9 November 2012

Zimbabwe: Politics - a Means of Personal Enrichment?


I have often heard people say statements like, "I would like to get into politics because you can make a lot of money in politics". Many seek public office for exactly that reason and the truth is many who have attained their political aspirations have indeed become extremely rich because of it.

One look at their life before and after getting political position reveals a remarkable level of expenditure and affluence after the event. How exactly this affluence is attained is never asked, in fact, it is impolite for us as Africans to ask such questions.

The fact that expenditure is way above the salaries of some in public office seems not to raise anybody's eyebrows. The more ostentatious, flamboyant and grandiose the lifestyles; the more respect and honour are accorded, never mind how the wealth was obtained, even if it is brazenly stolen from public funds. This is baffling, how do those who are stolen from admire the thief as he shows off with their wealth?

If a person in public office spends much more than he or she earns, surely an accounting of exactly how that money was obtained should be given. If this is not done then it can be legitimately assumed that the individual is using public office for self enrichment, to put it bluntly this person is stealing from the people, arikuba, imbavha.

The motivation of entering public office for self-enrichment is not unique to Africa, what is unique is that unlike other parts of the world in which this is abhorrent, the culture seems to tolerate, extol and even promote such conduct. Statements like ane mari ndiye mukuru (the one who has money is the greatest among us) are strong value statements, reinforcing the need to get money and a never ending quest for more driven by megalomania.

A megalomaniac is a person who is insanely obsessed with having bigger and more than everyone else around. So the car must be the best, biggest and fastest. It may not be possible to have all of these qualities in one car, so three are needed, one is the best, maybe the only one in the world of its kind, one is the fastest and the other is the biggest. If it is a house, it must be the biggest and best in town, no one else must have a house as good as the megalomaniac's, and the list goes on.

Something within our culture drives this phenomenon. Our traditional culture had chiefs and kings. These would be richer than everybody else in the community. Our cultural concept of leadership therefore fuels this desire to get rich and the association of public office with the traditional concept of chief means that it is expected that those in public office will be rich. After all how can we expect to be led by some person who is struggling to make ends meet? What can he or she offer? The Shona say, "Uri tsuro inomwa mvura negumbo", (You are a hare that uses its paw to drink water) who would want to be led by a struggling hare?

I have talked with some who have tried to run for public office and they explain that it is a costly exercise. To get a crowd to come and listen, one often needs to buy drinks and food for everyone who comes. It may be necessary to kill a beast or two to feed the crowd. The peer pressure is to show off and make an impression otherwise a rival will throw a bigger party and thereby attract a bigger following. Those with noble motives are often outwitted by streetwise opponents who know how to manipulate people and get the vote. The people do not know or seem to care how the person they vote for got the money that they are enjoying at the party.

The pressure for those in public office to be materially rich is real. The idea that a person who runs for public office should be a person of means is not wrong in itself. A leader must demonstrate an ability to make and manage more resources than the majority in order to be entrusted with the responsibility of looking after public funds. This is true the world over, and is ideal. A responsible citizenry will want to ensure that those who handle their national assets and thereby determine their future are people with a good track record and proven competency in handling their own affairs well.

Recently Kenyan MPs awarded themselves severance bonuses of US$105 000 each when they leave parliament in 2013. This is over and above their salaries which are US$131 350 per annum (US$10 945 per month) some of the highest for lawmakers in the world. In September, strikes and protests from various sectors almost brought Kenya to a halt because they said the MPs were paying themselves too much. The average salary for a US State Governor as of 2009 was US$124 398 per annum, which is less than a Kenyan MP's salary. An MP in the UK earns about £5 500 a month. There is something wrong with the picture when a Kenyan MP earns almost twice what a British MP does, especially since the Kenyans are copying a British model of governance.

The whole of Africa contributes to about 2 percent of the world's Gross Domestic Product and the United States is arguably the world's wealthiest nation, so a Kenyan MP having a bigger salary than a US Governor or British MP is ludicrous. Where is the money going to come from? Well the MPs introduced new taxes to cover that. Why are these people in parliament? It is very likely that they see it as a place of personal enrichment. By the time they leave they intend to have taken their pound of flesh from the people. Instead of helping the people these people seem to want to heartlessly feed off them and get as much as they can.

Wanting to earn high salaries from public funds is one thing, what is worse is actually using public office to plunder national resources. Sadly African leaders are notorious for this; the vast amounts they acquire are often stashed in Europe and the United States who seem to delight in keeping the money. They see our flamboyant expenditures in their nations, buying mansions and palaces, having extravagant parties and putting incredible amounts in their banks at the expense of the people, and must secretly laugh or hopefully cry at the incredible stupidity of the leaders who do this.

Africans need to become critical thinkers. Traditional values and concepts of leadership need to be analysed and critiqued in light of modern society. While the traditional system associated the ability to have personal wealth with leadership competence, ideally the chief would hold that wealth as a stewardship, the poor would go for help and it would benefit the whole society. Zunde ramambo is a piece of land that people would plough and the produce would go to the chief who would use it at his discretion to look after the poor, widows and orphans in the community. Exploiting and living off people was never highly regarded; it was always a vice to be rejected and abhorred and not a virtue to be emulated. Our modern day admiration of exploitation is a perversion of how wealth was regarded traditionally.

Those who are wealthy should help those who are poorer to access resources by creating and providing jobs and safety nets for society. They should be entrusted with national assets to help us maximise our resources in the same way that they have managed their own resources. Those in public office should not be seeking to enrich themselves, they should already be wealthy and as a service to all of their brothers and sisters maximise national resources for all. It is time to closely examine motivations of those who seek public office and come down hard on anyone who is found deliberately converting public resources to become personal wealth. We must have leaders who will serve and not ravenous wolves who want to kill us and eat all they can.

The writer is an executive director at the African Leadership and Management Academy.

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