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Be wary of Kenya’s transactional leaders masquerading as saviours

Tuesday August 13 2019


Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) committee meets with women's group Embrace Kenya at KICC, Nairobi, on August 8, 2019. We must be careful to interrogate the kind of leadership behind the the BBI. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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It’s the German scholar Max Weber who first described what transactional leadership style is and one which at a close examination reflects a majority of leaders we have in Kenya.

Transactional leaders are intolerant to alternative views, do not like reforms and often use a reward-and-punishment system to motivate followers.

They are concerned with how to improve current situations by framing the needed steps and ways of controlling activities through policies and procedures.

Transactional leaders are very bureaucratic - the Bwana Kubwa type. They stress and leverage on the loyalty of and relationship with their followers - not so much on values, ethos, beliefs and needs of the people.

It is their personal vision, goals and interests that take centre stage.

Furthermore, transactional leaders - like ours - are driven by self-interest, and are only likely to pursue public projects with direct or indirect personal gains.



As a result, greed and corruption has taken root everywhere. Public sector workers - from senior government officials to low-level bureaucrats – are engaged in extracting personal gains from government projects.

It is not shocking that the Cabinet secretary for Education, Prof George Magoha, said almost everyone in Kenya is a thief.

Probe around any government initiative and you will find all sorts of individuals lurking in the shadows ready to “eat”.

To approve and fund a new project. Transactional decision-makers, it seems, have to first understand how such projects would benefit them and their families.

In 2002, Kenyans imagined big things. They had long considered the dictatorial leadership style of Kanu and President Daniel Moi uninspiring. They were so optimistic the country would finally get visionary leaders.

Sadly, that expectation has, for a majority of them, turned into a tragic reality that genuine change may never come after all - at least not in their life time.


Political firebrands, civil society activists and human right defenders that held so much promise, including religious leaders and media personalities, have all proven to be false prophets and merchants of lies.

They have turned into schemers and transactional fellas promoting expediency in place of genuine reforms.

I have previously said we have too many unnecessary politicians that receive high pay but do very little. Governors are now using taxpayers’ funds to take month-long vacations in Hollywood.

To support this largesse and pet projects being fronted by politicians across the country, the government has created all sorts of taxes and levies.

Despite this reality, some leaders are claiming the country needs yet more politicians - including a prime minister and his deputies, and a third level of government consisting of a dozen super governors in charge of regions.

Instead of helping Kenyans offload deadwood, they are likely to be herded into approving a plebiscite that would add more seats for the elites at the high table.


Admittedly, Kenya’s political liberation and economic development has been subverted by those who have historically gained from the system. They fear change and deep reform.

Whatever change that they have advocated for in the past has either been superficial or self-serving.

Transactional leaders are currently engaged in a political exercise of compromise and one that would eliminate competitive politics.

They seem aware that the 2010 Constitution they prepared curved out enough seats for everyone with political clout but none for “senior” politicians that include retiring governors and former Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Ministers and Vice-Presidents.

The country needs new type of leaders - those that can be said to be transformative, not transactional.


While transactional leaders are likely to take us nowhere, transformative leaders could use their influencing power and enthusiasm to inspire us to change and greatness.

Not only would they share their vision but would be ready and willing to work with everyone to come up with long-term strategic reforms.

We must be careful, therefore, to interrogate the kind of leadership behind the the BBI, Punguza Mizigo and any other proposals that may emerge.

You want a better Kenya? Warn everyone about transactional leaders masquerading as saviours.

Mr Chesoli is a New York-based development economist and global policy expert. [email protected], @kenchesoli