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

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dictatorships don’t serve the people; they give privileges to their cronies

Dear Colin, I read your letter regarding my views on the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, with interest and disappointment. Although you raise some legitimate issues, I was disappointed by its innuendoes and insinuations where you accuse me of being “journalist of fortune” and of ‘selling my soul’ ‘ something uncharacteristic of you. However, I will not stoop that low to trade false accusations but instead address the otherwise legitimate issues you raised.

Throughout my debates with you and in newspaper articles and radio shows over the last 15 years, I have always defended former President Milton Obote whom you denounce as a dictator. Equally, I have been an ardent admirer of Kwame Nkrumah (who jailed political opponents and shut down newspapers), Thomas Jefferson (who was president of a country where black people were slaves), Park Chung Hee, the dictator who transformed South Korea etc. Yet in spite of this obvious contradiction, you still admired my writings. Why then do you make Kagame an exception?

This contradiction should not be surprising at all. Democratic France today celebrates the life and leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte who was a dictator. In his dramatic closing remarks during his treason trial, Nelson Mandela said that ‘a free and democratic society’ was an ideal he was willing to die for. As president, he got close to Muammar Gadhaffi of Libya and Fidel Castro of Cuba, both of whom are known despots. Many voices especially in the USA began to point out this obvious contradiction. Mandela insisted he got close to these leaders because of their role in assisting the ANC fight Apartheid while the US supported it. In short, Mandela was saying it is unfair to judge any leader on the basis of only one score – freedom.

It is with this background that I find your position on Kagame dishonest. Your disregard of his government’s dedication to provide public goods and services even to the poorest citizens amidst insurmountable odds, both human and material, is shocking and sad. It takes a lot of time, effort, resources, discipline and a genuine concern for the interests of ordinary citizens to build institutions and put in place public policies that can deliver such public goods and services. That Kagame has achieved that in Rwanda would elicit admiration even from the most biased opponents.

For example, by 1994, Rwanda had only one surgeon. With fewer doctors and nurses and no institutional traditions to lean on, that country today offers far better medical and hospital services than Uganda ‘ a country with a strong tradition of high quality public medical care in Africa. Museveni used to claim that our dysfunctions were caused by Obote and Idi Amin. He has been in power longer than their combined period yet the state of our healthcare is a disaster. Yet within four years, Rwanda has built a national medical insurance system so that even a poor peasant who needs it is flown to South Africa or India for a kidney or heart transplant.

You know that ordinary Ugandans who need such expensive treatment just die. The lucky ones get space in newspapers to appeal to good Samaritans for assistance ‘ and few get it. Meanwhile, the president flies his daughters in the presidential jet to Germany and Spain for small medical issues such as delivery of babies. One public official recently spent over Shs 500 million on specialised medical treatment abroad at public expense as Mulago Hospital lacks even the most basic things as gloves for nurses.

As mothers in Mulago die with their babies for lack of basic medical attention and drugs, the residence of the president ‘ State House ‘ hosting one man and his wife and a few private secretaries, was this year allocated Shs 90 billion. Mulago was allocated Shs 40 billion. How can you be so blind to this blatant abuse of the public trust by our leadership? You claim that these Ugandans have exit options when you know that since they are poor, the only exit option is to go to witchdoctors i.e. back to the Stone Age.

How can you defend as democratic a regime that steals from its own people, lets the vulnerable die of simple diseases as the powerful indulge in excesses, send hooded gangs to invade courts of law, jail a presidential candidate and try him in a military court on trumped up charges, shut down radio stations and newspapers and blatantly give public money and assets for free to their cronies?

Look, the total money spent on the health sector by the Ugandan government and donors this financial year alone (Shs 1.3 trillion) is over 85% of the total budget of the government of Rwanda (Shs 1.5 trillion). Were Ugandans to have a government responsive to the needs of 90% of its people as opposed to a handful of elites, this tragedy in our national healthcare system would not happen.
In Rwanda, you can walk kilometres upon kilometres of road with pedestrian walkways because the government there cares about the rights and safety of ordinary citizens. In Uganda, roads are built without any consideration for pedestrians because of the elite-driven attitude of the state: those with cars matter, those who walk on foot can fall in ditches, get knocked/injured or killed.

Colin, in Uganda, only a small group of elite students from Gayaza, Namagunga and Budo pass well enough to get state sponsorship at university. The children of the poor who in 1970 could go to any good school and then to Makerere University cannot do so today. So they have no hope of gaining a foothold at the ladder of self advancement. In Rwanda, every student is entitled to a loan for university education. Scholarships to study abroad are given by a board on a clearly laid out criteria. Scholarships to study abroad in Uganda are given by State House on criteria no one knows.

Public officials who steal public funds in Rwanda are arrested and tried. I was shocked that you are angry at Kagame for ‘sending shivers down the spines’ of the corrupt. I want my president to do it in Uganda yet he lets the thieves go scot free. This impunity of officialdom in Uganda continues in the face of ‘free press and civic associations’ because these institutions have largely been corrupted and co-opted by the regime. The vast majority of Ugandans have no voice; they cannot speak through elections because the regime blatantly steals their votes as it steals their money.

Clearly, power in Rwanda is being institutionalised while in Uganda it is still personalised. To argue that Rwanda government’s investment in improving the welfare of all its citizens is because ‘autocrats make things happen through unilateral decrees and autocratic directives’ is absurd. You know very well that the best public services in the world are found in democracies while the worst are found in dictatorships.

