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Africa’s politics of fiction

Africa’s new crop of leaders face age old challenges to development

It is incredible how politics in our part of the world is far removed from reality

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | What determines the governance strategies elites employ in any given country? The philosopher, Karl Marx, argued that the way people organise themselves to solve their basic economic challenges (how to clothe, house and feed themselves) requires a “superstructure” of non economic activity and thought (governance). The superstructure cannot be picked randomly. It 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

The basket of strategies the elite employ to govern society are many and varied depending on social structure, cultural beliefs, political struggles, national traditions and popular myths. But there is one factor that is fundamental in the governance of modern nations – and it is money.

For instance, how does one manage a country with a per capita income of $950 and per capita spending of $200 per year? Is it possible to govern such a society using the same strategies used by country whose per capita income is $64,000 and per capita spending $22,000 per year?

While there are many problems with using per capita income to predict the nature and quality of governance, it remains one of the best proxies available. Indeed, per capita income predicts the levels of urbanisation and education, the size of the middle class and the demographics of a country. Uganda, for instance, where 70% of the population are peasants depending on subsistence agriculture for a livelihood cannot be governed like the USA, a postindustrial society, where most people depend on services?

In The Moral Economy of the Peasant, James Scott demonstrates how peasant agriculture shapes politics. The vagaries of weather foster particular social adaptations; which he calls “the subsistence ethic.” Patterns of reciprocity, patron-client ties, work-sharing and extended family systems are social institutions erected to provide insurance against the risk of starvation. A hungry or sick peasant goes to a better-off neighbor or relative for assistance and expects his needs to be met.  Likewise, the better-off neighbour or relative responds positively because that is what is expected of him/her by the value system. To act otherwise is seen as wrong and attracts social sanction in form of negative gossip and a bad reputation.

These acts of generosity are investments too; in helping the needy, the rich person cultivates a reputation of being a “good man.” Politicians who want to cultivate a following must build a reputation of generosity. This is often done through the kinds of patronage and clientelism which we refer to as corruption. Peasants do not see corrupt acts by elites as immoral or criminal. Extending private generosity at public expense is seen as right. To see it otherwise requires, in the social consciousness of the population, a distinction between the private resources of a leader and the public finances of the state.

This is where my disagreement with many Ugandan (and African) intellectuals begins. Educated in the ways and ethics of the modern state as articulated in the West, intellectuals in Africa find it difficult to capture this reality. There is a huge gulf between the moral and ethical understandings of the largest segment of our population (the peasantry – 70%) and those of the educated classes. This gulf explains why the most corrupt politicians representing rural constituencies are equally the most popular in their communities. And this problem is not just in Uganda but dominates democratic (and even authoritarian) politics in all poor countries. Why then is it difficult for our intellectuals to capture this simple fact?

In his book, The Righteous Mind, the moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, provides a powerful insight. He argues that people’s moral judgments shape their reasoning, rather than the other way round. Reasons purport to explain and justify judgments. But in fact we grasp at reasons and pull them into service to legitimise judgments that we have already made on the basis of our moral tastes. On no significant issue is all the evidence lined up on one side of the argument. Our ethics determine the reasoning and evidence that we are prepared to accept. We give credence to the flimsiest of straws in the wind that are aligned with our values, while dismissing opposite evidence with a torrent of contempt and vitriol.

This point keeps ringing in my head when I listen to political debates in Africa, most specifically Uganda. It is incredible how politics in our part of the world is far removed from reality. When we debate the functions of the state, we do not begin with our situation – of a poor agrarian society. The underlying assumption is that the state of Uganda (or Kenya, Senegal, Benin and Zambia) are the same as the state in say Norway or Holland. In these advanced countries, state legitimacy is largely (not entirely) based on the ability of the government to deliver to all her citizens a large basket of public goods and services through impersonal institutions.

But this source of legitimacy is a product of a particular development; the growth of the modern economy leading to a considerable increase in state revenues. Governments in poor countries adopted this model at very low levels of state revenues. It did not evolve organically but was rather a colonial or postcolonial transplant. At our current levels of per capita spending, all the nations of Europe depended on the same old strategies of governance in poor society – repression and patronage. None of the nations of Europe governed their populations through the delivery of healthcare, education, clean water, electricity etc. when at the same level of capita spending as us. They simply could not afford such a model.

But just listen to politicians in Uganda and other poor nations when making campaign slogans. They make promises on the delivery of a large basket of public goods and services with an implicit assumption that there are requisite financial and human resources to govern that way. Yet this line of politics is based on a fiction – that the constraint is not resources (financial and human) but rather corruption and lack of political will. Yet even if there was 100% political will and poorly paid public officials starved themselves to death (because of low wages) the state in Uganda simply cannot provide a large basket of public goods and services in the quantity and quality we desire and that elites demand. To bridge the gap between expectations and realities, states indulge in patronage and clientelism, buying off influential elites and using them as a bridge to their constituents.

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amwenda@independent.co.ug

2 comments

  1. Tough because Andrew keeps rationalising our pain and suffering using pseudo-intellectual arguments. Poor shoud not mean torturing people.

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