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Weapons of the poor

THE LAST WORD: By Andrew M.Mwenda

How do you govern a country that has average public spending per capita of $450 annually in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)? Is it possible to govern it using the same strategies as a country whose public spending is $22,000 per person annually? Yet all debate on governance today assumes exactly that. I have grown suspicious of this belief in large part because when one studies the governance strategies of today’s rich nations when they had the same per capita spending as today’s poor countries they look quite similar.

Poor countries rely in varying degrees on a combination of patronage and repression to govern. Of course they also deliver public goods and services like security, education, health, clean water, electricity, roads and bridges. But this latter effort is often characterized by gross ineptness, absenteeism, incompetence and corruption. Poor governments add ideological weapons as well – promising “development”, democracy, respect for human rights, fighting corruption, and appeals to identity.

I have always argued that poor countries tend to rely largely on patronage and repression for governance because they are the most cost-efficient and cost-effective instruments in poor, ethnically diverse societies. Over the last few years of closely studying public policy implementation, I have come to believe that patronage and repression are not just a cost-effective and cost-efficient governance strategies. They are also the only affordable ones in governing a poor country.

How per capita revenues and per capita spending influence governance strategies of nations

Politicians are power-maximizing entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs in the market seek to maximize profits by minimizing costs. Equally entrepreneurs in politics do similar, seek power for the longest time at the least cost. Just imagine you are a president of Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana or Kenya trying to figure out how to win the next election. You can invest your efforts in building political institutions and implementing public policies that ensure delivery of public goods and services to all citizens to win their support.

This is a daunting task that requires exceptional discipline, takes a very long time and most importantly, demands a lot of money. However, your country lacks the requisite institutional capacity, appropriate human skills and financial resources to deliver these efficiently and effectively. And you have an election in a few years.

Alternatively, you can win the block vote of a given community by appointing influential pillars of opinion from the community to powerful and lucrative positions in government. Such pillars of opinion may be traditional leaders, respected community elders, rich businesspersons, articulate youths, religious clerics and successful professionals.

These influencers act as a bridge between you and their co-ethnics. This is especially so in poor countries with strong attachments to identity. By selecting William Ruto as his vice president, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya easily won over 90% of the votes among Ruto’s ethnic group, the Kalenjin.

If you come to think of it, this strategy is cost-efficient and cost-effective. Only a rare politician would ignore it – and I know only one today, Paul Kagame of Rwanda. If a politician can win the support of an entire community by appointing a few of its sons and daughters to powerful positions in government, that is surely most cost-effective and cost-efficient (in money and time) than trying to build hospitals and schools backed by a functional healthcare and education system in that community. Imagine the time, money and discipline required to achieve good public services.

Then a dilemma stares Kenyatta in the eye: what makes Ruto such an influential pillar among the Kalenjin? How does he attract the following of his co-ethnics? It is certainly his ability to deliver goodies to them: jobs for sons and daughters of the soil, public sector contracts for its businesspersons and other influential appointments.

This means professional competence has to play a secondary role in hiring people and companies to perform public services. It also means that Ruto must have access to financial resources to lubricate his network of agents that allows him to retain his preeminence within his community. In other words, corruption is the way such a system works, not the way it fails.

Although authoritarian governments have acted the same way, democracy is the weakest system to fight this governance model in large part because it relies more on convincing and therefore bribing people. And although religious or ethnic identity are the most visible expression of building such a governing or electoral coalition, I think it is economic circumstances of poverty that underpins this incentive structure.

I am aware I have painted with too broad a brush because there are a host of exceptions and divergences to what I amwriting. If money were all that was needed to run a nation on modern governance strategies, Equatorial Guinea with a per capita income of $36,000 at PPP would be a model example inAfrica. Yet the model inAfrica is Rwanda with per capita spending of $208 annually. However, this argument has wide application among poor nations.

Therefore post genocide Rwanda is really an oddity. For in that country, the primary strategy of government in its search for support and legitimacy is not coopting ethnic and religious elites into the governing coalition but delivering public goods and services impersonally to anonymous citizens. This is not to say post genocide Rwanda does not have elements of patronage. Rather, it is to say that patronage plays a secondary, not primary role – indeed a distant secondary role.

