By Ali A. Mufuruki – Sept 2010
The change that takes place in people upon assuming political power is something that has always baffled me. It is more than simple change in personal behaviour, tastes or habits but a total transformation involving fundamental ideals and principles.
It is as if a chemical reaction is taking place inside the person’s body and mind turning them from people with unmatched clarity of vision to at once self righteous, all-powerful, all-knowing megalomaniacs and paranoid wrecks scared of their own shadows. I have seen it happen to people I admired and it is always heartbreaking. What happens to them? It is a question that has always bothered me.
So when I found myself in the company of two former heads of state at a roundtable discussion on ‘Leadership for Development Impact’ hosted by the World Bank in Washington DC last fall, I couldn’t wait to ask them and hear what they had to say from their own experiences. There were about 30 individuals at the event from a cross section of backgrounds – public, political, business, academia, non-profit – and an equal number of World Bank staff and consultants. The two former presidents included a man from a Latin American country and a lady from Eastern European and I was fortunate to share the table with them.
Somewhere in the course of the day, as the debates proceeded on the various leadership models and philosophies, I found my opportunity to put this question to the two former heads of state: “You have both held political office in your respective countries at the highest levels. The fact that you are here with us today is proof that you completed your terms in office peacefully and continue to share your valuable experiences and knowledge with us. Can you please tell me – and do correct me if my assumption is wrong – why it is that most people upon acquiring political power seem to undergo a radical transformation often from the caring, tolerant, open-minded and pragmatic leader during the campaign to a paranoid, power-obsessed, intolerant, repressive, vengeful, sectarian or even genocidal despot? What is it that happens to cause this change?”
The two former presidents looked at each other and after a brief hesitation, the Latin American, whose name I would rather leave out, offered to attempt to answer my question. He started by telling us a brief history of his own presidency in the 1990s. He was a democratically elected president of his country and during his first term in office, he pushed through a number of high-impact local government reforms that according to him gave more power to the previously disadvantaged groups in the country, improved transparency and governance, increased tax collections and gave a much needed push to the country’s development effort. He was re-elected for a second term but did not serve out his term as he was forced to resign in what he termed as unconstitutional moves by his political enemies.
He spelt out for us the process of embarking onto a presidential career; the decision to run made in the solitude of his office, breaking the news to the family, putting together a campaign team comprising family members, trusted political friends, consultants, pollsters and strategists and the crafting of the message for his campaign. He talked about the effort it takes to make it just to the primaries and win the support of the party; the fights and intrigues, the first taste of betrayal from unexpected quarters, then the sweetness of victory when the party endorsed his name as its candidate.
By his reckoning, the majority of people who seek political office in a constitutional democracy at any level are idealists at heart, driven by ideas and by their strong belief in institutions. The successful among these have an incredible gift of connecting with the masses; they love the people truly and dearly and every vote they get is proof to themselves that the people love them back. If they win a political contest, it is because the people love them more than they love the opposition.
The Loss of Innocence
He recalled the moment during his own campaigns when he was advised by his strategists to tone down his pro-poor stance on land reform because it was unnerving the big landowners whose vote was considered critical for his election victory. He felt angry at this as he thought his campaign team should have found better ways of explaining his political stance to the public rather than to take the easy route of asking him to ease up on an issue whose reform was in his view long overdue. At first he refused to cooperate and told his team he was not ready to sacrifice his beliefs merely for political expediency. The team told him he did not have to change his beliefs; only his strategy. After all what was the value of beliefs without power to realise them? Better keep everybody happy and hopeful during the campaign and get back to being your true self once you ascend to power.
He considered their advice and could not deny that he did indeed need the votes of the big landowners if he were to have a chance at winning the election. So he quietly toned down his rhetoric at rallies and in press conferences, all the while telling himself that once in office he would switch to the reform stance and nothing would stop him. Sure enough the polls started going up again, campaign contributions poured in, the media started reporting positively about him and his policies and before he knew it, it was election time and he had won by a big margin. Deep down in his heart however, he knew he had committed a major act of dishonesty for which he would pay a huge price. He had lied in order to win. He had lost his innocence and this was to come back to haunt him not long after he took office.
President of the Republic
At this point, he paused to make sure we were still listening. Then he proceeded: “Now as you all know, before one can become head of state, he or she must be sworn in by a competent authority, take oath to respect and protect the country’s constitution, exercise power responsibly and serve the people justly and to the best of his ability. This is a very important moment in the life of a politician but also this is where all the troubles begin, so soon after the election victory.”
In his experience, it is at this point of being sworn in that the new president begins to feel the familiar ground on which he has been all his life start to shift away slowly to be replaced by a slippery slope on which it is impossible to stand upright or walk without the support of some strong hands. This is because the moment a new president is sworn in, he is immediately surrounded by new faces; government people he had never known existed before or cared about. From the official overseeing the swearing-in to the secret service agents that immediately take charge of his security to the assistants who are immediately at his beck and call, he is surrounded by total strangers, each looking more intimidating than the other.
