Why many of our politicians go broke after leaving cabinet even though we think they are rich
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, media reported that former Deputy Prime Minister, Henry Kajura, is in financial trouble. Three years after leaving cabinet, he is losing his house to a moneylender for failure to pay a loan. For a man who served in cabinet for 27 consecutive years, this is shocking. Yet Kajura is not alone. Our nation has a long list of politicians who move from cabinet/parliament to economic destitution. In a country where people see politicians as corrupt and therefore rich, this is viewed as a paradox of monumental proportions. But it is not.
We misunderstand corruption. We see it as a means of accumulating personal wealth yet that is just its most visible manifestation. Fundamentally, corruption is the way political power (in poor countries) is organized, exercised and reproduced. It is the grease that turns the wheels of politics, helping politicians build constituencies of support. To be successful politically requires one to accumulate resources and share them with constituents. This is the way through which the alien character of the inherited colonial institutional structure is domesticated.
Let us go to the bolts and nuts of how power is organised, how it is exercised and how it is reproduced in a poor country. How do political leaders and parties organise successful electoral and governing coalitions?
Most of our countries are ethnically and religiously diverse. They are also agrarian and poor. This combination creates strong moral and psychological attachment identity.
To build an effective electoral machine and/or governing coalition, a president and/or party must win over powerful and influential pillars of opinion in our ethnic and religious groups. They include traditional leaders, respected elders, articulate youths, successful businesspersons, accomplished professionals, religious clerics, influential intellectuals, etc. These act as the bridge between the president and/or ruling party and their ethnic and/or religious communities.
For the vast majority of people in poor countries, seeing their own in high government office is an expression of their presence in, and therefore having a share of, power. It also legitimises the state by giving the people a sense of belonging to the nation. President Yoweri Museveni has done this well, creating a vast patronage machine where very many of these influential elites are appointed to cabinet (81 strong), as presidential advisors (over 100), RDCs (240), ambassadors, board members of about 150 semi autonomous government agencies etc.
Patronage has been the main instrument Museveni has used to crowd the opposition out of the market for individuals with a profile, experience and organisational skills to rally a mass political base. It is the biggest challenge the opposition faces and explains why it cannot find enough high profile individuals to field in parliamentary elections – Museveni has coopted most of them.
Successful politicians are those who meet cultural obligations in their communities: attending religious services/ceremonies, weddings and funerals. Materially, they meet their constituents financial needs by paying fees and medical bills for some, contribute generously to funerals, weddings and to fundraisings for churches, clinics and schools. This is what legitimises wealth and income inequality in poor communities. And most critically it helps politicians cultivate a political following. One can pay for these expenses using personal income, which is expensive. When in control of the state, one uses public funds to meet them.
Our legislators are constantly inundated with myriad demands for financial assistance from their poor constituents. Ordinary people in poor societies have a concept of a leader as a person who helps the indigent. Therefore to lead one has to be seen as rich and generous. But such generosity also takes a large share of one’s income, thereby making it hard to save. To be successful politically therefore means to share your wealth with the people.
Our legislators cannot meet all these personal demands on their income. Neither can the state provide a large basket of public goods and services the electorate expects. This is because of the mismatch between people’s expectations and the resources available to the individual politician and to the state. During elections politicians borrow to endear themselves to voters by exhibiting exaggerated generosity, thereby accumulating debts. This is why over half of our legislators in Uganda do not earn any salary, their money being cut at source to pay off their loans.
Politicians expect to recoup this investment by being appointed to cabinet and using that position to make money via corruption. Alternatively they bet on being appointed to powerful oversight committees of parliament from whence they can get bribes from other thieving public officials in exchange for covering up their theft. (See how deluded we are when we expect parliament to act as a check on the executive). Yet not everyone can be appointed to cabinet or to an influential parliamentary oversight committee. Politics is therefore like any other business where investors make risky bets. Those who lose, or who win but fail to get “juicy” executive appointments or selection to powerful parliamentary committees find themselves unable to repay their debts hence bankruptcy.
To sustain a governing coalition and reproduce electoral victory, a president/ruling party has to create opportunities for his/its politicians to make money. Once appointed, one is expected to help his/her constituents find jobs (thereby undermining meritocratic recruitment); get government contracts for the businesspersons in his/her community (thereby undermining competitive bidding); and/or personally pay for constituents’ personal expenses, which requires the use official positions to make money – hence corruption.
These are not pathologies unique to Africa. They are actually the instruments governments in poor societies across time and space have used to consolidate power. One just needs to read the history of Europe and North America in the 19th century to see this. Therefore corruption is the way the system works, not the way it fails. It is the instrument politicians use to build electoral and governing coalitions. In criminalising its patronage and clientelism, we have criminalised the only affordable ways of managing power relations in a poor society.
On the surface corruption seems an obstacle to the development of a modern meritocratic state. However, historically it has not (necessarily) stopped this process. Just like capitalism grew inside the womb of feudalism slowly tearing it asunder, modern meritocratic states grew (and still grow) inside the womb of [neo]patrimonial ones. But slowly, as the economy grows and society undergoes structural transformation, these changes tear the old system apart. Those looking for a quick transition to a modern meritocratic state will be frustrated. Evolution, not revolution, is what works.