I can understand a leader going against the popular will; especially where matters of national survival are concerned. But in most mundane matters, leaders must be sensitive to the way their followers think. And this is the essence of democratic politics: like entrepreneurs in the market, politicians must be responsive to the whims of voters on whom they rely for their political survival. In the case of the coronavirus, MPs need to have money at their disposal to distribute food and other essential necessities to those among their constituents who are in need.
This brings me to Museveni. He is the best example of this practice. As political contestation has increased, so has the budget for State House, the residence of the president, which also houses his private office. This financial year, that budget stands at Shs300 billion and a significant share of it goes to “gifts” and presidential donations. It was, therefore, hypocritical of him to condemn MPs’ Shs10 billion when he has already allocated himself 30 times more money than that: one man against 463 legislators.
When I was young and theoretical I used to condemn Museveni for the State House budget. I have since grown older and much more realistic. Even if I do not agree with such huge sums of public money allocated to the residence of the president, I now understand the circumstances that make it politically necessary. Even if Kizza Besigye or Bobi Wine were elected president, this practice would remain albeit under different guises. That is how politics works.
And for critics who argue that pandering to these popular sentiments undermines “development” of institutions, I say that argument is theoretically persuasive but empirically wrong. All the rich countries of today, when they were at the same level of development as we are (rural, agrarian, illiterate and poor), had the same kind of politics and it did not stop them from developing. Indeed, their current institutional setup is a result, not a cause, of their development.
For the intellectually curious, I advise them to read a small book by the American journalist, William Riordon, titled Plunkitt of Tammany Hall; A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics. Written at the beginning of the 20th Century, it is a series of reflections by George Washington Plunkitt, a then-leading figure in the Democratic Party machine of New York State on how politics is organised and how elections are won in that state.
At that time (1913), USA per capita income at PPP was $10,500 in 2020 prices; the equivalent for Uganda today is $2,700. But the nature of politics between the USA and Uganda, where elected officials met the personal needs of their constituents through certain forms of charity are similar. It did not stop the U.S. from institutionalisation and will not stop Uganda.
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