Reconsidering governance in Africa: Why our obsession with copying and pasting western institutions causes more harm than good
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | If you follow debate on Africa anywhere in the world, everyone will tell you that the main problem with our countries is governance. Yet this claim is new, picked from the World Bank’s World Development Report of 1989. Now it has entered the lexicon of politics as a religion; the very reason we need to focus on it. In the 1960s and 70s, the main issue was that African countries are poor because of their integration into the world economy as producers of unprocessed raw materials.
We African elites have learnt about the governance principles of the western world largely through books, media and in class. Often these sources give us the governance ideal, which, while reflecting an aspect of reality in the West, do not give the full practical application of the ideal. The actual practical politics of the West diverges quite significantly from the ideal.
Let us also remember that the governance strategies of the West evolved organically out of their own experience – their political and social struggles. These struggles themselves were rooted in a particular culture and were nourished by nutrient norms, values, habits and shared mentalities. So the governance strategies, principles and institutions of the West reflect a particular historic experience that cannot be universalised.
To now transplant them from their habitat and treat them as universal has two major problems. First being neophytes, we seek to transplant the ideal, not the actual practice. We are blind to or ignorant of the myriad accommodations and adjustments Western societies have to make daily for the ideal to work.
Second, we superimpose this governance ideal on a society with entirely different social structures, history, culture, norms, values and shared mentalities. We then imagine such a transplant will work just fine. Just imagine we get the governance strategies, principles and institutions of Buganda kingdom in 1880 and take them and superimpose them on the people and society of United States of America today. Then Americans have to travel to Uganda to learn in Luganda about how to manage their own industrial society. How would they work?
Karl Marx argued that every society is built on an economic base – the hard reality of human beings who must organise their activities to feed, clothe and house themselves. That organisation will differ vastly from society to society and from epoch to epoch. It can be pastoral or built around hunting or grouped into handicraft units or structured into a complex industrial whole.
For Marx, whatever form in which people solve their basic economic problem, society will require a “superstructure” of noneconomic activity and thought. It will need to be bound together by customs or laws, supervised by a clan or government and inspired by religion or philosophy.
Marx argued that the superstructure cannot be selected randomly. It must reflect the foundation on which it is raised. For example, no hunting community would evolve or could use the legal framework of an industrial society; and similarly, no industrial community could use the conception of law, order and government of a primitive hunting village.