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

Friday, April 1, 2011


An African leader who fights corruption will face resistance from powerful vested interests using democracy to subvert his reforms.

Next month, Rwanda commemorates 17 years since the genocide. Most of its citizens look back at what they have achieved with both pride and humility. The society that had been torn asunder by genocide has been reconstituted, the state that had disintegrated has been reconfigured and the economy that had collapsed has been reconstructed.

The RPF was born of three critical grievances which were all official policies of the government: keeping a section of the population as perpetual refugees, denying them equal treatment before the law and denying them equal access to available opportunities. The aim of the RPF was to create a nation where all its citizens would have a right to live inside Rwanda with equal rights before the law and with equal access to opportunities.

Today, all these objectives have been achieved. There is not one single Rwandan living abroad because government policy refuses them the right to return home “because the country is full.” I admit there are many Rwandans in exile afraid to return home for one reason or another – some criminal, others political. But they are the exception, not the rule. Second, in almost all spheres of life, all Rwandans have equal access to available opportunities in education, healthcare, agricultural extension services, civil service, the army, politics etc. Third, today all Rwandans are equal before the law.

I admit that post genocide Rwanda is not a paradise; it has one million and one iniquities. But no society can be perfect, not even Norway and Finland. The rich and powerful in Rwanda may evade justice, get unfair advantage over others or go unpunished for transgressions. However, even accounting for these divergences, post genocide Rwanda has by and large constructed the most fair and equitable society in post colonial Africa.

For example, it is most likely in Rwanda, more than any other country in Africa or even the world that the poorest and least educated citizen in the remotest village can have almost the same opportunity as a cabinet minister to be evacuated for medical treatment abroad if his/her condition so demanded. It is also most likely in Rwanda, more than any other country in Africa or the world that a child born in an extremely poor family with no political connections whatsoever can on its merit get a government scholarship to Harvard. No wonder Rwanda has just been rated the fourth best country in the entire British Commonwealth for a girl child to be born.

While in all Africa a malnourished child is a statistic in government records, it is only in Rwanda in the whole of Africa that every malnourished child has a name, a home and gets milk and cereal at the local government clinic daily. It is only in Rwanda of the 27 African countries I have visited that I have seen government build a hospital equipped with most sophisticated equipment and medical staff in the remotest village to serve ordinary people. And all this in a country with a very low income per capita, a poorly developed human resource base and a country without strong institutional traditions.

The experience I have witnessed in Rwanda over the last seven years has both inspired and humbled me. I had spent most of my career berating governments in Africa for their disinterest in the needs of ordinary people, thinking that this was because of lack of democracy as we conventionally understand it. Over the years, Africa has “democratised” – elections are regular, political parties vibrant, media are loud. But this has not translated into governments that serve the ordinary citizen. Instead, crooks have taken over. In Rwanda I have seen the evolution of a government committed to serving ordinary people.

Yet international human rights groups, sections of the international and regional press and a significant section of Africa’s intellectual class have been relentless and ferocious in their attacks on the Rwanda government generally and President Paul Kagame personally, accusing him of running a Stalinist government. They have forced some enlightened but insecure people in the West to rethink their support for Kagame.

Critics have ignored or failed to see the democratic nature of many of Rwanda’s reforms. For example, Kagame has expanded political participation to ordinary Rwandans, integrated ordinary people in the politics as rights-bearing citizens and not as clients of powerful individuals as is the case in most of Africa. He has also empowered ordinary Rwandans to manage their own affairs through their local councils. This has not been achieved by guesswork but has been a key tenet of his strategy of political consolidation.

This reordering of power has attracted a lot of resistance from vested elite interests who were benefiting from the corruption and patronage. Trying to give ordinary people a voice in politics and make them beneficiaries of government policy and action demands the destabilisation of the status quo. You cannot transform a country’s politics without changing the power structure. And you cannot change the power structure without generating resistance from vested interests. And you cannot defeat that resistance without attacking the instruments vested interests use to dominate the political process.

For example, to deliver services to ordinary people demands that one has to fight corruption and personalised patronage. Yet the corrupt are always the most educated, rich, articulate and influential sections of the society. They speak to BBC and CNN, they have access to human rights groups, they write in local newspapers and they form political parties. They will deploy all these instruments in their struggle to retain their privileges.

Thus, when a reformer seeks to fight corruption and patronage, he is actually taking away the source of power, wealth and status from powerful elites. For we must remember that for every pothole in a road in Africa, someone has built a mansion; for every ghost school, someone has sent their child to Harvard; for every ghost hospital, someone has evacuated their child to Germany for treatment; and for almost every indignity suffered by the ordinary people, someone powerful has made money reaping off the state.

So when a reformer like Kagame attacks their privileges, the thieves hide behind the language of rights to defend their interests – the right to free speech, the right to property and the right to due process. They mobilise human rights groups and the media. Given deeply entrenched prejudices about African leaders – themselves generated by our history – international media and human rights groups mistake thieves to be democrats. So they join the forces of resistance. The reformer realises that the platforms for democracy are not defending the interests of ordinary people but the theft and privileges of a few elites.

