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Debunking Africa’s delusions

Why our everlasting obsession with the state, its leaders and politics as the problem is misguided

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M MWENDA | There is a near unanimous view that the problems of our nations in Sub Sahara Africa are a result of leaders, specifically our presidents. Others broaden this view arguing that our problems are a result of the state and its politics. To such analysts, the societies of Africa are capable of rapid economic transformation like in East Asia but are being stifled by corrupt and autocratic leaders and states.

I find this argument weak. African leaders do not spring from the heavens. They come from our societies, are propelled to power largely by domestic interests combined with regional and global forces. Therefore, they can only keep power by balancing these interests; where the domestic is primary, and the regional and global secondary.

Jean Francois Bayart, coined the term “extraversion” – referring to how African leaders draw resources from the international system (such as economic and military aid) to further their own domestic competitions in a bid to gain and/or consolidate power. Therefore, external interests only further domestic conflicts and struggles but do not create them.

Visit any public office in Uganda and the people you will meet there, bureaucrats or politicians, are our school or university alumni, live in the same neighborhood, come from the same region or district; some could be relatives, friends or in-laws. Therefore, whatever they do in public office: corruption, apathy, incompetence, etc. is not a reflection of their individual pathologies but of our societies.

It is more than 60 years since most of Africa got independence. Some, including the young Yoweri Museveni, argue that Africa’s biggest problem is leaders who stay long in power. Yet there is scarcely any difference between countries that have enjoyed short tenures of presidents (such as Nigeria, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Mozambique, Burundi etc. where no single president has ruled for more than 12 years since 1960) and those that have had long serving ones (Cameroun, Gabon, Togo, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, DRC, Ethiopia, Chad, Zambia, etc.).

Indeed, leaders have been changing regularly in most of our nations. Nigeria, for example, has had 15 presidencies and none of them has served for a continuous period of more than eight years. Yet governance in Nigeria – with its corruption, tribalism, incompetence, etc. – has scarcely changed over these years and changes in the presidents. Ghana has had 14 presidents and nothing dramatic has happened in its governance. Between 1962 and 1987, Uganda had eight governments in 25 years, an average of 3 years per president yet the country had become a failing state.

Some argue that the problem of Africa is a lack of democracy. Yet there is little difference between Africa’s democracies like Zambia, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Benin and Africa’s “autocracies”, such as Ethiopia, Cameroun, Eritrea and Chad. And this can be seen whether one measures the rate of economic growth or the level of service delivery. Indeed states like Rwanda considered autocratic are more responsive to the needs of their indigent citizens than democracies like Kenya and Malawi.

The major weakness of Africa is that the domestic groups, whose interests politicians need to placate in order to gain and/or retain power, do not constitute a progressive social force. Instead, they are predominantly retrogressive with parochial interests, largely seeking patronage and/or welfare from the state rather than political institutions and public policies that promote economic dynamism.

Imagine you are Museveni trying to hold onto power in Uganda, or Bobi Wine and Kizza Besigye trying to wrestle it from him. What constituencies do you need to win? These include peasants (who are a majority of voters), workers, underemployed and unemployed youths, salaried professionals and petty traders. You most effectively reach these social groups through such powerful social institutions as traditional authorities (Mengo especially) and our religious bodies (Namirembe, Rubaga and Kibuli) plus the new churches.

Now none of these social institutions is dominated by progressive social forces – such as manufacturers, innovators or large-scale farmers. Some individuals from these progressive groups may belong to these institutions but will most certainly not be the dominant voice. The most powerful influence on domestic economic policy is international “donors” – World Bank, IMF and other bilateral donors – who represent the interests of multinational capital.

Multinational firms cannot transform our economies (in spite of our everlasting love for them). This is because as a rule they do not transfer the most advanced and innovative components of their businesses – those parts that create the greatest value – to their subsidiaries. Apple is not going to transfer the design of the iPhone from California to Kampala. Thus, at best they can assemble parts i.e. keep us working in the lower rungs of the value chain.

Yet dominance of multinational capital in our countries may not be the cause but the result of weaknesses of indigenous capital. Idi Amin’s expropriation of foreign capital in 1972 led to economic collapse. Why? Indigenous entrepreneurial capacity was low. In South Korea, mass expropriation of Japanese owned businesses in 1945 – banks, factories, insurance and logistics firms – did not lead to economic collapse. When the American Military Government arrived to take charge of the country, after Japan’s surrender, it found factories and other businesses that Koreas had just grabbed from the Japanese, were running very well.

There are inherent weaknesses in our societies that reflect in the capacity of the state to be an effective agent of transformation. In the 1990s IMF and World Bank forced our governments to adopt policies like privatisation and liberalisation. These handed the commanding heights of our economies back to multinational capital, which had been expropriated by the nationalisations of the 1960s and 70s. These policies kick started economic growth and efficiency in resource allocation. But they did not address the challenge of structural transformation that lies at the heart of development.

