Over the last half-century, the world has witnessed “faceless, fearless, and ferocious tyrants,” particularly in Africa, which is linked to and exacerbated by populism and narcissism. Postcolonial Africa has faced a number of social, political, and economic challenges, casting an unfavorable view on the continent worldwide due to its poor level of governance.
The role of African political leaders and the steps they have taken are central to these discussions. It is important for me to stress that the criticism is not meant to show African leaders at any level in a bad light or in a certain way. Many African leaders have given their lives, shed blood, and shed tears in order to serve the public and defend their values. Similarly, there are leaders who go against popular desire in order to promote their own personal interests.
Nonetheless, the purpose of this article is to draw attention to the serious challenges posed by the growth of populist and narcissistic leadership in Africa.
As a result, it is critical to precisely define populist and egocentric leadership so that we may evaluate their distinguishing characteristics. This is not just a thought experiment; it is intended to highlight a serious issue with African governments’ ability to lead effectively.
What characteristics do populist, narcissistic leaders exhibit in their leadership?
Politicians who follow populist ideology usually pit “the people” against “the elite” in order to win power for themselves. It is generally understood as a protest against the current political order and the establishment.
There is no single definition of populism that can accurately and universally characterize all populists. According to Cas Mudde, populism, like fascism, is an ideology that prescribes a grand scheme for the structure of government, the economy, and society as a whole.
Populism is frequently associated with “thicker” left- or right-wing ideologies such as socialism or nationalism because it does not explain what should replace the political system. They form and employ political organizations that they can manage autonomously with no checks or balances. While they have direct relationships with their people, their structures are hazy.
Narcissistic leaders are self-centered, have entitlement beliefs, a sense of personal superiority, are hostile when challenged, and crave adulation and attention. Others may perceive them as abusive because of how strongly they respond to criticism and how frequently they try to boost their own self-esteem by degrading others.
Rosenthal and Pittinsky show that narcissistic leaders have the charm and broad vision required for effective leadership. They, on the other hand, have an inflated ego and a lack of empathy for the agony and death of others, especially if their power and safety are not jeopardized by anguish.
Narcissism is characterized by arrogance and the conviction that they are self-appointed saints. This is frequently the characteristic that others notice the most. Given the numerous renowned incidents of narcissism among leaders, it’s easy to wonder how a positive argument for narcissistic leaders can be established. They are well-versed in politics, business, and other disciplines, so they must possess redeeming traits.
According to academics, a narcissist’s aura of perfect confidence and dominance can be just what inspires a group of followers. Because they want to consider themselves the beneficiaries of the project’s success, productive narcissists are admirable and capable of finishing any or all mega-projects within the specified time limit.
The ability to influence public and private agendas necessitates not only risk-takers but also orators who can win people over with their words.
Narcissistic leaders are always looking at the big picture, but they rarely delegate jobs that require analysis and attention to detail to others. When they disagree with the rules, they opt to ignore or change them. Their objectives are lofty because they are driven by a profound desire to leave a legacy of excellence behind them.
When examining narcissism and leadership, a balanced approach is essential, which is often limited to picking sides in a good vs. evil debate. The majority of what we know about narcissism and leadership right now supports the premise that its consequences should be studied in greater depth.
I contend that “violent tyrants, populism, and narcissism” are inextricably linked and are the primary causes of human rights breaches, dishonesty, maladministration, clientelism, and unfairness. As many African countries’ economic and political situations deteriorated, more dictators, populists, and narcissists rose to power. This has enraged many individuals and sparked significant opposition.
Most populist and narcissistic political leaders who ascended to prominence using questionable voting procedures did so because they internalized the wrong democratic standards. As they get better at manipulating people, they will do things like rig party elections and the national voting process, extend their own terms in office, and change the constitutions of their countries.
Elections are the only measure of democracy for dictators and populist leaders, and the quality of those elections—how free and fair they are—and the legitimacy of their outcomes are secondary.
How should we categorize the various populist movements based on their organizational and personal characteristics?
Personal populist leaders, populist political parties, and populist social movements are the various forms of populism that may be seen in numerous instances of populism throughout time and location. Each populist ideology has its own unique manifestation, which is difficult to describe in this brief examination.
