Africa Rising – meritocracy or mediocrity – Lessons from History

Amadu Yaya Kamara: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 June 2019:

Political leadership in Africa is at a crossroads. The body politick in each of the various African states is today faced with the daunting question as to whether and how to pursue dignity or prosperity for its citizens. The theory of political change through the pursuit of dignity has been popularized by scholars such as Fukuyama and Hegel.

Fukuyama and Hegel theorized that, changes in political systems throughout history is as a result of the desire of people to be recognized and dignified. It is this struggle for dignity that results in peoples’ desire to have mastery over each other, which has in the past led to such events as slavery and colonialism. This desire for dignity Fukuyama argues has also led to nations pursuing liberal democracy.

This is because liberal democracy borne initially from the French revolution, assures the dignity of the individual by guarantying basic freedoms such as the freedom of speech and thought, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of religion and freedom to participate in the political system.

Scholars like Marx on the other hand have argued that material prosperity is what drives political changes in history. He theorized that the system of capitalism is established when the bourgeoisie design a system that allows them generate profit extracted from the surplus labour of workers.

When large swathes of the population are economically disenfranchised due to the excess exploitation of the worker by the capitalist class, the desire for prosperity by the masses, births conflict and violent upheavals that result in more equitable systems of economic distribution.

At the end of the colonial era, many African states wanting to emulate the success of their colonial masters began the pursuit of dignity, by adopting a liberal democracy just as their European colonial masters had done. But for the average African state, the pursuit of dignity is more complex than Western historical narratives.

This is because African states are more diverse, in terms of religion, ethnolinguistic groupings and have high levels of cultural asymmetries. These differences have made the implementation or actualization of liberal democracies more complex.

This is so, because, the pursuit of dignity in these states has often been organically reduced to the desire of the various ethnolinguistic groups to dominate each other and to dominate the resources of the nation.

Universal suffrage has failed to unify people around issues that help elevate their freedoms and material prosperity. Rather, it has been used as a tool of the political class to gain power through exploiting the differences in ethnicity and culture.

Politicians motivate their constituents to vote not from the promise of a brighter future through prudent policy formulation and governance, but through a basal primitive fear of the “other” side. The fear of being dominated, disenfranchised and ruthlessly marginalized by the “other” group.

This fear has produced in the short term, variations of a political system, the patronage democracy that is inherently predisposed towards producing weak institutions which in turn have eroded the prospects of material prosperity.

A political system that is borne out of ethnic factionalism no matter how democratic it may be, produces weak institutions. This is because for institutions to be strong they have to be composed of members who are chosen based on merits, in terms of their qualification and retained or elevated based on the quality of their most recent performance.

But in Africa, the pursuit of dignity has resulted in a leadership that seeks to elevate his “own group” by awarding positions of power not to the competent but to close supporters, cronies, tribal kinsmen, family members and friends.

This network of patronage easily transforms into what American political scientist, Mancur Olson, terms a distributive coalition. Distributive coalitions according to Olson are interest groups who capture the political system in order to promote their individual group objectives at the expense of the collective.

In many parts of Africa, these coalitions infiltrate political parties in order to have access to rents, such as over inflated contracts, licensees for the exploitation of natural resources, duty waivers, control of the ports, access to government revenue and aid from international development partners (donors).

Leaders like the former President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone are notorious for awarding cabinet, civil service positions and heads of institutions, not based on a commitment to competence but on tribal affiliation and political loyalty.

This network of patronage the former president established, evolved into an organized distributive coalition composed of civil servants and politicians focused primarily on amassing wealth though the looting of state resources and maintaining power, by mostly preaching against the dangers of allowing south eastern Sierra Leoneans (the other group) to return to power.

Unfortunately, this system of building state institutions based on pursuing the dignity of a narrow set of tribes is very prevalent in many nations on the continent.

On the other hand, East Asia nations that have a highly homogenous society with a single identity, such as South Korea and Japan, the implementation of liberal democracy has been easier over the past 5 to 6 decades because systemic differences in religious beliefs and ethnicity do not exist to divide the electorate. They are thus more unified to create political discourse on governance and formulation of economic policy that is efficient enough to produce material prosperity.

In Southeast Asian nations like India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, universal suffrage has faced some of the difficulties faced in Africa, because these nations like Africa are inherently diverse. On election day, democracy easily transforms into populist demagoguery based on religious and ethnic division and suspicion which have produced states that are more fragile, as their institutions are based on political patronage rather than leadership and competency.

In nations like Taiwan, China and Singapore, on the other hand, the pursuit of prosperity has taken precedence over the pursuit of dignity. These nations have historically been less inviting towards the freedoms of liberal democracy, rather they have produced a political system preoccupied with creating material prosperity.

China is the most purist of these nation in the pursuit of prosperity and there are many lessons that can be learnt from this Asian Dragon by the African political leadership.

The pursuit of prosperity

The current Chinese system of governance has roots in two of the most important philosophers in modern Chinese statehood – Marx and Confucius. The Chinese body politick is in agreement with Marx that political change is driven by the pursuit of prosperity rather than the pursuit of dignity.

And even though the Chinese have strayed significantly from their previous Marxist economic prescriptions during the era of Chairman Mao, they have maintained their Marxist belief in the pursuit of prosperity.

Today the Chinese political elites have come to the conclusion that the legitimacy of a state is contingent on their ability to produce material prosperity for the masses and not on a legitimacy that is derived from being empowered by the people to lead through universal suffrage. This pursuit of prosperity has led to the Chinese establishing a meritocracy rather than a liberal democracy.

In China the political system is not based on the ability of politicians to draw crowds and motivate the people to cast their ballots for a set of leaders. Rather, the system is grounded on the principle of meritocracy. Leaders in China are chosen on the basis of their qualification and performance, through a vigorous process of screening, public opinion surveys and internal evaluation.

