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Crisis of Africa’s postcolonial state

 Danger of expecting leaders of poor African countries to govern like the rich

Imagine a romantic relationship between a poor young guy and a demanding girlfriend. They live in a community with former school and classmates all of whom are rich kids living in posh neighborhoods, driving fancy cars, wearing designer clothes, taking holidays in the Bahamas, dining at exclusive restaurants and buying expensive gifts for their girlfriends. The poor guy finds himself under peer pressure to live like the rich colleagues; and his girlfriend desires and demands that they keep up to the standards.

Although the poor guy cannot afford to fund a rich lifestyle, he keeps making promises he actually cannot fulfill. Consequently, the girlfriend keeps calling him a liar and selfish; sometimes accusing him of misusing his income by going to night clubs and drinking beer (which is often true) or of being lazy and disinterested. He attempts to meet his girlfriend’s expectations by stretching himself or faking ability. He buys her fake products that are imitations of originals and disappoint her every now and then.

Such a pretentious relationships can only be characterised by constant quarrels and recriminations. Exaggerated demands and expectations lead to false promises, which when unmet, lead to frustration. This is the relationship betweenAfrican political leaders and their citizens. Politicians in Africa inherited an ideological structure backed by institutions of a modern state as it works in the Western world. They have since then sought to replicate its functions across their entire country even when they lack the necessary human and financial resources to achieve such lofty objectives. The consequence is frustration resulting from unmet promises by leaders and exaggerated expectations of their citizens.

In fact, the colonial state provided a very limited range of public goods and services to a very small group of people, often white overlords and their collaboratingAfrican elites residing largely, if not entirely, in urban areas. Nationalist leaders seeking independence said this governance model was due to racism i.e. the colonial state only cared about the interests of white colonial overlords and ignored the plight of the colonised natives.

Such ideological arguments are most effective (and dangerous) when they make use of (and abuse) obvious truths. That the colonial state was racist and did not care much about the interests of the colonised is beyond dispute. However, its racism not withstanding, I am inclined to believe that the bigger factor was that the colonial state did not have the financial and human resources to provide a wide range of public goods and services to everyone – even if it wished to.

I have spent 25 years reading about public policy in Africa. The discussions begin with an implicit assumption that the government like that of Burundi with US$47 as public spending per person this financial year, can afford to provide the same services as the government of the United Kingdom with per capita spending of $28,000 or that of Botswana with per capita spending at $5,000. Failure to govern this way, it is often argued, is because the leaders of Burundi are greedy and selfish i.e. they don’t care about their people.

After 25 years of studying politics in Africa, I am yet to read a book or academic paper that addresses the fact that governments on our continent are poor in financial and human resources to perform the functions expected of them under the concept of a modern state. All discussion begins with an implicit assumption that they are able and the failures we see is due to corruption and selfish leaders.

Yet the state in poor countries is very weak and underdeveloped such that often it cannot even exercise its most basic function i.e. maintenance of order. We are seeing this in Burundi, Central Africa Republic, South Sudan, DRC, etc.

Yet these states, which can barely function, are expected to deliver universal education, healthcare for all, clean water to every home, electrify all rural areas, build tarmac roads everywhere, hold free and fair “democratic elections”, ensure freedom and liberty for citizens, etc. This is expecting “good governance” in countries where there is hardly a government in the first place.

In 2012 I visited Somalia. There was barely a state there. Whatever is called a state there could not even control one inch of its territory. It functions only because of the presence of armies from neighboring countries. The EU and USA have been training an army in Uganda to hold this fictional edifice of the Somali state together. After five years, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) does not have an army. All the thousands that were trained at great cost later deserted and joinedAl Shabaab or went home. Yet donors were organising elections for parliament and the president.

There is no country with public spending per capita of $100 to $500 that has succeeded in governing like modern states – except post genocide Rwanda. That we can point to one example among tens of poor nations only underlines the fact that post genocide Rwanda is an exception that proves the rule i.e. that poor nations do not govern by providing a wide range of public goods and services to all their citizens. Without exception, they tend to rely on a combination of patronage and repression. Indeed, today’s rich countries governed exactly like ours govern today when they had similar per capita spending and per capita income as ours.

