Danger of expecting leaders of poor African countries to govern like the rich
Imagine a romantic relationship between a poor young guy and a demanding girlfriend. They live in a community with former school and classmates all of whom are rich kids living in posh neighborhoods, driving fancy cars, wearing designer clothes, taking holidays in the Bahamas, dining at exclusive restaurants and buying expensive gifts for their girlfriends. The poor guy finds himself under peer pressure to live like the rich colleagues; and his girlfriend desires and demands that they keep up to the standards.
Although the poor guy cannot afford to fund a rich lifestyle, he keeps making promises he actually cannot fulfill. Consequently, the girlfriend keeps calling him a liar and selfish; sometimes accusing him of misusing his income by going to night clubs and drinking beer (which is often true) or of being lazy and disinterested. He attempts to meet his girlfriend’s expectations by stretching himself or faking ability. He buys her fake products that are imitations of originals and disappoint her every now and then.
Such a pretentious relationships can only be characterised by constant quarrels and recriminations. Exaggerated demands and expectations lead to false promises, which when unmet, lead to frustration. This is the relationship betweenAfrican political leaders and their citizens. Politicians in Africa inherited an ideological structure backed by institutions of a modern state as it works in the Western world. They have since then sought to replicate its functions across their entire country even when they lack the necessary human and financial resources to achieve such lofty objectives. The consequence is frustration resulting from unmet promises by leaders and exaggerated expectations of their citizens.
In fact, the colonial state provided a very limited range of public goods and services to a very small group of people, often white overlords and their collaboratingAfrican elites residing largely, if not entirely, in urban areas. Nationalist leaders seeking independence said this governance model was due to racism i.e. the colonial state only cared about the interests of white colonial overlords and ignored the plight of the colonised natives.
Such ideological arguments are most effective (and dangerous) when they make use of (and abuse) obvious truths. That the colonial state was racist and did not care much about the interests of the colonised is beyond dispute. However, its racism not withstanding, I am inclined to believe that the bigger factor was that the colonial state did not have the financial and human resources to provide a wide range of public goods and services to everyone – even if it wished to.
I have spent 25 years reading about public policy in Africa. The discussions begin with an implicit assumption that the government like that of Burundi with US$47 as public spending per person this financial year, can afford to provide the same services as the government of the United Kingdom with per capita spending of $28,000 or that of Botswana with per capita spending at $5,000. Failure to govern this way, it is often argued, is because the leaders of Burundi are greedy and selfish i.e. they don’t care about their people.
After 25 years of studying politics in Africa, I am yet to read a book or academic paper that addresses the fact that governments on our continent are poor in financial and human resources to perform the functions expected of them under the concept of a modern state. All discussion begins with an implicit assumption that they are able and the failures we see is due to corruption and selfish leaders.
Yet the state in poor countries is very weak and underdeveloped such that often it cannot even exercise its most basic function i.e. maintenance of order. We are seeing this in Burundi, Central Africa Republic, South Sudan, DRC, etc.
Yet these states, which can barely function, are expected to deliver universal education, healthcare for all, clean water to every home, electrify all rural areas, build tarmac roads everywhere, hold free and fair “democratic elections”, ensure freedom and liberty for citizens, etc. This is expecting “good governance” in countries where there is hardly a government in the first place.
In 2012 I visited Somalia. There was barely a state there. Whatever is called a state there could not even control one inch of its territory. It functions only because of the presence of armies from neighboring countries. The EU and USA have been training an army in Uganda to hold this fictional edifice of the Somali state together. After five years, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) does not have an army. All the thousands that were trained at great cost later deserted and joinedAl Shabaab or went home. Yet donors were organising elections for parliament and the president.
There is no country with public spending per capita of $100 to $500 that has succeeded in governing like modern states – except post genocide Rwanda. That we can point to one example among tens of poor nations only underlines the fact that post genocide Rwanda is an exception that proves the rule i.e. that poor nations do not govern by providing a wide range of public goods and services to all their citizens. Without exception, they tend to rely on a combination of patronage and repression. Indeed, today’s rich countries governed exactly like ours govern today when they had similar per capita spending and per capita income as ours.
I recently took my cousin, Dr. Jude Kagoro, a lecturer at Bremen University in Germany, to Rwanda. One of the few very thoughtful African elites I know, he was amazed at what he saw. Later in an evening discussion with Paul Kagame, he told the Rwandan president: “I think you and your people are magicians. How do you do this?” Kagame smiled, taking it as a courteous but hyperbolic compliment. Yet Kagoro was serious. He could not believe that a poor country like Rwanda could do the things he saw.
Many people think post genocide Rwanda’s success can be easily replicated. If this were possible, many leaders inAfrica would have done it. What Rwanda has done is without precedent in contemporary history. Just like it would be unfair to ask every Ugandan to be as rich as Sudhir Ruparelia or everyAmerican to be as rich as Bill Gates, it is unfair to ask or expect every government inAfrica to be as efficient as that of Rwanda. They may not have the history and context that has made Rwanda’s success possible.