Gone was the campaign team, who from now on needed special permission to see him – for security reasons, he was told. Gone was the privacy he enjoyed just the previous day as he now could not enter a room, including the washroom, without someone first checking to see if it was secure. Armed men had to check the bed that he shared with his wife for safety before he could sleep in it, not once but several times every day.
But the most transformative moment was when he reported for work on the first day after inauguration and the briefings began. He noticed a disproportionate amount of time was spent on security briefings, not of the nation but of his own person. Plot after plot to kill or maim him were revealed and explained in scary details. Ongoing moves by his opponents to undermine his political agenda were enumerated along with security threats to his family and friends. It was interesting to note also that none of the briefings he received during those first few days in office was to do with his election agenda and the policies he so badly wanted to get to work on. It was security, security and security and it was clear the intention was to scare him to a point where he would start paying serious attention to the security problem he now faced.
According to him, there was no way you can remain unmoved by all this. The first natural reaction is that of anger. He was upset that individuals, mostly unelected and pursuing their own private interests would dare challenge him in that manner while he was an elected public official with a huge popular mandate. Who did these people think they were? His second reaction was to decide on what to do about the threats. He needed to surround himself with people he could trust totally and implicitly in order to feel safe and go about the business of being president. He did not trust the new people that were milling around his office telling him what to do rather than taking orders from him. He needed people he could trust with his life and the lives of those he cared most about, his family.
He quickly realised that as president, he had the power to appoint people to such positions. He moved quickly to appoint a significant number of people from his campaign team to vital posts in the administration. In some cases he was compelled to appoint relatives and close friends who would not have qualified in a competitive process but met his immediate loyalty and confidence test. Those who could not be appointed to formal positions or did not want to but were important members of his inner circle were granted special access to the presidency whenever there was need.
He wanted to be safe and he needed to create the space from which he could safely execute his election manifesto and deliver to the people of his country what he had promised them. And with those changes in place, he felt he was ready to go. But just when he thought he had the vital areas covered, new problems started to crop up. There were rumblings in the media, in parliament and on the streets that the president had appointed cronies, family and tribesmen to key government positions without regard to procedure. More troubling news also came that some of the new appointees were engaging in improper conduct, such as corruption, abuse of office and even abuse of human rights.
He would call in those accused of such transgressions and demand explanation but they would naturally deny all wrongdoing and instead point accusing fingers at the president’s political enemies, accusing them of being behind the smear campaigns. They would even prod the president to retaliate, show his enemies who was in charge by unleashing state power on them, their families and their business interests. He spoke of how difficult it was to resist the temptation to use his power to punish those who dared make his life miserable.
Where the evidence was compelling however, some of the accused ‘cronies’ would confess and apologise profusely, promising the president not to repeat their misdeeds. The president was quick to forgive, not least because he needed those people around.
He soon found himself speaking out frequently in defence of his decisions and his record as a leader. He would assure the nation that he alone was in charge and responsible for his government’s performance. However, the accusations did not stop and before long, all the president’s time was devoted to answering the constant stream of questions about the so called cronies and the endless stories about palace intrigues. This was both vexing and tiring and he knew something had to be done about it urgently.
Much as he was defending his cronies in public, the president was also becoming increasingly aware that these people were becoming a liability for his rule; a major distraction that had to be dealt with if he were to get down to the business of delivering for his people. So he called his team and told them how they had failed him; that he had reliable information about their bribe-taking, influence peddling, theft of public property, abuse of office and the like and that he was disappointed and getting tired of defending them. The cronies would sit there, heads down, each looking more pitiful than the other, each claiming to be a victim of the President’s enemies.
But the allegations would not go away. On the contrary they grew stronger and in some cases solid evidence of wrongdoing was produced in ways that embarrassed the president, costing him substantial amounts of political capital. Weary of the endless drama and wishing to win back the confidence of his voters, he went on public television one morning to announce changes to his team at state house. He said he had fired all the good-for-nothing parasites that had brought shame to the office of the President and he was ready to demonstrate that his good intentions were real and he too was for real.
The media was jubilant that their sustained criticism of the president had delivered results. The common man on the streets was happy to get back the president he voted for and the general mood across the country was upbeat. For a brief moment, the president was proud of himself for making such tough decisions in the interest of the nation. He was ready to rule without distraction. Save for one problem that awaited him at State House when he got back there. Once inside, the security briefings resumed, this time by strangers, this time twice as ferocious. The number of enemies had suddenly grown to dangerous levels to include even some former allies who had now been sidelined by
the president’s eagerness to rule fairly, transparently and effectively. State House was cold and empty and the people who shared it with the president did not make him feel safe. To the contrary, they spooked him and made him fear his own shadow.
The president was suddenly faced with a major decision, probably the most important of his political life. He had to decide whether to carry on being swarmed by security agents he did not trust with his life or to recall the flawed buddies who gave him the sense of security he needed to get some work done. After some reflection, he chose the latter, realising very well the ramifications of his decision but knowing he had no choice.
The former president then looked around the room and said, “That my friends, is called capture – or what power does to men of good intentions.” And turning to face me, he said, “Young man, I hope I have answered your question.”
I told him he had and thanked him profusely.