Revisiting Museveni’s ideas about Uganda and our wider continent after his 35 years (and counting) in power
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | And so it was that recently, while perusing my library, I decided to reread President Yoweri Museveni’s book, What is Africa’s Problem. It is a collection of his writings and speeches when he was still young and idealistic. Nearly 30 years since it was published, the book shows that Museveni’s opponents, like the president himself, suffer from a gross misdiagnosis of Africa’s developmental challenge. The overriding theme of the book is that the main cause of “failure” (whatever that means) in postcolonial Africa can be reduced to one word: leadership.
It is good that Museveni has ruled for 35 years. Had he left power much earlier, we may not have been able to see the inherent contradictions and degree of his naivety as we do now. In that book, Museveni reduces most of the problems of post-independence Uganda to the personality, mistakes and decisions of former presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Combined, the two ruled Uganda for 21 out of the first 23 years of independence.
Now 35 years in power, Museveni can invent many excuses to explain his performance. But he cannot change the fact that the “fundamental change in the politics of our country” has not materialised. And neither has the structural transformation of the economy and society happened. By and large, he has ruled using the same tools Obote and Amin employed: repression, manipulating ethnic schisms, corruption, patronage, militarism, election rigging, intimidation, illegal detention, etc. The only difference is that he has been more skillful at this game than his predecessors and in restraining (and only to a degree) the excesses of the army.
Many elites in Africa believe that the problem of Africa is leadership. And by leadership they mean the president and the small cabal of his handlers. This assumes that had better men and women been in charge of state affairs, African countries would be the same as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Africa has seen many changes of government without much accompanying change in the governance strategies employed by successive leaders and equally without any fundamental change in developmental outcomes.
In 2021, Uganda, like just practically every other country in Sub Sahara Africa, is still poor. Most of our people (70%) live in rural areas and depend on subsistence agriculture for a livelihood. There is a small educated elite, living largely in urban areas, that dominates the state and economy. Our exports are still primary (with very little or no value added). Manufacturing as a percentage of GDP has not changed in the last 30 years. All of Africa is de-industrialising. Elections are rigged, the opposition repressed, human rights routinely abused, corruption (except in extremely rare circumstances like post genocide Rwanda) thrives and tribalism rules.
Of course, there has been some improvement in both governance and the economy over the last 25 years. Governments are less murderous than they used to be. Military coups and civil wars have significantly reduced. The economies are growing faster than they did in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The institutions of state in most countries have somewhat improved under the paternalistic supervision of our Western masters. But these improvements have been slow and incremental, not revolutionary, reflecting the passage of time and the lessons learned from past mistakes.
As Museveni once said, praising one African country as performing better than others is like discussing who is taller among dwarfs. Governments have come to power by different means: elections, military coups, death of incumbents, popular insurrections, foreign invasions, protracted armed struggle and/or retirement of some presidents. The leaders have also been of different stripes – nationalist leaders of independence struggles, military upstarts, democratic populists, conservatives, radicals, capitalists, socialists, revolutionary guerrillas, young and old etc. Yet both the governance strategies they have employed and the developmental outcomes they have registered remain stubbornly similar with variations only in degree or detail but not in substance.
So, as I read Museveni’s book, I got the sense that he genuinely believed that Uganda (and Africa) had the capacity to rapidly transform at the same pace and scale of Singapore and South Korea but had only been frustrated by bad leadership. It is a belief deeply embedded in the mind of most African elites I talk to. Now 35 years later, I wondered what he thinks. Our country has registered tremendous progress over the last 35 years. But it is not on the scale of what we saw in East Asia in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And neither is it anywhere comparable to the pace and scale of structural transformation we are witnessing in China today and in countries like Vietnam.
Hence, in 2021 Uganda is the actual prototype of a neocolonial state. The commanding heights of our economy – banking, manufacturing, telecommunications, mining, large infrastructure construction firms, etc. – are largely owned by foreigners. We still produce and export raw materials or semi processed goods which fetch little value in global markets. No African country has developed a brand anywhere near Hyundai, Kia, LG and Samsung. Even in what I consider to be Africa’s best managed country, Rwanda, I do not see transformative change on the pace and scale of Singapore or China – it remains a well-managed poor country.
The lesson from Museveni’s book and record is that his diagnosis of Africa’s problem, like that of so many others, was fundamentally flawed. He grossly misunderstood Africa’s core problem. He ignored the structurally obdurate factors – domestic and international – that can neither be wished away nor changed easily. Like many before him, he focused on the smaller part of the problem – political leaders. He was unable to see that leaders are products of the societies they govern; how they govern is greatly shaped by their circumstances, much more than their personalities.
Indeed, I would even go further to argue that the main lesson from Museveni’s book and his record in government is that actually, leaders do not really matter. Ok, that is an exaggeration on my part, but I exaggerate only to stress a point i.e. that they matter only marginally. Their decisions are rarely stupid. Rather they are a response to reality. Within narrow margins, their political decisions can make a difference. But in a fundamental sense no leader of Burundi or Chad, however brilliant, can turn it into a global power. Intellectuals in Africa need to begin studying the broad impersonal forces that constrain our nations and our leaders – and even our societies broadly – and compel them to act the ways they do.