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Reconsidering governance in Africa

African leaders after an OAU summit in 1963

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.


  1. Andrew, If you accept governance as necessary, then you must accept that it be good for it to best deliver. I guess there is no debate on that. However I see from your argument that some other factors other than good governance impact socio-economic progress. Will you educate us about them?

  2. ejakait engoraton

    THE problem we have most times is that we want to do the same things and expect different results, or we want to do things differently and expect the same results.
    In his opening remarks M9 says that the issue of (good) governance only came out in a report “only” in 1989, so because it came out then , does it make it a wrong prescription.As you say, in the 60s and 70s the diagnosis was “integration into the world economy…….”, has this problem now been solved, or can there not be two problems at the same time?
    You suggest that most elites learn about governance through books, media and in class, so are you suggesting that we should cart off prospective leaders to these countries in order for them to live the experience, which in a way is to say that in order to solve problems of the ghetto , you have to be from the ghetto. Ofcourse this is the reasoning used in special groups representation in UGANDA where it is the women, disabled, youth elderly etc who are well placed to articulate the needs of those “special ” groups.

    • “……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”. Karl Marx.
      It is easy for us (me and Mwenda) to reach same conclusion and if we could accept to walk the talk (which no politician will ever accept), then all would go well. However, there must be an agreed on rule of engagement.
      Years before Mwenda was born, we used to sing ” Tooro yeitu eine ebintu bingi byobuguuda, Chai ya Mwenge,Omwani gwa Bwamba,Copper ya Kilembe n’ekisuura kya Katwe”. translated ” This our Tooro has much wealth. Tea in Mwenge, Coffee in Bwamba, Copper in Kilembe and Salt in Katwe. The composer brilliantly proves that Tooro (the district) could earn Forex and buy foreign manufactured goods,pay salaries,provide essential services to the satisfaction of its residents. Every entity (district) among the 16 I listed sometime back, that was named after the community that occupied it, was equally endowed with resources that were sufficient for it and to SPARE. I stress ‘spare’ basing on the facts that foreigners started pouring into Uganda(en masse) in 1956(South Sudanese) and continued coming in large numbers(Rwandans in 1959 and Congolese in 1964) and they were accommodated, fed,educated,medicared and protected without any visible stress on Uganda. Governance or lack of it has everything to do with progress and development and no other factor can impact on progress and development if governance is sound.Like I have pointed out in this forum, Mwenda goes by statistics and written history (and I cannot blame him) when drawing conclusions but statistics are partial and history is flawed (depending on who wrote). Mwenda has not taken trouble to consult the aged statesmen a la Gureme who are still around so they tell him how things were before ‘greed’ and ‘avarice’ overtook morals. It is inconceivable to the group that was educated during Mwenda’s period to believe that all primary schools issued to every child who accepted to go(i)textbooks (ii)exercise books (iii) mathematical sets Made in England (iv) hardwood desks (v) administrative stationery and furniture (for staff) (vi) fieldwork utensils like pangas,slashers,hoes and wheel barrows for gardening and (vii) spacious well ventilated and lockable classrooms,staffrooms,offices and latrines (separate for boys and for girls). This was internally generated funds from graduated tax, not aid, debts except maybe grants from World Bank to build secondary schools. The secondary schools provided (i)text books,exercise books,counterbooks (ii)slide rules (Mwenda group might not know this) (iii)bookstore books for reading (iv) fully-stocked library (iv) uniforms (v)sports equipment that was very expensive (I am finding out now when I look at market prices) (vi) school vehicles (some schools had 3.. bus, van and car) (vii)laboratories fully equipped with chemicals and other needfuls (we had an adult human (not plastic) skeleton in our biology lab).
      I cannot exhaust the services that were provided then because feeding was better than present-day 5 star hotels I frequent. I know Mwenda wants to argue but I preempt him with “we fed on organic nutritious homegrown food which was not tainted with fertilisers” so Mwenda hold your horses.
      And it was GOVERNANCE that did it then…… Ejakait, you are my witness that nobody slept hungry unless they were intentionally fasting. It is governance not some other factor.

      • Mr. Rwasubutare, you have given me some lesson about self. I had dismissed your posts as shallow – starved of true reason and shamefully biased. This caught my Attention as articulate. Thanks.
        Back to topic , perhaps M9 should have argued that we blindly copy governance principles, practices – – -, without regard to our unique circumstances, and it seems he meant that though he seems to dismiss governance as a factor of socio Econ progress from the out set.
        You rightly touched on morals. I think, moral /ethical deficiency is the most significant impedement to peace and prosperity in Africa. Seek yee the moral redemption, and the rest will sort itself.

  3. This skipped by in my previous post :
    (had touched it in the first on this topic) :

    Will some body especially M9, show us how good governance can be bad /a non factor in socio – Econ progress? How it’s appplied can be a factor, but to dismmiss it whole? as he seems to do, I need help.

