The issue of political leadership in the third world: what is to be done?

Author:Udogu, E. Ike


The issue of political leadership and the desire to produce men and women who command national legitimacy has been tough in all polities-and this dilemma is probably more critical in the developing nations. (1) Indeed, the assumption is that a good leader possesses some significant attributes--qualities that are bestowed on the actor by the milieu in which leadership is demonstrated. Nevertheless, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, contended that leadership cannot be visualized only within the context of individuals and their decision to act in moments of conflict and inferred that leadership as a quality "may be more innate than acquired." (2) He then enumerated the following features as conducive to leadership characteristics: 1. Vision; 2. Eloquence; 3. Cooperative spirit; 4. Courage; and 5. Political intuition.

In general having a clear vision suggests that in order for a leader to lead effectively she or he must comprehend the nature of the society in which leadership role is to be performed. Thus, in order to construct a society that advances democracy, development and human rights, for example, a ruler must be able to articulate such a vision with eloquence in "Churchillian, Reaganesque and Castroan" oratorical skill, in a manner of expression. Possessing an adequate idea as to how a society is to be effectively governed and eloquence to galvanize various competing publics to action are important and useful variables only to the extent that the leader works in a cooperative spirit with the immediate elite and followers. This supposition is fundamentally significant because leadership cannot be demonstrated in a vacuum. Leaders' inability and sometimes deliberate attempt not to connect with followers at the grassroots has solidified the doctrine of "the iron law of oligarchy" at the top level of the state system in developing nations with disastrous consequences for many citizens. Courage and political intuition imply that a leader may have to, from time to time, take or make decisions that work against corporate and elite interests in order to maximize the interest of the system as a whole. (3)

Undeniably, political intuition as one of the tools in the arsenal and repertoire of a good leader is so invaluable that Boutros-Ghali contended that "it is the "summum bonum of the leadership qualities." (4)

Speaking on "Democracy and Leadership challenges in Latin America" the former Brazilian President Fernando H. Cardoso alluded to the antinomy between facts and values, practice and theory, technical knowledge and political decision in the leadership calculus in any society, and posed the salient query: what balance between these roles should be struck for a ruler to be successful? He further opined:

Some may argue that there is no need for accommodation or compromise; politicians should simply abide by an ethic of responsibility and follow what they believe to be the most sensible and politically rewarding course, regardless of any technical consideration. I am afraid that today's world does not allow for such a facile situation. Be it in the developed or in the developing world, politicians, once in office, are supposed to respond to an increasingly wide range of societal interests [that are often clashing] ... (5) Writing on "Leadership for the Twenty-first century, learning from the Past," John Mukum Mbaku notes with lucidity that only fundamental measures and profound changes in leadership and its character can arrest the collapsing economic infrastructures and social conditions in the [developing nations]. Such a change could create the enabling environment for important improvements in the living standards of the masses... (6)

Overall, the thrust of this address flows from the following: 1. Definitional and conceptual overview of leadership. 2. Concise theories of leadership. 3. Modalities and instrumentalities for promoting effective leadership-particularly political leadership in the Third World.


In the words of Robert Elgie "leadership is an abstraction? It is a social science concept ... and a concept whose meaning is socially constructed?[thus], is an essentially contested concept ... whose problematic meaning and explication is similar to those of power, influence, authority and control." (7) Leadership as an "intangible" variable of power, in all regions of the world, is a very perplexing concept. Yet, it is a critical quality necessary for the successful management of a society and its institutions. Indeed, many scholars have contended that, in so far as the Third World nations continue to elect, select or appoint ineffective and selfish leaders, the issue of bad governance and its associated problems of political instability, social malaise, corruption, lack of accountability and transparency, and the respect for the rule of law will persist in the developing nations. (8)

The definitions of (political) leadership are overwhelming but the following will suffice for the purpose of illustration and amplification:

* [T]he behavior of persons in positions of political authority, their competitors and those both in interaction with other members of society as manifested in the past, present, and probable future throughout the world. (9)

* Leadership over human beings is exercised when persons with certain motives and purposes mobilize, in...

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