Strong institutions, not strong men

"Africa doesn't need strong men -- it needs strong institutions." -- President Barack Obama, Address to Ghanaian Parliament, July 11, 2009

It's been two years now, and there's been all kind of noise in the public sphere about Bahamian party politics and who bears responsibility for the difficult times we have faced for most of that time, and who will deal most effectively with the difficult times we will face. Most of the time I leave the discussions and the debates about personalities (which is most of what the discussion addresses, even now, mid-term) and political party up to politicized pundits. There's enough noise out there, and it really hasn't done us any good.

And it seems to me that every moment we spend focussing on small tings -- like which colour tie the majority of the members of parliament wear, or which initials we can attach to the administration (and what is the difference, anyway, in real terms?), or whether Perry Christie or Hubert Ingraham is better cut out to lead The Bahamas through the twenty-first century (the answer, of course, is neither -- both men were shaped irretrievably by the third quarter of the twentieth and neither has demonstrated the ability to recognize the current environment we face and find ways that are relevant to today to meet its challenges) -- is time wasted. Our whole political campaign in 2007 was an exercise in time-wasting; because I believe with all my heart that, like Africa, what The Bahamas needs is not strong men, but strong institutions.

Yesterday was independence day here in The Bahamas. Normally I write that title with capital letters, like a proper noun; but today I'm not capitalizing the first letter of the date because I don't think we truly understand the challenges and responsibilities of being independent. Too many of our leaders, no matter what party to which they apparently pledge allegiance (which, for too many of them, changes with a dizzying flourish anyway), do not value our independence, but prefer rather to wait for strong men from elsewhere to solve our difficult problems. Development by dependence is the model they appear to prefer. It's so much easier, after all, isn't it, to allow a monolithic investor to come in and provide short-term happiness. But the hollowness that results in our own society hurts us all. For instance, while Atlantis was employing thousands in the 1990s and early 2000s, our own institutions were growing weaker and weaker and more and more irrelevant, and no strong-man leader had the guts (or the vision) to tackle that fact. The result? We have, if we're lucky, perhaps five more years of functionality within our public entities. We're already beginning to see the crumbling of public services -- from our inability to handle the renewal of passports to the apparent impossibility, despite hundreds of millions being spent in borrowed money on road improvements, to keep our traffic lights working. And the answer does not easily lie in privatization; governments have responsibilities to all their citizens, and one of those responsibilities is to ensure that the smallest and weakest of their citizens is not placed in a position of vulnerability to rapacious private enterprises which have no allegiance to their clients beyond the amount of money they make from them.

Our problem? Like Africa and many other post-colonial regions of the world, our focus has for far too long been on electing strong men instead of demanding strong institutions for ourselves. We have not built our nation in any way that can be guaranteed to last into the future. And our debate continues to ignore that fact.

So my hat's off to Barack Obama today. Let us take heed from those countries around us who have invested in strong men at the cost of building strong institutions. Let us learn from those nations where for years and years good government continued even when the leaders of those countries were people whose names have been easily and quickly forgotten because the institutions that governed those nations were stronger than the individual weaknesses. And let us recognize that there is value in creating and maintaining the institutions that we need.