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Africa’s need for messiahs

FILE PHOTO: Museveni flanked by other African leaders at the TANA forum in Ethiopia last year.

Inside our belief that the salvation of our nations will come from the actions of one great man

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | If you follow discussions on politics in Uganda, or Africa generally, one factor is given as the cause of the slow rate of development – poor leadership. I used to hold this view but outgrew it in large part because I recognised that African leaders are propelled to power by the social dynamics of our societies. It follows that what they do with power reflects more on who we are as a people than who they are as individuals.

The blame-the-leadership argument remains powerful in large part because it has its roots in the secular religion called development. This faith sees humankind on a continuous linear path of infinite progress. I suspect this is a carryover from the Christian belief in universal salvation. But while Christianity promises salvation after death, secular faith in development promises universal prosperity on earth. The Enlightenment arose to topple religious utopias but created secular ones.

In ancient Greece, people believed forces beyond human control (fate) shaped their destiny. You find this in Homer’s `The Iliad’ and `The Odyssey’ and in the plays of the great Greek dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Plato thought contemplation was the highest form of human activity. The aim of life was not to change the world but to see it rightly. But the new secular faiths seek to change the world NOW hence the many social frustrations and conflicts of our time.

This is why whenever we face a problem we look for a villain to blame even when the cause is not a person but a combination of factors. President Yoweri Museveni attributed Uganda’s problems to the personality and management competences of Milton Obote and Idi Amin. His critics today do the same – seeing the problems of Uganda as caused by Museveni, period. Why?

Social issues are complex. British economist John Keynes suggested that ordinary people handle complexity through narratives i.e. readily digestible theories-in-miniature. Narratives spread easily and become public goods. But they can also stray far away from reality. One such stray is the claim that development of a country comes from the state, especially its president. This has created a mentality that absolves individual and collective responsibility to our countries.

I think the major constraint in Africa is inadequate human capital and a misguided ideology of the state as nanny. Look at North and South Korea. The north has a GDP of $17 billion and a per capita income of $665, the south $1.4 trillion and $27,600 respectively. The south produces such great global brands with cutting edge technology like Samsung, Hyundai, Kia and LG. In spite of its poverty, the north performs cutting-edge technological feats like putting satellites in space, manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

What we are seeing embedded in the social tissue of Korean society is high levels of human capital i.e. mastery of technological innovation regardless of income. Give North Korea market institutions and it would catch up with the south in 20 years. The economies of Zambia, Uganda, Ghana, Malawi and Kenya have not performed any serious technological feats in spite of possessing free market institutions because they have low levels of human capital. Those who believe in leadership as the source of innovation would argue we lack a president to set the innovation ball rolling. Nonsense.

Look at Africa’s most successful story, Botswana. It is hailed for having had great and visionary leadership. I am an admirer of the Botswana story. But other than managing her diamond riches well and sustaining a multi party system of government, I can hardly find anything great it has done. It has not produced any international brand like Samsung. I am not even sure they have manufactured a pin yet. Therefore, to ignore human capital and believe in the Christian principle of “seek ye first a good leader and the rest will be added onto you” may make a good political slogan but it has little analytical value.

In the 1990s Museveni argued passionately that the problem of Africa was of leaders who do not want to leave power. After 32 years, he is today one of those leaders who is clearly not leaving power. But Museveni was wrong. I believe one of the major problems of Africa is a failure of citizenship centred on individual and collective responsibility. We, especially the elite, have abdicated our responsibility to be agents of the change we want. Instead we have become passive spectators in our affairs. This has led us to always crave for leaders who can be messiahs to save us from our problems.


  1. Mwenda is still harping away at his old theme of “it’s not Museveni who is a poor leader, it’s us who aer poor citizens”. Here he is making a basic logical error, assuming the two to be mutually exclusive. They are not.

    Similarly the need for a strong national leadership and strong national institutions are not conflicting demands; they are two faces of the same coin. Strong institutions are the tool that make strong leadrs able to accomplish anything. Mr Musevenis repeated failures at economic and administrative revitalization are good examples, starting with “barter trade” in the 1080s to the pathetic “hakuna mchezo” theme of the current term. Hakuna mchezo translates as “this time I’m not joking, implying that the last thirty years in office were…..

