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We need to emulate independence leaders

By Ken Opalo | July 20th 2019

I just finished reading David Goldsworthy’s biography of Tom Mboya. The book highlights four important features of Mboya’s public life. First, the man was incredibly driven. Many of his achievements that we know of took place while he was still in his twenties, including the beginning of the airlifts to the United States, trade union mobilisation, and his ascent to national independence politics. These achievements are even more remarkable if one considers that Mboya had to work under the restrictive world of colonialism.

Second, the man was a brilliant tactician. Despite his youth, he was able to lead the nascent trade union movement and repeatedly outfox the colonial administration and European immigrants in Kenya. Third, Mboya was a ruthless politician with his sights on power. To this end he was willing to make necessary compromises that advanced his ultimate goal to succeed Kenyatta. Finally, the man had a clear dream for Kenyan political, social and economic development. His interest in power was not for its own sake.

These characteristics were not unique to Mboya. Many leaders of the independence generation had coherent theories of leadership that they believed justified their positions in power. They were educated, and so would be exemplars of development to their constituents. They had got rid of the colonialists, and so were champions of African freedom. They were self-motivated, and driven to transform Kenya into a richer, healthier, and more educated country. They were not always democratic in their orientation. In fact, many sought to use state power for personal benefit. However, they were driven to achieve something greater than themselves, and wrote books about their dreams. How many of our current leaders are known for their intellect?

Mboya’s biography forced me to appreciate the importance of studying the life and times of our independence leaders. Doing so enables us to uncover the characteristics that we should admire and foster in our leaders in context. This is not a blanket endorsement of the bad features of the independence generation. Instead, it is an admission that all leaders are multifaceted and should be understood in context.

Looking closer at the independence generation also helps expose our contemporary leaders for their high incompetence and lack of ambition. Despite being more educated, richer, less constrained by external actors, and working with a more educated population, our current leaders continue to wallow in mediocrity. They live to steal from us, and not to marshal our human and material resources towards the betterment of our collective futures.

It is tempting to have a blanket dismissal of Kenyan political and economic elites throughout history. However, an objective comparison of our leaders through time readily reveals qualitative differences across different eras. We have had both great and mediocre leaders. We should learn to embrace the sources of great leadership, and learn the lessons of bad leadership.

We shoot ourselves in the foot when we internalise the notion that, as a society, we are incapable of producing great leaders. Because we have done this, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have neglected the task of promoting a positive public leadership culture. We do not seriously teach the ethics of public life in our schools. And our children grow up with a warped sense of what it takes to be a respected public figure. This has to change.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. Twitter: @kopalo

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