My friend, autocratic decrees do not deliver services to the ordinary citizen. They give privileges to the powerful. Indeed, unilateral decrees and arbitrary directives are commonplace in Uganda ‘ witness how Museveni dishes out public money, land and other vital public assets to his cronies and shady investors ‘ Tri Star, UCB, Dairy Corporation, Shimoni Primary School land, Mabira Forest, the list is endless. No such decree or directive has been issued to save Makerere from rotting, Mulago from collapsing, schools and markets from burning and roads from falling apart!

Colin, I hope during your time of service in the government of Uganda you have not lost your soul. I know there are limited opportunities for promotion on grounds of merit and probity. Instead, the government you serve rewards sycophancy and theft. I hope you have not succumbed to this structure of incentives and begin to praise a system that has launched our country on the road to national destruction. Finally, I hope you have not joined those who use the prerogatives of office to plunder public resources and then use ‘voice’ i.e. access to media to justify their loot.

There is no doubt that Kagame has many weaknesses and possibly makes a million mistakes per day. Aspects of his authoritarian style worry even his most ardent admirers. His government’s attitude to press freedom is disappointing as it is self defeating. As a reformer, Kagame has demonstrated that individuals can make many things happen. But institutions make things last. Unless his reforms are rooted in civic institutions independent of the state, they remain vulnerable to reversal.

I understand that for any right or freedom to thrive, it must be nourished by a country’s nutrient culture, history, experience and traditions ‘ a factor you so easily ignore. I agree with many observers on Rwanda that the country lacks traditions of free-wheeling debate as we see in Uganda. I also know that the most dominant influence in the Rwandan state ‘ the Tutsi ‘ have experienced press freedom not as an instrument of democracy but of propagating their extermination.

The leadership in Rwanda confirms a local saying that one who has been bitten by a snake is always terrified by a lizard. Indeed the failure to appreciate this fact has created an unhealthy impasse between RPF and its critics. Insisting on it to nurture press freedom is as hard as trying to convince the US leadership about giving freedom to Jihads to form on American soil. For most people in the Muslim world, Jihads are tools of liberation; in the US, they are agents of terrorism.

Yet hard as it is for us to ask, I believe that those who care about the future of freedom should keep reminding Kagame and the RPF that they have a duty to transcend this ugly experience and make deliberate efforts to nurture a free press because ultimately, only a free civic space can be the guarantor of their achievements. Asking this with a clear appreciation of their legitimate fears born of their experience will be critical.

But judging Kagame on a broad continuum of his leadership record, he is one of the best presidents this continent has produced over the last 60 years. For many Africans who have visited Rwanda, Kagame gives us renewed hope that our continent is capable of self correction. His ability to bring a country that had been written off as a failed state to one with the most effective state in contemporary Africa is inspiring. His commitment to openly fight corruption at great personal risk is a great plus. His efforts to improve services to the citizen should be applauded.

Kagame’s commitment to Rwanda is extraordinary given the leadership Africa has witnessed since independence. While most African leaders are obsessed with personal power, Kagame places the interests of his country above his personal interest. Initially, I thought this was a personal bias on my part, and an obvious bias among many of my Rwandan friends. But as I travelled around the world talking to international statesmen, academics and some of the world’s leading businesspeople who have visited Rwanda and met him, I realised that this view is widely shared.

It is not a surprise therefore, that the most enlightened global statesmen of our time ‘ Tony Blair and Bill Clinton ‘ have both found in Kagame a great leader. Blair has taken on the role of advisor while Clinton appointed Kagame to the board of the Clinton Global Initiative. Some of the wealthiest/respected business leaders in the world have taken roles as advisors to Kagame ‘ some even abandoning their businesses worth billions of dollars to go and serve in the Rwandan government pro bono.

From Singapore to South Korea, India to USA, Britain to Australia, leaders of the world’s leading nations and companies are flocking to Rwanda inspired by a president who is unique ‘ not just as an African leader ‘ but as a true global leader. In my interviews and discussions with all those who have dealt with him, they say Kagame is honest, principled and cares deeply about his country and its people.

This way, Kagame is very much like former Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere. Though authoritarian and socialist, Nyerere projected a high level of honesty, integrity and simplicity. Therefore, in spite of his anti-democratic credentials and the collapse of Tanzania’s economy under his rule, he still enjoys a lot of followership and hero status including in my heart. Tanzanians and foreigners forgive Nyerere’s mistakes because his actions were not driven by a pecuniary motive but a genuine desire to build his country. When he realised his mistake, he voluntarily resigned.

The rest of your arguments were sloganeering about the complex question of democratic accountability. I had argued in my article that on the face of it, all the elements that define a democracy ‘ a tradition of free debate, an educated middleclass, political parties, vibrant civic associations, a strong media etc are more developed in Uganda than Rwanda. Why is Rwanda’s government more responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens while the one in Uganda simply steals from them? To say this is because Uganda is democratic and Rwanda autocratic is absurd. Colin, democracies do not rob their own citizens the way we are witnessing in Uganda.

Historian Will Durant argued that philosophy begins when we start to question our strongly held dogmas and beliefs. My article sought to question the way we think about democracy. It seems to me the way it is evolving in Uganda is injurious to the public good. I may be wrong, but my article sought to provoke debate. Instead of seeking to address this critical issue, you went on rampage regurgitating conventional explanations about democracy and accountability where the evidence staring in our very eyes from Rwanda and Uganda actually begs that question.

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