Two years ago, the German construction company Strabag won a tender to build a 70km tarmac road from Kigali to Bugesera in Rwanda. The company delivered a high-quality tarmac road with proper drainage and pavements for pedestrians â€“ a testament to the efficiency and effectiveness of the post genocide state in Rwanda.
At the beginning of February, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda ordered the arrest and detention of a number of infrastructure officials: Vincent Gatwabuyenge, permanent secretary in the ministry for infrastructure; Faustin Gacinya, director of finance in the same ministry; Eliab Munyemana, the ministryâ€™s chief engineer; and the executive director of the Central Public Investment and External Finance Bureau, George Katurebe â€“ a close friend of mine.
The officials were arrested for authorising payments totalling $3m to Strabag for services the company did not render to Rwanda. Strabag was supposed to pay a fine of $800,000 for finishing the road behind schedule. Katurebe was arrested for waiving the fine. Two officials of Strabag were also arrested.
This is not the only recent example of Kagame taking tough action against officials suspected of corruption. In December, he ordered the arrest of the director of the Rwandan National Institute of Statistics, Louise Munyakazi, and the permanent secretary in the ministry of education, Justin Sengiyunva. Every time I visit Rwanda, it seems another public official has been arrested on suspicion of graft.
In Uganda, a country with a road network full of potholes, officials in the ministry for roads live happily off their loot. Rwanda, a country with the best roads in the region, arrests officials in its infrastructure ministry when we should expect them to get honours. This is because Kagame does not tolerate abuse of public funds. The reverse applies for Uganda. But why does the government of Rwanda account to its citizens and the one in Uganda does not?
Rwanda and Uganda present a challenge to traditional democratic theory. Conventional analysis holds that governmental accountability derives from checks and balances on the exercise of executive power. The first checks are formal institutions of state; in Ugandaâ€™s case, the Inspector General of Government, Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority, parliamentary oversight committees and so on. The second are institutions of civil society; a free press, political parties and pressure groups.
Uganda outperforms Rwanda on all the above. We have more state-oversight institutions and our press, political parties and civil society organisations are much better developed than in Rwanda. So we should expect greater governmental accountability in Kampala than in Kigali. But what we actually find is the reverse.
This has puzzled me for long. Why does Kagame, who rules largely with a free hand in Rwanda, care more about value for taxpayersâ€™ money than Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, who has to contend with a troublesome parliament, an activist press and a vibrant civil society?
The personalities of the two men play an important role. Kagame is a nationalist with a strong personal commitment to rebuilding Rwanda. Museveni, on the other hand, is a self-seeking power-hungry opportunist whose primary interest is the pomp of power rather than service to the citizen. Yet this is not the fundamental explanation.
The experiences of Uganda and Rwanda teach us two lessons. First, that multiple checks and balances are consequences, not causes, of clean government. Second, things like a free press and lively civic associations are mere facets of a democratic polity but are not fundamental to it. They are effective only when the fundamentals are in place.
The basic prerequisite of a democratic polity is the existence of a set of self-enforcing rules and traditions. Rules become self-enforcing when ruling elites face sufficient incentives to honour their commitment to checks and balances and when they face significant threats if they violate those rules.
To be truly effective, a threat cannot be merely the tactical one of imprisoning the corrupt or even the strategic one of a government losing power. It has to be existential. For example, the Kenyan ruling elites learnt last year that the cost of rigging an election is high; it may push a country into murderous chaos and even genocide. They are likely to think twice before fiddling with election results next time.
In 1994, the most dominant influence in the current Rwandan government â€“ the Tutsi â€“ stared extermination in the eye. They learnt that the price of failure is very high; they cannot afford the luxury of corruption, incompetence and complacency that we see in most of Africa. That is why post-genocide Rwanda has developed the most effective state capacity in Africa, and equally why its government is the most responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens.
This should lead us to doubt the depth, while acknowledging the breadth, of the democratic impulse in Uganda and many other African countries. It also gives us an explanation for the fact that Rwanda has stronger democratic fundamentals, even though many of the arrangements that supposedly define a democracy are underdeveloped there compared to other African countries.
We are likely to remain trapped in corruption if we do not start to think differently about the institutional arrangements we have inherited from western democracies. Many Ugandans think that punishment of the corrupt will rid our country of graft. Yet the threat of detention as a cure for corruption is impotent in Uganda. Why?
First, many public officials are corrupt; therefore, the probability that any one individual will be prosecuted is very low. This increases the incentives for public officials to steal. Second, the investigative arm of the state â€“ the police â€“ and the judicial system are both under-resourced and not immune to graft also. Finally, the judiciary is restrained by procedural rules. Therefore, even a government genuinely committed to fighting graft will find it difficult to secure convictions.
That is why whenever we see a publicly orchestrated prosecution in Uganda â€“ whether it is about the Global Fund or GAVI Fund, Nsimbe or Temangalo â€“ the primary driver is rarely a desire to check corruption. Instead, all too often it is a scheme by the president to trim the wings of a minister he is afraid of, or at attempt by one NRM faction to weaken another.