There are no two ways to build institutions other than the leaders making an early and firm commitment.
IDEOLOGY SERIES PART 46: Institutional fragility can be fixed. Here are some tools
By Odrek Rwabwogo
It is difficult to criticize the work of the Movement without feeling its weight of history, the depth of commitment by the founders even if time and circumstances seem to have changed their method of work and approach to issues. You cannot avoid that nagging feeling that requires you to have a sense of proportionality when weighing the Movement mistakes against where the country has come from. At the same time, the ‘pull of today’, is so strong.
The urge to speak plainly about today’s needs, the emergency push buttons needed to put the planks on the river crossing, now, in order to make a transition into the kind of future we need. The years 2016-2021 are so critical for the country to make irreversible and structural change in our politics, economy and institutional building. This is because, among other reasons, the generation that has held the country together is fast ageing and hasn't had substantial mental, social and ideological preparation for the generation next to deal with a changed world we live in.
Martin Luther King Jnr, the US civil rights campaigner couldn't have said it better: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce ‘urgency of Now’. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as ‘being too late’. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
There are no two ways to build institutions other than the leaders making an early and firm commitment. As we will show, it has to demonstrably start at the top. When leaders do this, history shows that in the short run, institutions tend to take on the character, form and style of the builders. Let us use as examples, six of the foremost military generals in history and the impact they have had on institutions in the west. Alexander the Great of Macedon, 356-323BC, perfected the ‘diamond formation’ method of fighting into an art at a time when armies faced and slaughtered each other in a ‘single line formation’.
Julius Caesar of the Roman Empire, 100BC to 44BC, designed better training methods for his soldiers, making an army strong and attractive. He, as a reason could mobilize up to 700,000 infantry and 70,000 cavalry in a single battle because numbers guaranteed victory. It was he that Napoleon Bonaparte of France, 1769-1821, copied when the latter introduced a strategy of mobilizing and driving large numbers of troops over long distances. In his Russian campaign of 1812, Napoleon mobilized 600,000 men and lost 500,000 of them to winter and sporadic attacks on his way back from Moscow. Shaka, 1788-1828, the Zulu King perfected the short easy to throw spear called the Assegai.
He combined it with a deadly method of encirclement of the enemy in a ‘cow-horn’ formation, using a small but highly trained “Ibutho Lempi” (a lethal fighting unit formation that had been introduced by Dingiswayo before him). Vo Nguyen Giap, 1927-2013, the Vietnamese general who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and later, Americans in 1975, brought a good combination of siege and guerrilla assaults strategy that hadn’t been applied that well in south east Asia.
Erwin Rommel, 1891-1944, nicknamed the Desert Fox; the German general who served under Adolf Hitler was credited with speed and agility in advance (blitzkrieg) that confused his opponents such as in the battle for France at the start of the Second World War. He used these tactics to temporarily halt the advance of the allied forces in North Africa.
In these examples, we carry away an important lesson. These men and their skills shaped the institution of the military whether in defeat or victory. Military strategy, tactics and even war technology very much followed their capabilities and examples. In fact, Carl Von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist whose work shaped European fighting tactics and strategies for over a century, drew much from the work of Napoleonic France. A victorious Napoleon had a lot of influence on the thinking and structures of military institutions that Clausewitz theorized about; institutions that have raised hundreds of generals and theories that have been taught in military schools in post war Europe.
Why then does it come as a surprise to some that the army in Uganda, its civil-military relations, its ideology and fighting techniques follows the example and is built on the foundations designed by its leader, Yoweri Museveni? Why isn’t it a surprise that in January 1964, Julius Nyerere disbanded the mutinous colonial force, set up the Jeshi La Kujenga Taifa (JKT) youth institution to train young people to join the army, built Ujama villages occupied by semi-military servicemen along the southern border with Mozambique to ward off Portuguese attacks and the character and nature of these efforts built an army founded on Nyerere’s ideology?
