What we always miss about the governance strategies employed by leaders of poor countries
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M Mwenda | Last Sunday, a high school alumni found me at a cafe in town and with a sardonic smile gave me an unwelcome compliment. “Andrew,” he said as he bit his lip, “you are a very clever man. You know how to use your vast knowledge and intelligence to defend the indefensible. I must give you credit because you do it well. The problem, however, is that you use your knowledge and intelligence in service of African dictators for money. And that is the problem of Africa. Its brightest do not think about the country but themselves; so, you are the typical dishonest African intellectual – making yourself rich at the expense of your country.”
I have known this guy (name withheld without request) for almost 30 years, having met in high school. What have I defended? I asked. “I listened to you recently on Capital Gang. You were there justifying [President Yoweri] Museveni’s failures. When you describe GDP growth in Uganda, you make it seem like he has turned Uganda into Singapore. When you talked about healthcare and life expectancy, it was as if Uganda has caught up with Norway. I heard you giving a long list of things. You cannot lie to Ugandans with those statistics because they know the reality. You know this country could have done much better.”
I told my alumni that Uganda could also have done much worse. There was a real risk in 1986 that we could go the way of Somalia and Central Africa Republic. Yet in the mid 1990s and early 2000s this guy was Museveni’s passionate defender. The two share a common delusion that any and every country can rapidly transform from poverty to riches like South Korea did. The only thing a country needs is a patriotic and competent president and a few intellectuals who care about the national interest. These people believe that tings like initial endowments, culture, human capital, geography, history, social development etc. are of no consequence.
I told my friend that I have a very pessimistic (actually realistic) view of development. The economic success of nations is like that of individuals. To believe that all nations in this world can grow to be as rich as Singapore is born of hope than analysis. Countries are just like individuals, regions and companies – all are differently endowed. Income convergence of nations, like that of individuals, will not be realized – ever. Not every American will become a Jeff Bezos, a Bill Gates, an Elon Musk or a Mark Zuckerberg. Not every region will become like Western Europe or the Pacific Rim. Not every company will grow to become apple. There will always be poor and rich countries, poor and rich regions, poor and rich individuals and failing and successful companies.
How do you govern a country with 70% of the population as peasants, adult literacy is 60%, per capita income is $970, per capita revenue is $120, per capita spending is $200 and has 40 ethnic groups and languages? One way is to look at countries with such characteristics in the present and study how they are governed. Since such countries are predominantly in Sub Sahara Africa, we can look at Ghana, Senegal, Malawi, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Zambia, Benin and Uganda. The other is to look at governance strategies of countries with such characteristics across time and space – Western Europe in the 19th century, East Asia and Latin in the early 20th etc.
Intellectuals in African and their cheerleaders in the Western world genuinely believe that governance strategies can be copied from one model example (say Norway and Sweden) and pasted onto any country – Haiti, Chad, Togo, Gabon, Burundi and Malawi and it works fine. In this scenario, the challenge facing Liberia is how to make itself Denmark. And to achieve this, it should model its governance on that of the Danes. The weakness of this cut-and-paste model is that the governance strategies of Denmark are a consequence, not a cause, of its development. How Uganda manages herself today must reflect her currently circumstances. As it grows richer, it may improve her governance.
People ignore this relationship between the level of development in a country and the nature of governance. If I explain actions governments in poor countries take, it is because I recognize that their leaders act the way they do because of circumstances, not because they have malign intentions or are evil men. This is not to say that some of them do not have malign intentions or evil tendencies. Yet in spite of all this, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Leopold Senghor (who were obviously enlightened leaders and benevolent men) did not produce outcomes (in terms of development) that fundamentally differed from those of Omar Bongo and Nansigbe Eyadema (who I think were backward leaders and malevolent men).
In fact, we demand and expect the impossible out of leaders in poor countries. We are unlucky that our countries are growing in the shadow of rich ones. So, we constantly compare ourselves with Norway, Canada and Belgium believing, naively, that all that is needed to be like them is patriotic leaders. The interesting thing about Museveni and his critics (like my aforementioned high school friend) is that they share similar delusions. The difference between them is that Museveni has been humbled by reality. After 35 years in power and his ambition to turn Uganda into South Korea clearly out of rich, he must recognize the limits of leadership. My friend still lives in that utopian world and he may never grow out of it.
To gain grip with the influence of social structures (or what we would call levels of development) on governance strategies we can look at how liberal democracies like France and the United Kingdom governed their colonies in Africa and Asia. None of them established a liberal democracy in their colonies. They relied on the old, tried-and-tested governance strategies of a mixture of patronage and repression.
Many African and Western anti colonial intellectuals argued that this was due to racism. But that was only a part (and I think a smaller part) of the explanation. The more important explanation is that the colonizer presided over societies with social structures (or levels of development) that necessitated patronage and repression – not just as a cost efficient and cost-effective governance strategy but also because it was the only affordable way. To appreciate and argue this reality is not to necessarily applaud it or defend it.