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Monday, December 14, 2009

Our leadership paradox in the Caribbean

Michael Harris:

This past week I was in Jamaica where the venerable daily newspaper the Gleaner took the unprecedented step of publishing a series of four consecutive special editorials essentially calling on all sectors of Jamaican society to rally together to find solutions to the deep and seemingly endemic problems which that country faces.

In addition to the Gleaner’s own editorials, the paper also invited several prominent citizens to a round-table discussion in which they were asked not only to address what they saw as the causes of the problems but to put forward their views as to the required solutions.

What struck me about the whole discussion was the almost unanimous view of the several participants that a key component of the problem was the failure of leadership in the years since independence. What makes such a perspective really remarkable is the fact that Jamaica has had, since independence, a progression of exceedingly powerful and, in some cases, extremely charismatic leaders.

From the heroes of the nationalist movement, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante, to Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, to PJ Patterson, Jamaica has had no dearth of strong leaders. How is it then that today, 47 years after independence, prominent voices in society, including former prime minister Seaga himself, could look at their history and conclude that a key contributory factor to the nation’s problems was a failure of leadership?

That question goes to the heart of the political conundrum not only of Jamaica but of the entire English-speaking Caribbean. The key political legacy in all these countries was a model of governance in which all power and authority resided in the person of the governor, the representative of the imperial power.

In some countries, some sectors of the society enjoyed varying degrees of representation but even in such instances these sectors still saw themselves and their status in relation to their degree of access to such centralised power. As for the people in general theirs was a condition of total powerlessness and zero access to power.

The only real change in the model had come a few years before political independence with the general introduction of full adult suffrage which meant that the masses of people could no longer be completely ignored but had to be wooed periodically for their support.

This in turn, after a while, led to the advent of political parties as the most effective means of corralling the support of people behind different political leaders. However these political parties for the most part never became institutions of people participation, where the ordinary supporters could engage in policy debate and discussion, and be exposed to political education and development.

The consequences of this in the post-independence period were several. In the first place the leaders who came into government inherited the enormous powers of the colonial executive but did not have, either inside their political parties or outside, any institutionalised channels for consulting the views of the people on the policies and programmes to be adopted.

On the other hand the political parties themselves, being simply vehicles for electoral mobilisation rather than political mobilisation, possessed no powers of constraint on the exercise of governmental power by their leaders.

The further result was a critical disconnect between the political leaders in government and the mass of their supporters, a disconnect which, for electoral purposes, could only be bridged by the sustained proffering of patronage. There is no country in the English-speaking Caribbean in which this is not the essential characteristic of the major political parties.

Herein lies the heart of the leadership paradox in Jamaica, as in Trinidad, as in every one of our Caribbean countries. Our leaders possess enormous amounts of legal and constitutional authority which they inherited when they took over the colonial model of governance. They are, in fact, our modern-day governors. The problem is that they are incapable of transforming such overwhelming authority into genuine political power, if we understand political power to be the ability to persuade and commit.

And the truth is that under conditions of independence, our governments, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how ’strong’, will never be able to solve the kind of economic and social problems we have in the Caribbean without persuading the vast majority of citizens to commit themselves to the effort and the sacrifices necessary for the solutions which we need to work.

That is the paradox. So many powerful leaders possessing so little leadership capacity. For leadership capacity does not depend on oratorical skills, it does not depend on intellectual ability, it does not depend of innate goodness and it certainly does not depend on divine drunkenness.

Leadership capacity depends on the existence and maintenance of institutions of political information, consultation and exchange between leaders and supporters which, when used in a genuine way and on a sustained basis, allows the leaders to time and space to persuade and commit. In short it depends on the existence of genuine political parties rather than election mobilisation outfits.

I am not familiar enough with Jamaica to hazard a guess as to what will happen there. Here in Trinidad however all the signs point to a total collapse of the old politics and with it the old political parties. That eventuality surely must present us with a golden opportunity to fashion new institutions of leadership.

December 14th 2009