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.