ON THE FALSE ALLURE OF DICTATORSHIP: More lessons from history of East Asian Tigers

I found myself in a refreshingly different twitter exchange the other day, on the subject of Japans’s economic woes. Still Jubilant trolls found ways to vent their spleens a’ la swearing in manenos (words). Evidently, “accept and move on” is supposed to be a one way street. The dominant sentiment was that opposition politics holding Kenya back from being as, if not more developed than Japan. Jubilant trolls cannot be expected to know anything about Japan’s famously fractious politics.



The underlying proposition here being that there is a trade off between “politicking“ and “developing”. We have heard of late from the Jubilee leadership that the country needs a benevolent dictatorship. To this end, we were promised a “lethal, brutal and ruthless” Kenyatta. The fascination with benevolent dictatorship is of course supposed to conjure up the images of the East Asian tigers.

The Asian tiger story is in popular political folklore associated with strong visionary nationalist leaders, the so called benevolent dictators such as Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, Chiang Kai-shek (Taiwan), Park Chung-hee (South Korea) and Mahathir Mohamad (Malaysia).

Although Japan does not feature in that group, it is in fact the original Asian Tiger economy that the others emulated.



Japan’s modernisation began with the Meiji restoration in 1868 as a response to the western gunboat diplomacy, and the realisation that Japan was vulnerable to colonisation. To strengthen Japan, the traditional rulers (Shoguns) resolved to centralise power and to modernise their politics and economy.

The inauguration of Emperor Meiji was accompanied with the promulgation of a Charter Oath consisting of five articles:

To establish deliberative assemblies and decide all matters by open discussion; to unite all social classes in vigorously carrying out the administration of the state; that the common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall all be allowed to pursue their own calling so that there may be no discontent; evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature, and; to seek knowledge throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule.

In these articles we find the essence of democracy, rule of law and open society.



This column opined recently that if Africa was to look to European history for political inspiration, it is to the Enlightenment rather the Renaissance that we should look. It should not surprise that Meiji translates to enlightenment.

Japan and Korea are some of the worlds most culturally homogenous nations. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore are culturally Chinese. Even the late industrialisers Thailand and Malaysia are ancient polities with long established traditional systems of governance. The current Thai monarchy dates back to 1782, but the kingdom’s history goes back to the 12th Century.



Malaysia’s case is interesting because it is an ex-British colony that found a way to blend its traditional governance with the Westminster parliamentary system. Malaysia’s elective monarchy is unique in the world. The traditional rulers of nine of Malaysia’s 13 states sitting as the Conference of Rulers elect one of them as Head of State who serves for a period of five years. Four states that do not have traditional rulers do not participate in the election.

The long and short of it is: The East Asian economic miracle was preceded by decades, even centuries of organic political development.



None of the East Asian nations is a hodgepodge of tribes cobbled up in Berlin.

The bane of the continent is the near universal failure to heed Kwame Nkrumah’s call to “seek ye first the political kingdom”, the post-colonial elites’ mistaken idea that arbitrary agglomerations of tribes can be hurriedly fashioned into bourgeoisie society by copy and paste economic development. This is the phenomenon that this column has called failure of political imagination.

The consequence is a lacuna of culturally legitimate authority manifested by personality cults, ethnic jingoism and political dysfunction. It is worth noting that Botswana is the only African country to successfully modernise its traditional governance and also the most economically successful.

I have watched with considerable bemusement as my Gikuyu tribesfolk go about inventing a throne.



Agikuyu are historically acephalous, meaning a society without hierarchical political authority. “Athamaki” plural for “Muthamaki”, the title that is now bestowed on Uhuru Kenyatta, were community sages. As Jomo Kenyatta explains in Facing Mount Kenya: “Amongst the senior elders of the villages, the one most advanced in age and wisdom was elected as a judge and president (muthamaki or muciiiri) of the ndundu.” Louis Leakey in The Southern Kikuyu Before 1903 affirms the same:

“The title muthamaki, which has so commonly been misinterpreted as chief, did not mean chief at all, for those who held this title had no powers or rights vested in them alone and could act only in consultation with their colleagues.

“A Muthamaki was, at the most, the president of a committee, who might persuade those who were with him to take a line of action that he considered to be best, but who could not impose his will upon them.”



The Muthamaki in the process of invention is quite evidently nothing to do with Kikuyu traditional governance, but it does seem to me to accord with the evolution from tribal society to feudalism along the lines of Karl Marx’s theory of history. If this is our route to political modernity, we have a very long way to go. If the allure of “unity of development” was ever worth a dime, it has long since lost its currency.

The preoccupation with shortcuts to prosperity has only served to further humiliate African people through aid dependency and exploitation at the periphery of global capitalism.



The big economic question is whether we are going to be re-colonised by the West, colonised anew by China, or both. The sooner we confront the reality that we remain arbitrary agglomeration of tribes trapped in meaningless geographical territories the better. We have to ask what kind of modern political institutions are viable in these circumstances. Dictatorship, however benevolent, is not one of them.

Fifty years hence, Baganda will be prostrating before the Kabaka and the Swazi King may still be marrying a maiden a year, but I am fairly certain that hell will freeze over before a Turkana warrior chief bows before Muthamaki or the Wakamba troop to pledge allegiance to the Orkoiyot.


By David Ndii 

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