It is tempting to argue that all countries in Sub SaharaAfrica should govern like Rwanda. Like most of its contemporaries, Rwanda is poor and largely rural. In fact its per capita revenue, per capita public spending and per capita income are all belowmost of the nations in its comparison group. Yet it governs like a modern state. If it can do it, surely many others should be able to follow suit.

This is an argument I have made so many times that it defies imagination that I have been increasingly retreating from it. I am now inclined to believe there is a combination of factors that have made Rwanda’s success possible. I will discuss them in another article. However, they are rare to find and difficult to recreate.

Indeed, if it were possible to successfully replicate the Rwandan experience, many leaders in Africa would have done it. Indeed some like Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso and Murtala Mohammed in Nigeria attempted it and got killed in the process.

Intellectuals will contribute best to the governance of poor nations when they stop assuming they can be governed like rich nations and ask: how does one govern a poor agrarian society?



  1. In the animal kingdom every specie has got its unique sexual code. The cock will normally gloat in front of an eagerly waiting hen. The boastful cock will make numerous squawking noises inviting the unsuspecting hen that it is in possession of grain it wishes to dispense of. And every time the hen comes within the proximity of the cock, it will be mounted. It is a different trick for the goats. A he goat will have a distinctive sniff at the she goat’s urine as
    if to indicate, “you have no imperfections my lady!!”Such a reassuring gesture will prompt another turn for repeated business. For humans, there are clear lines of communication. There will always be flattery words or actions towards the intended prey and thanks to
    Croesus the Lydian king who introduced the money economy. All I am trying to put across is, just like sex, politics has got established lines (approaches) to attract allies or the rules of engagement for the opponents. Most people approach politics through an ideology- a set of organised ideas. What is Mwenda’s ideology?

    If we decided to consider each of these ideologies that Mwenda has expressed before, we would have an awesome task on our hands (if not memory). But it would be much simpler
    if I tackled Mwenda on this particular issue. As most of the issues he has raised in the past are instances of more general principles that can quickly be settled by applying the principles themselves. An ideology has public sense. In politics, we are normally concerned with convincing others that a policy we favour is the right one. We usually have personal reasons for favouring certain policies. For instance, we may want taxes to be cut because we are wealthy, we may favour national health insurance because we are poor, or, we may relax the laws relating to corruption because our loved ones might be implicated. But these
    personal reasons are not usually good public reasons. Ideologies are developed and maintained because of both their usefulness to individuals in responding to events and their utility in public political arguments. The process of developing an ideology should not be a conscious cynical process but rather a comfortable general process that fits our particular needs over a period of time. Ideologies should not simply be the creation of those who hold them but should be able to take on a life of their own. I find Mwenda’s arguments more
    of casuistries than sets of ideas that help us make sense out of politics for ourselves and present arguments effectively in public.

    Is Africa facing an ideological problem? In trying to understand ideologies, one must appreciate what took place in medieval Europe between those who were dominated and those who dominated them. Farmers were treated as slaves, subjects of the church or
    the nobility. They paid heavy taxes to their patrons who provided protection in return. Such industry as it existed, was organised in guilds. The new and increasingly powerful commercial and industrial elite cast about for ways to make society more fluid and manageable. One helpful solution was the invention of the modern state. Another was the appearance of “Liberalism.”

    Liberalism posits that people are maximally responsible for their own actions, rather than having someone else do things on their behalf. In a famous essay on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill argued that ‘the chief end of politics was to allow people to become responsible and mature. That they can only do this if they take part in decisions affecting their own lives. Therefore, even though a wise and benevolent despot could actually make better decisions on behalf of the people than they could possibly make for
    themselves, democracy would still be better.’ This argument led to a “conservative
    reaction.” The opponents of liberalism counteracted that it was an “individualistic doctrine.” In opposition, conservatives hold that societies and other groups of people are more than just the sum of their parts, that a group creates greater happiness through its existence and maintenance as a group than could possibly be as individual members. Conservatives say that liberals are a lonely and selfish lot whose ultimate aim is to better themselves with no regard for the people around them. First forward.