    • My dear Rugunzu, we elders have a treasure of information including unwritten historical facts. When I say FACTS, I mean what I personally saw in broad daylight while sober. For example:
      (i) I saw a cheque which one Col Hubert Julian made (open to whoever will earn) of 5m USD for rescue of his friend Moise Tshombe who was in custody in Algiers. It is a long story I don’t have time or space to repeat here but the story has been suppressed for reasons (good or bad) yet unknown to us who were mature then 1969.
      (ii) I saw a Hansard of 1965 where Obote (then PM) was answering one Hon Bazanyamaso (MP for Kisoro) over an issue which to-date Obote is still vilified yet he was then over the same issue applauded.
      (iii) I saw one AgaKhan meet and confer with President Amin over Asians before Amin talked of expelling them. Their meeting and what they exchanged was in the Voice of Uganda (as current affairs
      then) but noone will ever talk,publish or remind present-day generation about (even the existence of) such a meeting….reason???? I think it would dispel the “Amin-dreaming-of-expelling-asians” yarn.
      (iv) I saw a picture of prisoners-or-war loading their own dead in lorries in Mbarara Sept..1972. The photos were in the Voice of Uganda daily,clear pictures whereby some guerrillas were recognised by some of us as so-and-so. 7 years later, the same same same photo appeared in the Weekly Review (respectable magazine) of Hilary Ng’ueno in Nairobi as Amin’s soldiers loading killed civilians at night to go and dispose of the bodies. He claimed they had obtained the photo by their investigative guile.
      Elders know what ‘google’ doesn’t or distorts. Your observation that my posts were shallow and biased is also true to a certain extent. I know my limits in knowledge and wisdom but I have been in the field long enough to know how theory and practice relate and how they totally disconnect.
      Like I said that space and time don’t permit us to communicate adequately, I wish to give you one elementary example a la Tamale Mirundi. Those who have been in a shooting war know that in say 50 engagements, where you die and kill and bury the fallen in hundreds till death seems as common as life, no two situations are similar such that it is implausible to write a formula to follow in combat.
      Accordingly, governance should be executed with goodwill,benevolence and strictness such that a person who initiates a project will stand by it and see it through or else face the coolers and if necessary re-introduce the old good code Hammurabi….. else how do you deal with corruption when judges and their class-mates(lawyers) can prove it rains in the Sahara? Discipline(enforced) is what can bail people out of the poor governance dilemma. If we don’t have the personnel with the standard morals to do it, then we can outsource our dear old ex-colonialists. They are itching to return.
      So, my Rugunzu,in time, you will develop a tougher skin and lies will not penetrate easily….and thank you for the compliment.

  4. 1.Africa needs to reconsider her governance polices so that;(i)The poor have no rights especially in areas of land mgt and democracy.(ii)The rich and technical people should make decisions.(ii)Forced labour should be introduced i personally believe that excess freedom is causing more harm in 3rd world states than good.
    2.The great depression USA witnessed was as a result of drought and the fall in the stock market so how did USA recover? President Rossevelt in 100 days signed into law the New Deal which resulted into the establishment of a unemployment insurance to cater for the welfare of the poor and an economic security commission to monitor the stock markets secondly; after WW II, the marshal Plan was put in place for purposes of economic recovery.
    3. In Germany,there was natural motivation by the Germans to rebuild their country after WWII;How come these two countries were able to develop despite the harsh conditions then and Africa has failed to develop despite all the availability of morden technology and economics?
    4.Rajab must be busy distributing mosquito nets in Mpuumudde village.

  5. Leaders of African governments are part of the Marxian superstructure. More than eighty percent of the economy has nothing to do with the infrastructure (roads, bridges, factories, equipment, etc), that is only about twenty percent. So that focusing on the infrastructure misses the point, and mostly a deflection or a distraction. The problems are largely with the so-called superstructure which makes for about eighty percent of the economy, the lions share. To fix the superstructure that we must requires (i) good governance based on democratic principles, not undemocratic ethos, (2) a non-corrupt political system and governance, (3) most importantly based on transparency and accountability. Until you address these problems which are leadership-based any talk of development in other sectors or industries (such as industrialization, healthcare and education) is just spinning wheels, bluffing, huffing and rationalizing the irrational, in a word fantasy. First things first: dictatorships must go so must corruption. Scientific methodology is idealistically objective, nobody seriously honest is dismissive of science. Corrupt systems mis-allocate their resources such as is happening in Africa. The corrupt, leisure classes are indulging in unproductive, conspicuous consumption, taking away the resources meant for more productive sectors or they be inconspicuous consumption areas such education or healthcare.

