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, October 26, 2010


Last Saturday, October 16, I was a guest on Capital Radio’s Capital Gang programme and our debate settled down to the subject of democracy in Africa – specifically on Uganda and Rwanda. Like most debate on anything in Africa, the discussion did not use the facts of a case i.e. the actual dynamics driving a country. Rather, it relied on a set of assumptions drawn from the experience of others which were super-imposed on our reality.

Debate on governance in Africa is frustrating because we focus on the procedures of democracy instead of its substance. For example, Freedom House has a check-list of indicators for democracy: Press freedom, multiple political parties, regular elections etc. Although these are important aspects of democracy, their mere presence does not mean that a country is democratic. Many African countries go through all the motions of democracy yet these rituals serve little or no democratic function.

If the mere practice of these rituals means a country is democratic, then it is a democracy like one that existed in the US in 1900 – where only propertied white males participated. The rest of the people – poor white men, all women, blacks and Native Americans were not part of this democratic experiment. The African story is more nuanced.

On the face of it Ghana, Mali, Kenya, Senegal and Mozambique have universal adult suffrage; all the citizens are free to use the mass media and political parties to participate in the political process. Yet most Africans are ordinary uneducated peasants living in rural areas. They are not part of civil society; they belong to “traditional” society.

The “masses” are not excluded from the political process as women and ethnic minorities were in the US. Rather, they are integrated into it; not as rights-bearing citizens but as clients of powerful individuals; and this is how the majority of Africans are actually disenfranchised. The “capture” of the masses by powerful elites is done largely but not entirely through ethnic politics. Ethnicity is used to blur the situational differences between elites and their poor co-ethnics; and thus allows the latter to use the former to bargain for positions of power and privilege.

The most illuminating example of this is a conversation I had with Rwanda’s former chief of security, Patrick Karegyeya. Together with three other colleagues, they issued a document in which they accused Paul Kagame of “marginalising the Hutu.” I sent Karegyeya an SMS asking what this meant. He answered: “Can you tell me of any single Hutu since 1994 who had ever had any say in any decision making (political or otherwise) in Rwanda?” Meaning if there were a few Hutu elites with power and influence around Kagame that would mean that the Hutu in Rwanda are not marginalised.

Now Rwanda has the highest primary school enrolment in Africa – at 97 percent; the highest level of medical insurance coverage of all its citizens at 92 percent, better than the world’s biggest economy, the United States. The World Bank has just nominated Rwanda for an award as the most successful country in combating child and infant mortality. Malaria morbidity and mortality have reduced by over 80 percent and the HIV/AIDS prevalence is less than 3 percent, down from 11 percent in 2000. Maternal mortality, average life expectancy and doctor-to-patient ratio are all growing impressively.

These achievements have only been possible because Rwanda has decentralised power and given ordinary citizens voice in the management of their affairs. At the lowest level of the village Rwandans draw up checklists of the things they want done in their communities. These inform government policies. District leaders enter a contract with the president on achieving the goals set by people themselves. A performance assessment is done every year evaluating promises against realised goals. The beneficiaries of these programmes are largely ordinary Hutu; integrated into power from the lowest level.

Yet many African elites would share Karegyeya’s sentiment. But look: The second most influential man in Uganda after President Yoweri Museveni is Amama Mbabazi from Kanungu district. Many people would conclude that the people of Kanungu are in power. Yet Kanungu has the highest levels of child malnutrition in Uganda after IDP camps in war-torn Acholi. I know that identity has strong emotive appeal – people see in their powerful co-ethnics a promise of their own future. But ethnicity is not everything. Mbabazi and a few elites are not “the people of Kanungu.”

Yet Mbabazi is not an oddity; his is the story of Africa’s democratic experiment. If President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya wants to win the vote of the Akamba, he does not do so by addressing their existential needs – over land, jobs and taxes. He makes a deal with a powerful Akamba politician, Kalonzo Musyoka and a few elites. These mobilise their co-ethnics for Kibaki. His opponent, Raila Odinga, does the same to win the Kalenjin: rather than address their existential needs, he does a deal with William Ruto.

If Museveni wants to win the Bairu vote in Ankole, he does little to address their concerns over healthcare, education and transportation. He appoints Amanya Mushega, Kahinda Otafiire and Ephraim Kamuntu into his cabinet. These will rally Bairu masses to vote for him. His opponent, Kizza Besigye, in trying to win over the Baganda does not address their concerns over land and agricultural policy. He strikes a deal with two former Katikkiros – Ssemwogerere Mulwanyamuli and Daniel Muliika.

