#MyDressMyChoice & the Future of Leaderful Movements in Africa

November 24, 2014 § 3 Comments

Early last week, Kenyans took to the streets in protest against the stripping naked of woman in Nairobi for being “indecently dressed”. The incident was caught on video and posted on YouTube, sparking outrage that led hundreds of protesters to march under the banner: #MyDressMyChoice.

In the days leading up to the protest march, many Kenyans expressed the increasing disappointment they felt due to the silence of prominent Kenyan women and their failure to take action. They demanded the input of MPs such as Rachael Shebesh, the Nairobi County Women’s Representative. But nothing was forthcoming from her or from any other prominent Kenyan female personalities.

The only well-known Kenyan personality rallying for the protection of women against these rights violations was business woman Esther Passaris. From the get-go Passaris condemned the stripping both on various platforms including talk shows and social media. She even contributed to a financial reward for anyone able to identify the perpetrators in the video, thereby leading to their prosecution. Passaris then showed up at Freedom Corner before the protest march and walked in solidarity with the women until the end.

Well into the march, the women were surprised when several female politicians led by Member of Parliament, Hon. Rachel Shebesh joined them near Kenya Cinema. Nevertheless, Shebesh and her group were welcomed with hugs, singing and dancing as they proceeded to the Head of Police’s office. When the women arrived outside the office of the Inspector General, the politicians began to prepare themselves to make speeches. But that’s when some of the participants rose up and led the chant “No politicians! No politicians!” vehemently opposing their attempt to speak at the event. A decision was then made that as women, this was their cause too, and they were welcome to take part and march along with us. However, because they had failed in taking up a leadership role before the event, they were not welcome to speak. They were instead requested to speak and move policy forward in Parliament, a space in which they enjoy a power they had failed to use until now.

Esther Passaris (right) with a protestor

Esther Passaris (right) with a protestor outside the Supreme Court

The next chant was “Passaris! Passaris!” and from there on, Passaris was designated to speak on the women’s behalf. On that day, the women effectively decided they wanted leaders who would remain by their sides in the trenches, and not those who only turn up after battle to divide the spoils of war.

An End to Hierarchical Leaderships

Shebesh and her group did not join in when the women left the office of the Inspector General for the Supreme Court. And their sudden departure left many wondering: why had the female political class been silent since the stripping incident? Why had they only turned up mid-way into the march? Why did they leave before it ended? Some observers commented that perhaps they had only been drawn by the fact that the march had turned out to be a success; proceeding peacefully with a massive turnout of hundreds of demonstrators.

Therefore, by rejecting Shebesh and her group, the women had in fact saved #MyDressMyChoice from being hijacked and turned into a marketing vehicle for opportunists who seek to take advantage of fundamental issues merely to gain political mileage. In saying ‘no’ to Shebesh and her group, the women had protected the movement from the danger of appropriation by the female political class, the main institutional alternative of the very institution the women were marching against – patriarchy.

Despite being outlawed in the Kenyan Constitution, the practice of stripping women has been going on for decades. At the same time, the female political class has not done anything in their capacity as Members of Parliament to push forward laws and policies to curb this brutal practice. To the women, Shebesh and her group therefore represented the bankrupted traditional political institutions that had already failed to stop the strippings. They served as a stark reminder of a mechanical form of hierarchical organization incapable of reforming itself and paralyzed in the face of big challenges.

The women had taken to the streets because they had already lost faith in the political process. Because they realized that the only way to stop the strippings would be through a truly revolutionary path of protest, rather than just another established political path. The time had come to try something different.

Rachel Shebesh (right) listens to Passaris addressing the demonstrators

MP Rachel Shebesh (left) listens to Passaris addressing the demonstrators

Away with the Cult of Leaders

For many Africans, the idea that a political movement can arise without a charismatic leader is inconceivable. Many believe that every movement needs a leader. Someone to feature on the front-page. Someone to invite on breakfast talk shows. Someone to negotiate with. The “savior” who will rise from the cities, towns and villages of Africa. After all, every previous movement had its figurehead – think Mandela, right?