    • ejakait engoraton

      STRONG LEADERSHIP and STRONG NATIONAL INSTITUTIONS are not a CONTRADICTION as our M 9 would like to suggest.

      AS we have seen in the US very recently, we have VERY strong institutions, too many to mention but a few being the SENATE, the ARMY, but TRUMP almost single handed has been able to reverse the IRAN agreement, start or initiate talks with NORTH KOREA, just like OBAMA was able to lift the decades old embargo/sanctions on CUBA.

      BUT by having a strong judiciary, even with the powers vested in the president, it has been possible to challenge some of the decisions/actions of the president.

  2. Mwenda, as usual, peppers his essays with mistruths, using flowery language to hide them.

    He claims the elite and citizenry of Uganda are passive complainers and observers to the Museveni regime. Not true. There have been at least five armed rebellions in the Museveni era, plus a strong electoral challenge in the last three presidential elections. The open teargassing and whipping of political opponents during the elections show that Mr Museven took these challenges seriously, even if Mwenda does not. Newspapers and radio stations have been silenced; politicians have been jailed, public debates on radio(kimeezas) have been banned. According to today’s headlines even Whatsapp faces censorship; these are not the actions of a government facing passive complainers.

    He hints that the citizenry passively “surrendered” power to Museveni. We did no such thing. Museveni seized power by armed force. Ugandans in 1995 approved a constitution supposedly ending military rule and limiting the powers of the Presidency; those limits have been defanged by open bribery and intimidation of Parliament, ending in an armed assault on Parliament itself.

    In the last paragraph he slanders the citizenry, suggesting that we believe in leaders as saviours. Kikafuuwe!! That is one question on which the citizens of Uganda are openly of one mind. Twakoowa!!! The idea of one man in Kampala controlling every important function in every corner of the country is one thing we absolutely reject.

    • Thank you Sserukeera. In psychology there is what is referred to as “redirected aggression”, in Law, it is referred to as “transferred anger.” A wife who might have a misunderstanding with her husband could realise that she is too weak to go physical (fight) with her hubby but not too weak to “masticate” (beat up) a fondly child of the husband intending to invoke his anger. It is clear that Mwenda is also disgusted with the Museveni regime but just like the weak wife, he decides to redirect his anger to the wanaichi. coward.

