Talking about free-range politics… and Africans

I see it… that mountain!

Generally I’m very interested in the political process. I remember being invited to sit in on the “Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer at CNN’s New York studio and keenly following the conversation in the 2008 elections. My predictions at the time, both in the U.S. and in my home country of Ghana, were generally spot-on. I was also very intrigued by the commonalities I noticed with the two elections.

And so we are here again and it is 2012. Everything is still very much the same, to the extent that I often experience déjà vu. Sometimes I feel like I must be mistakenly pressing the rewind button.  And yet, everything is so different; enough so, to make me pay attention, especially when one considers what is at stake — in both countries.

And so let’s focus for a minute on the debates. Debates exemplify the sport of democracy to the extent that even when lives are at stake, the loser is willing to back down honorably, which is one of the elements that make democracy a form of governance so favored.  Debates require strategy and the ability to communicate them effectively. As Nitin Nohria, the current dean of the Harvard Business School said, “Communication is the real work of leadership.”

Having good policies is good, but communicating these policies effectively in a manner that is understood and accepted by especially those in the middle is what it comes down to. On the surface, this may sound unfair, but…  let’s digress further into the power of declaration and articulation.  This is a necessary practice in our spiritual, our personal and social spheres. Many great teachings talk about pronouncing to oneself an intended reality, and the importance of mental affirmation. To the extent that we may be held up to our pronouncements and held to greater scrutiny, may be an important part of the exercise. Thus, the conversation around Romney’s alleged isolation from the middle class, and his clear attempt to address this by seeking to identify with the stories of the ordinary  “Joe.” As President Obama also glaringly faced, strong belief in the effectiveness of your proposed policies should be communicated effectively time and time again.

Of course, developing democracies cannot begin to compare to the United States, not by a long shot — and those who seek to do so display a misunderstanding of the dynamics of democracy and how it relates to the culture of a people and the exercise of re-orientating the mind. The United States has “perfected” the steps over centuries.

There are a number of things, though, that every democracy could seek to emulate no matter how young and culturally different. I’d pick accountability, expertise and the caliber and vision of the people that run for office. These elements, in my view, are the building blocks of democracy.

In most traditional leadership systems in Africa, there is a supreme leader; in the case of Ghana, for instance, there is the chief. The supreme leader recognizes the gift of leadership bestowed on him as a leader and in turn, seeks to deliver fair and progressive leadership. Here, I use the word “leader” with discretion, as there are authorities like Ronald Heifetz and Dean Williams that may dispute the application of the term. Permit my use advisedly thus. The chief’s term of office is usually for life, failing any serious mishap. Much as is the case in Britain, with the monarchy. The form of governance therefore, where the society is able to question the leadership openly and vote them in and out of office, is a learned one.

Africa is one of the most natural-resource-rich continents, not counting natural resources. According to the <em>Journal of Blacks in Higher Education</em>, No. 26 (Winter, 1999-2000):

<blockquote>African immigrants in the United States are the most highly educated demographic. Some 48.9 percent of all African immigrants hold a college diploma. This is more than double the rate of native-born white Americans, and nearly four times the rate of native-born African Americans.</blockquote>

Most Africans migrate to escape the challenging economic and political conditions in their home country. The favorite past time of this demographic is to visit Internet news websites and various discussion forums that link them to developments in their countries; remaining frustrated and agitated!

For the educated African back home, it isn’t much different. Most of them don’t actively get involved in the political discussion, and argue that whatever you do, leave politics alone and leave it to the crooks. Thus, countless smart and highly educated individuals who could perchance make a difference, stay out of politics and leadership roles because it is a dirty arena. These are men and women who “know all the answers” and can give you a lesson in best governance. They are experts in global and local politics and economics and they understand what must be put in place to ensure sustainable development. This is all good, but let’s just say they could learn a thing or two about tenacity from the “bad guys”!

The questions around where one can effect the most change, and whether one must compromise one’s values to some extent for the higher purpose? Does the end justify the means or does it excuse it?

You must admire the “corrupt” politician for one thing; at least s/he is in the political boxing ring fighting. Unless you are actually in that ring, you have no idea what the fight is about. Who are the people exercising real leadership in the system and making a difference quietly? What are the various factions and interests in the system and what is driving them to fight to either maintain the statues quo or change it? Why are things the way they are? What are the global triggers and determiners? Who are the puppet masters and what are the trade-offs? What strengths are being leveraged and which ones are being underutilized? et cetera, et cetera…

Guess what, if you are a good business man and you refuse to enter into politics, people who don’t know the first thing about business strategy will determine what environments affect your business. If you are a master in strategic management and you leave yourself out, people who haven’t managed anything in their lives before, including themselves, will manage you. If you are the best negotiator, but are not at the table when the country negotiates with strategic foreign partners, you can’t blame anyone when you end up with the short end of the stick. The world has changed significantly and yet, individuals who probably don’t have a Facebook account themselves or understand the ecosystem and where the rest of the world is going may be determining your future. By the way, it doesn’t really matter if you do or do not have a Facebook account. What matters, is that you understand that it exist, the tool it can be, and the role it is playing.

The words of  Plato, “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men,” may hold some truth to the extent that being prepared for the job and serving the public to the best of your ability is good and otherwise, not so… What is our responsibility to public service? To at least grapple with this question, may be a start.


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