I recently took my cousin, Dr. Jude Kagoro, a lecturer at Bremen University in Germany, to Rwanda. One of the few very thoughtful African elites I know, he was amazed at what he saw. Later in an evening discussion with Paul Kagame, he told the Rwandan president: “I think you and your people are magicians. How do you do this?” Kagame smiled, taking it as a courteous but hyperbolic compliment. Yet Kagoro was serious. He could not believe that a poor country like Rwanda could do the things he saw.

Many people think post genocide Rwanda’s success can be easily replicated. If this were possible, many leaders inAfrica would have done it. What Rwanda has done is without precedent in contemporary history. Just like it would be unfair to ask every Ugandan to be as rich as Sudhir Ruparelia or everyAmerican to be as rich as Bill Gates, it is unfair to ask or expect every government inAfrica to be as efficient as that of Rwanda. They may not have the history and context that has made Rwanda’s success possible.




  1. what is this bloviation about?

  2. This is a nervy topic, most especially when one is to apply the girlfriend- boyfriend analogy. Let me hope the feminists won’t find this writer (or his mind (since he has decided to
    imagine)) sexist. Mwenda mentally visualises a woman as a naive, indifferent, materialistic and voluptuous being. I only hope, it is a mentality he’s “borrowed” just for this
    discussion. He juxtaposes this woman to a hapless African who’s been wonkily cheated. He argues that, as the inconsiderate girlfriend is to an inglorious boyfriend, so are the Africans towards their leaders. The flaw in Mwenda’s argument is that, he wants to correct a wrong by (counter-arguing) using another wrong. That is, according to his imagination, if the boyfriend cannot meet the standards of his ever demanding girlfriend, it is right for the boyfriend to tell lies to the girlfriend. In another world outside Mwenda’s, it is also possible for the boyfriend to sit-down his girlfriend and tell her the true state of affairs- it is called transparency. When the parties fail to agree, then, they can part ways since love is built on persuasion. In political cases, just like it is in love, when persuasion fails relationships turnout to be psychologically abusive or physically morbid.

    In Selections from Prison Notebooks (page,594), Antonio Gramsci ” describes a situation where there is no consensus as the formation of totalitarian social hypocrisy. Gramsci had analysed the working conditions of post-war Italy. The post war conditions created “transitory wartime life” which had restrictions on sex-life. However, post war conditions had
    also created a libertarian conception proper to those classes which were not tightly bound to productive work and spread by them among the working classes. This element became particularly serious in a state where the working masses were no longer subject to coercive
    pressure from a superior class and where the new methods of production and work had to be acquired by means of reciprocal persuasion and by convictions proposed and accepted by each individual. A two-fold situation arose, in which there was an inherent conflict between the “verbal” ideology which recognised the new necessities and the real “animal” practice which prevented physical bodies from effectively acquiring the new attitudes. In other words, the popular strata were compelled to practice “virtue”. Yet, the elite who preached it did not practice it but paid it verbal homage. He concluded that such a situation could not last, and that it would lead to a crisis of libertinism. A similar scenario to what Gramsci described has panned out in much of post independent Africa. The African elites that agitated for independence, most had visited the cities and had also studied in
    schools and Universities of the colonialists. When they successfully displaced the colonialists, they didn’t only put on the colonialists’ mental caps but also adopted their coercive means of administration. The abusive political relationship between the “dominant African” and the “dominated African” has had adverse economic effects.

    In a prior topic (Crisis of Authority, pg: 556), Gramsci notes that “if the ruling class has lost its consensus, that is, no longer “leading” but only “dominant”, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. This very description persists in present day Africa. Before Mwenda’s imagined “boyfriend” descends
    into an intra-quarrel, let him develop a proper, truth-telling discussion with his “girlfriend” intended to change her “indifferent mentality” for a beneficial love relationship.

  3. Anybody seriously wanting a study of the postcolonial state should google and read: “The state in peripheral capitalist societies”.