    • Ocheto, do you realise how difficult it is to share 20 loaves to 60 people? corruption arises out of greed and primitive accumulation because of fear of scarcity on the morrow. So, basing on my old post where I referred to my Civics curriculum of the time which is timeless. Uganda was divided(composed) into 16 districts which sub-divisions were in fact communities that occupied/owned/inherited the said sub-divisions that were known by the names, Bunyoro,Acholi,Tooro,Teso etc…. The central government can functions best if you give autonomy to the divisions as were in the 60s. This is not federo per se because Buganda had Masaka,Mubende and Mengo….3 separate entities. Like the ancient Israel, when you let the communities be under their own elders with autonomous self-government, there can never be a landless/homeless person. Corruption will be minimal and insignificant to general production. I grew up seeing local farners’ cooperatives ran by Semiliterate men and they marketed our cotton so successfully that no farmer lacked fees for their kids no matter how many. Every cooperative member had a log-in card and you could not sell stolen produce if you were not a member/resident of the cooperative area. At age 10, I grew cotton in a 10m by 5m land
      (yard was our standard then) and earned (sold through an uncle’s card) and got 18 UGX which bought tetron shorts, a shikibo shirt and brand new bata shoes. There were no sharps who were big-headed in offices who look down on local folk. Everyone was satisfied with their earnings and mechanics,schoolteachers,police officers,soldiers and administrators met in the evenings on equal basis to share a malwa straw. Every adult had what to do as per their calling,qualification and ability.
      The District Commissioner (DC) was such a powerful person that no problem was beyond their ability to resolve and did they resolve issues man!! Saza chief was (I cannot even contemplate his present-day equivalent) equally powerful and they were so respect(ed,able) that their presence alone imparted solutions to issues. So was the Gombolola chief and Muluka. They were given gifts by the people but not bribes. people loved,feared and respected them. This is the only remedy of corruption. People will continue to steal from public coffers but noone will go hungry and none will be homeless

  6. ejakait engoraton

    RWASUBUTARE , you have taken things a notch higher, and to the uninitiated all this may sound like fiction, bus just like they say, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, much as it is that you and I , most times , also tell just half the story.
    Sometimes I fail to respond to your postings, because where do I start , where do I end. I am like a man who is faced with a fully grown MUVULE tree and have the task of climbing it. Where and how do you start.Your articles bring both a smile and a tear to the eyes of an old man.

  7. ejakait engoraton

    NOW, the little bombshell, do you know that HILARY N’GWENO is a UGANDAN. I will wait to hear what your take on this and then if need be give you the relevant facts.

    • Hilary Ngueno being Ugandan I cannot dispute, though I was not aware of it. Now I understand why he was quick to publish a comprehensive magazine when Amin was overthrown. During and soon after Amin’s rule, it was very fashionable to say any outlandish or incredible thing about Amin.

  8. ejakait engoraton

    RWASUBUTARE, your article on TOORO and the song did bring a real tear to my eyes , and my dear brother PATRICK OLIMI KABOYO (RIP), must be rolling in his grave.
    PATRICK was my very good friend and we had some very wonderful moments together, and at times spent several days together, where we would meet everyday and I would be driving him around.IT was from him and his late mother KEZIAH that I heard that song , while they were mourning the fate of their kingdom.IT is hard to meet a person who was more regal , polished, well mannered, down to earth like Patrick was.We met courtesy of dating ladies from the same royal family and we became so close that he insisted that I share the high table with him when we held his birthday party at a Conservative party club in 1982, much to the surprise of his sister Princess Bagaya. We went to become friends with Elizabeth, whom I gave a few driving lessons in her Porsche , which had been bought for her by her then husband( we were told they were actually cousins), WILBER who tragically died in a plane crash. HE was a pilot to ABIOLA and apparently she is the one who introduced ABIOLA to Kaguta. She was living at a flat she owned in Swiss Cottage, which is a very posh area of LONDON, the kind of place the likes of WINNIE will never set foot.Paul ETIANG had a flat in the same neighbourhood , as did Peter Otai.

