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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 17, 2020

Uganda’s politics of fiction

How political competition in our country is conducted on wild promises based on imaginary state capabilities

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | We are entering an election season and many things are going to go wrong in this country. President Yoweri Museveni will not initiate anything serious fearing its implications on voters. But he will enter a spending binge where loads of cash will be given to individuals and groups that he knows represent particular voter segments. So the State House budget is going to be huge next financial year. Then we are going to hear a lot of rhetoric from opposition politicians promising to build bridges where no rivers exist. To counter them Museveni too will make many wild promises.

This mad-rush to please voters with promises of publically funded welfare programs far exceed the resources of the state. This is the challenge of every poor country. This is because the state in poor countries is constructed (functionally) on the same lines of the state in advanced countries. We take the governance structure of advanced nations as the standard on which other states should organise themselves. We ignore the fact that this governance structure is recent in all the advanced countries and only became possible because of enormous growth in state revenues.

For instance, the state in rich countries provides all its citizens with a large basket of public goods and services. These include supply of water treatment plants, electricity generation, transmission and distribution facilities, schools and universities, hospitals and health centers, roads, bridges, airports, railways and seaports. These public goods ensure the delivery of public services such as clean piped water, electricity, education, medical care, transportation etc. For the most part, government legitimacy in rich countries depends on the ability of the state to perform these functions.

But the state in rich countries has not always been like this. The classical state was a war-making machine. As Charles Tilly has argued in his famous paper “War Making and State Making as Organised Crime”, states made war and war made states. So the basic function of the classical state was the maintenance of law and order and also ensuring the security of person and property of (often) the most important citizens. The modern welfare state is a recent development, beginning in the late 19th century but gaining its current form after World War Two. And as already argued above, it was only possible because of enormous growth in state revenues.

At independence all poor countries built the state along these lines of vast welfare functions of the developed. They mimicked the state in rich nations by seeking to base their legitimacy on the provision of a large basket of public goods and services. However, the state in poor countries lacks the necessary revenues to govern this way. How do governments in poor countries reconcile this? Because what we see is a poor man e.g. MTN’s fictional advertisement character, Bosco, setting his family lifestyle along the lines of Uganda’s richest man, Sudhir Ruparelia.

Our leaders promise to perform all the roles rich governments perform. They put in place physical infrastructure (hardware) and hire manpower (software) to perform these functions. Then their meager resources, both human and financial, are spread too thin to be effective. This is because the state gets over developed in function when it is underdeveloped in capacity; so its reach goes far beyond its grasp. This leads to the institutionalised corruption and incompetence that we find in poor countries – an inevitable outcome of the huge mismatch between ambition and capacity.

For instance, governments in poor countries do not have the money to pay decent salaries to their employees. For the most part, the salaries they pay their workers are below subsistence. In fact governments in poor countries pretend to pay their workers and government employees also pretend to work. Just imagine that a police officer in Uganda is paid about Shs500,000. He has a wife and three children. He rents a house, pays transport, and has to feed, clothe and feed his family. This salary is not enough to sustain him. How do we expect him to survive?

The same applies to teachers, nurses and very many other public (and often private sector) employees. This low pay is a major cause of chronic absenteeism in government facilities; especially health and education. Often, government employees use their offices to get bribes: so doctors steal drugs and send them to their private clinics, nurses sell hospital bed-space, head teachers steal the building fund, tax collectors help traders under-declare goods, police officers take bribes not to investigate cases etc. These acts, which are officially proscribed as corrupt, are the ways in which the state in poor countries is actually able to function.

The colonial state paid decent wages to its employees in large part because it restricted services to a few people. For instance, in the whole of western Uganda (the kingdoms of Ankole, Toro, Bunyoro and the district of Kigezi), there were only four public hospitals. At independence, the total number of students in high school (S5 and S6) was only 343 and enrollment at Makerere University was 800 students in a country of seven million poeple. Also we must remember that Makerere served the entire East and Central Africa – Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. There were only 250km of paved roads in Uganda in 1961.

Uganda’s population has grown six times from seven million in 1962 to 42 million today. That means that at the same rate of enrollment today we should have a little more than 2,000 students in S5 and S6. We actually have over 180,000. University enrollment should be about 3,000 but it is over 120,000. The postcolonial state has been generous in expanding the reach of public goods and services and equally ineffective in ensuring quality. It is impossible to rapidly expand access without significantly compromising quality.

Debate on public policy in Uganda (like elsewhere in Africa) is constructed on erroneous assumptions. Elites think that because the state assumes this role it is able to perform it effectively. This financial year Uganda’s total budge is $8 billion for 42million people. That gives us public spending per person of about $193. Last year, public spending per person in the U.S. was $21,750. We expect and demand the state in Uganda performs the same functions and employs similar governance strategies as the U.S. The U.S. had public spending per person as Uganda today in 1866. At that time it did not provide such a large basket of public goods and services.



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