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, December 14, 2010


The 2011 elections are being contested against the background of an almost virtual collapse of the public spirit in Uganda. With our infrastructure and public services largely malfunctioning, with corruption the key organising principle of power, and with nepotism and personalism dominating our lives, we must ask why competitive multiparty elections, a free press and vibrant civic associations have not stopped our country’s descent into Africa’s decade-long problem of neo-patrimonial rule. This article seeks to demonstrate how our government secures individual compliance with policies and practices that inflict collective harm on the general population.

Ironically, the first thoroughgoing attempt to reform politics in Africa was actually done by Yoweri Museveni in the early 1990s. The reforms he embraced were economic (liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation) and sought to remove control of the economy from the state. But they had powerful political implications because state involvement in the economy had previously been used by incumbents to build political coalitions.

For example, governments would reward their supporters or buy off real and potential opponents with jobs in the public sector. Onerous controls on the economy gave the state power to decide who got a licence to invest or trade; so only loyalists would prosper. Disbanding this economic system was therefore not merely a technocratic reform of the economy. It was essentially a revolutionary reordering of power and politics.

Across Africa, leaders and their governments resisted. The late 1980s and 90s was a period of battle between many governments in Africa and the World Bank and IMF. Museveni defended these reforms in theory and implemented them in practice. As a reward, he got increased foreign aid, praises from Western governments and media as Africa’s leading reformer. Uganda’s economy began a long term growth trajectory. It did not take long for other leaders to notice the rewards of reform and the costs of resistance.

Yet at the level of politics, Museveni faltered and fell back to Mobutu’s ways of organising power. To win support of particular constituencies, he sought tribal and religious balancing. He used opportunities created by economic reforms to buy off powerful ethno-regional and religious elites with private goods (government jobs, cars and opportunities for corruption) in exchange for their support and that of their followers. This undermined the incentives to build a functional state to deliver public goods and services to the ordinary citizen.

Why did Museveni, of all people, adopt Mobutu’s ways of holding and retaining power? Nobel laureate Douglas North argued that states, economic systems and social systems constitute complex and closely interconnected wholes; so change is difficult to achieve. What often happens is that inefficient economic systems persist for long periods of time following the path determined by earlier institutional choices. North called this “path dependency”.

Therefore, “path dependency” refers to cases where initial choice of a particular technology locks an economy into a sequence of adaptive technologies that block the adoption of more efficient technologies. It seems to me that Museveni’s path was inspired by those African leaders who had demonstrated incredible ability to retain power – Mobutu and Moi. He locked Uganda into the kind of politics which he knew to work.

This neo-patrimonial approach to politics undermines the evolution of collective organisations to demand better services. First, organising collective action is not only difficult but also costly: Governments can view it as an attempt to challenge their power; and governments jail or kill those who organise in opposition to their policies. Therefore, the costs of resistance are suffered immediately; they are certain. Yet the rewards of removing a regime come at a later date; so they are uncertain.

Thus, rather than organise as business people, as teachers, as medical workers, as vendors, as farmers, as workers etc to alter government policy and risk the wrath of the state, many people in Africa find it cheaper and safer to try to be individual exceptions to the general problem. Corruption and personalism are the ways through which people circumvent bad policies; but they are also the ways our governments use to secure individual compliance with policies and practices that inflict collective harm on society.

For example, the policy environment may be bad for business generally. But for a visit to State House, and making a campaign contribution to the ruling party, a businessman may get a subsidised loan, free public prime land or a tax waiver. This will give him a competitive edge over his rivals. Competitors soon realise that rather than organise collectively to demand better policies, they do better lobbying for similar favours from the state. So everyone begins seeking audience with the president.

The medical services in the country may be atrocious; but by being close to the First Lady, an MP can secure the evacuation of his wife for first class medical treatment in Germany. And while the education system may be falling apart, an influential politician can secure a scholarship from State House for his sons to study in America.

Ordinary people seek to replicate this system: By supplicating before her MP, a single mum may get fees for her daughter; a farmer can get cash to pay his mother’s medical bills and a voter at a rally can get a kilo of meat or sugar. These small acts of kindness and generosity elicit strong emotive appeal especially among the rural masses and the urban poor.

Whoever gets these special favours will have limited incentive in organising the collective interests of the affected community as a whole. Therefore, although the interests of the affected person and those of the government may be in conflict at the level of official policy, they are actually consonant at the level of unofficial practice. It is through this personalised access to those in positions of authority that our governments disable the conditions that facilitate the evolution of collective organisations to resist their misrule.

This allows us to understand the political functions of corruption and personalism. It is not in the interests of those in power to build political institutions that can ensure an impersonal application of public policy. Power is built through these personal dependencies. It seems to me that in the short term, democracy (or the peculiar way it is evolving in Uganda) promotes this trend.


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