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On Museveni and his critics

Museveni has been humbled by reality

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.



  1. 👏👏👏👏👏👏

  2. But Andrew, the problem of Gen Tibuhaburwa and his critics is neither in your conspiracy theory of the character of a country being the reflection of the personality of it leaders, nor the utopian of his critics. The Arch Problem of Uganda and Africa in general is dishonesty. The dishonesty by the leaders and the dishonesty of the citizens. In other words, without trust there is no loyalty. Without trust there is no reliability, but liability.

    And remember, Rome was not built in one day by one Emperor. E.g., in Tanzania, because of his honesty, within 5 years of his First term of office, the late Pombe Magufuli (RIP) more than double accomplished what his predecessor could not accomplish in 30 years (from Nyerere to Kikwete.

    Am sure you are familiar with Francis Fukuyama’s theory of development, when he e.g. said that: given the honesty it deserves, a country can develop into a first world model within 20 years. That is if and when the leaders and their citizens are honest and motivated by the same goal.

    And Singapore did it. E.g., in 1986, when Ugandans were abominably busy murdering each in the bushes of Luweero and on the streets of Kampala, and decorating each other with bloody medals heroes; the Singaporeans were launching their Subway Railway transport system. Yet in the 60s Uganda was socially and economically better off than the Singaporeans.

    That is how frustrating Gen Amin and Gen Museveni have dragged this country backward. E.g. in the 21st Century, instead of mass conveyor public transport of large buses and railways system; we are stuck with the most backward, chaotic, dangerous and dirty modes of public transport in forms of the Boda-boda and contraption of 14-seater cargo vans.

  3. Next time you meet an old friend, maintain eye contact , the smile was warm and genuine your perception was blurred by that feeling the rich wear when faced with familiar realities. Not sardonic.
    Thank you.

  4. Andrew has always been sweet just like his articles.
    1.Interms of trade and Business how do you expect Africa or Uganda to compete with the first World when she exports unprocessed Coffee,Cotton,Cocoa,Fish and Tea to first world?It would make sense if Nestle of Switzerland partnered with Dairy and Coffee farmers in Uganda or Tyson foods in USA.Nestle is actually the largest food processing company in the World.
    2.The first World makes alot of money through servicing ATMS selling computer packages servicing,Planes and selling cars like Toyota,Range Rovers,Ford,Volkswagen,electronic gadgets. Now how many tonnes of coffee does one need to sell to buy just one Range Rover 2021 Model D350 or D300?Is this still related to the Democracy that Africa really craves for?
    3.How do you think Uganda manages her on and off relations with the First World? Its because M7 has really mastered the International dynamics of Trade and Politics she will dine with whoever matters on the international scene;Do you know why Ethiopia is now in a fix ?Its because she has is still stuck with communism just like Cuba and North Korea and such rigidity is a fertile ground for imposing Capitalism.

    • But Winnie, I think you are the one stuck in past. Ethiopia has democratized and capitalized more than you can imagine. While e.g. we are stuck with chaotic and dangerous Boda-boda and the 14-seater contraption of cargo vans, the City of Adisababa is served by modern Electric Commuter Train. While we are stuck with our 78-year old dictator and problem of Africa, Ethiopia have had change of leader, with current one being a youthful enlightened amiable Leader, whom the criminal guerilla tactics communists want to eject his administration.

  5. @ Mr.O;are you listening to yourself?What youthful leader is there in Ethiopia to talk about now apart from just being handsome?At least USA Musicians have never fund raised for Uganda through songs remember the USA for Africa song that was meant for the famine victims in Ethiopia.

    First read about Nationalization and Capitalism.Most of the property in Ethiopia is owned by Ethiopians there are few international and strategic interests there as compared to Kenya. Secondly nations whose people are so close knit are prone to wars like the one in South Sudan,Rwanda and Ethiopia.

    • Winnie, do not jump allover the place. When you make reference to the Americans and international musicians fundraising for starved Ethiopians in the 80s; blame on the “Problem of African Leaders” like ours, Gen Tibuhaburwa Kaguta Museveni’s 36-year criminal stranglehold onto power. In other words you are talking about the Ethiopia of the late 70s and 80s’ Marxist Dictator Haile Mariam’s era of terror, atrocities and murder. But not now. Have you seen the 2-dacade infrastructure development in Ethiopia? Maybe not.

  6. Mr.O you think Ethiopians are Africans?Can you marry their Girls?Are they proud to be called Africans?

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