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

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Last week, The Independent published a list of the relatives and in laws of President Yoweri Museveni that have been politically appointed into senior positions in government. We also did an analysis of why the president has sought a strategy of family rule and its likely consequences on the nation’s future.

 People at State House were angry; some wanted us arrested and jailed. Others even wanted the paper shut down. We expected both. However, saner voices cautioned against drastic action arguing that if we are arrested and shut down, the story will spread like wildfire and across this nation and beyond. And since its basic facts are largely accurate, the president’s image abroad (none seemed to care about his image within Uganda) will be gravely damaged.

According to sources at State House, the Dirty Tricks desk is going to be working in overdrive – to find some fault with me personally and other of our editors: A traffic offence, falsely calculated tax arrears, and/or blow out of proportion a small and obscure story with some mistakes to get the revenge they need. So the public is going to see many manoeuvres. But whatever the state decides to do, we at The Independent have always been ready for any such eventualities – jail, torture or even death – because we know freedom is not free.

Many things are going wrong in Uganda today. There is widespread discontent in the population. Well placed public officials, singly or in collusion with allies in the private sector are looting public resources with reckless abandon. Yet there is no punishment for these gross abuses of power. As a result, public goods like roads, hospitals and schools are crumbling under the weight of neglect and disrepair while public services like heath care and education are in shambles.

Indeed, some of the most resentful people are inside government departments – the army, the security services and the ruling party. They have watched the steady erosion of the public spirit and the growth of personal/individual greed unseen in our country before. Some historical leaders of NRM have watched helplessly as fortune seekers and job hunters have taken control of the revolution they sacrificed so much for in order to endear themselves with the president.

The opposition does not inspire much hope either. Their internal incoherence and lack of strategy coupled with lack of a clear alternative policy agenda has limited their ability to build an effective organisational machine. There is a silver lining to Uganda’s tragedy because even though our politics has taken a turn for the worse, the private sector has continued to grow and with it a large and educated middle class.

One hopes that the young and successful Ugandans in the public and private sectors and in civil society will not remain passive spectators in the processes that are shaping our nation. We at The Independent, at great sacrifice to our freedom, material comfort and our lives have created a truly independent platform through which Ugandans can freely and fearlessly debate public issues affecting our country. One such critical issue is the attempt by the president to personalise the state.

I have great confidence that in the medium to long term, Ugandans will rid themselves of the current corruption and nepotism that is eating at our nation’s entrails. But why is it that in the short term, the looters seem to be winning through corruption, electoral fraud, blackmail, subterfuge, bribery and intimidation?

A democratic struggle has inherent weaknesses that undermine incentives for collective action. All of us want a genuine democracy. However, the dictator in charge of the state is unwilling to yield any ground unless he is forced out by public pressure. To organise such public pressure requires collective action. But the dictator will isolate the leader of such resistance and inflict high costs on such individual.

For example, he will arrest and jail you – and as in the case of Kizza Besigye – charge you with rape and treason. When the courts attempt to give you bail, he will take you to the Army Court Martial and charge you with terrorism. He will arrest your wife and detain her at Jinja Road Police Station for a week, then chase her siblings into exile, jail your brother who will die as soon as he is released. He will also send your sisters to exile, undermine your business and harass your friends and relatives.

Therefore, the costs of trying to organise collective action against a thieving dictator are incurred in the present time; they are therefore immediate and certain – you know what you will get. Yet the rewards of removing a dictator e.g. capturing power, living in a democracy etc come at a later time; they are therefore uncertain. Behavioural scientists will tell you that most humans prefer unhappiness over uncertainty. This is best captured by: “Better a devil you know than an angel you don’t.”
But there is another problem: economists call it “Free Riding.” Democracy is a public good.

If you fight hard and make all the sacrifices to bring it into being, you cannot exclude those who didn’t contribute to its realisation from enjoying its benefits. If there is freedom of speech and press, and if there are free and fair elections, everyone will be a beneficiary of such a fair system whether they joined the struggle of not. For most people, it is better to leave others – like Kizza Besigye or Charles Onyango-Obbo – to suffer constant harassment, go to jail, or be forced into exile etc.

Those who sacrifice for freedom and democracy metaphorically offer a “free ride” to those who do not. Because once democracy is won, those who did not fight and even those who collaborated with the dictatorship will all turn up to enjoy its benefits. This structure of incentives creates collective action failure as many people tend to choose to free ride. That is why – even though I disagree with many things about him, I hold Besigye in extremely high esteem because of the enormous sacrifices he has made in attempting to challenge Museveni. Freedom is expensive and those who desire it should be willing to sacrifice a lot.

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