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Looking at Museveni-Kagame frustrations

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Unhappy with their officials, what the two presidents are asking for is a return to the past, not a leap to the future

Three weeks ago, President Paul Kagame; during a government leadership retreat, expressed disaffection with top officials for delaying government projects unnecessarily. Then last week, President Yoweri Museveni, during Uganda’s leadership retreat, expressed a similar sentiment about his ministers.

Kagame and Museveni’s frustrations provided considerable grist to their critics’ mill. I received many cheeky messages saying: we have always told you that these governments are not working; now the two presidents have admitted it themselves.

I have interacted with both presidents and their governments for over a decade now. It is clear that both Museveni and Kagame are complaining because they have been successful, not because they have failed. Indeed, their frustrations are going to increase, not decrease. This is because power to implement government projects has gotten increasingly institutionalised. If the presidents want things to move faster, they may have to retreat to personalising the state and ruling arbitrarily. This may be contradictory coming for me especially on Uganda since I have always accused Museveni of personalising the state. But the reality is more nuanced. Here is how.

Sometime in 2003 while a reporter at Daily Monitor, I visited Museveni at State House Nakasero and spent a quiet evening with him. He told me that in early 1986 after NRM had taken over power, Uganda was facing a crisis of soap. The president instructed his aides to fetch businessman Mukwano who was the manufacturer of soap. Museveni said that when Mukwano appeared in his presence, he looked terrified, perhaps fearing he was going to be jailed or even killed because he had been close to the government of Milton Obote.


‘At the time Uganda needed 100,000 metric tons of soap per year,’ the president told me pensively, ‘I asked Mukwano how much he produced in his factory and he said 20,000 metric tons only. I asked what he needed to increase production to 100,000 metric tons to meet domestic demand and he said $10m. I ordered government to immediately give him the $10m and it was done. Within a year Mukwano increased soap production to exceed 100,000 metric tons. That is the way we solved the crisis of soap supply in Uganda. It was a win-win because we got what we wanted (increased soap production) and Mukwano got to expand his business.’

But these were the days when NRM was still a small neat group of people committed to a grand project of national reconstruction. Theft was still scorned at even though some had developed large appetites. And Museveni’s word was law. Institutions were weak or nonexistent. There was need for a strong and dynamic leader to direct things. A similar situation obtained in Rwanda with varying degrees.

Today the economies of both Uganda and Rwanda have grown eighteen fold; their revenues over 180 fold. Consequently both countries have developed large bureaucracies to manage the growing size and complexity of government. The existing states are far different from small groups of close-knit individuals whom they worked with in the early years of reconstruction. Indeed, these bureaucracies are decentralized and populated by people of different ideological strips and career ambitions or even personal motivations.

Secondly, economic expansion has been accompanied by the growth of new social forces – business interests, civil society, a consolidated civil service, intrusive donors, professionals, students, youth, traders, vendors etc. With rapidly growing public contracts to dish out, a large body of commission agents has developed that link the state to foreign and domestic corporations seeking to partake of the contracts government is dishing out.

These commission agents, for example, solve coordination problems between the state and foreign business. But they also create schemes for cheating the public. Slowing down the rate at which government contracts are awarded (by putting in place various oversight institutions and functions) is one way to protect the public good. It may not always work as expected, but it is one way nonetheless. Hence both governments tend to obsess more with controlling corruption than delivering public goods and services. So delays in implementing government projects will increase.

Thirdly the larger both governments have grown the more their ideological core has gotten diluted. Bureaucratic expansion has attracted people who do not share the original objectives of NRM/RPF. This makes it difficult to sustain the momentum of delivery that animated these movements initially. Indeed this is the reason procedures and processes to contain abuse become critical. But processes create unnecessary (or even necessary) delays as individuals can hide behind procedures to justify their incompetence.

Kagame and Museveni can shout at and threaten their ministers and other top officials. But I am not sure they can stop the slide of both their countries becoming more bureaucratised where work is increasingly a routine job, not pursuit of a cause. Rwanda may fare better than Uganda because of the way RPF is organised and given existential threats it faces. These create a sense among many in Rwanda government that “We are working to rebuild our country.” So, for many Rwandans, working in government is not just a job but also a cause.

But this core in Rwanda that thinks this way is everyday getting diluted as the state bureaucracy growsby attracting people who may not share this idealistic vision. In Uganda, the climb down from the pedestal of a cause to the hard reality self-interest was rapid and broad-based. There are few officials in Uganda’s public sector who still see their work as a cause.

Therefore Museveni and Kagame are victims of their own success. They want things to move faster through personal interventions yet the states they have built have become more bureaucratised. Their frustrations are good because they signal the growing institutionalization of power. They reveal that both can no longer demand something and it happens as it used to. Museveni and Kagame can opt to achieve rapid results by becoming high handed and arbitrary. But this would undermine the very institutions they have helped build.

Fortunately there is a more enlightened way to speed of the business of government without undermining institutions – reform the public sector to act more like the private sector. It has happened in Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Mauritius and Dubai. This demands that the mindset of state officials changes from seeing their role as policing contracts to seeing it as promoting them. We should hold public officials accountable for results, not procedures.

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