For our nations to undergo capitalist transformation, we need a strong national/indigenous/local class of accumulators who can also exercise powerful influence on state policy. Currently this class is small and weak to be effective politically. Equally, our ruling elites class does not enjoy autonomy in the formulation of its values and in its decision-making processes independent of external forces. So it is incapable of promoting a national project of any heft. Instead, African ruling elites are tied to a web of social obligations to their kith and kin, making them unable and/or unwilling to inflict the kind of costs – whether it is in land expropriations or ruthless labour exploitation – that in other times and places have accompanied the process of rapid economic transformation.



  1. I usually give M9’s views the benefit of doubt. Emphasis on USUALLY! However, these cannot go comment free. REALLY Andrew!! Rwanda more responsive to indigents needs? Whose(what demographic) needs, what needs, defined by who? when responsive? I also noted that all the quoted countries that did not have any ‘difference” were sub-Saharan. In a way diluting the larger “African” kettle that you averred to in the context. BTW, we have this project where we are checking out all your articles for the last 4 years to check for specific parameters not least of which are the tread between your analysis and the solutions. We intend to get back to you on this with our findings as well as our take. Anyway, to this end, does not the issue of getting or ‘accumulating’ these indigenous accumulators without ruthless exploitation or almost suggestive possibly Hitler (Rwanda?) like interventions present a conundrum. what price capital accumulation. You have been to Singapore and until only after the death of the so called miracle man, it gave you both development and unhappiness in the same measure. Remember kiboko coffee or graduated tax round ups. My gist is different and something I am working on for sometime now. HOW to get positive behavioral change in a manner that the ‘subjects’ don’t know they are actually changing. Some type of very advanced manipulation strategies that can be argued about in teh Hague but dont actually take you there. Anyway keep them coming all the same. Maybe the Rwanda fracas took you off your game this time.

    • Pastor KAKS, I have tried to read,revise and decipher what you wanted to say and miserably failed to understand. Truth be told, here I need a translator.
      However,that I have come on this forum, I will speak my mind before departure.
      Ejakait and I have severally forbidden Mwenda to comment on issues pre-1972 because he was not born yet and has stubbornly refused to consult those who were in the know then and now but who have been denied a say by circumstances. Mwenda does not know the ‘forbidden history’ that those knowers I alluded to know but won’t broadcast. He heaps all blame of this retrogression to the people and not to their leaders. I really feel angrier than Tamale Mirundi Yowana. Did the people uproot the Uganda railway? was it vandalised by criminals? This regime has done a lot of damage but Mwenda, being on the high table wants to convince us:
      – that copper does not sell (or that we don’t have inexhaustible reserves inside the entrails of Rwenjura via Kilembe shaft.)
      – that Uganda was never this respectable yet it has not reached the 1972 fame when Uganda education system was best in the world.
      – that Uganda was never as indebted when it relied on three Cs (Copper, coffee and cotton)
      – that his land polluting chinese sweat shops misnamed industries are development
      – that Uganda has always been this indebted which debts are used to buy misery….what is a Sukhoi for Ejakait? even if you would be given one free of charge……a liability such as that toy, would you accept it? try to resell it and see if anyone will be fool enough to give you 100k USD.
      – that Uganda was this corrupt from long ago…what history does Mwenda read?
      – that Ugandans have always been poor yet he was no millionaire’s son but he changed schools like shirts and all the said schools ;first class where he managed to gather all this he knows and even more that he has forgotten.
      And to prove that his misleading writs are intentional, he has a gang of researchers at the Independent who can avail anything he wishes, is personally widely traveled, reads like ancient addicted bookworms but will still lie to gullible who frequent the Independent and even goes to other publications, debate platforms on social media and talk-shows to purposely prop up a tired regime which is groaning under its own weight. Let them go rest before they do more irreparable damage in form of unpayable debts. Who closed Kilembe mines? Do you now the price of copper cathodes? Did you you know the copper smelter in Jinja? Visit the Uganda museum and see the history of when Uganda was developed before it was run down. A younger man who listens to knowledgeable elders can turn Uganda’s fortunes around in 5 years.

      • Is there any person couth and sagacious about Africa and Uganda in particular than this so called Andrew Mwenda? I find it confusing that this extrovert thinks he knows the problems of Ugandans more than his forefathers. Does it require anyone from heaven to come and tell him that the current regime has eroded almost all systems in Uganda, to wit, education, judiciary… How many parents are now able to have their children in good schools? How many patients can afford better medical care? May God help Uganda.

  2. Spot on. There is not much hope for Sub saharan Africa. Hope you followed my earlier advice and read IQ and the wealth of nations by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen.

