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The crisis of democracy in Africa

By Andrew M. Mwenda

It is rare to read an opinion about politics in Uganda in our media whose premise is our reality. Largely because of the hegemonic influence of Western ideas, most commentators begin with an abstract theory of politics based largely on a context other than our own. Any explanation of our reality is based on formal analogies about other countries. In the process, they ignore the actual interplay of our politics in the analysis.

Two months ago, two former prime ministers of Buganda Kingdom (Dan Muliika and Mulwanyamuli Ssemogerere) announced their support for the opposition in the forthcoming elections. Given President Yoweri Museveni’s battles with Mengo over land and federo lately, this was a big public relations coup for our embattled opposition. But it was also a statement of how far the opposition has failed to construct a different politics from that of the NRM and other governments in Africa.

In trying to win over ethnic Baganda, the opposition has done little to root itself in their existential problems ‘ over land tenure, taxes, jobs, wages, transportation, healthcare, education, name it. However, the calculation is obvious: By winning over powerful Baganda leaders to its side, the opposition hopes to leverage their reputation to capture the votes of ordinary Baganda. In this lies the fundamental failure of politics in Africa.

First, let’s calculate the electoral math of Uganda: During 2006 presidential election, Museveni got 1.6m votes (75.4 percent) in the West; 1.2m votes (58 percent) in Buganda (or central); 850,000 votes (59 percent) in the South East; 220,000 votes (41.2 percent) in the North East and 198,000 votes (21 percent) in the North. Let us assume the same number of registered voters and the same voter turnout as in 2006. If Museveni can be made to drop to 70 percent in the west and the status quo remains unchanged in the north and north east, then the opposition needs to only force him to a draw in the south east and to 40 percent in Buganda. For then the combined vote of the opposition would be 3.45m against Museveni’s 3.3m votes.

Buganda is therefore the major battleground region around which Museveni’s presidency will be fought unless he develops a game changing strategy for the south east, north and north east. However, it is not the plotting per se that is my concern here. Rather it is the nature of the plot and the bargains being made. Because if Muliika and Ssemogerere (and behind them Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi) tilt the balance against Museveni in Buganda and he drops to 40 percent, it is very likely that we will get another change of guard but not a fundamental change in our politics. How?

The worrying feature about democratic politics in Africa is how much elites are able to make bargains at the top that allow them to capture the masses below by trading private goods instead of promises of public policy. Often the result of a genuine democratic process is to disenfranchise ordinary people and turn them from citizens into clients.

For example, if the opposition can win Buganda simply by entering a deal with a few Baganda elites, it will have little incentive to address the real concerns of ordinary Baganda like jobs, taxes, land ownership, pest control etc. However, it is not that ordinary people’s concerns are excluded from the political process; my concern in the way they are integrated i.e. through the selective and personalised allocation of small gifts like helping individuals in difficulty with fees, medical bills, funeral expenses, etc.

Our politicians extend these private gifts to their constituents using the public funds they have either stolen or officially allocated to themselves. This constitutes the most insidious form of corruption and it finds little space in our media commentary. These practices feed off the social values of our people who are agrarian and poor and attach great importance to expressions of personal kindness and generosity in the evaluation of public officials.

Politicians in Africa find it more electorally profitable to prioritize the allocation of private goods (jobs, cars, and public tenders for elites and small gifts for ordinary people) over pubic goods like roads, schools, hospitals and public services like healthcare, education and agricultural extension. Ordinary people have little say over the political process partly because they have been bribed by small gifts but largely because they actually have a limited voice in it.

To dismantle this elite driven politics is the biggest challenge to democratization in Africa. The reformer would have to curtail elite privileges through which they control the masses. Being the most loud and articulate section of society, elites have power to attack reform using many fictitious claims. They dress the defense of their privileges in the language of rights and find a lot of sympathy in naïve local and international journalists and the wider international human rights and humanitarian groups.

Meanwhile, the reformer cannot rally ordinary people (the beneficiaries of the public goods and services) because they are semi-literate and inarticulate. They do not speak on radio, television or write in newspapers. A clear conflict emerges between the need for social justice (through the provision of public services like healthcare and education to the poor) and the claims for ‘human rights’ by the elite.

This is where the opposition has failed to offer an alternative to NRM with a real democratic agenda rooted in the pursuit of social justice. If the opposition organized ordinary people who suffer the indignity of begging MPs and other elites for fees, jobs, medical care, etc, around their shared problems, it will have established credible credentials to change our politics. For now, we know what the opposition is against, not what it stands for.

Even in western democracies, the endorsement of influential elites ‘ like Edward Kennedy’s and Colin Powell’s for Barrack Obama in the last American election is important, but only for its symbolic value. The real game changing endorsements come from organized constituencies like farmers’ associations, labor and business unions. It is rare to hear an issues-based organizational voice backing a candidate in Uganda; one reason why we are seeing a contest over the ‘spoils of office’ instead of issues that concern ordinary people.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

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