Founding leaders matter. A country’s founding moment is often a make-or-break moment in the life of the country. The trajectory on which the founding leadership sets the country, as well the power of their founding example, often defines and determines the future course of events way past the founding generation. Founding precedents tend to have an exceptional degree of endurance, because founding leaders command a kind and degree of legitimacy and license that is exceptional and which gives them and their example and precedents a special status and the propelling force of path dependency in their country’s history.
George Washington’s founding example, of not offering himself up for election again after serving two terms as (first) president of the new republic, even though nothing in the US constitution at the time imposed term limits on an incumbent president, initiated a tradition of American presidents not going beyond two terms; a tradition that remained in place until Franklin Delano Roosevelt breached it in the 1930s/40s, causing it to be restored by constitutional amendment. Additionally, the contemporary trajectory of American federalism, including the enduring fault lines in its politics, can be traced back to the Federalist/anti-Federalist split in the founding generation; between the Hamiltonian (strong federal/center) and the Jeffersonian/Madisonian (strong states) visions.
The death of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore and its prime minister from 1959 to 1990 (then senior minister after that), has brought the usual apologists of autocratic rule in Africa out of their holes, doing what they do best: making all manner of inapt comparisons and prophecies of “what would have been” had one or the other favorite African autocrat been allowed to rule for as long as Lee Kuan Yew did. There is the implicit suggestion that similar longevity in office would have turned Lee’s African contemporaries into a Lee Kuan Yew or transformed their African states from Third World to First. It is a fanciful thought, one not borne out by the record.
First of all, Africa’s first generation of autocrats did, in fact, stay in power for very long periods. Nyerere, Kaunda, Banda, Houphouet Biogny, Mobutu, Bongo, Senghor, all were in power continuously for nearly three decades. And many current ones, including Mugabe, Museveni, and Biya have equaled or broken the record. None has managed any transformation of the Lee Kuan Yew kind, except in the opposite direction. So, the difference between Lee Kuan Yew and his African contemporaries was not just a matter of longevity in power, it was far more than that. Time itself is a value-neutral resource. It is what you do with the time you have that determines the future course of events. Africa’s autocrats did very different things with their time in power than Lee Kuan Yew did with his. They were bound to reap different results.
Second, while Lee Kuan Yew was an authoritarian leader, he was not an autocrat. It is an important distinction. Lee built and worked through institutions. He did not destroy the rule of law. Lee’s government passed and enforced draconian laws, but arbitrary and personal rule did not displace government through institutions, rules, and procedures. Lee also assembled and worked with a solid team (the first group of which is featured in the book “Lee’s Lieutenants”). His was not a one-man project; he was captain of a team. Lee’s Lieutenants brought to the table a complement of talents and abilities that Lee, as leader, effectively harnessed and synthesised into a shared vision. There was no “Lee Kuan Yewism” to which all were obliged to swear allegiance or else. And while Lee Kuan Yew did not like or think much of his opposition, he never declared a one-party state. His party contested elections and won those elections repeatedly. The franchise was not aborted. Nor were opposition parties. Absence of electoral turnover is entirely consistent with competitive parliamentary politics. The Liberal Party’s overwhelming hold on power in postwar Japan is a case in point.
Lee Kuan Yew ruled for as long as he did, in part because he did not replace Singapore’s Westminster parliamentary system with a presidential system. The title “President” apparently had no particular allure for the supremely self-confident Lee. He was happy to be a “mere” prime minister, which meant that, as long as his party continued to win a majority in parliamentary elections and he retained his own seat and leadership of the party, he was free to remain prime minister. Term limits have been traditionally associated with presidential systems, not parliamentary systems. Today, his party remains in power, even if its electoral strength has diminished over time.
Lee’s contemporaries in Africa, on the other hand, moved quickly to replace their parliamentary systems with presidential rule. It was one step on the road to autocracy. It freed them from accountability to their party, to cabinet, and to parliament. From that foundation, other blocks in the autocratic project fell into place.
There are many other ways in which Lee Kuan Yew and his African contemporaries were fundamentally different. They, like Lee, did not care much for human rights, free speech, free press, and the like. Lee Kuan Yew believed in “Asian values”, not “Western democracy”. And his African contemporaries too defended their own idiosyncratic versions of African exceptionalism. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Instructively, Lee Kuan Yew recalls telling himself, after a 1964 visit to Africa that took him to 17 countries, “I was not optimistic about Africa”. Of Ghana and Guinea, his impressions of the two countries’ economic direction and management, following his trips and meetings with the leaders there, led him to the conclusion that, “in time these countries will become paupers.” And while in Lagos in January 1966 for the Commonwealth Heads of State conference, Lee again recalls, after observing the Nigerian government at work: “I went to bed that night convinced that they were a different people playing to a different set of rules.”
Nothing is gained, except more of the same escapism and revisionism that keeps us stuck in the counter-developmental past, by trying to cast one or the other African autocrat in the mold of a Lee Kuan Yew. We have had no Lee Kuan Yews. Not that we need or must have one. But, well, just saying!
Author: H. Kwasi Prempeh