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The missing intellectual voice

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How the selection process in our politics tends to produce low caliber leaders

I am inclined to believe countries get leaders they deserve. I am also inclined to believe that countries don’t get leaders they deserve. How does one reconcile this apparent paradox?

Well, each statement is a different side of the same coin. For example, leaders spring from the societies they serve. Therefore, their behavior and actions reflect its peculiar habits, norms and traditions.

There is a saying in my language that you make a pot with the clay you have. Our leaders, therefore, cannot build our nations with the norms or skills of the countries we admire. They must build with the norms or skills of the countries they rule. To this extent, leaders reflect the character of their societies.

However, if you examine Uganda’s politics closely, you realise that our country is more likely to get as leaders the worst, not the best individuals it produces. This article will focus on proving this second side of the coin.

Over the last twenty years, Uganda’s private sector has grown rapidly and with it, a large, diversified and well educated and skilled middleclass. When I visit institutions like Standard Chartered Bank, MTN, Uganda Breweries – and even the state owned New Vision – I am always impressed by the innovativeness, inventiveness, sophistication, and creativity of our people.

This experience got me thinking. A highly skilled banker, marketer, engineer, doctor, lawyer or IT guru will be immediately recruited by the best private firms in the country, many of which are multinationals.

There, he/she will be offered a long term career path with high professional and financial rewards, career satisfaction and personal actualisation.  They may even offer him/her opportunities to join their international offices in New York, Singapore, Dubai or London.

Few successful professionals would abandon such opportunities for a career in the thankless world of our public sector as civil servants or worse still get entangled in our politics. Indeed if you look at the best twenty students in each class of law, journalism, engineering, medicine or pharmacy, few join the public sector as civil servants or politicians. I know the frustrations of the few who have tried. This means the people joining the public sector are the least skilled that our society produces.

Most successful-career Ugandans I meet, especially in the private sector but also in the international development community, NGOs and even some institutions of the government are often calm and reflective, sophisticated and thoughtful, balanced and insightful – they love complexity and disdain simplicity.

Most of the angry and intellectually inept Ugandans I meet on Facebook or Twitter, on blogs and newspaper websites or physically in public places also tend to be people whose careers have been unsuccessful. These are the men and women who join our politics. Therefore, politics is a dumping ground for mediocrity.

It is therefore not by surprise that most of the young men and women whose careers have been unsuccessful in the professions find a home in NRM’s bus. There, they promote a politics of confrontation, exclusion and corruption.

But this selection process also works against opposition parties as they also tend to attract, as their activists, people of these similar characteristics – and worse. The graduates who join them are those that cannot get the best rewarding careers in the private sector or the international development industry. They have the added burden of not being in power and look for opportunities in pamphleteering and agitation.

These are the passionate men and women who, having nothing to do, populate Facebook, Twitter, websites, blogs and call into radio talk-shows arguing politics and public policy – because they have a lot of time at their hands.

They are angry and emotional; their career frustrations fueling both. If their agitation brought the government down, they would be the next crop of political leaders – representing the worst in skills, culture and intelligence that our society has produced.

May be the most skilled and intellectually astute Ugandans are busy pursuing their careers to think of committing greater time to public debates. This has left the worst in our society in charge of the public sphere.

This is somehow the opposite in Rwanda. There, and regardless of its thousands of weaknesses, the state does largely attract the best the country produces even when it sometimes frustrates them professionally. Indeed, the state in Rwanda competes with the private sector for the best of the nation’s talent. This has created a more effective and service oriented public sector but at the price of undermining the growth of a more robust private sector compared to Uganda.

This also means that the worst in Rwanda join the opposition such that, compared to Uganda, Rwanda’s opposition is a disaster. In both countries is a missing middle; a critical mass of intellectuals to provide a restraining voice on politicians on either side of an otherwise angry political divide.

Of course, this is not to say that all public debate in Uganda is in the hands of angry pamphleteers. Here and there, you encounter thoughtful people online – like my friends on The Independent website: Omeros, Mukidi, Maceni, Denis Musinguzi, another Musinguzi etc.

Never met them physically but they impress me with their arguments even when I disagree with them. They, however, are few. All too often, they are crowded out of the market of public discourse by the emotional rants of the angry and intellectually inept activists.

Even on the Uganda Journalists’ page on Facebook, the participants are mostly those who have failed to make a good career professionally and retreat to insults and false accusations to get attention.

In many ways, Uganda’s middleclass is committing a national blunder. By retreating to the comfort zone of its professional success, it is surrendering our country to those who lack basic values and skills to promote enlightened politics.

Their detachment from public debates has strengthened the voice of the worst in our society. This means that even if President Yoweri Museveni and NRM lost power, we are likely to get more of the same corruption and intolerance or worse. So we need to begin a conversation on how to bring Uganda’s best back into the debate on the future of our country.

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