About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, May 3, 2021

Paved with good intentions

How Western interventions in African affairs, even when well intentioned, produce bad results

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On April 16 the U.S. government imposed travel restrictions on an unspecified number of unnamed Uganda government officials including members of their immediate families. The justification was their alleged role in handling of the riots that took place in the country in November last year and the conduct of elections all of which, the U.S. claims, undermine the democratic process and violate human rights. Of course it is within the sovereign right of the U.S. to deny anyone travel to their country. But the justification for this action and the intended purpose are both dubious.

Uganda’s opposition politicians, “human rights” and “civil society” activists are happy by these developments. Yet instead of promoting democratic development and increased respect for human rights (whatever that means in the American imagination) these actions are most likely going to achieve the opposite result. The lecturing and hectoring of leaders of poor countries by Western powers about how these countries should be governed is often counterproductive. It is rare to find a country that democratised and improved its human rights record because of these tactics.

From Cuba to North Korea to Iran, these actions tend to strengthen hardliners while isolating the liberal/moderate forces in these governments. They also tend to embolden the opposition and “civil society” groups to ignore the necessary internal compromises and accommodations with the incumbent administration that are vital for democratic development. Emboldened by the support of great powers, opposition parties and “civil society” groups now feel incentivised to make wild allegations and claims, take extremely radical, idealistic and unrealistic positions that make building a minimum consensus impossible.

Feeling this pressure, the government becomes more scared and develops a siege mentality. It begins to see all opposition as foreign agents and democracy as an external imposition. The hardliners inside the government, gain the upper hand, and call for increased repression.  A free press becomes synonymous with foreign interference. Moderate forces lose ground. This creates a vicious cycle as Western powers respond with heightened rhetoric and tougher sanctions. The economy begins to contract hurting the poorest. That is the story of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. It is hard to see any winners in the mess that engulfed that country.

There is a serious attitude problem in the West that has made it an enemy of the very democracy and human rights it seeks to promote. It is difficult to change the behavior of a country’s leadership through lecturing, hectoring and intimidation; especially when this is done in public. Quiet diplomacy can achieve much better results than public threats. Leaders everywhere need to show their people that they are independent and do not act out of cowardice and fear of foreign threats. This is a necessary part of their reputation to be leaders, or what they should be seen to be.

Secondly, the West has a condescending attitude towards Africans. Otherwise why do they feel it is their business to make Uganda democratic? Why don’t they believe that Ugandans, like them in their history, can struggle for democracy and human rights and succeed without their assistance? In the West, democracy was a product of internal struggle that was slow; lasting generations, and even centuries. There were no foreign lectures and threats. Why do they think Africa cannot follow a similar path?

It is also absurd for the West to demand that every country in the world should have one form of government – liberal democratic capitalism. Liberal democracy in the West emerged out of a very specific historic experience. Yet Western academia, media, diplomacy etc. present it as a universal value that can be imposed on any society, anytime and under any circumstances. The West demands that every country and society should adopt the values or else face sanctions and even war. That for other societies to be seen and appreciated, they must mimic the West. This is hubris gone mad.

Even if it were possible for all countries of the world to become liberal democratic, they need to be given enough time and space to find their way there. Yet the problem is that the West wants to define and also determine the destination. Yet if we have to have politics at all, then the future of Uganda will be determined by the political struggles that ensue, and the negotiations and compromises we shall make along the way. If that is to happen, then we cannot have a predefined and predetermined end. To define and determine the end means that we must abolish politics.

In the specific case of Uganda, Western governments are intervening in a situation they know little about. They are deploying their moral resources blindly and arbitrarily. Who is responsible for the killings that happened during last year’s riots? Who is responsible for the continued abduction of opposition activists? To my knowledge, there is a shadow state conducting these operations. Western diplomats do not know this. Nearly all the major leaders of mainstream security institutions of the state are unaware and disapprove of what is going on. In sanctioning them, America and her acolytes are harming potential allies and leaving the culprits free. How does this promote the cause they seek?

We must ask ourselves whether in taking these decisions the American government is acting in the interests of Uganda at all. It is very possible that these actions are taken to please some constituencies at home such as the human rights mujahedeen and the democracy Taliban. These groups do not act out of any deeper knowledge of the problems of the countries involved and their context. They act out of prejudice, unrealistic idealism and misguided self-righteousness. Consequently, they do not even care about the consequences, often unintended, of their actions on the very environment and people they purport to care about.

Western leaders and their cheerleaders in Africa are even blind to the colonial foundations that inform their current positions. One colonialist said that the African is a child and as with children nothing can be done without the whip of authoritarian power. Another said that Africans are Peter Pan children, a child race. So Africans needed the benevolent and paternalistic hand of the West to save them from themselves. In the colonial period, it was to save us from the tyranny of our customs and the despotism of our rulers. Today every Western country still seeks to liberate us from the same, hence their campaigns against homophobia and female circumcision (to save us from our backward customs) and the campaign for democracy and human rights (to rid us of despotic rulers).


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