We all know this! What is frustrating is the apparent failure of African intellectuals to use it as part of their analysis of how democracy is evolving in our countries. This deal making among elites has powerful implications on the evolution of functional states. Because if a politician can win votes by appeasing a few elites, that is certainly a more cost-effective strategy than building strong institutions and implementing sound policies to serve the public good.

Institutions take a lot of time and money to build and extraordinary discipline to make them functional. So through a genuinely democratic process, politicians find it profitable to offer private goods (jobs, cars, contracts, etc for elites and envelops stuffed with cash, alcohol, sugar and salt for the poor) than to deliver public goods and services. Across Africa, the more democracy has spread the less effective the state has become as an instrument for serving the public good and the higher corruption has grown.

African elites operate in a specific social context – of a majority of voters being poor peasants. Peasant agriculture depends predominantly on nature. The vagaries of weather have across time and space fostered the evolution of particular social adaptations which James Scott in The Moral Economy of the Peasant called “the subsistence ethic.” Patterns of reciprocity, patron-client ties, work sharing and extended family systems are social institutions erected to provide insurance against the risk of starvation. These constitute the moral universe of peasants and inform how their choices are made.

For example, a hungry or sick peasant goes to a better-off neighbour or relative for assistance and expects his needs to be attended to. Likewise, the better-off relative or neighbour responds positively because that is what is expected of him/her by the society’s value system. To act otherwise is seen as wrong and attracts social sanction in form of negative gossip and a bad reputation. However, such acts are investments too; in helping the needy, the rich neighbour cultivates a reputation of being a “good man.”

This value system at the level of the village creates a specific form of politics at the national level; politicians who want to cultivate a political following must build a reputation of being generous. For those in political office, this reputation is built through the distribution of favours using public funds, often called corruption. So Minister X will use public funds to pay fees, meet funeral expenses and other private needs of his constituents. In return, the masses reward him/her with loyalty and support.

Poor people attach great importance to expressions of kindness and generosity. To them a good leader is a man who gives gifts directly in form of money and goods – like African chiefs of old. When Museveni openly gives envelops stuffed with cash to ordinary people, as has become his norm these days, he is addressing a vital existential need to gain political advantage. He does it publicly in order to show others that when they get access to him, their personal needs will be addressed.

Therefore, what goes for democratic competition in most of Africa is a contest among elites to control power; not to change how it is organised, exercised and reproduced. Instead of representing the wishes of the population at large, many “democratic” governments in Africa actually represent the interests of a few elites. This alternation of elites in power, as we see in Ghana, is what is called democracy in Africa.

This nuance finds little expression in academic and intellectual circles in Africa and the West because the debate on democracy ignores our context. Instead, we are always seeking the right analogies from the experience of societies with an entirely different social structure. This explains the fanatical obsession with procedures and rituals over the substance of democracy.

It is here that I disagree with a large section of the democratic crowd in Africa when it comes to Paul Kagame in Rwanda. Kagame represents the first and most important attempt to reform politics in Africa from being elite-centred to being people-centred. Rather than seek to win the support of a few elites, he is building a state that can deliver services to the anonymous citizen without much recourse to political connections and personal patronage.

Thus, be it in education, health, agricultural extension services – a whole broad spectrum of public policy issues – ordinary Rwandans do not need political Godfathers to access education scholarships, medical evacuation, fertilizers etc. This is not to say that Rwanda has arrived. Rather, it is that Kagame is building the actual foundation of a modern democratic state by turning the people of Rwanda from being clients into citizens. Clients get favours from patrons; citizens get rights from the state.

It is possible that Kagame does this because of a strong authoritarian streak which has made him refuse to yield “democratic space” to elites contesting for power in Kigali. Yet it is precisely by resisting pressures from powerful political elites that Kagame has been forced to empower the masses. Rather than use a few ethnic intermediaries to win their co-ethnics, Kagame goes directly to the voter through service delivery. This strategy has forced him to build an effective and functional state.

Kagame is disbanding elite privileges – like stealing public funds and yet remain in office because you are indispensable, untouchable; if removed, you can turn entire communities against the president. We know that many presidents in Africa fail to crack down on the corrupt because their co-ethnics will turn against the ruling party. Kagame has said “NO” to this blackmail. The losers in his reforms are few; but the most influential, vocal and articulate sections of society. They speak on BBC and VOA. They have access to Human Rights Watch and Reporters’ Without Borders to complain.

Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of Kagame’s reforms are largely the poor majority who are illiterate peasants. They have little or no voice in local and international media or among human rights groups. These voiceless beneficiaries of progressive change should count on my untiring support; for I believe that the primary duty of government is to serve the most ordinary person – that anonymous citizen who has no political Godfathers.


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