Thursday 27 October 2011

Leadership issues in Congo

Boston University's Leadership Corner asked me to comment on leadership issues in DRC.

Below is the text of that interview:

BU in Congo
Dr. Trefon, thank you for spending some time with me. One of the topics that BU students in the MSL program tackle is the definition of the term "leadership." It is a concept that seems simple at first, yet grows more complex the more you probe it. You have spent the past 25 years studying the politics and anthropology of state/society relations in Congo/Zaire. With that breadth of experience, how have you come to understand what it means to be an effective leader?

The main problem facing Congo today is precisely the lack of responsible leadership. In a country where political authorities do very little for their constituents, when officials do just a little, they are venerated. But this is populism and not real leadership. There are few outstanding figures on the political landscape with vision, those who are able to bring an end to corrupt government, reduce poverty, solve the country’s security problems or improve the well-being of ordinary people. This would require the talent of being able to mobilize people around shared objectives, the power to deal forcefully and pragmatically with regional and international partners and the capacity to manage the macro-economic challenges facing what has unfortunately become one of Africa’s notoriously failed states. President Kabila does not have these leadership credentials; ex-dictator Mobutu had the charisma and flair of what is sometimes expected of an African ‘big man’ but he used it against the interest of the people; the first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated before having the chance to deploy his leadership skills.

The situational model of leadership focuses not only on the leader personally but also the context in which the leader operates. In Congo Masquerade, you focus on the ingrained political culture of corruption among the Congolese elite. What situational challenges do leaders (both within and external to the Congo) face in trying to improve the quality of life of the ordinary Congolese? In other words, besides being a strong leader in and of himself, what must a politician know about the Congolese system in order to be effective?

After 32 years of dictatorship, violent conflict and machinations orchestrated by Rwanda and a very difficult – but still unsuccessful political transition towards democracy, everything on the state-building agenda is priority. Public health, education, road infrastructure, providing people with water and electricity, re-engineering public service provision, creating the enabling conditions for political participation, etc. are all priorities. But there is no master plan shared by the Congolese authorities and their international partners. While many programs appear to make sense at the theoretical level, implementation is a real problem. The country is also vast (the size of Western Europe) and diverse (in terms of distribution of natural wealth, ethnicity and population density). Managing a country that is fragmented in this way is an additional challenge. Probably the most important thing for a Congolese politician or international partner to bear in mind is the only thing that is predictable in Congo is the unpredictable.

How does the ordinary, everyday Congolese citizen view the leadership of his or her country?

Congo is one, but plural at the same time. Again, the country is diverse and fragmented so it is impossible to expect a consensus on anything, let alone on leadership. This is a very hot question because presidential and legislative elections will take place at the end of November. Perceptions of political leadership in Congo have to be understood in terms of social issues. People are very frustrated by the lack of progress in the government’s development program known as ‘cinq chantiers’. There is a lot of justifiable grumbling about lack of water, electricity, roads and access to health services. Kabila has strong support in some provinces but faces heavy opposition in others. The fact that he was able to amend the constitution, to have a single round of voting instead of the two-round system is a distinct advantage for him so he is likely to win the elections. Winning the elections is one step, transforming it into legitimate authority based on respect and transparent negotiation is something else. People have become very skeptical about how much government can really do for them and have consequently come to rely on their own home-grown systems to survive.

Students learn in class at BU about leader emergence, or how one individual rises out of the crowd and assumes a meaningful leadership role. Often this emergence is due not only to the individual's traits, but to the perception of the individual by the others in the group. Have you witnessed any instances where an otherwise ordinary individual rises up from the ranks and assumes a leadership role, no matter how small?

As people expect relatively little from government, new forms of social organization emerge. Congo, however, remains a very hierarchical society, perhaps something that is a spillover from Belgian colonialism. Religious leaders, civil society activists, traditional chiefs, diaspora representatives, successful businessmen and women and even musicians are leaders and opinion formers that political authorities have to deal with.

I know that everyone at BU Brussels is very happy to have you join the team. Turning to your role at BU, what do you feel are the most important lessons that students can learn about leadership? What new understanding and knowledge do you hope to pass on to them in your class?

I’ve devoted the past twenty-five years to Congo/Zaire as a researcher, project manager, professor and consultant. My approach is policy oriented and I have tried to narrow the conceptual gap between political science theories on development and state-building and a grassroots, anthropological understanding of very local-level social dynamics.

My course at BUB accordingly focuses on international development. Specifically, the discourses, practices, strategies, pitfalls, challenges - and when relevant - success stories of this vast agenda. I try to avoid over conceptualizing or theorizing about these issues because at the Master’s level, students seem to be more motivated by pragmatic examples and case studies. Are the Millennium Developments Goals attainable? How does micro-finance work? How do you carry out stakeholder analysis in the field? What are the links between access to natural resources and well-being? The main messages that I try to convey are one, development is a very complex issue so we have to be culturally sensitive and humble, two, be open-minded – bringing in the private sector in development strategies, for example, is something that I explore with students and three, be prepared for the unexpected – the role of social media in the Arab spring is a good case in point.


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