THE LAST WORD: How my hubris to become president of Uganda pulled me from the trees of utopia to the hard rock of reality
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | I want to continue with a line of thought from this column last week i.e. that African countries cannot be governed using strategies Western governments employ to govern their societies.
Government legitimacy in the West is based on many things. But one critical source of legitimacy is the ability of the state to provide all its citizens with a large basket of public goods and services. Sadly, African nations do not have the money to govern that way.
I want to make an even more controversial proposition: that more than the character and competences of individual leaders in Africa, it is the limited financial resources that inevitably lead our governments to rely more on patronage (to secure the cooperation of elites) and repression (to coerce obedience from the citizenry). At the risk of sounding like his apologist, I think President Yoweri Museveni has ruled like the late Mobutu Sese Seko of then Zaire and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi because of this challenge than because it’s his character.
This conclusion came to me slowly and painfully in 2010 when, in a moment of extreme hubris, I speculated on running for president of Uganda.
My plan was to develop a national budget that would ensure that my government would base its legitimacy on delivering a modest basket of public goods and services to all citizens through arms-length interactions mediated by public institutions.
I am aware that there are many reasons why citizens may support a government; provision of public goods and services is only one of them, perhaps even not the most important. But space does not allow me to delve into this subject. I will return to the different bases of legitimacy next week. So let me deal with my hubris of running for president against Museveni.
I decided to write a modest budget where public officials would be paid a living wage, build roads, dams, improve the textbook/teacher/classroom to pupil ratio, ensure hospitals would not run out of drugs and all the public goods and services associated with a modern state. I did extensive research in public sector costs whose details would clutter this article. So I hope you just trust me. My annual budget came to $75 billion.
Now you may think this is too much money. Yet, when you get this $75 billion and divide it by the total population of Uganda (39m people), you get public spending per person of only $1,923. This money is supposed to pay for universal education from primary to university, universal healthcare, roads, bridges, electricity dams, transmission and distribution lines, water and sewerage, agriculture extension services, trade, pensions for the elderly, justice, security, finance industrialization, sports, build sea and airports etc.
Let me ignore 2011 when I would have become president and use the 2016/17 budget. Note that Uganda’s revenue for that financial year was about $4.5 billion, its budget was $6.7 billion and its GDP was about $25 billion. If you divide this by 39m people, public spending per person was a paltry $169.
How much can anyone reading this article do with this money in an entire year? Even what I had thought was a modest budget was far beyond the means of my country. It became clear to me that my country simply doesn’t have the resources to govern itself the way I thought it can and should.