption, lead us into war, and promote meritocracy or perpetuate mediocrity, then our economic self-preservation needs must be our primary consideration in choosing our national leader. In this way, their capacity to lead, temperament, ability to inspire, decisiveness and emotional intelligence should and ought to be the irreducible minimums.

Finally, time has come for us as the electorate to appreciate the fact that nature does not harbour vacuums. Our inability to harness and coordinate our individual and collective power of the ballot has been exploited by a few to monopolize power. In many ways we have been reduced to economic and political squatters in our own country. We have been made to believe there exists an invincible ‘Deep State’ and we only exist at their mercy. A classic demonstration of this is the BBI drama (by the time of writing this article, I do not know of its fate).

The purpose of economic evidence and history is to learn lessons from the past, prepare for today and predict the future. Since the collapse of one-party dictatorship in 1991, we have had three regimes with diametrically different economic outcomes. Of the three regimes, the most consequential is the one in which we transcended tribal barriers and individual leadership greed to select the most qualified and competent of them all. It’s just the stupid data. That’s it!  

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