The present Chinese meritocracy has its roots in the Confucian belief that leaders should not be chosen based on their ties to the nobility, blood or otherwise, but based on their individual virtues and merits. This dedication to a meritocracy has led China to invent the first civil service examination or the “Keju System”.

In current times, to rise through the Chinese political stratum potential, leaders must demonstrate their ability in eradicating poverty, creating jobs, fostering local economic growth and bringing about social development.

This hunt for the most qualified and competent leaders is done by a powerful state institution known as The Party’s Organization department. The department functions as the human resource arm of the government and is responsible for selecting the best college graduates into entry level positions of the three main institutions comprising state-owned enterprise, social organizations and the civil service.

These entry level graduates start from the bottom or ku yen, and are then promoted through four elite ranks known as fukeh, keh, fuchu and chu levels. Once a year the department reviews their performance by interviewing their peers and subordinates, vet their personal conduct, conduct public opinion surveys about the services they are hired to deliver; and at the end, the department promotes the best.

Over time, the best are recruited to the most elite levels, the fuju and ju levels, which is the level of high officialdom. The system is very competitive and the Organization Department does its best to select the most competent.

This passionate dedication to meritocracy has contributed immensely to China becoming a global economic, military and financial superpower. It is the opinion of this writer that Africa will achieve prosperity only when it is ready to adopt a political system that is zealously dedicated towards being a meritocracy.

One can argued that by successfully being in the pursuit of prosperity, the Chinese have been able to aspire to dignity and recognition.

This author in his conclusion believes that it is possible for Africa to pursue dignity and material prosperity at the same time and that is by adopting a fusion of the Western and Chinese systems into a single system called the Liberal Meritocracy. In this political system, although a meritocracy exists to guide the system of governance, the constitution will guarantee liberal tenets such as freedoms of speech, political association, religious beliefs and the right to universal suffrage.

Key to maintaining these freedoms is having a judiciary and legislature to enforce them as constitutional rights. For these arms of government to be effective in protecting the rights of citizens, they have to be impartial and independent.

But at the same time, these two arms of government can only be truly independent and impartial if they are free from partisan brinkmanship. Although members of the legislature should always be elected, candidates for the legislature must meet a minimum criteria of competence, personal and professional conduct and relevant experience.

Having the resources to throw money at the electorate or manipulating their primal fears (via ethnic populism or hate speech) should not be the qualifying criteria in becoming part of one of the most critical arms of government. Prospective members, after demonstrating their competence, must then as independent candidates seek for the votes of the people.

One of the flaws of governance in Africa is to have a judiciary where its principal officers in the supreme court are chosen and removed by the executive. This direct control of the executive over the judiciary, destroys their independence and ability to dispense justice freely and fairly.

In extreme democracies like the United States, political parties struggle to win in order to influence the next judicial nominee.
While the principle of democracy should be fully followed with regards to the legislature, this author is of the opinion that a meritocracy should be established to govern the executive. In this system the civil service and cabinet positions should have high levels of financial compensation and promotion but only the most honest, experienced and most competent minds should be selected for each position.

The best meritocracies exist in the private sector, and a crucial reason for this is because firms have an extra layer of governance called the Board. The Board although not involved in the day to day operations of the firm, ensures that the chief executive officer and other executive directors are held accountable.

Without this extra layer of accountability, the temptations for mismanagement of the firm’s resources by senior management would be exponentially increased. Similarly, in this proposed meritocratic system, the president or head of state would be answerable to a Board. This Board, like its counterpart in the private sector would not be vested with the powers to run the day to day affairs of the state, rather it would be there to hold the head of state and the executive cabinet accountable in performance and conduct.

While most democracy on the continent insist that the executive arm of the government polices itself, this author is proposing that institutions that provide checks and balances to the executive -such as the Anti-Corruption Commission, Human Rights Commission, the Auditor General, Electoral Commission, Bureau of Investigations, should in effect be under the direct control and leadership of the Board and not the head of state.

While the Board will not have fiduciary powers, it will have the ability to monitor the fiduciary activities of the head of state. A key institution that will be under the direct control of such a Board would be a human resource department. They will be tasked with recruiting new entrants into the civil service, and evaluate the performance of each separate institution under the control of the Board and the head of state to determine their effectiveness in meeting set goals and targets.

This human resource department would also be able to vet the nominees for the position of head of state, in order to determine the competence of those leaders based on the requirements of the job and other criteria.

While heads of states would in fact be elected, the human resource department will ensure that the nominees for head of state meet certain conditions of merit. The position of head of state being the highest, should have the stringiest and most demanding criteria in terms of education, experience, leadership and psychological profile.

Cabinet positions, such as heads of ministries and permanent secretaries on the other hand, would be awarded to the best candidates after an interview has been conducted. Quarterly and annual performance evaluations of every ministry, department and agency would be conducted by monitoring and evaluation officers within the human resource department to determine how effective they are in delivering the services they are paid to render.

Overall, the Board in collaboration with the cabinet will be in charge of setting the medium to long term goals of the government, while the head of state and the executive will present short to medium term objectives on how those goals will be achieved.

In the end, a meritocracy can take many forms and each nation on the continent has to create political reforms suited for its own unique peculiarities.

Whatever each nation may decide, political leaders should not hide the truth that the current political arrangements are not working, as they are too devoted to political brinkmanship rather than the substance of good governance.

In the end, according to Einstein, it is madness for one to do the same thing and expect a different result. The economic policy instruments to lift Africa out of poverty are numerous. But we need political reform; for a faulty political system cannot run efficiently well enough to organize society on a scale that will lead to significant material and intellectual progress.

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