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Shattering utopias of African elites

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How political debate is divorced from our revenue and skills reality on state delivery of public goods and services

When I was in boarding secondary school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we used to eat maize porridge every morning for breakfast, posho and boiled beans every lunch and supper. The same experience characterised our meals at Makerere University in the mid-1990s. My dad and his contemporaries have amazing stories of their school experiences in the 1950s and 60s. In those golden years, students in boarding secondary schools, but most especially at Makerere University, would have eggs, sausages, bacon, bread with jam and butter, milk and sugar at breakfast, rice and chicken for lunch etc. Professors Holger Hansen, Nelson Kasfir and the late Joel Barkan have recounted these stories to me as well.

In those days, salaries for teachers, nurses, doctors, lecturers and other professions were high, affording government employees a decent lifestyle without being corrupt. The public service embodied a public spirit and public sector workers pursued a collective vision. Many scholars argue that as economic decline and inflation eroded the value of the wages of government employees, corruption became the main source of sustenance. However, I have grown suspicious of almost everything written about Africa.

So recently I got my very brilliant son (in the African usage of that term), Ian Ortega Aliro, to compare the figures of 1960s and today. The data is diverse, but we can use a snapshot of it. In 1962, Uganda had a population of seven million people. However, there were 323 students enrolled in S5 and S6 and 800 at Makerere. Surely, the colonial government could afford to feed students in high school and at Makerere on sausages and eggs; it had very few mouths to feed. The Obote administration pushed the enrolment in S5 and S6 to 4,220 in 1970. By 1970, intake of Ugandan students at Makerere University had grown from 120 in 1962 to 870 per year, a humongous leap.


But even this number is still far modest compared to the population size of nine million in 1970. Uganda’s population has grown five fold since 1961 to 35 million today and four fold since 1970. Therefore total enrolment in S5 and S6 would be 1,615 if we take the 1961 figure and 16,880 if we use the figure of 1970. However, the actual numbers today are 1.4 million of whom 670,000 are in USE.

For argument’s sake, let me stick to my long held bias that the Museveni administration is extremely corrupt and incompetent. There is a lot of truth in this, and Museveni would agree with it. But it does not explain the whole story. I am now inclined to believe that even with this handicap, if Museveni’s corrupt and incompetent administration had only 1,615 students in S5 and S6 as the colonial administration did, it would afford to feed them sausages, eggs, bacon, bread with butter and jam for breakfast. Even if I multiplied from the 1970 figure, it is possible that with 16,880 students in S5 and S6, government would feed students much better.

Look at the total number of state employees in 1962. There were 5,700 civil servants, 8,300 teachers (primary, secondary and all other tertiary institutions only half of whom were on government payroll), 700 soldiers, and 450 policemen etc. In today’s numbers this would be 28,500 civil servants, 20,500 teachers, 3,500 soldiers and 2,250 policemen. Today the numbers are: 280,000 civil servants, 220,000 teachers (on government payroll), 50,000 soldiers and 50,000 police. There were only 124 doctors on government payroll. There were only 570km of tarmac roads. Every single indicator I can use – for education, health, water, electricity, roads, telecommunications etc., etc. the colonial state (or whatever existed of it) was very thin on the ground. It had little interest in taking these public goods and services to the people. It could afford decent salaries and a high quality of services because it was serving a small section of society.

This is what animated our founding fathers in Africa to demand for independence. But it also contained the seeds of the eventual failure of state action in Africa. For immediately we got independence, our leaders sought to rapidly expand public goods and services to cover the entire population – good politically, terrible technically and financially. This is because we did not have enough human skills, leave alone financial resources, to meet these exaggerated aspirations. Therefore, the state got over-developed in function, but was underdeveloped in skills and revenues; so its reach went far beyond its grasp. At the heart of Africa’s post-independence failure lays this mismatch between aspirations and skills and financial capacity. Our post-independence leaders were not venal. They were unrealistic in rapidly improving access of public goods and services to the people, a factor that inflicted a heavy toll on their quality.

This explained why enlightened leaders like Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and Leopold Senghor produced almost similar results as less enlightened leaders like Mobutu, Idi Amin, and Gnassingbe Eyadema. As an active participant in public debate in Africa today, I am worried that our politics (and even intellectual life) does not address our core existential dilemma.

For example, can the size of Uganda’s public expenditure produce the quality of public goods and services we demand across all sectors? The USA spends US$27,800 per person per year (federal budget plus state budgets minus federal grants to states); and even here I have excluded public expenditure by cities. According to the 2015/16 Budget, Uganda will spend US$ 140 per citizen this financial year. And on this shoe-string budget we demand services of Sweden! Our expectations are out of synch with our pockets.

Even with these meager resources, is there room for improvement? Certainly. Can our public goods and services be better at our current revenues and skills? May be yes, as the example of Kerala (a state in India), Cuba, and Rwanda show. But these three are outliers. It is possible that Uganda right now is getting almost the quality of public goods and services consistent with its revenues and skills and certainly consistent with its political accommodations. If we want to improve the quality of our public goods and services, we must limit access. If we want to expand access, we must accept deterioration in quality. We cannot have it both ways. Yet I know nothing will inflame the anger of our elites than an old man destroying their utopias.

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