    After the defeat of Nazi-Germany (second world war), liberalism spread far and wide. From India in Asia to the Gold Coast in Africa. It was therefore inevitable that the liberals made quick but yet feeble marks on colonial Africa. The general disintegration of the colonial system in Africa was a polemic scene on both its social and economic development. Africa was underdeveloped to embrace the individualistic demands of liberalism. The new
    African elite therefore, took on both the mental psyche and the coercive instruments of power from the colonialist and went into a destructive mode against his own kind. He has not effected on the social and economic standing of the ordinary person. The “liberation struggles” that were meant to effect change for better African lives, turned out into fully fledged military governments that have only created cubbyholes of opulence for the ruling class and obscene levels of poverty to the ordinary people. The reigns that run Africa are neither “conservative” or “liberal.” This calls for a new construct of Africa. It calls for a pact of sorts- maybe a third alternative. An alternative that minimises the controlling nature of conservatism yet promoting meritocracy. A system that minimises on the arbitrariness of liberalism yet promoting social and economic freedoms. What if we tried “Utilitarianism”,
    which demands that the right action is the one that brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That is my code, but does it have the public

    • Rajab my brother, long time! Good education right here but answer me, the attempt and requirement by the democratic process to develop a set of ideas, call it manifesto, which are sold to the masses so that the emergent winnner is the one whose ideas promises and is believed to bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people, not already practised? Of course whether that is what happens here is a different question. Which would be a practice challenge rather than a policy one. Waiting for your answer. As for Andrew’s line of argument, I can only hope that time will come when we will be able to show them what public service is about. they will know that It is far driving big cars and grabbing public resources. I hope that that time come. Andrew and his likes have no leadership game

      • Much appreciated Musinguzi. Democracy by its true definition is participatory. The underlying question is therefore, “Are the participants in the democracy (be it the elected or the voter) anchored in an ideology? Politics is all about power and choice. Power may be exercised as coercion or persuasion. The ability to exercise any of these forms of power may be based on: money, affection, physical strength or legal status (in form of constitutions). On the other hand, choice may be interpreted as a way to work out rationally the best common solution to a common problem. That is, politics consists of public choices. Let me use a classroom for an illustration. A college or University class is a group for which common policies must be made and in which a single person (the lecturer) is formally charged with responsibility. Thus the group’s politics will largely consist of domination of the students by the lecturer. However, it is not solely a system of domination because there are a number of informal mechanisms by which students participate in decision making and these should not be overlooked. In short, the politics of a classroom also includes aspects of a rational working
        out of solutions to common problems. Such questions as the timing of tests,
        whether or whether not doors should be closed during lectures, or the nature of special projects and examinations are often decided by the lecturer in consultation with the students. In less direct ways, students by their
        expressions of interest, often influence the very content of the class. Would
        you agree? This brings me to the point of, ‘what makes good a policy? A policy is arbitrary if decisions are made and communicated capriciously. That is, if the affected persons don’t know what to expect before the decision is made and do not learn on what grounds it was made. Decisions that single out particular individuals for punishment or reward. For instance, why would government bailout Basajjabalaba but the same government cannot bail out Wavamunno? or, why would government imprison followers of a renegade soldier but let the renegade soldier free? The notion of due process has evolved to help control arbitrary decision making. That certain standard procedures must always be followed in making policies and that if those procedures are not followed then the policy is rendered void. This prevents policy makers from acting arbitrarily. However, your question demands more than what policy and justice provide. My honest view is that we need a discussion- a new construct. For all what I have discussed to be relevant there should be a discussion between the “dominators” and the “dominated.”
        That discussion should revolve on creating a sense of awareness and creating a sense of ownership. Currently, there is an aura of self importance and righteousness (arrogance) on one side, yet on the other, there is hopelessness, despair and outright sorrow. This should be stooped (or defied). I hope I came close to your answer.

        • Thanks Rajab. No mountain is too high, no challenge is too big when a nation sits on a roundtable. Likewise, no challenge is too small in a divided house. So, speak we must but the protagonists are taking too long to make this happen. However, as Winnie begins to talk about M7-KB talk, that national dialogue seems to me to be at the corner irrespective of current opposition to the idea by KB. Winnie normally takes the day. Speak we should and must. The observed arrogance from the plunderers/rulers is a smokescreen emanating from too much impunity. No Country makes it this way. It is always a set up for explosion

          • But violence cannot be an end in itself. At the end of the day we shall and we must have this discussion.

