Why poor countries may need a more activist president, one willing to intervene to get them to work
Let me do what the Germans call Gedanken (a thought experiment).
Political power in most of post-colonial Africa has tended to be
personalised. We feel that this is bad and tends to undermine the
ability of the state to serve broader social goals. Personalised power
also tends to be arbitrary. But why don’t David Cameron and Barak Obama
in the UK and USA personalise power? Could it be that over hundreds of
years, power in UK and USA has been institutionalised so much so that an
attempt to personalise it cannot be contemplated and that if anyone
leader tried, they would not succeed?
For Africa, could it be that the personalisation of power is a result
of the absence and/or poor development of institutions and therefore
personalisation fills an institutional void? Alternatively (or even
complimentarily) could it be that the institutions we inherited from the
colonial state are not consistent with our social context? That the
only way to manage our societies is to sidestep these institutions, a
factor that underpins personalisation?
These questions came to me as I was listening to over 30 hours of
autobiographical interviews I had with former President Milton Obote in
late 2004. Obote told me that while making decisions regarding
deployment and/or promotion of officers in the army, he followed
institutional mechanisms left behind by the colonial state. He allowed
officers to perform their functions without undue interference i.e. he
This is contrary to how President Yoweri Museveni manages the army.
If he appoints someone army commander, he will also deal directly with
the Chief of Staff, division commanders, brigade commanders down to the
battalion commanders. He has instituted standing orders that not more
than 20 soldiers can travel more than 20km without his personal
approval; and no tank or APC can move 2km without his express
permission. This sounds like the quintessential case of personalising
Yet Obote allowed the army to run as an institution in the same way
the British army works. So the army commander could move entire
battalions on “training exercise” or move weapons around. In the 1960s,
this bred coup plots based on dubious troop and weapons movements
leading to the 1971 coup. The 1980s saw official statements about
“uncoordinated movement of troops” before the 1985 coup. Is it possible
that Obote was twice overthrown by military coups because he treated the
army in the British tradition, which did not respond to the specificity
of the Ugandan situation?
Conversely, it is possible that his direct contact with commanders at
all levels and personal control over troops and weapons movements is
what has insured Museveni (and by extension, Uganda) against military
coups? If this argument has any merit, then we need to rethink the issue
of personalisation of power. I know I am walking on a very slippery
ground and my argument could be misconstrued as making a justification
for Museveni personalising the state. There are clear dangers of rule by
an individual as opposed to rule by law and institutions. However this
article is meant to provoke new thinking.
I used to criticise Museveni for personalising the state and
undermining institutions arguing that the failures we see in Uganda are a
product of this practice. However, my experience with Rwanda showed the
opposite. President Paul Kagame’s fingerprints can be found in almost
everything that happens in that country.
Institutions in Rwanda work
because he keeps them under pressure to perform or there is fear that if
he finds things not working he will take action. I also know that if
Kagame withdrew today, many things could backslide. His forceful energy
and overwhelming legitimacy are a resource from which Rwanda derives a
lot of its success.
But the more I observed Uganda, the more I realised that it is not
Museveni’s presence but absence in certain critical sectors that
explains poor performance. In those areas where Museveni has retained a
degree of personal interest (including personal control) and where the
top manager(s) enjoy his confidence, things work better – witness Uganda
Revenue Authority, the oil sector, the Ministry of Finance and the
UPDF. Museveni is actually a hands-off president on many sectors
including pensions, health, education etc.
This became clearer when I worked as a consultant for the World Bank
on Uganda’s political economy. I realised that the tendency to
personalise public office is present in vast numbers of public
officials. In some cases, ministers have to struggle against civil
servants who have turned ministries and other agencies into personal
fiefdoms. In others, some civil servants want to do the right things.
However, ministers or board members want to bulldoze them into giving
them money or appointing their relatives and campaign managers to office
even when they lack merit.
We wrongly assume institutions to exist with a culture of respecting
them. Actually our institutions are nascent or weak. This creates room
for individuals to personalise them. It takes a very long time and a lot
of effort to build an institution but little effort and no time to
destroy it. In many cases I encountered, it was absolutely necessary to
call upon the president personally to intervene to protect public
officials who were trying to do the right thing.
I found myself advising Museveni to intervene – or at least to be
seen to do so in order to scare away some officials from damaging
institutions. I even recommended to the World Bank (as I did to the
President) that he should appoint managers to key public institutions
that enjoy his personal confidence, lest they are fought and kicked out
by forces with sinister motives. Without his confidence or access to
him, many good public officials who try to do the right thing get kicked
out. Intimate knowledge pulled me down from the tree of utopia to the
hard rock of reality.
For example, our judiciary is corroded with corruption among judges,
magistrates and prosecutors. This is partly because Museveni (to a very
high degree) respects their independence only interfering when his
political interest is threatened – and this is on rare occasions. But if
these institutions are to retain independence, how do we structure it
without inhibiting the intervention a genuinely motivated political
authority to curb their corruption and/or capture by powerful non-state
interests like rich people who literally buy judgments?