Why African elites sound angry and frustrated though continent’s economies grow faster than rest of the world
Over the last decade and a half, Sub Sahara African economies have
been growing fast and creating prosperity for many. Today, our continent
is exporting and importing more and our governments, investors, and
consumers are spending in per capita terms. Yet many African elites,
especially the chattering classes on social media, sound angrier and
This is partly because growth and the accompanying increase in
personal incomes, comes with rapid urbanisation and expansion of
As I have written in this column before, urbanisation and education
are liberating influences. They expose people to the world, expand their
horizons, and grow their ambitions. The effects of growth, therefore,
are first felt in cities and among the educated. Cities offer
opportunities for trade, jobs, and a good life. This pulls more people
to partake of the opportunities. However, the rate at which people
migrate to cities is always faster than the rate at which the economy
The initial resulting mismatch between growth in aspirations and growth in available opportunities creates social frustration.
People’s natural instinct is to look for a villain – some human cause
of their frustrations. This can be the president of a country, the
tribe from which he comes, the cronies around him etc.
I can see the young Yoweri Museveni blaming Milton Obote for
everything that went wrong in Uganda; and let me face it, the younger me
blaming Museveni for all Uganda’s ills.
As I wrote last week, this is not always entirely an incorrect
assessment but it is an overly simplistic one. I have since grown older
and more reflective.
I recognise the limits of individual agency. This way, I remain a
little balanced even though I am also frustrated with governmental
potholes, corruption, incompetence, and indifference in government.
My researched view is that Obote was an exceptionally successful
president when it came to managing the economy. Obote did not fail on
the things Museveni accused him of. He only failed to tame the army – so
it kept overthrowing him. Museveni overcame this handicap.
Therefore, to find a neutral way to assess whether Uganda’s elite are
right to be angry with President Museveni on matters of economic
growth, I recently went to the IMF website and used its data to
calculate Uganda’s performance under Museveni.
I found that over the last 28 years, Uganda has sustained a rate of
growth of 6.8% (Uganda government figures put it at 7.3% – and the
difference could be in the way I did my calculations). Next, I re-read
the Nobel laureate in economics, Michael Spence’s great 2011 book `The
Next Convergence: the Future of Economic Growth in a Multispeed World’.
Spence writes about a rule used in statistics and economics called
The Rule of 72. This rule says that the time it takes in years to double
in size at a specific rate of annual growth is 72 divided by that
growth rate. This means that if anything grows at I%, it will double
every 72 years; at 7% growth rate, per capita income (or even GPD) would
double every ten years. Spence says that by 2007, only 13 countries had
sustained a growth rate of 7% for over 25 years in the history of
mankind – Botswana, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South
Korea, Malaysia, Malta, Oman, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.
If Uganda has sustained growth rates of 6.8% (or better still 7.3%),
it has been the 17th (or 13th) fastest growing economy in the world
between 1987-2012. With these figures, Museveni can only laugh at his
However, past leaders like Milton Obote would also laugh at Museveni
because Uganda sustained growth of 7% per annual between 1962 and 1971.
So how come Uganda still seems far from the kind of structural
transformation that one could see in South Korea or Taiwan after their
first 25 years of high growth?
The answer is partly that by 1960, both South Korea and Taiwan had
enjoyed a long history of statehood, a shared national identity and a
level of education and manufacturing experience.
By 1986, Uganda may have been where South Korea was in 1800. Secondly
the political process in these countries allowed their governments to
promote manufacturing through the creation of an indigenous private
enterprise class – what Marxists call a national bourgeoisie. But Uganda
has been afraid of building a national bourgeoisie, hence slow growth
in manufacturing. Consequently, growth has largely been driven by
services and retail trade, which create few jobs.
As a result, Uganda has an enclave economy – a small modern sector
surrounded by peasant agriculture. The small educated urban elite class
in the modern economy is exposed to more developed economies through the
mass media – television, films, social media etc. They are impatient to
have their nations be replicas of the developed world. Yet they
continue to see all around them this primordial existence in the
villages. This makes many feel angry and frustrated at their governments
whom they blame for the sorry state of their countries. Yet this elite
class cannot accept the solution to their nation’s problem – a robust
and deliberate state intervention in the economy to create our own
Samsung, LG, Daewoo, Hyundai, Kia etc. Why? To create such national
conglomerates requires thinking big and making extremely risky
investment decisions. Governments would have to throw billions of
taxpayer money at individuals (often their own cronies) in a social
experiment whose future cannot be projected except by the craziest
Today we look at South Korea and praise Park Chung Hee for being a
visionary. Yet when he was throwing billions of taxpayers’ money to
create their Samsungs and LGs, most enlightened South Koreans accused
him of cronyism and corruption. So intense was resistance to his
industrial policy that in 1972 he declared martial law and began to rule
by decree. The problem with a dictator is that he can easily transform a
country in a short time – if his policies are right. But he can equally
destroy it as rapidly if his policies are wrong – witness Marshal
Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire.
What is clear, therefore, is that a democratic and accountable
government, even if moderately so like ours – cannot achieve rapid
transformation on the scale of South Korea or China – witness India. If
we really treasure democracy, we should not be angry and frustrated by
the slow incremental changes. We should be content in the hope that, in
God’s good time, we can get to where South Korea is.