Thursday with Abimbola Adelakun, firstname.lastname@example.org
Caught in the swirl of euphoria and overwhelming sobriety that attends great electoral victories, newly elected president of Liberia, George Weah, has sworn to slash his presidential salary by 25 per cent. He equally wants to check racism and execute other laudable objectives. In the hydra-headed world of nativist populism, state capture by presidents, and elitist blindness to the suffering of the masses, President Weah is to be commended and then told he needs to go further than a pay cut.
Weah is taking over a badly depreciated economy, one where every statistical index that analyses the conditions reads extremely bleak. From civil war to Ebola, Providence has over-tested the will and resilience of Liberians. The fulcrum of hope that engulfed the country when Nobel Prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took over 12 years ago has long turned into despair and ashes. While the woman swore she did her best within difficult and almost intractable circumstances, most Liberians insist they see no change in their conditions and that by all indices, she failed them. History will judge her record, but that depends on who pays the historian.
In the light of the darkness that engulfs the nation’s condition, it is understandable why Weah wants to return a part of his $100,000 annual salary. He wants to signal a new beginning; a bright new season when other leaders at various levels too will make sacrifices in the service of higher good for their long-suffering country. Weah, of course, can afford such symbolic sacrifices. He is not beggarly. He built an illustrious career playing football in Europe. And come to think of it, presidents do not need a salary. Given the high cost of electioneering, whoever can afford to run for president is most likely able to shun the salary as well. Besides, not only are presidents’ needs sponsored by the state, they also get a pension for life. So, what is the big deal about their pay packet? Governance goes beyond the ethical act of refunding a part of your paycheque. The reality of his official responsibility will soon clear Weah’s eyes to realise that governance is neither showboating nor populist pronouncements.
That is why Africa needs more than leaders who take a pay cut; such acts are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, such symbolic gestures have some significance, but they have also provided a fortress for hypocritical leaders who use them to bamboozle the public. They hold unsuspecting folks in a daze while they surreptitiously shave their heads.
In 1994, following criticisms of lavish spends of public funds, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa announced that he and key administration officials, including his then deputy, Thabo Mbeki, would take a pay cut of 20 per cent as an example of the fiscal discipline that would percolate through his government. This public display of prudence did not stop allegations of massive corruption that unravelled under Mbeki’s watch. Jacob Zuma who forced Mbeki from office has been equally worse than the Mafia with his state capture.
In Nigeria, the story is not too different. Of the four democratic administrations we have had since 1999, three have made a public show of their fiscal responsibility to Nigerians. Between 2009 and 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua announced he would be taking a pay cut after oil prices dipped below the budgeted benchmark. His proposal turned out to be a tenuous one when the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission, pointed out that the President could not override the function of the agency.
In 2012, when Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was severely criticised for the consequential rise in prices of goods and services after he removed the fuel subsidy, he announced he would be taking a pay cut. Not only him, but all political office holders across the board, also. He also announced other belt-tightening measures that would save the nation from bleeding in those hard times. None of those moves stopped his administration from being both wasteful and corrupt. In 2015, the prices of oil dipped as a defining presidential election loomed on the horizon. Once again, Jonathan announced another 30 per cent pay cut to his salary and those of other politicians. Those tokens, we saw, were a mere pander to public sentiments.
In July 2015, shortly after Buhari was sworn in as President, he and his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, announced they were going to take a pay cut too. Of all the instances of a pay cut we have had in past administrations, Buhari’s case was the one that interwove the decision with the over-flogged narrative of his extreme frugality. At a forum, Osinbajo reported that Buhari told him that they did not need salaries since all their needs were met by the state. Today, their administration has fallen far short of the gigantic expectations they rode on to office. All the fiction about Buhari being a poverty lover; a man of unimpeachable integrity who lives a life of self-denial akin to monasticism, has rapidly disintegrated. Even if Buhari is not storing up stolen money for his personal use, at least his family and political clan are true to themselves; they do not subscribe to virtues that enable them to pretend. The dissonance between reality and fiction in Buhari’s administration is why we need leaders who make more than symbolic acts. Our leaders are manipulative, they publicly valourise poverty to sate the emotional desires of their starry-eyed followers who confuse an outward show of asceticism with genuine principles.
African leaders who take pay cuts need reminding that poverty and corruption on our continent do not merely happen because of their salaries. The problems are deeper than that, and we need a leadership that attacks issues from the root where they spring from, and not one that resorts to cosmetic arrangements to draw instant applause. The kind of leadership Africans need is the one that has a well-thought-out political and economic philosophy that will underwrite their policies and every action they take in office. Africa needs a pool of competent people, visionaries, a talented tenth, who have been schooled in the art of leadership for the 21st century; people who can raise the disempowered and disillusioned masses through a systematic process of grooming, mentorship, and education.
We need leaders who have a passion for education and can prioritise massive education reforms at all spheres so that our children can be prepared for the brave new world evolving right before our eyes. We need an educational system that is designed to make us think, question, and challenge, not the ones that reward young people based on how much they can store outdated facts. We need to do more than live; we need to thrive. To thrive, we need a social and political culture that facilitates cultural evolution.
Without leaders at all levels who understand their roles within the broader nexus of the times we live in and the space we occupy in the world, we will go extinct like flora and fauna in our ecosphere that are rapidly disappearing as a result of our negligence, ignorance, and indifference. By extinct, I do not mean that our population will dwindle – statistically, we are the largest multiplying continent in the world- but we will merely exist; ever striving to be human, never realising what it means to be fully conferred with humanity. Our case is urgent, and each time Africa elects a new leader, they need to jump into doing the structural work that our continent demands. They need to build blocks of systems and institutions, and also strengthen them. It takes a lot of work and that is why showy executive decisions such as taking a pay cut merely add nothing to nothing.
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