Julius Nyerere was widely admired for his unquestioned sincerity and integrity. Almost uniquely among African leaders of his generation he lived simply and was not corrupt. Under his one-party rule Tanzania was politically peaceful and was spared civil war. On the other hand his social experiments almost ruined the country economically. Though honest himself, his regime was bedeviled by widespread theft of foreign aid. He preached justice, yet had political opponents and persons accused of economic crimes jailed without trial.


When Mr. Nyerere died recently, his obituaries fell into two camps. Admirers praised his idealism and blamed bad implementation for the failure of his dream of equality. Critics saw in his moralistic approach to politics arrogance and a refusal to listen to other views. Many in Jamaica would sum up Michael Manley’s career in similar terms. Could either be called a great leader?


Some argue, like Tolstoy, that the common image of leadership is itself an illusion. To them it is the collective decisions of the masses that decide the affairs of humanity, and leaders are in effect merely expressions of their so called followers’ wishes.


Clearly no man can unilaterally impose his will on a people. He who does not march in step with his supporters will soon find himself walking alone. And certainly it is events that make men, not men that make events. However remarkable his talents, no man can be great without a crisis to overcome. As Napoleon said “A man is only a man. If circumstances are not favourable, he is nothing. But often a man can do much; often he is a tinderbox in the midst of inflammable matter.”


Exceptional leaders can make the hitherto unimagined seem not only possible but sometimes inevitable. And for good or for bad such men can galvanize previously concealed emotions and make them seem overpowering. Anti-Semitism and military brutality existed among Germans before Hitler. But without him the horrors of Auschwitz would have remained inconceivable.


Yet few consider Hitler or Stalin or Attila or Genghis Khan great men. Human greatness is not mere exceptionality - it has a moral connotation. Though the realities of this world and human nature mean that great leaders are seldom saints, there is always a positive note to their accomplishments. They make their people in some way better off and leave behind something that endures, even if only an idea or dream.


Before the 20th century, national heroes were almost inevitably those who led in times of war – Napoleon, Nelson, Wellington, Washington, Lincoln, Garibaldi. War leaders today are still revered. Winston Churchill certainly was a man of war, and his peacetime record was indifferent. But it was Churchill who rallied the forces of freedom in their darkest hour and who did more than any other single man to preserve modern democracy.


Yet the 20th century’s other great leader was Mahatma Ghandi, an apostle of peace who led his nation to independence on a platform of non-violence resistance. His believed and showed that by behaving peacefully you can force your enemy to also behave peacefully. But could this strategy have been successful anywhere else but in a colony of Britain imbued with a belief in the sanctity of human life? Faced with Ghandi’s millions of unarmed followers a Hitler or Stalin or Mao would simply have shot them down. When Heinrich Goering in the German colony of Tanganyika was confronted with demonstrators in 1893 he started firing machine guns. When they stopped 80,000 people were dead. Even Ho Chi Min in Viet Nam remarked that “If India had been a French colony, Ghandi would long since have descended into heaven.”


But Ghandi would in all probability have been a disastrous leader of independent India. A self-proclaimed technophobe who proclaimed that India would be saved by the spinning wheel, he rejected modernism and all it stood for. Yet how can a country like India feed its teeming millions without the vast increases in productivity that modern technology make possible? On a personal level few thinking persons would disagree with Ghandi’s famous statement that “There is more to life than going faster.” Yet in a country where millions are starving, is it not a leader’s duty to industrialize the nation as quickly as possible? Ghandi’s assassination in 1945 was a tragedy, but for India and for his legacy, it was possibly a sorrowful blessing in disguise.


Perhaps the modern leader presenting the greatest contrast to Ghandi is Singapore’s Lee Kwan Kwew. If Ghandi was the epitome of the spiritual leader, Lee was the materialistic ruler par excellence. His goal was nothing less or more than to make Singapore as prosperous as possible by whatever means. In his case this meant a wholesale adoption of the newest possible technology and the suppression of anything that hindered the efficient operation of business, including such perceived hindrances as a free vote, a free press and due process. Lee’s ends-justifies-the-means approach may not be to everyone’s taste, but no one can question his success. In 1960 Singapore was a backward third world island, poorer even than Jamaica. Today it is one of the world’s most advanced and richest per capita economies.


In terms of making his nation better off Lee was indisputably a far greater leader than Ghandi. But those who only enrich people economically are respected and admired but seldom loved. And history tends to forget those  who, in Napoleon’s dismissive term, “give all their glory to making money”. Men like Crassus and Rockefeller, and probably Bill Gates in time, are remembered as mere symbols of wealth and nothing more. Money makes the world go round, but it does not make the heart soar. It is the dreamers of great dreams that posterity reveres.


Ghandi’s idea of a world where peace can be created merely by wishing it so should seem ridiculous to a century that has experienced two world wars, the nuclear bomb and the holocaust. But his beguiling vision is still venerated – a recent BBC website poll voted him the millennium’s greatest leader. Similarly Julius Nyrere’s and Michael Manley’s conceptions of economic and social equality remain attractive to many even in the triumphant heyday of the devil-take-the-hindmost market economy. It is likely that when the memories of Nyrere’s and Manley’s economic disasters have faded, their visions of social cohesion will not have been forgotten. And their countrymen will look back upon them as great leaders.

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