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Can’t have democracy without citizens

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Last week, President Yoweri Museveni was campaigning for Peter Sematimba as chairman for Rubaga Division. The president told the electorate there that they lack public services like roads, hospitals and sewerage systems because they have been sending him ‘the wrong people’ through elections, i.e. have been voting for the opposition.

In effect the president is saying that citizens can only get the state to serve them if they support the ruling party. This has been Museveni’s position since he entered elective politics in 1996. It is no surprise that the northern region that does not vote for him has the worst levels of poverty and lowest rankings in human development indexes.

Yet Museveni is not alone in this behaviour. Since independence, governments in Africa have successfully used state resources to reward regions that support them and penalise those that don’t. The allocation of ‘development’ projects ‘ schools, boreholes, hospitals, roads etc ‘ has always gone to places where the ruling party or president (in Africa the two are one and the same) has big support or expects to win it. When a road through the tribe supportive of the president stops right at the border with the district where the tribe that does not vote for him resides, it does not take long for the hostile tribe to change its political behaviour.

Over time, groups form and compete to offer support to the ruling party. Such a political pathology allows the electoral process to sustain a regime in power that is socially harmful. It is through this strategy that predatory governments like that of Paul Biya in Cameroon, Omar Bongo in Gabon, etc have sustained power in spite of multi party electoral competition.

This political pathology thrives because the debate on governance in Africa tends to focus on the procedures of democracy rather than its substance. Regular elections are a major aspect of democratic politics. Yet although they are aimed at promoting citizens choice in a democracy, it is doubtful whether elections perform a similar function in most of Africa. Here elections have become a vehicle through which people literally surrender their choice to their rulers.

The selective allocation of public resources in a personalised way undermines the evolution of citizenship as is understood in democracies elsewhere. That is why Africa has clients/subjects on the one hand and patrons and big men on the other. It is doubtful whether you can build democracy without citizens. The personalisation of service allocation had gone hand in hand with institutional failure. Our rulers deliberately undermine institutions in order to build political constituencies.

Let us take the example of Uganda: A needy Ugandan goes to their Member of Parliament (MP) seeking personal assistance ‘ either for their medical bills, children’s fees or money to buy a coffin or to transport a body from Kampala to the village for burial. Often, the MP will comply. Here, the relationship between the needy and the MP is mediated by personal relations. What you get is a patron and a client as opposed to a representative and a citizen. Such a neo-patrimonial system undermines democracy because public services are given as favours from big men/patrons instead of them being rights for the citizens.

Citizens demand rights, subjects and clients beg for favours. In a democracy the relations between citizen and the state are mediated through institutions. There is an objective administrative criterion on which state-society relations are constructed. For example, in Rwanda, a student who needs a scholarship or a sick person who needs heart surgery does not need to beg for favours from an MP or supplicate at State House. Every citizen; Hutu or Tutsi, male or female, rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight, as long as they have the national medical insurance or meet an impersonally defined criteria will get their rights in education or health.

I have been arguing in this column that of the 21 African countries I have visited, only in Rwanda do we see a thorough-going attempt to reconfigure state-society relations. The process has not matured largely because of time and also because of the agrarian structure of its economy and the high levels of poverty in that country. However, there is a clear process of the evolution of an impersonal state ‘ a state that provides services equitably to all citizens irrespective of their station in life.

Two weeks ago when I visited Kigali, a friend (a lieutenant in the Rwandan army) picked me from the airport. He told me that a month earlier, he had felt a terrible headache at 7am and went to the army hospital in Kigali. He was referred to King Faisal Hospital where a scan revealed he had a brain haemorrhage. King Faisal contacted a South African hospital. By 3pm he was in a fully equipped air-ambulance with his wife to Johannesburg for treatment.

My friend did not have to ask for favours from the army commander, relatives or friends or even supplicate at State House Kigali. His life was saved because he has Military Medical Insurance (IMM) as every member of the armed forces has in Rwanda. Compare this to a whole Brigadier, Noble Mayombo, who was also Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. He spent four days dying in a Ugandan hospital. To save his life needed the personal intervention of the president himself to lend his executive jet. But how many Ugandans can have access to the presidential jet?

The lesson is simple but powerful: we see a clear attempt in Rwanda to build a modern bureaucratic state that is facilitating the evolution of citizenship. In Uganda, we see the construction of a neo-patrimonial state where citizens cannot access vital life-saving services unless they are politically or biologically connected to someone in a powerful position.

Therefore, Rwanda may develop into a citizen based democracy where people vote for services while Uganda seems to move towards a neo-patrimony where clients and subjects vote for favours from big men and patrons. We should not be surprised therefore that Ugandans sell their votes for alcohol and salt. This is because our people do not see themselves as rights bearing citizens but as favours-seeking subjects.

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