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

Saturday, September 9, 2023

“Jason’s law on corruption”


ANOTHER COUP: In practically every country where there was a change of government via a military coup, a popular uprising, an election upset or via an armed insurgency, the newcomers accused incumbents of corruption, dictatorship, tribalism and economic mismanagement.

How governance in Africa reflects structural imperatives, not the personalities of our leaders

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Recently, someone posted an article on our WhatsApp chatgroup about the persistence of “corruption” in Africa. It said on June 13, 1988, Pini Jason Onyegbaduo, a popular Nigerian columnist, propounded a “Hypothesis of Corruption.” In it, he argued that Africans are roughly bifurcated into two: the “ruling wicked; and the “waiting wicked.” Apparently, Onyegbaduo’s article led to his thesis being named `Jason’s Law of Corruption’ (JLC).

Onyegbaduo argued that the “decibel of an average African’s public outcry is directly proportional to his distance from the opportunity to do exactly what he condemns. The difference between many a vociferous, sanctimonious and pontificating African and the villainous, itchy-fingered kleptomaniac is probably the absence of the opportunity to steal. In all probability, should the opportunity occur, yesterday’s moral crusader, is more likely to crumble and disappear under the weight of corruption.”

Explained in simple terms, JLC “maintains that the farther the distance between an African and power-authority position, the higher the noise he makes against acts of corruption; the nearer he is to the position, the lesser the noise he makes. When in the position (of power), the noise ceases completely.” The commentator on the article concluded saying “suffice to say that Pini’s corruption hypothesis has never “failed” the test when applied in the analysis of the “bizarre behavior of Africans in power.” This is the reason it was appropriately upgraded to the status of a “Law of Corruption.”

The reason many African intellectuals fell in love with Pini’s argument is because it echoes our deeply held assumptions about our leaders and governments. These assumptions are borrowed from the idealised governance in Western countries. We use Western intellectual lenses to understand and explain ourselves to ourselves. This way, we indulge in out-of-context moralising about governance in our societies. Our lack of analytical rigour about our situation is the greatest triumph of the colonial project. Colonialism and its child, neocolonialism, could not have succeeded without controlling how we think. Bob Marley called this “mental slavery”.

Pini’s observation is correct. The anticorruption crusader in opposition politics in Africa today becomes a kleptomaniac the next day when he captures power. But this is not because he is wicked. It is because he works under circumstances that make corruption the only affordable, cost-effective and cost-efficient strategy of managing power relations in a poor country.

I have read politics in Africa since my adolescent years. In practically every country where there was a change of government via a military coup, a popular uprising, an election upset or via an armed insurgency, the newcomers accused incumbents of corruption, dictatorship, tribalism and economic mismanagement. With very few exceptions (I can only think of post-genocide Rwanda, and even here President Paul Kagame’s opponents would disagree), all our governments have been accused of the same ills.

Should we, therefore, say Africans are inherently corrupt, dictatorial, tribalistic and terrible managers of their economies? Many Africans who make this argument are regurgitating racist propaganda. And this construction of Africans is not innocent. Western powers need to dominate Africa for purposes of advancing their interests. They cannot do this by relying on force. They need to first capture our minds. So, they propagate ideas of our leaders being wicked. This serves to justify their interventions in our affairs; with economic policies that benefit their corporations, with political recommendations that allow them to penetrate and direct our politics, or with military interventions like they did in Libya.

Instead of dealing with the structures of our societies and how these promote particular governance strategies, the analyst, the journalist, the academic and the politician attribute everything to the personalities of leaders: they are evil, wicked, selfish, stupid, don’t care about their people etc. The governance strategies African leaders use to govern our societies are imposed on them by the structural circumstances of our societies. That is why various changes in government over a period of 60 years in 54 countries have not brought about a fundamental change in these governance strategies. African elites draw their understanding of governance from Western textbooks. Yet these textbooks do not deal with politics as it plays out in practice even in Western societies. Rather they posit the ideal.

The ideal governance structures of the West are rarely practiced to the letter in those societies. But even if they were, their success would be because of the structural circumstances of a fairly homogenous, highly educated, high income and urban structure of their societies. African countries are poor, ethnically fractionalised, agrarian with low levels of education. The only way to understand how to manage such a society is to look at the governance strategies of Western societies when they were at the same level of per capita income, per capital revenue and per capita spending.

Most African countries today are at the level of development (in income and social structure) of European countries in 1820. And what were the governance strategies of Western countries when they were exactly like Africa today? Without exception, they relied heavily on corruption (patronage) and repression (dictatorship) to manage power relations. There was no distinction between the private resources of the king or duke and the public wealth of the state. Public officials were recruited based on whom you knew rather than what you knew (social connections as opposed to merit).

Were Europeans leaders of that time wicked and anti-people? Certainly not. Were they ignorant of the values of merit-based recruitment and democracy? Most elites had read the works of Greek scholars on democracy and Chinese texts on meritocratic recruitment. Regardless of all the idealistic statements in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), it took both countries two centuries to move towards the governance ideal stated in those two documents. And this governance ideal came near to reality as a result of the structural changes in their societies and the incomes that came with it.

Western leaders of yesteryears governed through a combination of corruption and patronage because those were the only effective and affordable means they had given the structural conditions of their countries and the revenues available to the state. Why then present African leaders of today as wicked for employing governance strategies typical of managing politics in poor agrarian societies? In fact, I would like to write a book titled: Weapons of the Poor: Governance Strategies in Developing Countries. The aim would be to demonstrate that leaders in Africa are not pathological but reflections of the circumstances of their societies.



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