  4. 1.The colonial state was very instrumental in establishing administrative structures in the Judiciary,legislature and Executive arms of govt .Up to now we still refer to these great rules.
    2. Africans should not be living a life of poverty and misery but at times we invite stress into our lives e.g whats wrong with Musinguzi & Adhola having only one wife?When you observe the lifestyle of most successful families in Africa you find that they r disciplined,humble and organized(especially those whose parents where civil servants) while the poor in most cases are big headed,ungrateful and practice witchcraft.
    3.No one can ever tell whether policy x or y is better than the other not until they have been implemented(Let me elaborate more on nationalization & capitalism).in the era of colonization all Business ventures were owned by Govt and most of those who benefited from nationalism were govt employees so how were the poor motivated??Parents in the rural areas would envy the lifestyles of the elites and would work so hard to enable their children live like them but with the introduction of capitalism everyone is now business minded that’s why there is a lot of theft,fraud,murder,high school drop out,prostitution.
    4.Has Uganda benefited from democracy & good governance ?yes of course currently there is a lot of freedom of speech & expressions even if M7 left power now Uganda would still be firm.
    5. Did Africa rush to embrace capitalism yes of course; has it worked for us somehow but we need to return to nationalization(those SAP programmes imposed on us BY DEVELOPMENT PARTNERS are not cast in stone so we can only adapt the polices that work for us).
    6.I read Jamwa,s comment on govt bailing out financially traumatized companies he justifies this by quoting the Greece bailout these are my views;(i)How many companies does govt owe and what did they supply?(ii)I thought bailout only applies to those who have admitted that they are broke & need help so why would govt bail out a company it owes money?(iii)Must a company always borrow loans i think someone who borrow a loans lacks financial discipline what happened to saving money?(iv)Haven’t those companies been making profits if yes what did they use it for?? (v) Big companies normally share their profits(pay bonuses) at the end of the year to their workers did these companies ever do that?(vi) Financially sound companies donate to charity did they ever do that?
    7. I saw Ugandans celebrating coz they qualified for Africa cup of Nations but i know that once we are grouped with Nigeria,Cameroon or ivory coast we shall not win……….

    • Why don’t you take time to organise your mind a little? Doing so would reduce embarrassment for you as well as save us this sort of eyesore you publish here.

      • .@ Adhola i have never forced you to read my comments.Back to the topic why do you think Zimbabwe is still limping despite having a 90 year old president?Its coz of the good administrative structures the colonialists left behind.Secondly had Mugabe not grabbed farms from the whites and given them to the blacks to own they would not have been in this economic mess.He gave away most of the white owned farms to the blacks hoping that they would love him foreverand ever they have now turned against him.Zimbabwe would have been the best case study of African states that have failed to develop economically even after receiving/grabbing farms from whites (we cant run/maintain them)

    • @Rajab why r you referring us to such articles?people only discuss those who matter thats why Ugandan elites are so obsessed with Andrew.We have so many journalists and analysts in ug why is it that its only Andrew that i known?you think its by accident?
      2. During the good old days,those with PhDs were taken seriously but these days,there is alot of plagiarism,most PhD candidates are pursuing studies coz they are donor funded(there is alot of idle money lying around)for Universities in ug there is this craze to become professor coz M7 has increased their pay.

      • This is exactly what I was talking about the necessity for you to organise your mind. Look how incoherent this piece of your is.

      • “@Rajab why r you referring us to such articles?people only discuss those who matter…….” In once single line you have posed a question and provided the answer. Qn: Rajab why r you referring us to such articles? Answer: people only discuss those who matter. You always make it look so simple- Winnie.

  5. What Rwanda has done is not particularly remarkable or some kinda ‘black swan’ rare event, it can actually be easily replicated. Rwanda is remarkable only in its audacity to act but the idea behind its actions is what almost all former colonies have talked about but never acted on- the systematic destruction of the colonial state. What Rwanda did is essentially abandon systemic , political, structural and social colonial logic that informed the state. It undertook well thought out and deliberate policies to destroy adverse aspects of the colonial state.

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