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The dilemma of Africa’s reformers

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How corruption becomes a necessary vice for successful politicians who win elections by denouncing it

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine you are a presidential candidate for the 2016 elections in Uganda. You have all the good policies and ideas. And you want to build a winning electoral coalition. What is the most critical thing you need? It is building an organisational structure that allows you to reach all parts of the country.

Now, in most poor countries, modern institutions like political parties, farmers’ cooperatives, labour unions and other civic associations to link candidates and their programs to targeted voters are either weak or absent. This is especially so in those parts of the country where most voters are – rural areas. The solution in our context is to identify powerful pillars of opinion (influencers) in the different ethnic and religious communities as the building blocks of your organisational infrastructure. These include influential prelates, powerful traditional leaders and other pillars of opinion such as respected elders, successful businessmen, articulate youths, teachers etc.

I admit that because of rapid growth of the economy over the last 28 years, the explosion in education and the spread of access to mass and social media, Uganda has a large community of citizens whose primary identity is not religious or ethnic. These are the urbanised second and third generation middleclass citizens on social media. Many of these can be efficiently reached and mobilised through their hobbies like sports and entertainment, or through their professions (lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers), or occupations (small and medium scale traders in the informal sectors – boda bodas, barbers, vendors, kiosk owners, bartenders), etc. However, the vast majority of voters are still located in the religious and ethnic sphere.


What attracts these influencers to one’s candidature? It may be because he is charismatic (like Kizza Besigye) and has courage to denounce the ills of the incumbent. They may feel alienated by the incumbent government and/or because the new candidate’s message of change appeals to their aspirations and ideals. But the most powerful incentive in a poor country for such powerful elites is the prospect of electoral success and the material rewards this promises.

President Yoweri Museveni’s success is based on many things – his claim to being a freedom fighter that restored peace and economic growth, his ability to use the state machinery to bully his opponents and rig the vote. However, his greatest card is his ability to retain the loyalty of a large number of these influential figures of opinion in our different ethnic and religious communities through state patronage. He has crowded his opponents out of the market for these influencers by the sheer size of cabinet, presidential advisors, RDCs, security agencies and the State House budget for donations.

But let us assume you defeat Museveni and become president. How do you reward these influencers and retain their loyalty, especially given the sacrifices they made in braving state intimidation and harassment to help you secure victory? Well, by appointing them to powerful and/or lucrative government jobs as ministers, managers of big government agencies and businesses etc. One reason for this is for them to deliver on your programs. The other is for them to retain the loyalty of their followers and expand your political base. They achieve the latter by using public office to dispense patronage.

To retain their following, they help their campaign agents and other lower elites get jobs in government (this undermines merit-based recruitment) and lucrative public contracts (which undermines transparent and competitive bidding) etc. And they are always accosted by their followers with demands for helping meet children’s fees, medical bills and contributing to funeral expenses etc. They cannot do this on their official salaries. They need to steal, hence corruption.

Therefore if you actively oppose their corruption, you will actually be cutting the hand that feeds your political machine. If you arrest them en masse, they will join the opposition parties to defeat you at the next election. You cannot keep them in jail because they are entitled to bail. And you will not secure convictions against them because they will bribe police investigators, prosecutors and judges. If you interfere with the courts, you will be accused of undermining due process and judicial independence and international human rights groups will join them in condemning you.

With the sole exception of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, successful politicians in Africa have been forced to climb down from the skies of utopia to the hard rock of reality. Rather than see corruption as an evil to be fought, they realise it is a virtue (or a necessary evil) for maintaining political support. I will discuss why Rwanda under Kagame is different another day. Point is that the incentive structure of our politics undermines reform of the status quo. How?

The beneficiaries of corruption are the most powerful and articulate segments of the society, and often they have a large following because of the patronage they dispense to their followers. They appear in local and international media and interface with international human rights groups. The victims of corruption are ordinary citizens who have little or no voice in public affairs. And they are likely to support a thieving politician because he shares their ethnicity or religion and has given them some handouts from his public loot.

You can alienate these influencers and decide to base your government’s legitimacy on serving ordinary people. This will need to reform the state and build capacity for effective and efficient delivery of public goods and services. But how long will this take? Most studies show between 15-25 years at best. But your re-election is only five years away. And the budget of $150 dollars per person per year in Uganda is too small to enable government to provide the basket of public goods and services to all its citizens effectively.

The best solution seems to be a one term presidency. That will allow you to do so much good even if you do not get re-elected. However, if the thieves gang up against you and win, you will watch in tears as all your reforms are reversed. What you left of a clean government becomes a den for thieves. So what was the value of your five years of effort? You think perhaps it is better for you to retain some thieves in order to win re-election and protect the gains of your government.  But this, even with all the good intentions, places you on a slippery slope. That is the dilemma reform-minded politicians face.

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