Several authors, however, criticize populists for starting with limited ideals and then expanding them over time.
The first thing that comes to mind is the rise of populist leaders who use ideology to depict themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of the people. Populist leaders who intend to take over the government frequently claim that they are just interested in politics as a short-term solution to a problem.
This is their strategy until they take control of the government.
Primarily, the rise of populist leaders in a political setting is distinguished by a continuing process of party disintegration in well-established political party systems, particularly in nations with considerable economic gaps and no outsider candidates. They do not appear to be viable alternatives to the current political order and entrenched political party structures.
In the absence of formal political party institutions, they instead substitute themselves, converting the scenario into a one-man show devoid of different ideas and frameworks. They are clearly identified by their disregard for democratic procedures and the responsibility of government institutions.
Assume the populist leader in command of the government is determined to rule without restraint. In that event, the institutions that can hold the executive branch accountable for its arbitrary decisions will be attacked. Populist actors distort and misread the people and their fates.
The majority of development initiatives are developed, planned, and carried out without proper consultation with local populations. Concerns about being excluded from society and economic hardship may also inspire supporters of socioeconomic populism.
However, cultural and socioeconomic populism differ in how their respective leaders portray the most pressing challenges to the nation and the biggest fault lines between their base and the opposition. The rising income inequality, both within and between areas, also contributes to modern populism. Other economic factors include weak growth, significant unemployment, and low wages.
Cases of populism that originated in semi-democratic or authoritarian environments are excluded if countries must achieve a certain level of democracy to be included. Many examples of populism may be seen in the developing world, particularly in Africa, which is excluded.
Furthermore, there have been other instances where populism has been strong without ever attaining full power. Still, these are neglected if we just look at areas where the populist leader or party has obtained the highest executive position.
It divides people into two groups and even achieves the binary distinction of “us” and “them.” One of the most troubling elements of populism is that it nearly always leads to the broadcast of a polarizing message. This is the feature that unites all varieties of populism. The former are the honest, upstanding members of society, while the latter are members of a venal and self-interested elite.
There is a strong link between populist leaders’ narcissism and their populism. Words are only tools for political manipulation in order to gain public admiration, and a political examination of a narcissist’s psyche makes it easy to find contradictions in their words. In contrast to administrative pragmatism and vision, their politics is mostly based on meaningless rhetoric.
How Africa’s Nations, Citizens Can Avoid Becoming Victims
If there is no robust political system in place that includes checks and balances, a populist or narcissistic personality in a position of leadership can inflict severe harm on the nation’s economy. A compulsive personality values logical thinking, concepts, and belief systems highly. A narcissist, on the other hand, simply employs ideology as a means of advancement.
Leaders who seek to prove their superiority by taking full credit for their triumphs and blaming others for their shortcomings nearly always have negative outcomes. Citizens in those countries, on the other hand, would not witness as much radical advancement or social transformation. So far, populist and narcissistic politicians have failed to deliver on their campaign promises.
There is no consensus on how to define populism and narcissism, and there are barriers to understanding the relationship between these traits and leadership. As a result, debating whether populist and narcissistic leaders are useful or damaging to a country seems futile.
Every other attribute pales in contrast to their proclivity to make everything about themselves and to equate their interests with the interests of the country since their “I know everything” attitude makes it difficult for them to take constructive criticism and recognize they don’t know everything.
Last but not least, Africa is at a critical crossroads marked by massive population shifts and socioeconomic inequality. African populist leaders have responded to the new political landscape by combining conventional political mobilization strategies, such as individualism, with a greater awareness of the issues that concern their followers.
Some populist principles have even gained traction among elites.
Given that populism is a relatively young and fast-developing movement in Africa, it must be established whether these populists can live up to their populist connotations. Incorporating the issues of urban poor people into political discourse, on the other hand, may aid in the transformation of political parties from individuals to more legitimate representatives of the public’s most pressing concerns.
Seife Tadelle Kidane (PhD) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC); Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Johannesburg.
Contributed by Seife Tadelle Kidane (PhD)