    • My memoirs are even more painful when I remember the EATRO(East African Tryponosomiasis Research Organisation) in Tororo.
      This institute was built by the colonial government in 1956 to carry out a multi-disciplinary research on Trypanosomiaisis, on a big piece of land measuring about I square km. complete with an animal sanctuary. It had five departments namely Biochemistry, Protozoology, Entomology, Medical and Veterinary. Researchers came from all over the world to come and consult. Even after the collapse of EAC, it continued uninterrupted like most other organisations that were shared. In fact Ug was the first to go self-supporting by setting up a railway workshop by Paul Etiang who Amin delegated to set up the best workshop in Africa which he promptly did. Uganda railways continued better than when it was shared. Uganda Airlines immediately went airborne. So now 40 years after Amin is ousted, the only research Institute that was carrying out animal research in Uganda is dead in preference for mining minerals at Osukuru hills. The Railways workshop which Paul Etiang set up,which was best in Africa (better than south Africa’s) is vandalised, the Uganda Airlines(Flying Crane) which he set up under the orders of the ‘mad’ man Amin is nowhere to be seen. All those were procured cash(with Uganda taxpayer money not debts) without a kick-back, bribe or commission and they were best quality. Ejakait, do you doubt Ug would be better than the asian tigers to-day if it were for the calamities visited upon it by who I don’t want to say? The East African flying school???? Do these planners need to formulate anything after wrecking what was already in place? It is wiser,cheaper and faster to backtrack and identify where things started going backwards, then proceed from there and hopefully, with enough goodwill Ug can reach the 1970 level by 2030. It is possible because “If you face backwards and start running where will you end”? It is my conviction somewhere sometime back, some mischief maker engaged a reverse gear for Ug. my prime suspects are from the EU.

  9. ejakait engoraton

    THE things you say about our schools then are quite intriguing. THE district administrations, out of the money they generated from local revenue, mostly poll tax, were able to give bursaries( at the time on average Shs 150) to needy students, and even scholarships to those who excelled. There was this guy called WERE who had a scholarship , but he was almost always the last in class ,so we were wondering how he had got the scholarship. Until one student told us that he had managed to pass on his 5th or 6th attempt of the dreaded PLE and that he was in P1 when this guy, who had changed names as many times , was in p7.!!!!!!! Repeaters used to change names and even schools because it was rumoured that there was this big computer in KAMPALA capable of sussing out those who had sat the exams the previous year.
    SO scholarships did not have to come from state house and all those who fulfilled the criteria got bursaries.

    • Mwenda will think you are making this up. Some students got bursaries from 2 districts and the school had to return one. Ejakait, I can bet my neck there was no nepotism involved. As for the computer that marked the exams answer sheets, it dates back to 1967 or a bit earlier. You see ejakait,the guy who designed the Ug flag with a crested crane taking a forward step(meaning progress) was inspired. One other thing that has foxed me to-date and I have lost hope of ever solving it is: The first time I enetered the Crested Towers in 1969, which housed the Ministry of Education, I found sofa sets that were in the reception for all of us to rest on as we waited for the services being given, they were leather,yellowish, maybe stuffed with wool or some other springy material but what I want to say is that I have been to 3 state houses, a home of a (dollars) millionaire, a 7 star hotel in Dubai but I have never seen or used sofa seats similar or remotely related to those that were in that waiting room of the Crested Towers. Unbelievably, they were made in the Uganda Prisons workshop in Luzira. I have checked exotic catalogues, visited international exhibitions but wapi…and my memory is still reliable.

  10. ejakait engoraton

    THE SSAZA chief was something else, and I think each one was the equivalent of a mini president in their SSAZA. Most of the ones I knew, at least MR OKELLO, the chief in NGORA then, was a gentleman from KABERAMAIDO and I was in the same class with his son as was my brother with another son at TESO College. HE drove a ZEPHYR Zodiac, the same car that that the commissioner of police drove.

    • And you bet the Zephyr was bought right from the showroom brand new. A ssaza chief was also entitled to 2 elephant tusks in Bunyoro. I don’t know about other areas where there was no wildlife. Maybe another upper house(Congress) should be established and be strictly manned by Septuagenarians and above, to be empowered to decide what should be done with national wealth. Otherwise the present generation of those under 45 think Uganda has always been like it is….. that embezzlement is sharpness,that theft is smartness, that honesty is gullibility,that instant wealth acquisition is attainable and other many wayward beliefs.

  11. ejakait engoraton

    HILARY is the son of Regina Adikini and Morris Akwoga, of Lumiino, Busia, the same place the late Chango Macho hails. His father was a train driver, who was posted in Nairobi at the time HILARY, who is a brother to Alex OUNDO, who played for the Cranes and was later posted as a CMB diplomat, first to Paris n later to London

    • The train driver was called ‘Engineer’. Hilary was(is) sharp,very sharp. He had a newspaper(Nairobi Times) which catered for the high-brows in Nairobi and upcountry because of the material,subject-matter and language,it had poor readership. He sold it to KANU and it was renamed the Kenya Times. He also wrote world class thrillers like “The men from Pretoria” and another I don’t recall.

  12. ejakait engoraton

    I have back copies of Weekly Review in that red colour, stuffed to the rafters, he used to send a copy religiously every week to my late brother, which was delivered to Busia by RVP, which was a Peugeot service from Nairobi to Busia n back.
    We would then collect them from there.

  13. Wow! the “coversation” between Rwasubutare and Ejakait is richer and more informative than Mwenda’s material that is regularly twisted depending on purpose. I will not disrespect Mwenda though, rather will salute him for creating a “platform” that enables us to learn from such gentlemen

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