THE LAST WORD: How the leading opposition figure hit the nail on the head when talking about money and politics
THE LAST WORD | By Andrew M. Mwenda | Last week, I attended the launch of an autobiography by former cabinet minister, Mathew Rukikaire: 70 Years a Witness. In attendance was Dr. Kizza Besigye, the leading pillar of the opposition in Uganda and four times presidential candidate against President Yoweri Museveni. In his speech, Besigye said UPM polled badly in the 1980 elections because its candidates had no money. Besigye said Rukikaire got the highest number of votes of all UPM candidates in 1980, even polling higher than party president, Museveni, because he (Rukikaire) was rich.
There are exceptions to this rule. However, overall political competition requires money everywhere, even in the richest countries. In poor countries, money gains greater significance because the electorate is ethnically diverse, poor and agrarian. For most poor people, small donations of sugar or meat and soap acquire disproportionate importance. Agrarian societies have values and norms where the poor expect the rich/leaders in society to help them in times of need and they too reciprocate with loyalty.
I made exactly the same point as Besigye in this column last week. That to be an effective politician in poor, ethnically diverse agrarian societies one needs money. Corrupt politicians remain popular because they share their “loot” with their co-ethnics. For instance, the politician helps people with personal needs like school fees, medical bills, funeral and wedding expenses. Our politicians are always under enormous pressure to meet these needs – whether the money is stolen from the state or acquired honestly is irrelevant. This is because our voters do not distinguish between the private resources of a politician and the public finances of the state.
Corruption is, therefore, a subconsciously democratically sanctioned behavior. This explains why corrupt politicians who are generous in their ethnic and/or religious communities win elections. In societies with ethnic tensions, people are even more willing to support one of their own that is accused of criminal activity, seeing such accusations as attempts to sideline them. Ethnic tensions undermine the rule of law as people think the corrupt steals for them.
For example, India has the longest surviving democracy of any poor country in the world today. In this year’s elections, 20% of candidates for parliament were facing criminal charges ranging from murder to rape and extortion. In fact this number has been growing at a rate of 2% in every election. As a result, one third of India’s parliament is under criminal indictment. According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment appropriately titled `When Crime Pays’ a candidate with a criminal record in India is three times more likely to win elections than one who is clean.