The point is that in Africa, where there was no ground to build on, someone had to be a planner, an architect and a builder, all rolled into one. Countries that weren’t fortunate to have committed leaders who are looking for structural change in their militaries, these nations are still mired in conflicts and largely rely on the UN for protection. Let us ask: Does a building structure grow in thin air? It must stand on a piece of land, which is prepared, landscaped and leveled to suit a structure. This is what the pioneers in Africa, had to do. It is an unfair criticism, therefore, to throw against leaders without providing context in which they work. The edifices the leaders built had no precedent. Perhaps, the legitimate criticism that one can raise is this: When the founders look at the structures so created and immediately develop a paternalistic attitude and a feeling that “we know better what the people want and nothing beats what we have built”, this is when problems start. When leaders cease to innovate, they quash any criticism seeking improvement and see no life in these institutions outside their (leaders) ambit; this is when the citizens must hold the leaders to account. The citizens must insist that they won’t allow these structures and institutions so far built, now destroyed in order to simply serve the tenures of leaders.
There are two key issues that affect the building of institutions and systems in young nations:
First is the absence of a uniform set of values, a language of sorts. Language gives meaning to actions of an organization; it sets the codes to work with, in both good and bad times. Language underlines what is important in an organization and sets the limits of behaviour, especially for those who like to stray. Language gives both the leader and the members or citizens a barometer of measurement for what is said and what is actually done. By language, I am not speaking simply of the body of words common to a people in the same geographical area, important as this is. I speak of more such as symbols, expression, and an overall system by which people in an organization understand each other even if they might not speak the same words. A parallelism of a sad story about the breakdown of language and communication told by actions at a US military checkpoint in Iraq perhaps might help us illustrate this point.
One morning, a car full of civilians and driven by a middle-aged man approached a checkpoint. Unsure of the vehicle, the US soldiers manning the site used what they considered normal standard checkpoint procedures, a straight open palm of a hand signal to stop the car for a search. In Iraq, it is said an open raised palm sometimes can mean ‘welcome’. The Americans and many westerners know an open straight hand to mean ‘stop’. With the meaning lost in the signal interpretation, confusion reigned. With no time for debate or consultation a higher level for a decision, the American soldiers spontaneously and simultaneously opened a volley of bullets at the car, instantly killing innocent civilians who were on their way to work. This story brought home to me how possible it is for people who assume they are together, perhaps think they know the meaning of what is said and the values of an organization, yet clash so badly and destroy what they are meant to protect. Many times, we have seen people claim to belong to the Movement but their actions and values speak a different tone; they double speak on key matters of unity and policy decisions of the party, giving confusing signals that it is possible to dismiss them as enemies instead of comrades in the struggle.
If you don't agree with them, you are naturally forced out by their bad behaviour. This is the reason a number of good leaders have left the Movement. Sadly, they have no home in the opposition because the same behaviour is replicated in there. How does an organization develop the syntax and common language to create understanding that outlives individuals and builds an institution? Language, not property or money, creates structural change and helps raise a lasting organization. The closest example to draw on was that of Thomas Sankara, the Burkina Faso leader who governed for slightly over four years but left a deep impact on his country. He was able to create a sense of national identity through crafting meaning in everyday work of his party and country, bringing language and understanding to the common people and nurturing a sense of belonging.
It is the reason, 29 years after his cruel murder; there are still dozens of parties calling themselves ‘Sankarists’. On August 4, 1984, he changed the name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso – the word ‘Burkina’ comes from the Mossi tribe, the word ‘Faso’ from Dyula tribe and the suffix ‘be’ which is combined to make the demonym ‘Burkinabe, comes from the Fula language and it means ‘Men or women’. He thus combined three groups of people into one nation by language. He created a base for a good feeling in a poor country (then with 20 percent literacy rate, 44 years life expectancy) and got it to punch above its weight. Radio, news, word of mouth and many programmes promoted self-reliance.
The writer Ernest Harsch in his book ‘Thomas Sankara: An African revolutionary’ quotes a USAID official who had lived many years in West Africa and was not even a supporter of Sankara’s policies, thus, “I have travelled across West Africa for many years and have seen people wait for government or NGOs to do the work for them. Not here in Burkina Faso. People wake up to a sense of purpose and do things themselves”. Many who follow the example of Sankara know, railways, roads and bridges were built and so were trees and crops planted, schools and hospitals constructed by the hands of the people and their leader. A paraphrase of Sankara’s famous mantra was “Better to go one step with the people, ‘than ten steps without them”.
The writer is a farmer and entrepreneur
Next week, we will explore the second issue in building institutions and perhaps interrogate some of the underlying elements that restrain leaders from building lasting institutions.