  3. Mwenda says what he heard and what he read. Remember Mwenda knows nothing(by experience) about the Uganda of before 1990. Whenever I have had opportunity to describe to him how Tooro district (single-handedly) produced Copper in Kilembe ,Coffee in Bwamba, Tea in Mwenge and Salt in L. Katwe he seems not to listen. That is where he comes from. Tooro District Administration could pay bursaries for all underprivileged students who applied for them. And that is only Tooro District. The Hima factory came much later,reason I did not bother to mention it among Tooro wealth generators.
    Farmers(crop growers) were organised in cooperative societies that were so stable that poverty had no way it could approach a homestead. It was a norm to enter anyone’s garden, pick a fruit,maize or sugarcane and eat without necessarily asking them…..the food due to strangers. People worked for less than 6 hours and after that, washed and went to a malwa,kwete or tonto joint to socialise.
    Uganda of then (until Gen Amin was routed) did not owe anyone a single dollar. Money used to be transferred by Registered letter (in special envelopes). In 1973, I who is writing this escorted a friend whose sister from US had sent 200 USD to persuade the banks to change it into local currency. Standard refused, Barclays did not want to either until one man out of sympathy called us and said, “we shall exchange this but don’t try next time” we were given 1,400 UGX which was equivalent to 6 or 7 big bulls.
    Now here is a lesson to you Mwenda and your agemates who think solving Uganda’s problems requires sophistication.
    When Uganda attained Independence, parliament reasoned that:
    1. Uganda has no potential enemies. MODERN armies are expensive to set up.maintain and they corrupt wherever they live so they opted to have just 1,000 soldiers for ceremonial purpose and locate them in Jinja (mbu to guard Owen Falls Dam) Mubende (disputed counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi) and Moroto (to frighten off Turkana rustlers. The Uganda Police (UP) was lord of the town; complete with Kadenge (Peugeot patrol cars) Alsatian dogs and anything that was required to keep the peace. Police loved people and people loved police. Army was so rare to see that whenever they were seen, we crowded on them.
    I won’t go into how the Uganda Army mutinied,was nearly fired wholesale and how Obote,Kenyatta and Nyerere’s support of Mulele rebellion in Congo (via West Nile) caused Congo to attack Uganda by air and land….necessitating to recall the dismissed soldiers and recruit more. You understand it was caused by Obote’s meddling. So the ‘expensive’ ARMY they had earlier avoided became an essential.
    A defence budget which would have catered for other needs like education and mechanised agriculture became a recurrent expense.
    1. Uganda requires an Ashoka type of leader who will tell people that from now on, we demobilise and go into agriculture and forestry in own homes. Every Ugandan has ancestry land and if none the government can allocate. It is easy to depopulate cities and kill slums but it requires a strong leader not one who compromises standards to appease crime. Does Mwenda remember a policeman who complained to a certain president that “Your Excellency ever since I left Police school, I have been chained on deskwork and the president asked where he would wish to be deployed to which the policeman said “the traffic section Your Excellency on the road” and the wish was instantly granted…to go to eat bribes? I repeat here with benefit of hindsight that Uganda has no enemies who Ugandan well-trained civilian miitia cannot handle themselves so those men and women in uniform are more of a liability and should be demobilised to go be productive elsewhere.
    2. Health: Uganda has more than enough health scouts and professionals to drill people in preventive health measure as to halve the current drugs expense.
    3. Education: A serious leader will ensure that a curriculum is overhauled such that those who know nothing will even feel ashamed to ask for employment.
    4. Labour,Employment and Occupation: Everyone mature enough to be independent should be able to prove how important and indispensable they are to society…… or go away,stay out of the way and stay permanently out of the way…or if they choose in hiding.
    5. Security/crime: Establish a system where any criminal who willingly planned and executed a criminal act never be given opportunity to repeat or enjoy the accruals of the act. It is easy and everyone can do that….just make crime as dangerous to the criminal as electric current….
    6. Corruption: Whenever a judge sentences or releases a suspect, set up a team of impartial knowledgeable law abiding and respectable citizens to very quickly review the case. make them a sort of ‘Court of Appeal’ to review, reverse and convict the corrupt judge on the spot. Evidence need not be apparent. If a teenage schoolgirl is pregnant, do you ask for a video track of when they were sleeping with a man? Some evidence is apparent though absent.
    7. Public Administration: This should be headed by people of means without remuneration; just allowance and be given powers to hire and fire staff. Spies should be deployed to know what they likely stole,where they hid it and who was the accomplice (hider) and cart all to jail to work and work hard….there is nothing as reforming as labour in incarceration.
    8. Foreigners : To strictly do what brought them and be made to pay a special tax of rent;be they refugees, tourists or just wanderers if legally permitted to come and stay. The refugees should be paid for by UNHCR or their home of origin. They must of necessity do reforestation or relocate.
    9. Tax evaders: Penalise so severely that they will instantly be the best well-behaved or outlaw them from trading permanently.

    10. Conclusion: I concur that a messiah is the one who can do it or one who can do it will be a messiah of sorts. But anyone who has Uganda at heart can do it if given the opportunity by fate. You will recall that in my previous postings I proved how Uganda leaders are accidentals.

  4. Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

    Mwenda and all,

    Africa is trapped in some other people’s chess-like strategies!

    1. As long as we look at these ‘foreign’ created borders as sacrosanct, and only want to use ‘our own – within the silly borders’ for intellectual and scientific progress, we are done forever. I am seeing it here down South: it is not by accident that the country is retrogressing technologically and economically.

