Jun 24, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The “Philosopher Kings” of Africa

In this week’s East African, a weekly with comprehensive news coverage of East African Community countries (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda), columnist Tee Ngugi poses a provocative question: Are highly educated individuals with demonstrated brilliance in academia, the arts, or a socially constructive trade, the proper choice to lead African countries into a brighter future? Or put another way, do so-called enlightened leaders, Plato’s “philosopher kings,” propel African countries to a higher order of existence than their less-enlightened political peers?

Ngugi’s answer is an unequivocal, “no.” He points to the career of the late Kenyan MP George Saitoti, recently killed in a helicopter crash. A brilliant academic with a PhD in mathematics, Saitoti was expected to wield his considerable intellect for the public good and rise above the typical politics of tribalism, parochial interests, and toothless sycophant officials. Instead, Ngugi argues that Saitoti was quickly consumed by Kenyan political forces, unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo. The infamous Goldenberg Scandal may have been the most shocking example of corruption during Saitoti’s stint in power, taking place while he was Finance Minister — a position most believed was tailor-made for Saitoti’s skill-set, and one they hoped he would use to set the Kenyan economy on a positive course. The author cites other examples of intellectually brilliant leaders with even worse records than Saitoti — Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe — to underscore his point.

And the point is well-taken, to the extent that there is a demonstrated history of brilliance failing to translate into political enlightenment. But Ngugi may go too far attributing this political stagnation to the ethical weakness of individuals, rather than the dysfunctional incentives provided by thus far intractable arrangements of institutions as well as political and economic power. Individual agency is important, but — with the rare exception — cannot by itself overcome a long history of tribal conflict and the expectation of community kick-backs that comes along with elected office. In Kenya, these expectations have been exacerbated a political system that for decades gave opposition parties negligible influence on the direction or character of state policy. In practice this meant that once the opposition finally achieved success at the ballot box, they used state power to compensate for the previous period of economic and political marginalization, directing benefits toward their own communities. These came in the form of land ownership and rights, government positions, state contracts, and at times, naked graft manifested in money fleeced from government coffers.

Kenya’s new constitution, passed in 2010, was designed to address some of these issues. It devolved significant power to districts, gave parliament a stronger oversight role, and created new bodies to fight corruption with corresponding rules that are quite severe for those found guilty. However, many political parties still break down along ethnic lines, or reflect negotiated pacts among two or more tribes, so the politics of identity still runs deep, and has not yet been surpassed by political ideology as the raison d’etre for most pursuing public office. While in Lamu last weekend, I personally witnessed a member of parliament, and current minister within the cabinet, visit the town and distribute money to local citizens. I was told he makes a similar trip regularly throughout the year.

Despite new rules or pronouncements of change, a country with lax enforcement will do little to alter incentives and can tilt the playing field against those who cling to enlightened politics. Philosopher or not, and regardless of ethical fortitude, individuals working within this system inevitably run up against these forces.

Ironically, this debate comes amid a battle in Kenya’s parliament over the introduction of a higher degree requirement for all MPs, which, if passed, would disqualify around 80 current elected officials. President Kibaki is receiving heavy pressure to not sign the law. Stay tuned.



  • Nice analysis, Josh. I think we can state it even more simply. In any society, ambitious people will gravitate towards the sector of the economy where they can make the most money. In most countries in Africa, that is the public sector (more specifically, collusion between political elites and business people to run the state for their personal financial benefit). Hoping for more ethical politicians is naive. James Madison said it best in Federalist Number 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

  • Thanks, Barak. And very true. Though at times here, it’s difficult to distinguish between those seeking office for profit, and those seeking office to preserve or distribute wealth (narrowly speaking). Maybe in practice that distinction is irrelevant. But from certain conversations, there does seem to be a class of politicians that began their political career with the public good in mind, only to be thwarted, and often corrupted. It does seem like much of that is a function of a system with dysfunctional incentives and deep distrust for the motives of others.

  • I agree. The system deeply corrupts people. How do you think you would react if you were constantly under pressure from your community to share the benefits of having access to power with them?

  • Hi Josh,

    Are you still in Nairobi? Would love to discuss this article with you. You can contact me on my website – terahedun.com or @terahedun.

  • […] wrote last week that we should not wait for, nor expect, enlightened leaders to bring altruism into systems […]

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