By Andrew M. Mwenda
Last week, I was in Lagos, Nigeria and witnessed the tragedy of African politics. Nigeria is home of anything between 140m to 160m people. It has some of the most educated, intelligent, innovative and hard working Africans. However, its politics promotes leaders who are venal, greedy and selfish. A country of great promise has turned into a case study of how states fail to live up to their people’s expectations. Its top politicians are filthy rich; its ordinary citizens are wretchedly poor.
Although by comparison to Rwanda I find the state in Uganda extremely corrupt and incompetent, compared to Nigeria our country is blessed with an effective state; for in spite of our weaknesses, there is a national grid for electricity and the state still delivers water to many homes in urban areas. Most Nigerians rely on private generators for electricity although the country pumps nearly 2m barrels of oil per day. Even in the richest suburbs of Lagos, people drill their own boreholes for water.
I used to think the root cause of Africa’s predicament was absence of democratic structures leading to lack of accountability. I was young and intelligent then. I have since grown old and stupid I guess. Now I believe that our continent’s fundamental failure is one of social organisation i.e. our inability to build effective states; states that can design a national project, especially one that requires the constant interaction of many people and processes consistently and produce the same desired result.
For example, it is easy to build a hospital. President Yoweri Museveni never tires of reminding us that he has built 750 hospitals. But it is much more difficult to build a healthcare delivery system. That is why people cannot find drugs in these hospitals, doctors and nurses report late etc. For systems to function properly, they require regularised behaviour from actors. Organisational success depends on accountability; one’s ability to perform their task depends on the complimentary actions of others in the system.
Imagine a public hospital. You need good doctors for proper diagnosis but equally good nurses to ensure proper care. If a doctor diagnosed a patient and prescribed medicine and there was no nurse to administer it, the patient would die. My father died in Mulago Hospital because of poor nursing care. The doctors did a good job but the nurses kept feeding him manually when he was paralysed on one side. So food was going into his wind pipe, which caused multiple organ failure ‘ first, the lungs got clogged with fluids, which put his heart in trouble, then his kidneys leading to his death.
But the work of doctors and nurses also depends on the stores management system ensuring that stocks of drugs and other supplies are updated regularly, otherwise doctors may prescribe drugs nurses cannot find. Stores depend on the procurement department doing its work on time. The latter’s success depends on the Ministry of Health providing the money. These interlocking responsibilities work when everyone is held accountable.
I used to think of accountability in terms of elections and other democratic checks and balances. Since 1995, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Senegal, and most other African nations have carried out far reaching democratic reforms. The press is freer, political parties active and civil society vibrant etc. Institutions of accountability like parliaments and anti-corruption bodies have proliferated on our continent. Elaborate procurement procedures borrowed from the West have been put in place. Little has come of these.
More importantly, our political leaders are reshuffled regularly through elections. Africa has a very high anti-incumbency bias; over 50% of parliamentarians are voted out at every election. In Uganda in 2006, 179 MPs out of 290 (60%) were not reelected. In the USA, over 90% of members of the House of Representatives are guaranteed reelection. Therefore our electorate is very responsive to the performance of MPs. Yet the quality of our parliament tends to deteriorate with every election.
These realities have made me rethink political accountability in Africa. Every time I have conducted public discussions with ordinary citizens around Uganda, they tell me they want politicians who cash their promises there and then i.e. who bribe them. They may like those who demonstrate commitment to public service. But they have no way of telling that their promises will be met. Therefore, they will vote for a thug, a thief and a liar who is willing to sell his/her house, raise Shs 900m to cash his promises.
Compared to Nigeria, Uganda’s politics looks civilised; we still have public spirited politicians surviving on the margins of our electoral process. In Uganda, some few public issues can animate political debate. In Nigeria, only money matters. Voters do hold their politicians to account, but in a manner that makes a mockery of the democratic process. In Uganda, and many more times worse in Nigeria, voters use their voting power to extort cash and other material goods from politicians. This is what promotes crooked politicians and eliminates honest ones; bribery is the way the public hold political leaders accountable.
This is partly the reason Rwanda presents a puzzle for those studying Africa. There is strict accountability on individuals and institutions in spite of the low levels of the development of democratic structures: they have a poor press, nascent civil society and soft parliament. A doctor who is supposed to report in the hospital in Rwanda at 7am does so; late coming is punished. The infrastructure ministry is required to repair a road within a given budget and a specified time; someone will be answerable if that fails.
An electoral process that fills parliament with crooks cannot foster the evolution of honest government. Such politicians, once elected, are interested in how they can recoup their investment. This can only be done by promoting official theft; it is not in the interest of elected representatives to ensure that systems work; that would close opportunities for corruption.
What makes politicians develop an enlightened self interest in promoting politics that foster the evolution of effective public institutions to deliver public goods and services? It seems democracy won’t do it in the foreseeable future. Question is: what will?