    2. Mwenda is right on many points – including his observation on Botswana which many African elites and their foreign benefactors want to praise. I have had chance to teach, research and do business there. Very peaceful and easy-going people, the Batswana are. But either the external artificial praises have got into their heads or their small numbers vis-a-vis mineral resources [not just Diamonds by the way] have hoodwinked them into physical and mental laziness. So, you are not about to hear converting part of the Kalahari into a food basket for Southern Africa – like you have with Israel in the mid East. Nor are you about to hear of great engineering achievements with the hardest and most electrical/heat conductive material on earth – Diamond!
    Cousin Ghana in the praises (where I have also been and done some business), drills oil using ‘foreign’ personnel, using ‘foreign’ equipment at sea and directly loads it into ‘foreign’ ships off to ‘foreign’ lands, almost like the ancient chiefs would flag off their unfortunate countrymen five centuries ago. The west and our semi-literate elites heap praises on such rubbish!! Today, even hapless Uganda and sister Tanzania celebrate the laying of a ‘foreign’ pipeline from lake ‘Mwitanzige’ to the coast as envious sister Kenya silently grumbles — Give me a break people!!

    3. The effect of all that nonsense is we Africans have glorified activities that take us nowhere technologically and economically: Music, Drama, politics, the Arts (sorry friends I know ‘ningamba enyama mubahuma’ [talking of meat among cattle keepers or Balaalo]). We even reward ‘bean counters’ (the Mutebiles) more than real ‘bean producers’ even when the producers can count their beans better! It is a totally upside down world in Africa.

    4. Engineering and Technology R&D (something I am heavily involved in) in Africa is – as a consequence of the above – tied up. The African universities and their so called ‘clever’ science/engineering dons are coerced to be ‘international’. No harm with that until you realise the so called ‘international’ problems, resources, methods and value systems greatly differ from what obtains or is even feasible on the local African scene.

    5. Let me tell you brothers and sisters – and you may want to ‘curse’ me for being that radical if you wish – what is needed is to cleverly disengage ourselves from these foreign ‘chess grand masters’ in almost all areas, including their value systems. I use ‘cleverly’ in sense of using their written knowledge and demonstrable skills to develop our own, based on our resources. They can put sanctions on us if they want (and probably that would be good for us) but to hell with them and their local supporters who fail to see sense. In this sense, I agree with many points (though not all) forwarded by elder Rwasubutare above.

    6. Look, talking of railways, which steel was used to introduce the rail roads in pre-industrial Britain and in colonial America? Certainly not the one we are crying to have for the bridges and for the SGR line! How was the Panama or even the Suez canal built? How was the sea in Cape Town pushed back – to even form land on which one of the campuses of the university I work for, sit? Certainly not with today’s monstrous and hi-tech earth movers! How was —— I can go on ad-infinitum: The bottom line is each technologically serious society focuses on its specific problems to develop solutions using its human and non human resources. And as it does so, it creates new knowledge that it can base on to solve future problems. Today’s Africa is at a loss on this, just waiting for ‘foreigners’ as ‘Messiahs’ to help if they want.

    7. For Africa now, one of the first steps is to dismantle the borders and pool our few so called ‘clever’ people together under one politico-geographical entity so that local problems can face a fuller brunt of our brain power. In such circumstances, we do not need Europeans or Chinese nor do we need their ‘expensive’ and sophisticated materials and methods to build civil engineering structures that meet our most urgent needs within the resources we can afford.

    8. Ah, I am running mad on this: I think I must cut myself short ————

  5. 1.Africans creates for herself problems for example in Uganda; leaders like Abirigia,Nambooze,Bobi Wine,Ssemujju are elected by their constituents as their very best and they expect them to formulate policies that will do wonders for the country; may be voters are too poor to reason.
    2.Leaders in various sectors in Uganda work and live in a comfortable environment so i dont expect them to think.
    3.The so called messiahs who could have saved Africa from poverty are the same people spending government resources extravagantly; for example a CEO can decide to travel to Arua by road and consume fuel worth 1.5 million shillings yet he could have flown to & from Arua at 350k.
    4.@ Kant;some one should carry out a study on the relationship between poverty and generation curses in Africa why do i say this?Children inherit poverty from their parents and the cycle continues for generations for example; government has good social polices like free Education from Primary to University but some families have failed to have Grade III teachers.
    5. The social profile of Uganda improves when we house some UN departments in Entebbe but the real reason why UN has threatening to leave Uganda because of sex. UN could not just watch her pilots,Engineers Doctors die in the the 3rd world coz of HIV;Ugandan girls have become like Congolese they love sex ALOT.

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