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A tale of two presidents, two nations and two revolutions

By Andrew M. Mwenda

For sometime now, my articles comparing Uganda and Rwanda have generated the most intense debate on our website, my private emails and my phone’s SMSs. President Yoweri Museveni’s supporters accuse me of doing PR for President Paul Kagame. Many people ask why I compare the two countries and their leaders and not other African countries. My friends have been asking me to explain. I have yielded grudgingly.

I compare the two countries almost subconsciously. Even in private conversations with friends, I find myself bringing out Rwanda as an example of effective state building in Africa. I am suspicious that I am particularly intrigued by Rwanda because although RPF was born from the NRM, its post genocide reconstruction is setting it apart from Uganda particularly and Africa’s general malaise of chronic corruption and incompetence.

For example, on May 14th 2009, a young man came to see me in office. His father was awaiting discharge from Nsambya Hospital. But the authorities were refusing to discharge the old man until the family paid Shs750,000 in hospital fees. For every extra night the father spent there, the hospital charged them Shs 75,000 ‘ thus making a bad situation worse. ‘I have only Shs 300,000,’ he told me, ‘Can you assist me with the balance?’

I receive such requests almost daily from strangers, fans, friends and relatives ‘ often extremely distant relatives. I always politely (and sometimes even rudely) tell them I am unable to assist. But this guy’s request was unique. For the short time I have known him, I found him a very proud person. He would rather walk 10 kilometres than ask a person for transport. As he sat across the table from me, his face betraying both anger and extreme discomfort at having to literally beg to get his father out of hospital, his vulnerability struck me like a sword. I gave him the money!

This is also the experience of everyone in Uganda with a good job, a name and money. Our people line up at the homes and offices of MPs, ministers, well-off relatives or strangers begging for assistance to treat their loved ones. Every time they do that, they lose their self esteem, their dignity, their sense of self worth ‘ everything! The humiliation they have to endure has taught me that poverty makes a mockery of basic human dignity and drives politics (authoritarian or democratic) towards corruption.

The failure of the public healthcare and education systems in Africa has made better off citizens seek private sector alternatives here and abroad. Yet given our paternalism and extended family traditions, they have not escaped its costs. All too often, relatives, friends and constituents turn up for assistance. The best way to avoid such obligations is to socialise their costs through the state. Why then don’t elites in Africa wean themselves from such onerous obligations by building functional public institutions?

A significant slice of the answer lies in the nature of our politics. Although these social burdens are financially and personally inconvenient, they are politically and socially profitable. People with money and power exploit the vulnerability of the poor; by helping them with token gifts of fees or medical bills, they create a social debt. The resultant gratitude is expressed through political support and/or social deference.

From this perspective, institutional failure seems to me a political and social strategy. It furnishes political rulers, for example, the opportunities to selectively extend personal favours to individuals and groups to reward loyalty and/or rent political support. Dysfunction is the way the system works, not the way it fails. It offers both those wielding power and those subject to it joint gains through corruption.

The bureaucrat or the politician will steal the very money that is meant to build the healthcare system. However, a portion of the monies so stolen may also be spent on a few individuals and/or groups as assistance in times of need. For many individuals and households, rather than forge political organisations to demand improved service delivery, they do better by seeking to become individual exceptions to the general problem.

By supplicating before the president, they can secure the money to evacuate a critically ill relative to a hospital in Spain. A meeting with the First Lady can secure cash for their children to study abroad on ‘State House Scholarships’. By begging the MP, they can secure transport for the dead body of a loved one from the city to the village for burial. It is through such acts that governments in Africa secure individual compliance with practices that inflict collective harm on the general population. It is also through these measures that governments fragment resistance to their misrule.

This provides us an important insight into the political utility of corruption in Africa. Those who steal public funds are not merely seeking to build private fortunes ‘ although it manifests itself that way. Corruption furnishes resources to build political coalitions. So it is not merely a criminal act aimed at enriching the individuals involved. Corruption is a social system through which power is organised, exercised and reproduced.

The institutional and policy failures so outlined are not a product of dictatorial rule. Both democratic and authoritarian governments in Africa have been unable to insulate themselves from particularistic pressures. Africa’s major challenge therefore is how to reform its administrative systems to ensure an impersonal application of policy.

It is here that I find Rwanda setting itself apart from the rest of Africa. A month after the aforementioned young man visited my office for help, I went to Kigali. A friend, who is a lieutenant in the Rwandan army, picked me from the airport. He told me that a month earlier he had felt a headache while playing tennis in the morning. When he went to the military hospital at Kanombe, they referred him to King Faisal hospital. A scan there revealed he had a brain haemorrhage. By 3pm, he and his wife were airborne in a fully equipped air ambulance to South Africa for medical attention.

To save his life, my friend did not have to supplicate at State House Kigali or call the army commander. He did not leverage his connections with powerful people in the system. He had Military Medical Insurance (MMI) like every member of that nation’s security services does ‘ and today, like almost every citizen of that poor country. What he got were not favours from friends and political connections but rights from his insurance. As we drove along the neatly lined palm trees, properly constructed pedestrian walkways, my friend spoke with an air of confidence and national pride.

I can cite many examples like this in Rwanda but none in Uganda and most of the nations of Africa. Yet most African countries have better institutional foundations, greater democratic traditions and richer economies than Rwanda. But they do not (and cannot) deliver such good quality public services to anonymous citizens impersonally as we see in Rwanda. Of course this is not to say there is no political or personal favouritism in Rwanda. Rather it is to demonstrate that there is an active attempt to build systems that can deliver public services without recourse to personal discretion.

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