Morocco, Rwanda, Benin

Mohammed VI, Paul Kagame, Patrice Talon: Three distinct leadership styles

in depth

This article is part of the dossier:

In search of new African leadership

By François Soudan, Mehdi Ba, Matthieu Millecamps

Posted on December 11, 2020 08:02

The king of Morocco and the presidents of Benin and Rwanda have each put their own personal stamp on what proven leadership looks like in Africa. We break down their three distinct leadership philosophies.

Morocco’s model of governance is one of the most singular in the world due to its system of monarchy in which the king derives his original legitimacy as “Commander of the Faithful”. In response to the extremely dangerous trend of radical Islam, King Mohammed VI had the intelligence and foresight to ensure that this concept as well as the Maliki rite collectively practised by Moroccans would not be static, and knew better than to adopt a purely security-focused policy of preventing and suppressing extremism.

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Morocco is on Europe’s doorstep, which is an asset but also poses a risk since the old continent is in the midst of losing its religion while pushing globalisation and modernity on the kingdom, which, when perceived as a form of cultural aggression, paves the way for extremism. Hence the dual strategy implemented very early on by King Hassan II’s successor to modernise Islam and Islamise modernity by leveraging his position as Commander of the Faithful.

The moves he made were bold, from managing imams, ulamas (Muslim scholars) and mourchidates (female religious leaders) and ensuring their training, to reorganising religious education, creating a training institute and a foundation for African ulamas focused on spreading Malikism in sub-Saharan Africa. However, at the end of the day, his initiatives are consistent with those of a king who – while moving his pawns carefully – knows how to take calculated risks, as demonstrated by his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Morocco hard, or more recently his intervention in Guerguerat in the Western Sahara.

As Moroccan law enforcement continue to dismantle a new terrorist cell just about every month, this enlightened struggle for a dynamic, innovative Islam has increasingly become the country’s top priority as it seeks to prevent a shift towards a breakaway, radical form of Islam. Can the country’s experiment be replicated elsewhere? Yes, somewhat, but Mohammed VI has an advantage that no other leader has or can rival: a long-term period of monarchical rule by divine right.

Paul Kagame, the ‘boss’

46466hr_-1 © Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame in Kigali on March 23, 2019. (Vincent Fournier/JA)

His motto can be summed up in one word and encapsulates the watchword of the country he has presided over for 20 years: “agaciro”, which means “dignity” in Kinyarwanda. In Paul Kagame’s view, Africans must “understand that the time for babysitting is over and that we will never develop as long as we feel we have a never-ending need for European, American, Asian or other babysitters”.

After inheriting, in 1994, a country in tatters and left bloodied by the Tutsi genocide, the former Maquis member was the driving force behind Rwanda’s painstaking reconstruction as well as the reconciliation process to unite its divided populace. President Kagame wants his people to chart their own course without letting their behaviour be dictated by Western paternalism.

The core aim of his presidency is to bring about an Africa that defies long-standing clichés by fostering ambitious governance encompassing anti-corruption efforts, accountability at every level of government, meticulous urban planning, environmental protection, across-the-board digitalisation, health insurance initiatives, proactive economic policies, decreasing the country’s reliance on international institutions, and promoting tourism and a service-based economy.

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Over the years, the small country of Rwanda has become a force to be reckoned with in Africa, universally praised by international institutions, investors and partners alike for improving its development indicators and rapidly modernising.

This swift transformation has nonetheless generated its share of controversy. Uncompromising leadership is key to Kagame’s style of governance, which is based on a collective commitment of the Rwandan people that outside forces regularly call into doubt. For human rights NGOs and exiled opposition leaders, the “Rwandan miracle” is nothing more than a smokescreen that benefits a small minority of affluent apparatchiks, while sacrificing the civil liberties of the masses.

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The “boss” consistently addresses his critics with the same line of defence: “We are open to advice on our progress as a democracy, provided it is in good faith, but we do not like to be dictated to, let alone told what to do.”

Patrice Talon, the manager-in-chief

46463hr_-1 © Benin’s President Patrice Talon in his home in Cotonou, on September 9, 2020 (Vincent Fournier /JA)

In West Africa, Beninese President Patrice Talon is an outsider and well aware of it. His image as a “businessman-in-chief” became his signature trademark and even political slogan from the outset of his presidential bid that propelled him to office.

This is a man who, prior to taking up residence in the presidential palace in 2016, had only rubbed shoulders with members of the political elite when he was on “the other side”, i.e., a private sector executive.

Talon made his fortune by capitalising on his management skills and flair for investments and decided, as he approached 60, to become a politician. Much like in the business world, he progressed in leaps and bounds: the first elected office Talon ever ran for was nothing less than the highest in the land and he channels his inner manager when performing his presidential duties.

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In the manner of a captain of industry, he outlined “his” ambitious goals for the country in a government action programme that has become the president’s signature accomplishment. Benin must “reveal itself”, as Talon’s mantra goes, and reforms – based on economic liberalism, of course, since he is a firm believer in development through private initiative – must be made. Talon was willing to go to any lengths, even if that meant limiting workers’ right to strike and crushing a more or less dying opposition movement as the end of his first term neared. For the president, if the economic indicators are good, then that’s the essential.

Talon offers an alternative model of governance in the eyes of a certain segment of the population weary of a political culture where the same faces keep appearing but with different labels. He also gets irritated sometimes, and he’s OK with that. During an interview with us at the end of September, Talon said that he had “taken the risk of being unpopular”, but in recent months there has been a noticeable shift in the businessman-in-chief’s rhetoric and attitude.

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Counter to the promise he made during the 2016 presidential campaign, Talon is expected, barring any surprises, to stand for re-election. To win a second term, and even though the opposition seems to be struggling to produce a strong challenger, he will have to get Beninese voters behind him once again. After a spate of post-election violence in 2019, and the political dialogue that followed, Talon noted that some of his current allies, divided between the two parties aligned with the Presidential Movement coalition, could decide to break with the status quo out of fear that they could lose their base or local strongholds.

After starting his term of office with his head held high, convinced at the time that he would not seek a second term, Talon has operated a rhetorical shift in recent months. His big cross-country tour, bearing all the hallmarks of a pre-election campaign, is the most obvious sign of his change of heart. Everywhere he goes, he is careful to listen and show empathy. Perhaps his conduct is a political calculation as he eyes another term. Or has he realised that a president cannot run a country (exactly) like a business?

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