  3. Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

    Hi friends and compatriots,
    I seem to see M9 sort of trying to justify the status quo, and others ‘castigating’ him. Where are the solutions?
    What can we do about this? Surely we just can’t be going on like this: explain, counter argue and curse whomever and whatever —– and then expect somehow to emerge from the abyss of underdevelopment.

    As a simple thinker and small time doer, I have ‘suggested’ and ‘done’ a bit of work on this. If interested, see the first part of the journal version of my Dec 2018 ‘award-winning’ Hong Kong presentation at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2215098619300205 . Just read the first 2 sections of that work because that is what is most relevant to this ‘M9-adversaries’ debate.


    Kant Ateenyi

  4. What was so “winning” about your award???

    • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

      Brother and ‘comrade’ Rajab,
      Just not to pick a long tirade on ‘non issues’, let us focus on the parts of that paper that relate to what M9 may be writing about.


      Kant Ateenyi

  5. ejakait engoraton

    “I find this argument weak. African leaders do not spring from the heavens. They come from our societies, are propelled to power largely by domestic interests combined with regional and global forces. Therefore, they can only keep power by balancing these interests; where the domestic is primary, and the regional and global secondary.”

    I find this argument very mediocre. The argument here is not “from whence these leaders came from”, it is the quality of their leadership that is the problem.

    “The company currently operates on a temporary 90-day licence after its licence expired in October 2018 and Museveni has refused to renew it in spite of holding several top level negotiations with company officials; both local and from MTN headquarters in South Africa”

    The above is from an article in this same paper about the woes of MTN. Here ONE man is able to overrule all other persons and organs and make a decision based on his WHIMS.

    And then after made such decisions he admits thus;

    “I am the one who ordered for the deportation of Wim but I was misled,” a source privy to the details of the meeting quoted President Museveni as telling the officials.

    How many times has he made such misinformed decisions and what has been the impact of such decisions.

    Only GOD can help us.

  6. The sole duty of a journalist is to “expose” secrets. I don’t know how far Mwenda has been in fulfilling this nobler duty in the most recent past. Capitalism as an economic system deals with the accumulation and distribution of resources. However, it has been superficially redefined to mean “market”, “market” and only the “market.” The fact is, markets cannot be evaluated or even described independent of the working of a social structure. The “free choice” of goods and services will mean different in a “laissez-faire” economy and another in a monopoly or oligopolistic system. Therefore, it is equally simplistic of a journalist to talk of a “capitalistic” economy without the “interventionistic” governmental policies as though the two were “diametrically exclusive.” Mwenda is being a sophist when he that our systems are inherently weak and he justifies this with the “privatisation” of state enterprises in the early 1990s. Let us all remember that it is Mwenda who has been tauting the remarkable performance of the Ugandan economy equating it to a “miracle.” The “privatisation” process wasn’t entirely transparent to use it as a “standard gauge” to measure the “society weakness” is to “absolve” a fraudulent process that it was. Timothy Kalyegira (Sunday Monitor, 2011), noted that “Privatisation actually ended up binding people in chains and making Uganda a much more incompetent and stifled state than it had been before 1990.” He further noted that much as there was “privatisation”, the “privatised” entities still continued to access government funds. He noted, “Since the early 1990s, a middle class seemed to have arisen, however, it now turns up that it was an establishment created largely around political patronage and illegal business practices.” Kalyegira’s analysis is being augmented by a more recent revelation by then Governor, Bank of Uganda, Finance Minister and once head of the privatised Uganda Commercial Bank, Dr. Ezra Suruma.Suruma has claimed that his eventual sacking from government was as a result of his refusal and insistence not to sell off UCB. After almost thirty years since privatisation started, it is very clear to the current government that there is nothing left to sell. That even if government was desirous of “renationalising” of the sold off enterprises it will be making losses. Capitalism cannot work outside “planning” to do so would be promoting anarchy. A “mixed economy” is the ideal and most practical economic system that can transform Uganda. However, to imagine that we can build a “capitalist class” with strong “individualistic tendencies” independent of interventionist government policies will be building a society with two conflicting bases. On the one hand, a strong dominant political class of the few and on the other, a dominated peasantry class of the majority. To call such a thing “transformation” is being delusional and it calls for debunking. To me, “transformation” means, from the “kingdom of necessity” to the “kingdom of freedom.” Twagala “FEDERO.”

    • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

      Ah -Munnange, lwaki oyonoona your sweet argument ne Federo yo at the end? (Why do you ‘spoil’ your otherwise ‘clever’ argument with Federalism at the end?). But any way, correct me if my interpretation is hay-way: I thought ‘noble’ journalists with some good level of intellect would go past ‘exposing secrets’ and dig deeper into possible causes and potential effects of those secrets. M9 seems to me to want to belong to that category: as to whether he is succeeding or not, I am not qualified enough to judge.
      Secondly, I thought capitalism dealt with the accumulation and distribution of ‘wealth’ – not ‘resources’: the former, being a derivative of the latter. For ‘resources’ are largely – though not entirely – Nature controlled but wealth is a man – made creature. The problem with Africa – as I seem to see it – is our low ability to convert resources to wealth, whether driven by individualistic motives or by altruistic society welfare motives.
      Thirdly, I find arguments based on ‘static’ environments very very unconvincing. For nothing in this universe is static! Everything varies in some way, with time. (This is usually the basis of my ‘small’ point of departure from my dear comrades Rwasubutare and Ejakait). That privatisation might have been necessary 30 years ago, does not necessarily mean it is still necessary today. That said, I am more inclined to agree with Dr. Suruma on UCB. For the man was turning it around. Just as I am more than happy with Dr. Muhairwe’s work in National Water.
      Apart from your ‘federo’ wish (which in itself does not necessarily imply ‘freedom’), I do not seem to have much to argue against your ‘clever’ contribution.


      Kant Ateenyi

  7. 1.Nations that tend to have homogeneous social aspects like Region,Tribe tend to develop faster for example;Ethiopia,Bostwana and most of Asia and the Arab world.
    2.Did Africa just commit economic suicide by being so rigid towards investors?
    3.All the first world nations have the same natural resources that enabled them develop why is it that Africa’s natural resources are still not exploited?
    4.How much marketing does Africa need to improve her image and become attractive to investors?
    5.The biggest tax payers in USA are retail departmental stores like Walmart and Kroger or Amazon what do they sell ?just ordinary goods why cant Africa supply their products to these stores?
    6.Africans have not been loved enough that’s why they don’t appreciate things like Flowers,cats,dogs,they never say words like;thank you,excuse me please,love u.
    7.@Rwastubare:Why would an industry like Kilemebe mines that was making profits allegedly close shop in the 80’s?How many Ugandans were employed as skilled workers in those industries?weren’t the industries being managed by foreigners?.
    8.@ Rajab & Ejakait: where does the train that passes behind Kitgum House drop its passengers?

  8. @Ateenyi. You seem to be haunted by a limited appreciation of the English vocabulary. English is a language and therefore a mode of communication. Words will hold different circumstances depending on how and when they are being applied. Words will mean different depending on the context. They will also mean different depending on the etymological/ original form of the word. In contemporary writing, we deal with creativity which might not conform with the intransigent/ traditional writing. However, in your case, you seem to focus more on the putative/what is supposed to be than the form. Some words do not have a single fit/neat definition and we can only examine, explore, analyse and compare in the quest for meaning. For instance, “expose” could mean “to dig deep.” Sometimes, when we are fighting for both “time” and “space”, we look for more “precise” words which would in most cases not alter the meaning. As for “resources” to mean “natural”, what would you make of ” financial resources? ” “Federo” is part of this discussion. Preston King defined “Federalism” as the, “conscious self-direction.” Other than building powerful “individuals”, federalism is centered in the democratic rule of building powerful “communities.” Time and space might not permit this discussion as you might need “special” lesson/s.

    • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

      Hmmmm!! Okay Sir!!

      • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

        Eh while not wanting to escalate some relatively ‘trivial’ things further, I must comment on so called ‘financial’ resources. Even as I said earlier – not all resources are ‘entirely’ natural (which could therefore envelope this particular one), I must add that finances are more of ‘wealth’ because they are ‘man-made’ – just as ‘knowledge’ is. However, these two forms of wealth are so crucial in development/underdevelopment of individuals/nations that there is a tendency to ‘promote’ them to ‘Resources’. I really think that tendency is a misnomer – and is misleading in the sense that it can dishearten some people/nations lacking enough of them. My observations and experiences in many African countries to date (by the way including much talked about Botswana and today’s Ghana) seem to indicate that most so called ‘educated’ Africans are resigned to that misnomer. This is sad – because we surely can do something about it!

  9. godfrey kambere

    I believe a closer look at the National chamber of commerce under Mrs Olive Kigongo will give a clearer picture of what drives the private sector in this country . If you chance to compare this group with those in the neighbouring countries you will easily see why we are still crawling!

  10. Ateenyi, you normally indicate titles before your name, such as “Engineer”, “Dr”. To me, these are “achievement” titles in the “knowledge” field. Now, “knowledge” should be more “tolerant” and more “liberating.” Earlier on, there is a “dual” you referred to as “static.” I find you to be “two peas of the same stalk.” Language which English is, is a “living art.” Some words die, some words are born. Speak of “Shakespearean” speech!

    • Dr. Eng. Kant Ateenyi

      Yes brother: I do appreciate English is a living art – and indeed in today’s world of commerce and science, its knowledge is a kind of ‘resource’. No problem there. Period.

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