          • The question is: should Kiir and Riek have tolerated each other before burning the Country and then coming back to the same roundtable that was available to them before, moreover with more goodies before the war? Are there individuals that are bigger than a Country? What is the cost when some individuals behan=ve and act as if they are bigger than the Countries they rule? can you really tell me that there is any justification in the interest of Syria that would favour Assad’s destruction of Syria? How many centuries will Syria require to rebuild? When do we say as individuals that enough is enough to save the Country w=even when the Counter narrative on the other side is believed to be wrong? Am I naive, or are these questions politicians/leaders/rulers should be juggling?

          • My brother Musinguzi, you’re putting too much on my plate. And
            I can only bite that which I can chew. The question of the Sudan shouldn’t be looked in isolation- it is a continued long story of a troubled Great Lakes Region- look at Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda (1994), Uganda (in the 80s)and DRC. What is South Sudan’s political question? There was a time when Arab Khartoum seemed to be the problem. SPLM took over and the problem is still stark right in their faces. War can never be an end to a political game it can only be a
            catalyst or a postponement to an eventual political solution. The earlier the belligerent parties recognise this fact, the less costs in terms of financial material and human life.

            Syria is a pawn in a heighten situation of “cold war.” There is a re-emergence of the Soviet Union (USSR) only that this time it’s being shouldered only by Putin’s Russia. It is just a pretext that by
            fighting Syria, U.S.A is fighting ISIS, Assad is fighting against ISIS, why then doesn’t the U.S fight on his side? Interestingly, Turkey which is an ally of the U.S in the region has facilitated the sale of up to a billion dollars of Isis oil, has held open the border for Jihadi groups and their intelligence agency has supplied arms to Jihadis in Syria. The U.S has to revise and overhaul its foreign policy, however, most urgently with the Islamic-Arab world. The world seems to be at cross-roads and there has never existed such an oppurtune time for an open discussion than there is today.

    • Andrew is a great journalist when allowed to be but not a so great public leader given his writings. But also given his Cousin’s fatal failure at handling of a once great Kingdom, restored by Gaddafi and failed again and now thinking of renting the palace to hawkers, it is probably fair to generalise this lack of public service in the offsprings of his generation. Toro deserves better from his useless Cousin, erroneaosly called a King, and Uganda deserves better from his Masters.

  2. 1.Weapons of the poor mainly involves making unrealistic demands at times i don’t know whats wrong with the presidential advisers e.g why continue opening up more universities (like Soroti,Lira)well knowing that jobs are scare?we r going to have many Ugandans educated for nothing.
    2.I believe NRM govt does not enjoy seeing its citizens suffering Bambi we are trying our level best to handle the situation coz; our GDP is still low please appreciate & bear with us

    3.This is how we should make good use of the poor weapon we posses; since we have some grip in the agricultural,Tourism and dairy sectors why dont we partner with companies line Virgin group of companies( for tourism),Nestle(for coffee) American Garden, Heinz( for fresh fruits) and ,Nido(for milk)(I always meet ugandans traveling dont they know the address of these companies?)

    4.The current confusion concerning Kayihura in the judiciary can only be equated to a young lady who unnecessarily moves up and down when she realizes that her boyfriend is in the visility.( The opposition based lawyers know that USA,& Europe r always watching whatever govt does that’s why they r out doing themselves to exaggerate the situation in Uganda(Those KB’s supporters we caned a month ago should not be complaining coz the pain has cooled)
    5. I personally was disappointed with the The Chief Justice’s comments on the Makindye court saga i could see a man so intimated by the noisy opposition,one who has joined the bandwagon of those who haven fallen for FDC tricks;one who thinks that in Kampala, its convenient to attack the govt just to look good in the eyes of the opposition & international community .Couldn’t he see that this was a politically staged demonstration by both KB & M7’s camp? How come the CJ and court did not condemn KB’s supporters when they stormed Nakawa court with songs and later banged tables in the presence of the Magistrate? demanding for KB ‘s release from Luzira.
    6.Good enough,we have learnt lessons from Syrians,Libyans.(never bow to the pressure from noisy politicians & Human rights activists

    7.Who created ISIL?

    8.Turkey has set a perfect example on how to counter coups and demonstrations financed by the Europe & USA.

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