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African leaders still hostage to Stone Age politics

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Presidential pledges in Uganda today stand at a record Shs 120 billion. These are promises of assistance the president makes to different groups, individuals and institutions and are paid for by the state. They have been accumulating over the years, some for over a decade. Intended beneficiaries have waited for years only to see their hopes frustrated.

Presidential pledges are a primitive system of patronage. If a sub-county lacks a clinic or school, it should get it as a personal favour from the president. That should be a function of government policy through the national budget. Yet President Yoweri Museveni is not alone in sustaining this system. It is practiced by many of his contemporaries across Africa. These pledges reflect the neo-patrimonial nature of politics on our continent.

The word ‘neo-patrimonial’ comes from Max Weber’s concept of ‘patrimonial rule’. Weber was referring to governance in small and traditional pre-capitalist European principalities where decision-making was highly personalised and arbitrary. The state in Africa is neo-patrimonial because it combines the formal structure of a modern bureaucratic state with informal and highly personalised rule where informal practices trample over formal rules; presidential donations disregard the budget.

Karl Marx argued that the way people organize themselves to solve their basic economic challenges ” how to clothe, house and feed themselves ” requires a ‘superstructure’ of non economic activity and thought. The superstructure cannot be picked randomly, Marx reasoned, but must reflect the foundation on which it is raised. For Marx, therefore, no hunting community could evolve or use the legal framework of an industrial society and similarly, no industrial society could use the conception of law and government of a primitive hunting village.

From this perspective, many scholars on Africa have argued that presidents on the continent are captives of the social forces around them. By presiding over largely agrarian societies, presidents cannot avoid ruling like African chiefs of old ” for example Nyungu ya Maawe of the Nyamwezi, Jaja of Opobo or Kabaka Junju of Buganda. Museveni is only a reflection of his society’s level of social development.

But Marx was broader in his grasp of these issues. Although many people consider him a structuralist ” a lot of his arguments reflect this tendency ” he also recognised the role of agency in social change. He noted, for example, that when economic conditions change, so do social institutions through the catalytic function of ideas. Although Africa has remained largely agrarian, a significant part of our economic, political and intellectual life has changed. We should be able to register some change.

Only President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has attempted to banish this neo-patrimonial politics from his leadership style. He makes pledges but only of a symbolic nature. Thus, when Kagame attends a fundraising, he will make a token promise ” say of a goat or of US$ 200 ” only to meet social expectation. If a community has no clinic or a school has fewer classrooms, the matter is addressed through government policy and the national budget. This way, Kagame has avoided the Nyungu ya Maawe mentality.

President’s office is under clear instructions to meet his pledges within 60 days of making them. Everyone around the presidency in Kigali will tell you that failure to do so has serious consequences. Thus, there are no communities, individuals and groups in Rwanda frustrated that a presidential pledge was not met.

Rwandans therefore consider their president an honest man and trust his word. Even his worst enemies will admit this. Save for his authoritarian style, Kagame has defied many retrogressive African political practices. The lesson: although Africa’s agrarian social structures are obdurate, there is room for agency i.e. a committed leadership can alter them and modernise our continent’s governance.

One gets the sense that Kagame has a highly cultivated sense of shame. He is clearly afraid to be seen to say one thing and do another. Possibly he falters sometimes. But there is a clear and sustained effort to exhibit a high level of integrity in his actions. Yet the opposite seems the case in Uganda. Museveni makes little or no effort to ensure that his promises are fulfilled suggesting the president is a liar. Even the people of Luwero who financed his guerrilla war with promises of compensation still gather outside parliament ” 20 years later ” to claim their money.

The inability of Museveni to keep his word speaks volumes about his moral character. The list of his empty promises goes beyond presidential pledges. In 1986, he promised to rule for only four years and hold elections. Instead he extended his rule by another five years which later turned into six. People began to question his integrity. In 1996, he made an unequivocal promise not to run for a second term, which he breached without apology or explanation. In 2001, he promised that he was running for his last term in order to organise ‘peaceful succession.’ Instead, he amended the constitution to remove term limits and ended up succeeding himself.

This deficit in Museveni’s moral character will have powerful consequences on his legacy and on Uganda’s progress. Julius Nyerere presided over a declining economy and an authoritarian state in Tanzania for 24 years. Yet Tanzanians hold Nyerere in high esteem. Reason: whatever mistakes he made, his citizens felt Nyerere made them in an honest attempt to do good for Tanzania. On the other hand, Museveni has presided over a fairly democratic government and a rapidly growing economy that has brought prosperity to many. Yet he may not enjoy Nyerere’s status. Why?

Museveni’s sustained failure to project a high level of integrity has undermined his moral standing even among those closest to him. Many around him indulge in theft possibly because they have no moral bar against which they can hold themselves. The public too have limited faith in the integrity of our president. When he gives an investor a piece of land or forest purely for developmental reasons, people suspect he is doing so out of some pecuniary interest. They resist. The lesson: It is not the so much that leaders do, but what the public thinks were their motivations, that makes them great.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

www.andrewmwendasblog.blogspot.com

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