Academic qualifications are overrated as a measure of ability in political leadership. It was my stated view during the Constitution debates in 1994/95 that no citizen should be denied the right to seek any office simply because of arbitrary academic requirements.
I continue to disagree with Articles in the Uganda Constitution that require possession of an Advanced Level Certificate or equivalent as one of the conditions for qualification to be president, Member of Parliament or district chairperson.
This requirement disenfranchises both the electorate and individuals with interest and ability to lead or to represent fellow citizens.
If we believe that a largely illiterate or semi-literate citizenry is wise enough to vote in national and district elections, then we should leave it to them to exercise their collective judgment without the strictures imposed by meaningless certificates.
What does an A-level certificate that I received 45 years ago have to do with my ability to exercise due diligence in discharging the duty of representing my people?
History is full of examples of great leaders who had anemic academic qualifications. America’s George Washington had very limited basic formal education because his father died when the future president was only 11 years old. Few would dispute the fact that Washington towers over all of America’s presidents and deserves his iconic status in the American psyche.
Britain’s Winston Churchill struggled with poor grades throughout his O-level education at Harrow and failed the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy entrance exams twice before he was let in. He went on to become one of the most dominant figures in the British Empire, and is now considered “the greatest Briton of all time.”
My home district of Kigezi, brought into the British colonial Uganda protectorate in 1911, benefited from the unsurpassed leadership skills of illiterate men, among them Ngorogoza, Karegyesa, Rukeribuga, Rwomushana, Kakwenza, Katabaazi and Mukombe.
Mr. Ngorogoza, with no benefit of formal education, wrote one of the very few books about the history and customs of Kigezi.
The representational and debating abilities of Ugandan and Kenyan parliamentarians of the 1960s were probably as good as those of their university-educated successors.
Even more fascinating are two contemporary national leaders who literally had no formal education. South Africa’s Jacob Zuma has never had any formal education.
However, the members of the African National Congress considered him a better leader than Thabo Mbeki, the indisputably more cerebral economist that was Nelson Mandela’s personal choice as successor.
Zuma’s rather wobbly leadership has little to do with his academic deficiencies. His flawed character, which is at the core of his difficulties, is shared by a few famous ivy-league educated American presidents of the late twentieth century.
Brazil’s Luis Ignacio Lula Da Silva, who served two terms as president from 2003 to 2011, is considered the best and most successful leader of his country in the last 50 years.
Lula restored a faltering Brazil to the economic powerhouse it had been decades earlier, and provided vast social service programs that uplifted the living conditions of the poor.
In 2009, US President Barack Obama called Lula the most popular leader on Earth. Respected publications like The Financial Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek wrote highly complementary editorials about the man who successfully steered Brazil through the worldwide economic difficulties that followed the financial crash in the United States.
Yet Lula is a man with only 5 years of primary school education. Poverty forced him into the labour market at a very young age. He pursued a career in the workers’ unions that propelled him into politics and his country’s top job.
Not even his post-presidency legal troubles erase the fact that his lack of academic training was irrelevant to his success in leading Brazil.
Outside of politics, we find several examples of high achievers in spite of limited formal schooling. Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene, one of the greatest writers and film producers, dropped out of school at the age of 14 after he fought with a teacher. I consider his novel “God’s Bits of Wood” the finest work of fiction by an African writer.
Some of Uganda’s most successful business people in recent decades had very limited basic education. They would have made better parliamentarians or cabinet ministers than many who have held those jobs.
We need to rethink our notion of education. Is it a matter of sitting in classrooms and passing exams and getting labels? Or is it a socialization that enables us to effectively and successfully engage with the world around us?
The choice of A-level as the minimum education requirement for high-level leadership was probably a reaction to our experience with rulers that had had rather abbreviated formal education.
There was an assumption that Generals Idi Amin and Okello Lutwa had struggled in their presidential stints because of their academic deficits. Their challenges with the English language amplified their perceived weaknesses.
The last 30 years have helped erase the myth of high academic qualifications as insurance against misrule.
I suggest that we emphasize character, communication skills, trustworthiness, respectability and the intellectual capacity to analyze and interpret information as the principle requirements for leadership.
Ultimately, it should be left to the citizens to freely choose who leads them or represents them in parliament, regardless of academic qualifications.