Here is the challenge reformers like Kagame face: those who suffer from his anti corruption drive are few but rich, educated and powerful with access to media. So they have a voice. Those who benefit from his anti corruption drive are the least educated and poorest sections of the society. They do not speak on CNN and BBC. They do not have access to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. So they have no voice. Sadly, in Africa those with voice are less than 10 percent of the population. The rest are ordinary rural masses who cannot defend their interests using our inherited democratic platforms.

It is this reality that has forced some of the most promising democracies in Africa – Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Ghana, Mali and Senegal to shy away from confronting the beast of personalised patronage. Instead they have become hostage to a few powerful individuals and groups. In western nations, largely because the median voter is well educated, middle class and has voice in the mass media, corruption is fought through the democratic process. In Africa, because the median voter is semi literate, poor with no voice in the media; and because his/her own traditional values do not treat patronage as abuse of office, the democratic process tends to incubate and reproduce corruption.

In Africa, the elite want power and privilege and they use the press, civil society organisations, political parties, etc. to advance their interests. They even mobilise the masses based on shared identity (religious or ethnic) behind them. Uganda presents the most vivid cases of this perversion of democracy. Except for a few exceptions like Kizza Besigye, all the articulate critics of Yoweri Museveni have over the years joined him in his government – Basoga Nsandu, Tamale Mirundi, Omara Atubo, Aggrey Awori, Nasser Sebaggala, – I can list 1,000 of them off my head.

Museveni has been smart (or opportunistic) enough to learn that rather than fight these powerful elites, he does better by co-opting them. He has thus turned critics into allies. Kagame’s major failure (and equally his biggest achievement) has been to resist these particularistic demands for power and privileges. By doing little to placate the interests of the powerful, he has turned real and potential allies into bitter enemies – hence the virulence of their criticism of him. Most African leaders adopt Museveni’s strategy; it is cheaper and efficient but ordinary people gain little from it. Kagame has gone for the costly route; it has delivered for ordinary people but attracted the hostility of the powerful.

The lesson is simple but powerful: elites in Africa use the democratic process – not to promote the interests of the ordinary person – but to acquire positions of power and privilege. Thus, in spite of its apparent freedoms of speech and press, its vibrant political parties and civic organisations, ordinary Ugandans have gained little in form of public goods and services. Every year 80,000 children of ordinary people die of preventable diseases; in ten years you have a massacre equal to the genocide in Rwanda. Today, 2.3m children are malnourished in Uganda and 16 mothers die in child birth every day.

The above figures are mere anecdotes in our mass media. Yet human rights groups, media and all other democratic platforms of the world will be concerned about one corrupt official running away to exile before he is arrested – because he was a General in the army, a minister in cabinet, etc. Our so-called democratic platforms are so concerned about the privileges of a few powerful elites and so blind to the gross abuses against the vast majority of our people that I wonder whether Africa is thinking at all.

Any leader in Africa who seeks to fight corruption as relentlessly as Kagame is doing, and to deliver public goods and services to ordinary people as Kagame is doing will come face to face with this contradiction: that resistance to his reforms will be built and defended through the very democratic structures we cherish. As I have observed the failure of democratic governments across Africa, I realised that ordinary people actually have limited voice through the press, civic associations and political parties.

To change politics from a contest over the privileges of a few to be a contest over service to the citizen, a genuine reformer will find it almost inevitable – or even necessary – to put restraints on many conventional platforms of democracy. But this also demands that he/she mobilises ordinary people to be active participants in the political process, integrate them in decision making and empower them to manage their own affairs. Rwanda has achieved this, not through political parties and mass media but largely through local councils.

The results show. In the 2010 Gallup Poll, 95 percent of Rwandans said they had confidence in their government; 86 percent said their electoral process is fair and honest; 98 percent have confidence in their military; 84 percent in their judiciary as being independent; 77 percent were satisfied with their freedom of expression, belief, association, and personal autonomy. In all these, Rwanda ranks among the top ten democracies in the world alongside Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, New Zeeland and Australia. This cannot be on account of repression for the same distortion would have placed Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Burma in the top league.

Yet human rights groups and sections of the media call Rwanda a police state. Is repression an objective standard or a subjective feeling? How come human rights groups claim Rwandans are enslaved when Rwandans feel free? It is because freedom has been stripped of context. The result is that Africa has spent decades obsessing about procedures of democracy instead of its substance. By trying to look at democracy indicators based on western societies – mass media, political parties etc – we have ignored the fact that most Africans (80 percent) are not represented in these platforms.

We have a clear incongruence between abstract notions (the index of Freedom House) and the feelings of ordinary Rwandans. Karl Marx encountered this dilemma 160 years ago. In his Labour Theory of Value, he argued that capitalists exploit workers by making them work more hours (Surplus Labour Time) than was needed to produce their own wages (Necessary Labour Time). When workers did not feel exploited, Marx propounded a new theory of “false consciousness”; that they are unaware of their “actual” situation. He then called for a vanguard party to unmask the “social myths” and “religious doctrines” that prevent people from seeing things as they are.

This tendency to think people are ignorant ignores the real possibility that they may have a different basis of judging their reality based on their experience. Most of us who travel by air and have to go through rigorous security checks do not accuse our airports of being Stalinist. We know the context that has demanded we be checked up to our underwear. Human rights groups and sections of the media should not usurp the sovereignty of the people of Rwanda and claim to speak on their behalf. Let Rwandans speak for themselves – which they are already doing through regular elections and opinion polls by some of the world’s most respected polling agencies.


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