Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lunch with Finland's former President: lessons learnt

On 11.12.2012, at about 11:15 AM, I walked into a restaurant for lunch in Finland's capital city of Helsinki. I occupied a seat in the buffet area of the restaurant and immediately spotted Finland's former president - "Rouva Presidentti" - Tarja Halonen serving herself at the buffet table.While I was still trying to come to terms with her simplicity, she walked towards me and took a seat directly behind me. As a matter of fact, we literally robbed shoulders on her way from the buffet table. While my casual encounter with Mrs. President may sound normal to Finns, to me it was a pleasantly surprising and lesson-packed encounter.

Where I come from, you do not bump into presidents or former presidents by accident in an ordinary restaurant around town.

Loud sirens and long convoys of luxurious vehicles announce the arrival and departure of top officials like Tarja Halonen. Roads leading to a restaurant where a person of her stature dines would be cordoned off for hours by police and security personnel. Petty businesses and public transportation in and around the area would be paralyzed. The movement of ordinary people would be restricted in the vicinity. People would be intimidated and sometimes harassed by security for "trespassing" in the area.

Tarja Halonen "demystifies" the presidency. She is testament to the fact that presidents, former presidents, first ladies, members of parliament, ministers, governors and other high-level officials are public servants and when they leave office, they do not carry it with them. Their role is to serve the people, not make life difficult and unbearable for them. Government officials are not gods and people who elect them should not be forced to treat them as such. Their presence in public spaces should not be cause for intimidation, rather they should inspire good.

Workers eat in the restaurant in question on a daily basis during lunch break. They were not shut out of the restaurant or forced to change their daily routine because a former president came for lunch in the same restaurant. I bet Tarja Halonen would not like that to happen.

Leaders and government officials, especially in the developing world, who command fear rather than respect have a lesson to learn from Finland's Tarja Halonen. She is not defined by her office or the position she once held. She occupied the highest office in Finland for two terms (eight years) (UPDATE: 12 years), [Source] dined and interacted with some of the most powerful people in the world and made decisions in the interest of one of the most advanced countries in the world. She was even named by Forbes among the world's 100 Most Powerful Women in 2009. [Source] However, she was not corrupted by power, neither did she let it get into her head. She remains a respected and admired citizen - even without flash -  and continues to inspire future leaders to keep it simple. After all, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

This encounter convinced me that power does not corrupt everyone. Tyranny is a choice.

There are lessons to be learnt from daily experiences, and my encounter with Finland's former president is one of them. Hopefully, the next generation of leaders, especially in Africa where power corrupts, will learn from such daily experiences abroad and help demystify top government posts when they rise to the occasion. The world is in need of leaders who serve the people, not "leaders" who expect to be served and feared. Good leaders are not feared.

It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time I am impressed by Tarja Halonen. She first earned by respect and admiration when she acknowledged the rise of racism and xenophobia in Finland and spoke out against it - in a country where there is a muted response by public officials and politicians to the social ill, despite the real threat it poses.

*Photo: Yle.


  1. Actually she was in office for twelve years - a precidency term in Finland is six years. ;)

    It is odd indeed to realize that the title is such a "casual" thing in Finland. Early in her precidency, Tarja got the nickname Muumimamma, and it wasn't seen as an insult to her or precidency. No secret police ever intimidated people into bowing to her.

    1. Thank you for the correction. I was writing with the US presidential term limit in mind. Muumimamma is not a very nice nickname for such an extremely popular leader. By the way, I think she looks way better than Muumipeikko's mother. :-)

    2. Actually the nickname stuck so long precisely because she's so popular. Finns love the Moomins and she was quite a motherly leader. And she was once seen with a handbag very similar to the one Muumimamma uses, so logical conclusion. :D


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