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 12, 2009

Why Uganda’s democracy fails

Why, given the apparent democratic space in Uganda compared to Rwanda, is the delivery of public goods and services in our country so poor compared to our southern neighbour? Colin Barigye, in last week’s issue argued that such services are easy to deliver under a dictatorship because ‘autocrats make things happen because they work through unilateral decrees and autocratic directives.’

This argument sounds theoretically convincing but is empirically wrong. Most democracies everywhere outperform autocratic regimes in service delivery ‘ Mobutu’s Zaire compared to Botswana or Burma compared to South Korea. Dictators service their personal interests through decrees, not the interests of the citizens. Dictators do not care about the people except the influential groups around them.

The obvious discrepancy between democratic space and the quality of public services in Uganda is because elites have made a tragic bargain: In exchange for a freehand to loot public resources and destroy public goods and services, the regime has given elites ‘freedom’ to shout wolf in newspapers and radios, evade taxes, violate traffic rules, throw garbage on the streets and build in road reserves.

This chaos and anarchy that some Ugandans mistake for liberty and freedom are antithetical to democracy. They are a breeding incubator for fascism as Russia (1917) and Germany (1920s) teach us. The basis of any democracy is the rule of law, not the impunity we see in Uganda. Although the benefits of our current bargain go to elites, the costs are incurred largely by ordinary people who constitute 90% of our population.

President Yoweri Museveni’s strategy of building his power involves buying off the loudest and influential elites through patronage hence the large size of cabinet, presidential advisors and assistants, RDCs and over 150 commissions and semi autonomous government bodies. The cost of public administration (political appointments) has increased from Shs 200 billion in 2002 to Shs 980 billion this year.

Equally, since the state is the largest consumer in our nation, the private sector has been brought into the fold through state contracts, tenders, land give away bonanzas, cash payments, tax exemptions etc. Such personalised privileges are given by the president to build political support. With vast resources going into patronage, less money is available for roads, schools, hospitals, medical care and education.

By its very nature, patronage is selective, discriminates and excludes. The patron decides which clients to reward or penalise. President Museveni has said that the allocation of services will go to the areas that vote for him. This creates intense competition among groups; some in support in order to get services, others in opposition in order to be bribed to offer support. Although such competition may show vibrant civic life, it is actually a political pathology that sustains a regime in power whose strategy of political consolidation is socially harmful.

Clearly, the benefits of this patronage are enjoyed individually while the costs are incurred collectively. For example, the minister enjoys the Land Cruiser alone or with his family, a luxury created at the cost of not maintaining roads. Yet the price of potholes e.g. on trade is imposed on society as a whole. This unfair distribution of benefits to individuals and costs to society has created public resentment which is reflected in agitation ‘ on radio and in newspapers. Institutional dysfunctions have thus created a large market for public spirited journalism and debate.

But why has this ‘democratic space’ not steered the vast majority of Ugandans to demand better public services? In exchange for destroying our public health and education systems the regime has given the elite a liberal environment to create private sector alternatives. Therefore, the most articulate sections of our society have exited public services, thus robbing them of voice. This way, the regime has been successful in separating key elite groups from the rest of the population i.e. cutting the head (leadership) from the rest of the body (followership).

The strategy of political consolidation in Rwanda is based on the provision of public goods and services ‘ good roads, schools and hospitals and quality health and education. The country has a national health insurance scheme where any citizen, regardless of income (if they needed it) can be evacuated for a heart or kidney transplant anywhere in the world. Every student has access to a loan for university education, scholarships to study abroad are given by a board on institutionally determined criteria, applicants and their profiles are pinned on the notice board for everyone to see the transparency of the process.

If you build good roads with pedestrian walkways, you cannot exclude those who oppose the government from using them. Equally, it does not matter whether you support the sitting government or oppose it; as long as you are a citizen in Rwanda you have access to the aforementioned healthcare and student loans.

The costs of this strategy are incurred by a few elites that would otherwise benefit from corruption and patronage. But the benefits go to all citizens. This does not create a strong market for the kind of public spirited journalism we see in Uganda. Public spirited people in Rwanda would therefore tend to serve government in order to achieve its socially beneficial public goods-and-services delivery agenda. This partly explains why the media and civil society in Rwanda are weak.

The particular way in which democracy has evolved in Uganda has left ordinary people without voice. Yet these are people with no exit options from public services; they cannot afford to pay for their children’s education or medical bills in private schools and hospitals. This has also left significant landmines in Uganda’s reform path.

For example, although over 80% of Ugandans are resentful of government, the opposition has not gained much traction. Why? The public does not see the difference between those in power and those seeking to take it away from them. They see political competition as a struggle among elites to share ‘the spoils’ as it were. So in elections, people ask politicians for advance payment; in exchange for alcohol or salt, they are willing to sell their vote. This defeats the cause of democracy because elections are not about making choice but about surrendering it.


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