Wrong. Even Nelson Mandela himself strongly rejected the cult of leadership that evolved around him. Mandela categorically maintained that his accomplishments were the result of collective action achieved by the women and men who he regarded as comrades. This was despite the efforts of the Western media to sanctify him as the individual hero of the anti-apartheid struggle and set him aside from the many women and men who were at the collaborative core of the freedom struggle in South Africa. Mandela sought to reject the depiction of history as the effort of sole heroic individuals in order for everyone to recognize the potential agency of each one of us as part of the ever-growing movement for change.

But the reason why Mandela’s message seems to have missed many of us is because we live in a world and a generation that only knows one kind of leadership, the one whose organizational structure has a decider on the top and worker bees below. Everything about our institutions today, from churches and schools to government and corporations, trains us to think of leadership as top-down, command-and-control. Get the answer right, go to the right school, get a good job, work your way up the chain of command, and then have a good life.

But today, more and more of us are moving into a world of lateral social networks, enabled by knowledge-based technology that is allowing everyone to connect and share information in real-time. Traditionally, information was the exclusive domain of the top leadership – but not anymore. This new access to information means that individuals are more connected to one another, thereby making the entire movement more interdependent.

Towards Leaderful Movements

Colonization and western influence transformed African societies from community-first entities into societies that promote individualism as a sacred concept, as it is in the West. Going forward, for real change to occur it is important to promote the importance of movements rather than individuals. The way forward for real change in Africa could be “leaderful leadership” – the transformation of leadership from an individual property to a collective responsibility.

A leaderful leadership is characterized by more than one leader operating at the same time. In this way, members do not solely depend on a single individual to mobilize action as decisions are made collectively rather than on their behalf. All members of the movement – not just the leader – remain in control of and may speak on behalf of the entire movement. A leaderful leadership further demonstrates a commitment to serving others, rather than power for its own sake.

Every 21St Century African movement with the hope of bringing about social change must unlock the capacity of its entire people to contribute and empower every willing and capable individual to assume leadership at any moment. We must stop our dependence on masses of subordinates awaiting marching orders from detached politicians who are under the illusion that they alone can fix all the problems. A movement with many leaders instead of just one is also by far stronger than the movements of the past that could easily be stalled or stopped by discrediting, arresting or killing their singular spokesperson.

Hundreds of Kenyans turned out for the #MyDressMyChoice march (Photo: Brian Emmanuel Inganga)

Hundreds of Kenyan women turned out for the #MyDressMyChoice march (Photo: Brian Emmanuel Inganga)

Africa must now rely on networks and groups that create space for the emergence of many leaders – but only those leaders who work as network weavers rather than charismatic demigods. We must now move towards a leaderful world of self-starting network weavers, accountable and transparent in their actions – and away from the traditional world of top-down exploitative leaders relying on spin, secrecy and hierarchy to conduct their business.

***

As it turns out, their failure in leadership was the best gift Shebesh and her group could have given the #MyDressMyChoice participants. Because in so doing, the women were forced to lean on each other and reach into themselves for the strength and courage required for the task ahead. The refusal of the political class to act inadvertently helped the women more than it hurt them because every woman who participated in the march is now able to believe in their ability to initiate social change without the need for heroic leaders. Rather than disempowering the women, the inaction of the political leaders enabled them to discover their own power and capability as leaders and realize that they were in fact able to do by themselves the things they traditionally expected the politicians to do for them.

By their silence, the politicians made #MyDressMyChoice truly a manifestation of people’s power, a people’s campaign, with the participants proving that it doesn’t take an eloquent or charismatic leader to lead a movement. Even ordinary women working together as equals can move mountains.

Could this be the beginning of the end of hierarchical leadership and the cult of leaders in Africa?

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