By Andrew M. Mwenda
In 2005 Museveni gave Shs5m to each MP to remove presidential term limits; in 2010, he paid Shs20m per MP to pass the Cultural Leaders Bill.
Last week, I was in Johannesburg to attend a World Bank conference on the South-South dialogue on natural resources. I sat there listening to Bank officials speak with confidence and cocksureness about the various solutions to Africa’s problems. Yet most of the proposed solutions were largely copy and paste ideas that ignore the real African context.
Indeed, the most frustrating thing about most discussion on Africa is the lack of linkage between the identified problems and the proposed solutions. Always, the solution does not evolve organically from the problem. Instead, it is handpicked from a theory developed in a textbook at Harvard or Cambridge based on the experience of North America or Western Europe. The source of Africa’s persistent failure seems to be this disconnect between the existing problems and proposed solutions.
One of the problems identified was the mismanagement of the continent’s rich natural resources. The answer was that this is because citizens do not have many ways of holding leaders to account. The solution to this was that Africa needs to strengthen parliaments and civil society to perform oversight functions. But is this really the necessary solution?
Since the mid to late 1990s, Africa has made commendable progress towards greater democratisation: the press is freer, political parties very vocal and “civil society” is vibrant. Indeed, the citizens of Africa show incredible capacity to hold their elected leaders to account. For example, in the United States, over 90 percent of incumbent members of congress are assured of re-election at every election. In Uganda and Kenya, over 65 percent of all MPs get voted out of office at every election.
Therefore, we can hypothesise that reform should be more possible in Uganda or Kenya than the US because there are no deeply entrenched legislators. Indeed, this constant threat of electoral punishment should cause our parliamentarians to deliver public goods and services to retain their seats. Thus, using conventional models, every new parliament in Uganda and Kenya should be dynamic and more oriented towards public service.
Yet, as many Ugandans (and indeed Kenyans) would attest, since 1996 we have witnessed a steady deterioration in the quality of individual MPs and the output of our parliaments generally. The reason is not that our people are not holding MPs to account. They are doing so differently i.e. during election campaigns. Thus, across our nation, voters insist that candidates pay them there and then – with beer, alcohol, sugar, salt, soap, rice, meat or cash – hence the increasing commercialisation of politics.
This form of holding politicians to account has powerful implications on public service. For example, once elected, every MP will try to make as much money as possible in order to survive the next campaign. Since they cannot rise such money from their official income and our political parties do little to fund them, they have to generate it through unofficial means i.e. corruption. It also means that honest and public spirited politicians increasingly find it hard to survive in our electoral politics.
As we have seen in Uganda, one by one – Amanya Mushega, Eriya Kategaya, Ruhakana Rugunda, Bidandi Ssali, Mathew Rukikaire – have progressively quit electoral politics. Meanwhile, the more corrupt, seeking personal profit began to join. Every election has reduced the number of honest, public spirited candidates and increased that of crooks. By the time Uganda had gone through four election cycles, the balance of power between the honest and the crooks favoured the latter i.e. a genuinely democratic process has led us to a very undemocratic outcome.
It therefore naïve to suggest “strengthening parliament” because as currently constituted the crooks outnumber the honest legislators. The bribe-price of an MP has also gone up. In the early 1990s, President Yoweri Museveni encountered parliamentary resistance whenever he sought to pass some progressive agenda like privatisation, liberalisation, deregulation or return of Asian properties. He would wear military fatigues, call a closed session of the NRC and literally bulldoze members to pass it. Here, authoritarian tactics were used to promote progressive change.
But as Museveni moved from seeking legitimacy based on progressive change to one based on “democratic consensus”, his authoritarian tendencies declined at the same pace as the increase in his corruption. Where he once bulldozed now he bribed! As bribery consolidated as the vehicle for managing our politics so did the quality of parliament decline. Today, every new parliament has a higher bribery rate compared to the previous one. In 2005 Museveni needed Shs5m to buy each MP to amend the constitution and remove term limits. In 2010, it cost him Shs20m to bribe each MP to pass the Cultural Leaders Bill – a 400 percent increase over five years.
Many Ugandans (and indeed many African elites, scholars on Africa etc) miss this very important nuance i.e. that the peculiar way in which democracy is evolving in our country (and continent) actually promotes increasing corruption and abuse of office. Uganda (and Africa generally) needs to begin a serious conversation on how to restructure our institutional and electoral rules with a view to minimising the tendency of electoral competition to create the forms of perversions that we see today.
This same perversion also applies for what we call civil society in Africa. Over 90 percent of what goes for civil society in Africa are NGOs most of which are foreign funded. Except for a few, many NGOs are set up largely to foster income streams for those who founded them. This has powerful implications on “civil society” as a vehicle for democratic accountability. The beneficiaries of the work of these NGOs are not rights-bearing members but clients who receive charity. They cannot hold NGO leaders to account via elections. NGOs do more to account to their donors than their “constituents”.
Therefore, the debate on democratic accountability in Africa cannot begin from an abstract theory of what parliaments and civil society do in North America or Western Europe. It has to begin with an appreciation of the unique and concrete constitution of our societies and political systems. Based on that understanding, we can debate how to foster institutional and electoral systems of accountability that minimise the risks of crooks and opportunities taking over our countries in the name of democracy.