Needed: Leaders with conscience

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The greatest damage colonial domination has done to us is that it has given Africa a generation of morally-crippled leaders. This can be observed in North and South, East and West. It strikes me as having had the greatest impact in our Southern sub-region. The performance of Sadc leaders in the aftermath of our recent “elections” was simply pathetic — a complete moral collapse.

Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

With a few notable exceptions like Madiba, the suffering those “liberation heroes” have undergone has not made them more sensitive to the moral demands and responsibilities of leaders. Instead, it has given them a victim mentality. Psychologically, the victim considers himself innocent since he can blame his enemy for all wrongs. Even though he has been given full responsibility on the day of Independence, he does not accept it. It is so much more comfortable to be a victim who can forever with a feeling of moral superiority blame the “imperialist”. But this is childish. A true leader accepts responsibility for his decisions: “The buck stops here”. The infantilised victim carries on with the blaming game. The liberation of his mind is yet to come.

Comradely solidarity seems to be the only value these people have. Fraud, lies and deception just do not count. Morally speaking, they are deaf and dumb, “blind guides”, biblically speaking.

We do not just have bodily senses like seeing, hearing, smelling etc. We should also have moral senses and sensitivities. Collectively, we call that a conscience.

Many leaders once rose up against the moral outrage of racism. So they did have moral feelings. What happened to them? How did they lose them?

They are leaders, but they have lost direction. They have no conscience any more to guide them. One day they say, “You who did not vote for us, so don’t come to our government for relief and assistance”. The next day, when they have seen the damage they have done to themselves, they say exactly the opposite: “We take care of all in need.” Now what do they really mean?

People with moral convictions do not contradict themselves from day to day, leaders with a conscience are consistent and follow a clear line. They pursue the common good for the nation, they are not merely dispensers of favours to party friends and clients. They are statesmen, not political tricksters.

Desmond Tutu was a leader in the struggle. But he never sold his soul to the party. He retained his freedom to call a spade a spade, and corruption plain robbery.

Historians will argue for a long time whether Mwalimu did well to introduce “Ujamaa” in Tanzania’s villages. But at least Nyerere was genuinely motivated by the desire for justice and progress for his people. He was very outspoken in his criticism of colonialists. He made no bones about his disagreement with the Church on some of her policies. He was listened to because he was a serious Christian.

Listening to one’s conscience does not come cheap. Thomas More served King Henry VIII very well as chancellor. But when his conscience forbade him to follow the King’s command he acted with great courage. “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5: 29). He ended in the Tower and was beheaded on Tower Hill.

In the last century, a simple Austrian farmer took on the power and might of Hitler and refused to serve in his army. He followed his conscience which told him “You must not kill”. Even churchmen cautioned him, “Think of your wife and children”. He stuck to his No, knowing full well the price he would have to pay. He was guillotined. The Church has since rehabilitated this lonely witness to the power of conscience and honours him now as Blessed Franz Jaegerstaetter.

Conscientious objectors took on the might of the US army and refused to serve in Vietnam and other futile American wars. They spent years in prison.

When the US and Britain moved into Iraq they hoped for the Pope’s blessing. He refused. “War never solves anything,” the old man said who had known the horror of war in Poland as a young student.

It is the voice of conscience alone that can break the spiral of violence that perpetuates our misery.

Really great leaders have a vision and convictions for which they are ready to risk their careers and political lives, like Michael Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who introduced “Perestroika” and opened up an enclosed society.

Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer, post-war leaders of France and Germany respectively, agreed after three devastating wars between their countries in a hundred
years that the only way forward was reconciliation and economic integration.

In the end, when all the fighting is done and many young men have died, propaganda and hate speech have fallen silent, there is only the round table as last resort. The great statesmen are not the generals and warmongers, but the bold men and women who call for peace and are ready to talk to the enemy.

We have not yet reached that stage. We are yet to achieve that boldness. We are still not serious. We are still playing cat and mouse games. Conscience still has to speak.