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Africa versus East Asia

Many African elites argue that blaming colonialism for our failures ignores the role our governments have played in post colonial mismanagement of our nations. This is partly true and I used to make this argument. The depredations of Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, Siad Barre, etc cannot really be entirely blamed on colonialism. Yet the pendulum of this argument swung from one extreme (of blaming everything on colonialism) to another extreme (of blaming everything on the post colonial administrations). Both extremes are wrong.

“Men make their own history,” Karl Marx wrote on the military coup by Louis Napoleon in 1951, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make in it circumstances chosen by themselves, but in circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” To ignore the structural constraints post independence leaders encountered has been one of the biggest weaknesses of attempts by those who examine the agency (post independence governments) that failed to deliver transformation. It seems that at independence, Africa suffered from over expectation.

Could post independence governments in Africa have performed better? Perhaps, but at a price; they should have aimed at preserving their limited capacity; using it only sparingly. Instead, most governments in Africa moved fast to elaborate public functions. Botswana avoided this mistake perhaps because it had had an almost absentee colonial state. This could have reduced the demands for rapid africanisation. But acting like Botswana would have been a purely technical response to what was actually a burning political problem.

The nationalist struggle for independence emerged to challenge legally sanctioned exclusion of Africans from state power outside of traditional institutions in colonial Africa. That was its fuel. Upon independence, the first demand therefore was rapid africanisation. Although technically disastrous, it was politically popular. The second demand was derived from the first. Africans wanted to take public services to the wider population. Few governments would have survived by resisting this demand.

Political pressure for africanisation undermined the meritocratic systems of external recruitment and internal promotion that allowed the civil service to uphold its high standards. Rapid elaboration of functions without existing capacity made a bad situation worse. What was politically right was technically disastrous. And in our ethnically heterogeneous polities, promoting social inclusion – even on the face of things – was more politically desirable than sustaining technical competence. The problem is that it eroded competence and allowed cronyism and corruption to flourish. Politics is costly and Africa had to pay that price.

Many African elites focus on technical failures in Africa and ignore the political compromises that brought that failure. In other words, the price of political compromise was technical failure. It is possible that if such compromises had not been struck, many states in Africa would have collapsed under the weight of civil war. It is remarkable that African leaders who inherited fictions of states left behind by colonial rule were successful at creating a common national consciousness. This has sustained the sovereignty and territorial integrity of these nations. Today, few states in Africa have fallen apart like Somalia. In others, the state may not be omnipresent yet, but the concept of nationhood has gained a lot of ground.

This brings us to another element that set the stage for success in South Korea and for failure in Africa. South Korea is a homogeneous society. Consequently, its politics is less factionalised and fosters greater capacity for political consensus-building on many policy issues. Most African countries are heterogeneous with different ethnic and religious factions vying for influence. It is, therefore, difficult to build a consensus on anything. To make matters worse, the dominant development ideology of the 1960s was for governments to take control of the commanding heights of the economy in order to foster African participation. Yet states in Africa were the least suited for such strategies because of their internal fractionalisation. Thus, every attempt at state control tended to place public resources in the hands of one group – or at least create a perception thereof.

This generated secondary contestations. All too often, the excluded groups were able to effectively contest their exclusion – real or imagined – hence leading to coups, civil wars, expanding political patronage in form of large cabinets and other appointments to create an appearance of ethnic, regional or religious balance. All these political compromises imposed high costs on the state’s capacity to sustain growth, seek and realise development or build technical capacity to deliver on their promises.

After prolonged economic failure, many governments in Africa adopted liberal economic policies. They sold public enterprises, disbanded state monopolies and removed the dead hand of the state and its politics from business. Today, most economies of the nations of Africa are growing rapidly. It seems to me that in ethnically factionalised nations, the best economic policies are those that favour the free market.

Today, there are many contests over every deal, tender or contract given out by NSSF (which is controlled by government). However, companies like MTN, Uganda Breweries, Crane Bank, etc give out multimillion dollar loans or tenders without parliament intervening and the press screaming. Thus, while many of Uganda’s chattering classes vigorously resist free market policies, citing how state involvement in China and South Korea has been successful, they ignore that the heterogeneity of our societies is bad for state involvement in the economy.

One can argue that my arguments are an excuse for governmental corruption, incompetence and nepotism. If we accept my reasoning, we may become complacent with the weaknesses that we need to overcome. I accept this counter argument with the humility of experience. However, elites in Africa possess overblown expectations. We expect our states of deliver like states in Sweden and Norway. Actually they cannot. It is good to have dreams of grandeur but it is important to temper them with realistic expectations.


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