By Innocent Chia
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, former President of South Africa and its first to be elected in fully-representative democratic elections, may have been the one leader that the world and his people would have readily forgiven if he had chosen the transgression of holding on to power. After all, it was before the eyes of the world that the anti-apartheid activist and leader of the African NationalCongress (ANC) served 27 years of his life sentence in prison, much of it in a cell in Robben Island, for sabotage after he went underground and began the ANC's armed struggle. But after five years of presidency, 1994 to 1999, the cultural icon of freedom and equality knew he had given enough of himself and passed the relay baton for someone else (Thabo Mbeki) with a fresh set of eyes to either change or continue with the same trajectory.
Compared to most the rest of his unflappable peers that are pseudo-leaders, this was an aberration. It must have been so in their minds because all around Africa the Presidents reign supreme for quarter centuries and more, never questioning their productivity and the correlation with longevity in power. Like the monarchs before them, power is “till death do us part”.
It was the case with Houphouet Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire. El Hadj Omar Bongo, the world’s fifth longest serving ruler, was just 31 and the world’s youngest, when he became President of Gabon in 1967. Following the February 2005 death of Togolese president Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled for 38 years, Omar Bongo became Africa’s longest serving ruler, and remains in office today. Ahidjo of La Republique Unie du Cameroun only left at the “advise” of his medical team after 21 years in power and died a short while after. His hand-picked successor, Paul Biya has not only shattered the predecessors record after 24 years and counting in power; there are plans underway to have him modify the constitution yet again to have a presidency for life in Cameroon. This piece will argue that by understanding and effectively applying the economic Law of Diminishing Returns, beleaguered African power holders and kingmakers could reverse the leadership and economic tides plaguing the continent.
One is to look no further than the before-and-after pictures of American presidents after their first terms in office. Arguably with the exception of George W. Bush, they all look several years older than their age mates and the grey hair comes at lightening speed. It takes no rocket scientist to figure out that both the amount of work and stress that they endure usher considerable mental and physical exhaustion. True, the scale and intensity of tackling a 911 attack is daunting for any President. True too, staggering unemployment rates, alarming numbers of HIV/AIDS victims and general misery and underdevelopment are no less worrisome matters that should wrinkle-up African heads of states and governments. Yet, while the one aspires for a place in history, the other is impregnated with delusions.
But it would seem that what has eluded the African leader the most, with very few exceptions, has been the simple notion that more is less in politics. The more time you spend in power, the less productive, less efficient and less liked you become. Over 200 years ago Malthus, the father of the Law of Diminishing Returns,
"argued that land is a fixed input, but the growth of population makes labor a variable input. He proposed a general law of economics, the Law of Diminishing Returns: when a fixed input is combined in production with a variable input, using a given technology, increases in the quantity of the variable input will eventually depress the productivity of the variable input. (Malthus argued that decreasing productivity of labor would depress incomes). Was Malthus right? The answer is, of course, yes and no. There is plenty of evidence, both observational and statistical, that the Law of Diminishing Returns is valid. For example, agricultural economists have carried out experimental tests of the theory. They have selected plots of land of identical size and fertility and used different quantities of fertilizer on the different plots of land. In this example, land was the fixed input and fertilizer the variable input. They found that, as the quantity of fertilizer increased, the productivity of fertilizer declines. This is only one of many bits of evidence that the Law of Diminishing Returns is true in general.”
In our case of leadership and underdevelopment the fixed input is the country. The variable input is the president or king. From Fidel Castro of Cuba, col. Muammar al-Gaddafi or Libya Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea to Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, the list is long of leaders that centuries ago attained the curve of diminishing marginal returns. (It is noteworthy that according to statistics from the ZPC website 15 of 45 current leaders with longest time in office are from Africa).
Each additional year that they hold on to power yields less and less additional output. As a result, their general passiveness and nonchalance become more and more accentuated as they become less tolerant and paranoid. Opponents are arrested and free speech eliminated. Extra-judicial killings become the order of the day. Personal mansions are bought in foreign capitals and citadels built at home. There is decrepitude of national infrastructure and the national debt balloons, giving allowance for dependence on foreign aid. Corruption inevitably chops into the fabric of the nation and becomes a lifestyle.
When confronted by the international community and financial institutions these leaders make cosmetic changes in the form of ministerial / cabinet reshufflements. But this fancy way of repackaging old wine in new wine bottles is void of any systemic changes that promote vision changes. For instance, there is hardly any political appointee in these countries that is capable of suggesting a vision change to the president in the lines of reducing presidential power, or decentralizing the government in order to bring government services closer to the people. The appointees are either gripped by fear or are too eager to protect their bread and butter. Allegiance is to the king, not to the country and the people that they are supposed to be serving. Ultimately, there is a dearth of ideas because everyone toes the line.
A change in course would require for these leaders to recognize that, citeris paribus, life begins from a sperm, to a fetus, then we are born, we grow into toddlers, become teenagers, adults and then senior citizens and eventually die. For every one of these stages, there is a timeline without which we say that someone is stunted for example. The same applies to leadership in the sense that after the excitement of having a new leader, people are hard pressed for improvements to happen in their lives. If these changes do not happen within the first two or three years, a longer term in office will only worsen the perception of the population towards the leader. In turn, the leader begins to think that the entire world is out to kill them and they then tighten their grip on power. The other arms of government become redundant and obsolete. Presidential Decrees become the rule of law. But if these Presidents only figured it out, the Law of Diminishing Returns could be their best legacy and most memorable Decrees.