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A letter to Andrew Mwenda

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

About free markets, democracy, and why world peace might be bad

I am writing this letter directly to you Andrew Mwenda. First, to say, I am glad that you are now like the prodigal son who is – kind of – returning home.  For a few years I was very worried that the “old man of the clan” was falling in love with wrong ideas; that governments can run business well. They can’t.  It was therefore heartening to read your article in The East African “Buying back Bujagali is an extra burden on the Ugandan taxpayers” last week, in which you argued that it makes no dollar sense to essentially nationalise the dam.

My own view is that even if government could build dams more cheaply and sell electricity at lower prices, it should still keep a long distance off. An incompetent private business is still better and less costly to the common good than an incompetent government, but that is an argument for another day.

What I am itching to say something longer about, though, is your column in The Independent that came out the same Sunday May 17 as The East African article, entitled; “Re-examining the impact of elections”.

You make the point that in India, democratic elections produce thieves and rapists, but in Norway and Sweden it brings to office honest and dedicated public servants. The result in Uganda is more mixed, though one wouldn’t immediately see that from the outcomes of politics in our fair motherland.

And, of course, you raise the perpetually vexing question; “why?” How come a strongman, or an unelected figure like Buganda’s Kabaka Ronnie and his prime minister Charles Peter Mayiga, can do public good when they are under no pressure to appease voters for the next election, but an elected leader who has to face the same electorate to keep him office becomes just a crook – and is promptly voted out next time round?


It is all back to the paradox of your hero, dictator like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, who built a modern largely corruption free rich nation from a sleepy fishing village, or an even more iron-fisted military autocrat, Park Chung-hee (you like him too, I don’t know what’s wrong with you Andrew), in South Korea creates a leading industrial nation from a war-ravaged place yet in Pakistan everything – including both large doses of dictatorship and democracy – failed?

My view is that democracy and dictatorship, and the conditions in different countries, may play out very different yes, what matters for them to create an improvement in the lives of their people is one thing – competition. And they all need this single ingredient to succeed.

Without competition, most nations just muddle along. And I use competition not in the narrow sense of a contest against political rivals for office, but the wider challenge that an elite class and a nation face to their personal and their nation’s survival.

Singapore was cast away, expelled by Malaysia like an unwanted child. It didn’t even have a source for water – it still imports it, although considerably less, from Malaysia.

And it had a point to prove its worthiness, and thumb its nose at Malaysia. That was great juice for it to progress.

Taiwan and Hong Kong needed to prove that the Communists who had kicked them out of mainland China were idiots, and they were better. China’s very survival as a communist required it to show that its model was superior to Taiwan’s.

Beside, with over one billion people, the Chinese rulers are simply terrified of what these folks would if they got really angry enough to riot. No force in China can stop them, so they work very hard to bribe them into being peaceful.  Virtually every power class that faces both this kind of internal threat to its control and privileges, combined with external threats from other powers, tend to govern better and to be less corrupt. Even what these days sometimes look like a shambolic Russia, was galvanised by the Cold War with the west to go the moon and build great things. If the Russia (or then Soviet Union) of the Communist era had the kind of oil and gas wealth Vladimir Putin has today, it would have built more dangerous weapons yes, but it would have landed a man on Mars—and America would by now have found a definitive cure for cancer and maybe had some blokes landing on Jupiter (okay, I exaggerate a little, but you get the drift).

The European nations that are better governed generally have fewer natural resources, fresh lake water, and endure more extreme weather than the warmer ones with more natural resources and fertile lands – see Greece. The former face greater competition from nature and, sometimes, their neighbourhoods. Contrary to what one might think, the world is very peaceful today and countries and peoples have actually grown complacent.

Terrorism is deadly, but primitive. Even the best of them don’t operate on an industrial scale to threaten the world order, the hysteria aside.  You might say India lives in a tough neighourhood, so why hasn’t it responded like Singapore. I suspect India is comfortable in its Hindu skin, by and large.

The breakaway of Pakistan, ironically, ensured the Muslims would never again threaten the Hindu elite (the conservatives one like Narendra Modi or the leftish ones like the Ghandis) – and therefore, in a strange sort of way – the breakaway was a good thing.

The US, apart from global threats, had states competing against each other. England, as recent events have shown, had to worry about Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

A united kingdom could never be taken as a given into eternity. As I have argued before, though it’s an uncomfortable fact, the Tutsi elite in Rwanda is very mindful of its being a minority, and that mistakes in their country don’t end in just a loss of power. They end in genocide.

Kabaka Mutesa and his PM Mayiga are competing against a narrative that casts kingdoms as backward and exploitative, and there has yet been no acceptance of them by the Ugandan left. Museveni also frightened them, and demonstrated their vulnerability, when they were on bad terms with him and he threatened to sort them out.

Museveni could argue that he was giving Buganda peasants land, and had given them free primary school education. What had Mengo offered them? People don’t eat pride and culture.

Therefore, democracy determines who gets to confront these challenges, and how they get to the position of power to do so, but it hardly changes the underlying driving forces for the success or failure of nation or ruling class. By the way, this partly explains why great empires fall, and why a superpower like the US has looked wobbly in recent years.

When you have conquered all, and you have little fear that there is no adversary you can’t overcome, you lose your discipline and drive.

In Uganda, when Museveni and NRM finally consolidated, the crowning moment of which was his election victory in 1996, the decline started. I could see that things had fallen into a rot – it’s how we got to where we are today.  A nice warm world, fertile lands, friendly neighbours, and global peace, might not really be good for human progress, in the long-term. It makes us fat, lazy, corrupt, and uncompetitive.  By the way Andrew, there are fairly clever people who argue that men like Lee Kuan Yew actually did little to remake Singapore. That, just like with America and other Asian tigers, the real game changer was the air conditioner. But then you know that, don’t you?

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The author is an old friend of Mwenda and editor of Mail & Guardian Africa.

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