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

Monday, February 19, 2018

The challenge of state legitimacy

Government can only govern if people comply with its demands, but why do people comply?

The German sociologist, Max Weber, argued that if the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be. Then he posed an important question: when and why do men obey? He identified three main types of legitimate authority: the first that is derived from the personal charisma of a ruler, the second derived from tradition, and the third derived from a set of widely accepted laws and rules that determine who should govern and how.

For Weber these three types were idealised abstractions not found in reality. The reality is that governments hold power through a dynamic mix of means and strategies. This mix is also fluid and differs from time to time and from place to place based on resources available, culture, and history. Yet in most writings today, these idealised abstractions by Weber are taken almost literally.

The Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, always quotes the remark of former Makerere University don, Prof. Dan Mudoola, during the days when the Constitutional Commission was collecting views about a new constitution i.e. that the central challenge of government is to govern. This is even more pronounced in Africa because of the artificiality of the state combined with its limited resources to perform even the most basic functions.

Government can only govern if people comply with its demands or, at the very least, do not challenge its ability to govern. But why would people choose to comply with government demands? There are many reasons we can speculate about. One of the sources of such legitimacy is the ability of the state to provide a wide range of public goods and services to all citizens. But as I have argued consistently in this column over the last three weeks, this strategy is unaffordable for most of the nations of Africa in large part because they do not have sufficient financial, leave alone human, resources to govern that way as happens in rich nations.

Therefore, if you are a president of an African country, you must use other strategies of legitimation that are affordable. One of them is patronage, which may or may not take the form of corruption. For example, a president may appoint an individual who commands the respect of a given community into cabinet. This individual may be a traditional leader, an articulate youth, a respected professional, a successful businessperson, a religious cleric or a well-regarded intellectual. This person will act as the bridge between the president (or ruling party) and his or her group.

However, there are many other strategies of legitimation. For example, people may support a government because the leader is charismatic or because he is seen as an effective champion of the values and causes they hold dear. People may follow a leader because the rules that they respect confer authority upon him – whether these rules come from tradition (as in monarchies) or religion (as in theocracies) or from political bargains (as in constitutional republics).

People might also follow a leader through naked self-interest because they are getting or expect to get specific personal benefits. They may also follow a leader because they fear punishment if they don’t or because they seek protection against real or imagined external or internal threats or because it gives them a sense of belonging and group identity. Let us call this “tribalism” and I will return to this later in the article to show why it is important.

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