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Rethinking institutions in Africa

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why poor countries may need a more activist president, one willing to intervene to get them to work

Let me do what the Germans call Gedanken (a thought experiment). Political power in most of post-colonial Africa has tended to be personalised. We feel that this is bad and tends to undermine the ability of the state to serve broader social goals. Personalised power also tends to be arbitrary. But why don’t David Cameron and Barak Obama in the UK and USA personalise power? Could it be that over hundreds of years, power in UK and USA has been institutionalised so much so that an attempt to personalise it cannot be contemplated and that if anyone leader tried, they would not succeed?

For Africa, could it be that the personalisation of power is a result of the absence and/or poor development of institutions and therefore personalisation fills an institutional void? Alternatively (or even complimentarily) could it be that the institutions we inherited from the colonial state are not consistent with our social context? That the only way to manage our societies is to sidestep these institutions, a factor that underpins personalisation?

These questions came to me as I was listening to over 30 hours of autobiographical interviews I had with former President Milton Obote in late 2004. Obote told me that while making decisions regarding deployment and/or promotion of officers in the army, he followed institutional mechanisms left behind by the colonial state. He allowed officers to perform their functions without undue interference i.e. he delegated power.


This is contrary to how President Yoweri Museveni manages the army. If he appoints someone army commander, he will also deal directly with the Chief of Staff, division commanders, brigade commanders down to the battalion commanders. He has instituted standing orders that not more than 20 soldiers can travel more than 20km without his personal approval; and no tank or APC can move 2km without his express permission. This sounds like the quintessential case of personalising the army.

Yet Obote allowed the army to run as an institution in the same way the British army works. So the army commander could move entire battalions on “training exercise” or move weapons around. In the 1960s, this bred coup plots based on dubious troop and weapons movements leading to the 1971 coup. The 1980s saw official statements about “uncoordinated movement of troops” before the 1985 coup. Is it possible that Obote was twice overthrown by military coups because he treated the army in the British tradition, which did not respond to the specificity of the Ugandan situation?

Conversely, it is possible that his direct contact with commanders at all levels and personal control over troops and weapons movements is what has insured Museveni (and by extension, Uganda) against military coups? If this argument has any merit, then we need to rethink the issue of personalisation of power. I know I am walking on a very slippery ground and my argument could be misconstrued as making a justification for Museveni personalising the state. There are clear dangers of rule by an individual as opposed to rule by law and institutions. However this article is meant to provoke new thinking.

I used to criticise Museveni for personalising the state and undermining institutions arguing that the failures we see in Uganda are a product of this practice. However, my experience with Rwanda showed the opposite. President Paul Kagame’s fingerprints can be found in almost everything that happens in that country. Institutions in Rwanda work because he keeps them under pressure to perform or there is fear that if he finds things not working he will take action. I also know that if Kagame withdrew today, many things could backslide. His forceful energy and overwhelming legitimacy are a resource from which Rwanda derives a lot of its success.

But the more I observed Uganda, the more I realised that it is not Museveni’s presence but absence in certain critical sectors that explains poor performance. In those areas where Museveni has retained a degree of personal interest (including personal control) and where the top manager(s) enjoy his confidence, things work better – witness Uganda Revenue Authority, the oil sector, the Ministry of Finance and the UPDF. Museveni is actually a hands-off president on many sectors including pensions, health, education etc.

This became clearer when I worked as a consultant for the World Bank on Uganda’s political economy. I realised that the tendency to personalise public office is present in vast numbers of public officials. In some cases, ministers have to struggle against civil servants who have turned ministries and other agencies into personal fiefdoms. In others, some civil servants want to do the right things. However, ministers or board members want to bulldoze them into giving them money or appointing their relatives and campaign managers to office even when they lack merit.

We wrongly assume institutions to exist with a culture of respecting them. Actually our institutions are nascent or weak. This creates room for individuals to personalise them. It takes a very long time and a lot of effort to build an institution but little effort and no time to destroy it. In many cases I encountered, it was absolutely necessary to call upon the president personally to intervene to protect public officials who were trying to do the right thing.

I found myself advising Museveni to intervene – or at least to be seen to do so in order to scare away some officials from damaging institutions. I even recommended to the World Bank (as I did to the President) that he should appoint managers to key public institutions that enjoy his personal confidence, lest they are fought and kicked out by forces with sinister motives. Without his confidence or access to him, many good public officials who try to do the right thing get kicked out. Intimate knowledge pulled me down from the tree of utopia to the hard rock of reality.

For example, our judiciary is corroded with corruption among judges, magistrates and prosecutors. This is partly because Museveni (to a very high degree) respects their independence only interfering when his political interest is threatened – and this is on rare occasions. But if these institutions are to retain independence, how do we structure it without inhibiting the intervention a genuinely motivated political authority to curb their corruption and/or capture by powerful non-state interests like rich people who literally buy judgments?

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