We now want leaders, not rulers

State House in Nairobi.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Many an African president, once elected, would go into the mode of being a ruler.
  • The Constitution requires that every politician behaves with integrity.

Savvy social media users may have seen a video of Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema making the rounds on Twitter. In it, he is seen challenging Zambian politicians who want the government to buy them Land Cruiser VXs costing $200,000 (Sh24 million) to use their own money.

President Hichilema said he would rather see the money spent to improve facilities in the markets than buy luxury cars for city mayors. I loved the bit where he said the politicians want the “expensive cars they cannot afford only because they use the taxpayers money”.

Mr Hichilema has taken off the lid on what plagues politicians in Africa and, indeed, the continent itself. He expounded on the wastage of taxpayers’ money to give politicians a life they could otherwise not afford on their salaries.

He could have been speaking to Kenyan politicians, who are known for their gluttony and selfishness. Despite being some of the highest-paid politicians in the world, a lot of perks are still thrown at or demanded by the politicians despite the growing inequality and lack of value for money in service delivery.

Corruption and impunity are pretty much the preserve of many African leaders. These problems would mainly be associated with African rulers or despots. Even in countries with a semblance of democracy, a ruler would be the person blamed for Africa’s woes. This is because many African politicians rule, rather than lead.


The concept of “ruling” has its genesis in colonialism, where the colonial powers assumed ownership of their subjects to subjugate them. It has been replicated by the African rulers from independence.  Democracy has not diluted this thinking. Many an African president, once elected, would go into the mode of being a ruler.

The terms “ruler” and “leader” are sometimes wrongly used interchangeably. In the case of a ruler, power tends to be centralised and it’s mainly a top-down affair. Hence, many despots (rulers) tend to be the ones ordering the plunder of their country’s resources because what he or she says is final as power rests vertically at the highest, rather than lateral, office.

Although a leader may lead by setting good or bad examples, in many cases, it is my considered view that a leader is expected to be someone with positive influence in society. Kenya, like many other African countries, was not blessed with leaders but rulers. It’s a place where politicians historically called the shots and what they say is cardinal. This type of thinking led to many becoming corrupt and behaving with impunity, knowing that power rests with them.

Behave with integrity

The Constitution requires that every politician behaves with integrity. But this concept has remained alien and elusive in the minds of many a politician. The newly elected leaders are, for the first time, expected to sign up to integrity codes as they are sworn in. This is a very positive development. However, unless they come in with a mindset of being leaders and not rulers, it might not bear fruit.

Rulers are also the creation of the voters, when they fail to hold them to account. This is a job that has been left solely at the hands of anti-corruption agencies and the police. Voters now need to hold those they voted for accountable by demanding services from the sub-county to the national level. They need to be more active than passive enablers of development.

The electorate did not vote to be ruled by iron fists but to be led into prosperity. It’s welcome news, therefore, that there is a proposal to make Cabinet secretaries much more accountable by being required to answer questions in Parliament.

As the people in charge of ministries, CSs are at the pinnacle of service delivery and it’s only prudent that they are answerable to the voters and explain how taxes are spent. An important governance link was broken when they were left out of Parliamentary deliberations.

As Kenya faces an uphill task of clearing its huge public debt, it would be important to see leaders step up to help in the cause. Hopefully, there won’t be rulers demanding Land Cruiser VXs and mindboggling allowances for selfish benefit but those who prioritise improving Kenyans’ lives.

Many a Kenyan politician has been inspired by greed and how to abuse power to satisfy that greed. Theirs has been the mentality of a ruler. Parliament and the county assemblies have been runaway gravy trains that need to be stopped. First, to save money and, secondly, to save politics by only electing leaders to power and not rulers. Thirdly, by minimising greed-inspired violence through universal remuneration of all workers, not just politicians.

The next crop of politicians, hopefully, won’t have come to ‘eat’ but to get their hands dirty and lead the country to prosperity. From now henceforth, we are looking for leaders and not rulers.

Ms Guyo is a legal researcher. [email protected]. @kdiguyo