The operation was a success……

The operation was a success….

My favourite joke is no longer funny, it was always funny no matter how bad it got. Now, it is illustrative of a wider malaise, a creeping complacency and withering laziness. The joke goes as thus.


A surgeon returns from the operating theatre and slips off his surgical mask, rips off his blood-soaked gloves into the bin and walks to the waiting family in the hall. “The operation was a success, but the patient died!!”” said the surgeon as he walks off in pride.

To the surgeons they did it correctly, they went in to reconnect the aortic valve and they did. Unfortunately the pulmonary artery started to bleed and killed the patient, but the original intention – to reconnect the Aortic valve was a success, but the patient died.

This was the story our president Paul Kagame heard during the Umwiherero 2015, it was a stern rebuke to all and sundry, to all people on all levels of government. There was the question “what are you in the job for?” Is it to help people or do the bare minimum to keep your jobs? How do you measure success? How do you handle responsibility, do you pass the buck? This was inevitable as we devolved power to the lower rungs of govt, to people who were sometimes not ready for the burden at hand. Devolution was seen as a form of democratisation, the people would have ultimate say in matters, all matters were localised and some local authorities could handle this responsibility better than others. It is borne out by the stats, of the 30 Mayors appointed 5 years ago, very few, less than 20% complete their term, dogged by corruption allegations.

Perhaps too much power was devolved, and we have seen a slowdown in efficiency as central government stepped back. However, services are spread wider, resources spread thinner and with less effect. Local officials have sometimes got drunk on the elixir of power, others have just been too paralysed to make decisions and the vast majority have merely conformed to the targets without human consideration. Local governments were given autonomy in planning for projects, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and they can seek external funding for projects. Most aid projects are now partnerships between local authorities and donors, not the central government. The role of the central government has switched to accountability and regulation. However, these local authorities did not have the same skills base as the central government. They lag in report-writing, accounting, monitoring, evaluation, feedback, and human relations.

The result of the knowledge gap is the joke we hear often, except in different variations. The operation was a success but the patient died. The project was a success but it died, the dam we built was a success but it is giving us only 10% capacity. The Kivu Watt project is a success but it is not generating the power promised. Ewasa was a success but failed to deliver basic services. When asked why, they say they had a meeting, and then another meeting, and then another, and then concluded it was not their fault. The problem was not the power they were given, it was that the central govt failed to follow up enough. If central govt poked its nose too much in local affairs then it would be accused of interfering. The best card they could play is the annual accounts review, where monies dispersed could be reconciled with progress made. This gives local officials a WHOLE YEAR, or 365 days to come up with excuses, have meetings and cover their asses.

In the absence of a free press to expose Govt officials’ excesses, we need some kind of computer system to monitor govt. You often see the same people beseech the president over and over, the president gets angry and scolds the local officials, the local officials wring their hands, writhe like snakes then promise the problem will be solved. Next year the same old woman comes with the same problem, and we loop again, this time the local officials had a meeting. We are a hi-tech nation, we can have a system to monitor government in real time. A problem should have a reference number, a responsible officer and a resolution. We cannot wait a year to evaluate a project, we cannot leave local officials to drown in problems beyond their scope. Devolution of planning has moved corruption to lower levers where it cannot be monitored, local officials charge up to $200 for planning permission for a poor person’s house. They call it Stamp Duty of a Signing fee, there is no shame or hiding this formalised corruption but their charges are beyond most Rwandans who want to better themselves. Failure to pay the fees results demolition, they put planning permission in the hands of people with no planning background. The operation was a success but the patient died.

We need a centralised planning authority, development must connect not be isolated cantons, people cross imaginary lines on a map. Why should I be told to go to my native district to get services? In Kigali, I live on a line between Remera and Kicukiro, I don’t know which district I’m in. I am told to go here and there. We have made thiefdoms for locals to plunder, a head of planning in a district of Kigali is paid less than $500 and yet approves projects worth $500m, his power is 1 million times his salary. We cannot assess devolution on its own merits because it had higher goals, it was viewed as a democratisation process. To counter accusations of “lack of space” the government highlighted this as a process of democratisation and empowering people. In the long run, it is the right thing to do, but it needs time. Decentralisation in Rwanda ran counter intuitive to the geography and unitary nature of the state. Central government could have ruled efficiently from the center, with most districts being 3hrs drive of the capital. So we must judge devolution in that regard, but when empowering local people they must have the tools and the will or the problems overpower them.

All these problems boil down to how we view power, to what ends we use it and how we justify our actions. The African leadership model is based on the lion, majestic, authoritative, violent, unchallenged in its realm. This model puts the leader above those they lead, it means the people should never question the lion or get mauled. It is how our fathers were, we took it as natural to be distant and powerful, to have a barrier in between that we called Respect or Deference. When we lead, we lead in that same paternalistic way, as it is all we know. There is another way, servant-leadership. This model allows leaders to be part of the group and enable people around them to do better. This is at odds with everything we have been brought up with. This starts with how we select leaders, we need leaders with Integrity, Humility, and Willingness to Serve. Some leaders know how to fake humility, they can hide their sins and maintain an air of integrity, but you cannot fake a Willingness to serve.

“Sometimes your talents can take you beyond where your character can handle.” Kwame Kilpatrick, former Mayor of Detroit who rose to be the youngest mayor of a major city by 30. He turned turned the city around quickly but power got to his head and he started to pocket money and bribes. A person’s talent must also be equal to your character, or you won’t be able to handle the success or failure. The operation will be a success but the patient will die.

Rama Isibo


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