It takes a certain level of bravery to lay down your life for your country. To die for your country. Some see it as the highest honour. I wonder if it is easier to die for your country, than it is to live for it. Death, after all, is a singular albeit final sacrifice. Life, on the other hand, a life lived with integrity and in the service of others, is an everyday choice. Public service, when done with diligence, honesty, dedication and integrity, is possibly the highest honour outside of the final sacrifice.
Certainly in Africa, few are the public servants who put their country’s interests before their own. Few are those, who will toil daily (and often nightly) for the sake of a nation of strangers, who most times will never even get to hear of the hard work you’ve put in, but will still benefit without realizing what it took to get from here to next.
However, despite of the narrative of a rising Africa, most public servants in Africa do not appear to be participating in this rise. They do not appear to be serving the public. Their service stays limited to self-preservation. Self-serving, self-aggrandizing, pencil-pushing desk-jockeys who have lost touch with the people (if that touch ever existed, to begin with).
Perhaps, the more cynical among us see politics as a game of empty promises made by the incorrigibly insincere to a generally gullible public. I think politics is whatever we make of it. If Africans are societies of passive drones, too numb to think and too meek to speak, is it any wonder when the politics of our countries fail to include us? Is it surprising when our politics do not speak to our needs, our wants, our fears and desires, our dreams and aspirations? In such societies, do we even dare to dream? Some say every society gets the leadership it deserves. This is usually invoked in negative commentary on the civic awareness of a given population. In most African countries civic awareness seems to me minimal, if it exists at all.
Where does this leave us as a people? What are the consequences of not speaking up when we are wronged by those who are meant to represent us? What are the political outcomes of a society disconnected from its civic duties? And –take it or leave it – just like the government has its duties, so do the people it serves.
Some of the graver consequences I see across Africa are lame-duck parliaments and houses of representatives, largely silent on issues affecting the working masses. Similarly, I see layer upon layer of presidential servants, whose only concern is making it from one iteration to the next. When we the people find ourselves having to look for alternative ways to get our problems the attention they deserve, then surely it is difficult for anyone to pretend these systems aren’t broken – sometimes irreparably so.
In the context of the majority of Africa’s socioeconomic stratum, if policymakers and public entities fail to cater to the majority poor populations and nobody in public service presses PAUSE to say “Now, wait a minute, here. What’s going on with this? This is insane…” then surely it is difficult to pretend our public servants hold our problems dear to their hearts, no? If the answer is no, then are they still public servants in the sense that is known to reasonable people?
In December 2010 in Tunisia somebody seized the cart of an impoverished petty trader, Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, who subsequently set himself on fire in protest. And almost all of North Africa went up in flames in an “Arab Spring.” Be that as it may, there remains an “It can’t happen here” mentality that is so widespread among the elite of the world. There’s an aspect of human nature that fuels indifference. Nobody thought the Arab Spring could move south, until it toppled the Sudanese government. Nobody thought there could be a Boko Haram type outfit anywhere else in West Africa, until the Mali government had to call in the French military to protect it from the very people it is supposed to be serving.
Generally speaking, therefore, public servants in Africa lack empathy for the people they are meant to serve. In fact, such public servants do not even serve the people. After all, their mandate usually comes from the appointing authority, somewhere further up the chain of government structure.
So screw the common folk, right? To hell with the people, right? As a public servant, if all you care about is to somehow manage to meet your performance targets, irrespective of the outcomes and their impact on the population, it becomes very easy to forget that this Africa we’re building –assuming the public servant is invested in building anything beyond him or herself – is being built for the people. Not for your performance targets in and of themselves. It’s good to remember this, periodically, so that the policies and their implementations stay people-centric, rather than ending up becoming numbers-centric.
Every population has a breaking point. This is the lesson from Tunisia, Sudan, and beyond. It is important to remember this, especially in a country where poverty is the majority demographic.
In the final analysis, if the pain of the common wo/man, does not trump your ego-driven need to cling tightly to your public office for your own sake; if the people’s suffering does not keep you awake at night, desperately trying to find outrageously daring and creative ways to solve these seemingly impossible problems, then you should not be anywhere near public service.
If you cannot rush at the problems of the population with the same manic zeal of a solitary soldier rushing the enemy’s lines for the sake of his unit’s safety; if you cannot live for us with the same conviction and energy with which our heroes and liberators died for us; if you cannot be heroic in life, as others have been in death, then what use are you, the private self-servant you are, to anyone but yourself and whom are you fooling by masquerading as a public servant? What value do you bring to these populations, when their suffering barely features in the self-preserving manoeuvres of your political career?
If the only thing keeping you awake at night is finding creative ways to make it look like you’ve hit your performance targets, then which public are you even serving? In any country where the president serves the public, if a public servant is more scared of the president than of the public, then is this presidential servant even serving the president? Who benefits from these rotten layers in public service? Not many. And who suffers from them? Most of us do. Most of us will suffer. If not today, then tomorrow.
My Africa, don’t let the temporary comfort of the private servant delude you to tomorrow’s discomfort. The call for genuine public servants to stand up and be counted is today, for tomorrow may bring its own dynamics.