Last week, Joyce Banda became the second female head of state in Africa. This kind of development is significant for the continent. Not only is Banda female, which accounts for progress in more equally gendered leadership, but she’s also got a solid background which should help get Malawi out of the economic and political mess that the late Mutharika has left it in.
However, Banda’s, or any other good leaders’ skills are insipid if they are used to lead a nation of bad citizens. Citizenship, not leadership, is the concept that we more urgently need to examine. Good leaders can be in charge of bad citizens namely and as a result achieve little long-term solutions, but good citizens can”t elect, accept or rejoice bad leaders.
By good citizens, what I mean are citizens who are connected to their environment, its systems and structures, its cultures, contentions and divisions. A good citizen seeks to improve her surrounding not only for herself but for others as well. She seeks to know history, to understand where things have gone wrong and to reproduce knowledge to the benefit of her society, not to copy other societies. A good citizen defines her vision of success as one that benefits others as well as herself. As a leader in their own right— as a manager, a father, or a civil servant—a good citizen seeks ways to make things work more efficiently. A good citizen does not lazily accept that their fellow citizens are of lower status due to their gender, sexuality, age, class or ethnicity. Nor does she agree to be treated with lesser status for any such factors. She asks how she contributes to what she sees around her and she finds ways to reflect on improving herself, to aim to be at peace, because she has seen that order never comes from conflict between the deep and the superficial. In a nutshell, the good citizen does not need a good leader to tell her to take citizenship seriously.
The caveat here is first and foremost that poverty and lack of education are obstacles for good citizenship, the individual who is in despair is not similarly equipped to meet these demands. Bearing in mind, however, please, that riches mainly have their origin in the mind and that education comes not only in textbook form. The Dogon in Mali, for example, had very richly developed forms of citizenship which had nothing to do with material wealth or formal education.
Secondly, we must never, never, analyse any African nationalist problem, without rooting it in the history of the occupation of Africa and colonial dictatorship. Poverty in Africa cannot be detached from this history and the power structures it generates still. In fact, it is when analysts fail to discuss this fact, that they tend to conclude that the problem with Africa is bad leadership, a simplistic view at best.
It is us who are privileged with education who should question and debate whether the state exists for the individual or whether the individual exists for the the state. As we expand in awareness, we become better citizens. As the number of good citizens grow, eventually more leaders will arise from this pool. And to be a good leader, one must first be a good citizen.
How do you think leadership and citizenship are connected? There is no doubt that good leadership fosters progress, but is good leadership the answer to all our problems? Is it all that is necessary, and if not, what else do we have to focus on?