There are many lessons to be drawn from the chaotic scenes witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri, US, over the past two weeks.
The shooting of Michael Brown, the reaction of Ferguson’s population, the police response and the treatment of local and international journalists have told us all a great deal about race and politics in the United States.
The death of Brown and the subsequent reactions have also demonstrated the limited historical significance of the election of Barack Obama and, by extension, other individuals who seem to embody great shifts in the political landscape.
Like many readers, my long-standing attachment to Kenya and brief experience of living in the United States meant Obama’s election moved me a great deal. No longer it seemed did one have to hope that the United States could change for the better; it appeared that it had already done so.
No one is more aware of the limited meaning of Obama’s election than the president himself. Speaking a year ago in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, Obama told journalists that his election and other symbolic changes to the way in which race is understood in the United States ‘doesn’t mean that we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated.’
Such honesty is rare among political leaders, who instead more often promise that they possess the ability on their own to turn around economies, overhaul foreign relations and improve the lives of every voter. But such promises are much more commonly broken than kept.
The question of what makes a great leader is the subject of a recent book by Archie Brown, a British political scientist and expert on the Soviet Union. In The Myth of the Strong Leader, Brown effectively explores the delusion that ‘the more a leader dominates his or her political party and Cabinet, the greater the leader.’
Brown argues that the qualities we often look for in leaders – courage, determination, principle and willingness to act to act on gut instincts despite opposition and advice to the contrary - are not those that actually make great leaders.
One does not to have to look hard to find examples of the disastrous consequences of what happens when such a leader is wrong. Iraq, for instance, continues to pay an unacceptable price for the style of leadership practiced by Tony Blair and George Bush.
Brown offers alternative examples of good leadership, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela and Clement Atlee, the British prime minister in the aftermath of World War II and architect of a new welfare state. What all three had in common was their ability to build consensus and broad coalitions in government.
Perhaps the greatest exponent of the art of consensus in Kenyan politics was Jomo Kenyatta in the period before independence.
Able to build bridges between different ethnic constituencies and competing individuals within the nationalist movement, Kenyatta’s leadership did a great deal to ensure Kanu’s defeat of Kadu. But once in office, in John Lonsdale’s words, Jomo Kenyatta was ‘galvanised by power’ and turned his back on consensual politics. Consensus has been noticeable by its absence in Kenyan politics ever since.
Broad coalitions, such as Ford in the 1990s, Narc in 2002 or ODM in 2005, have quickly broken down into their constituent parts. The only periods when consensus has been the guiding principle behind governance was when it was forced upon the government.
Examples of this involuntary embrace of consensus include Jomo Kenyatta’s long periods of incapacity through illness, which meant competitors for the succession had to work together, or the government of national unity introduced in the wake of the 2007-8 post-election violence.
Kenyans have long suffered at the hands of leaders disdainful of consensus and lacking the skills necessary to keep together broad coalitions, be they British colonial officials or post-colonial rulers. The current generation are little better.
For its part, the Jubilee government seems to cast envious glances westward towards Uganda and Rwanda, where Presidents Museveni and Kagame use development as a justification for the retention of considerable personal power.
The opposition is little better. If the accounts of the rifts between Ababu Namwamba and Raila Odinga are true, then it seems the importance of building and maintaining consensus in political parties still seems lost on such leaders.
ODM should be wary of entering a prolonged period of infighting, which will serve only the Jubilee government. The tyranny of numbers will only be shown to be a chimera if ODM strengthens its coalition, particularly outside the old Western and Nyanza provinces.
But such a coalition requires consensus to become embedded in the working practices of the party and a leadership willing to compromise with partners.
If the current crop of political leaders wants to make a real difference then they could start by taking consensus seriously.
Prof Branch teaches history an politics at Warwick University, UK [email protected]