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Tragedy of an ‘absentee’ State

Great countries don’t have a great government; they have great State machinery

Where is the State”? This is a common question in Uganda; and it’s a legitimate one. Is the State ensuring the common good for all? When a law-abiding citizen desperately wants medical treatment, is the State there to save his life? If the citizen wants education for his child, will the State be willing to provide it? If a citizen is attacked, will she be able to call upon the State to protect her life and property? If she is being treated unfairly by a top government official, will the State come in to restrain him?

The Constitution mandates the State – not the government, mark you – to ensure the “establishment and promotion of a just, free and democratic society.” Yet, the State in poor developing countries like Uganda has been so much fused with the government that it has almost completely disappeared. A byzantine  State is one that has become weak because it is suffused with too much government influence. Indeed, since 2005, Uganda has featured prominently on Foreign Policy Magazine’s list of countries with “fragile States” or what they previously called “failed States.”

Parliament 1

Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Max Webber and other theorists wrote extensively about the concept of the ‘State.’ In his notable book, `Leviathan’, Hobbes theorised that given that in the ‘state of nature’ – the pre-State natural man – life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” the notion of the State was created to help members of society live together in harmony. It was envisaged as the arbiter for everyone as regards freedoms, rights, obligations and responsibilities in man’s life-long effort
to safeguard life, liberty, and property for all.

The modern ‘State’ is a composite set of institutions that are noticeably public in nature mandated to ensure the collective organisation of society as way of ensuring social order, political stability and survival for all. These institutions include the civil service, the army, courts of law, Legislature, security agencies, the Executive and local governments, and public agencies like the Central bank, among others.

They are funded by citizens to carry out their functions. When a government is elected, it enters an unwritten ‘social contract’ with the citizens to ensure that the State machinery fulfills its mandate for the common good. If the citizens do their role, the State is obligated to fulfill its part of the bargain. If it doesn’t, the citizens have the right to make demands to that effect.

The State must thus exercise unobstructed power and authority for the benefit of all. State institutions
are authoritative in so far as they are empowered to make and enforce decisions for the common good.
Consequently, the decisions made by the State are accepted by all as binding on all because they are deemed to be made in the public interest. Additionally, the State must have the capacity to enforce its decisions and that those who don’t comply are punished.

While it’s true for instance, that there are destitute people on the US streets, State effectiveness ensures that if one murders one of the destitute on the street, he would incur the very same punishment he would get if he murdered a prominent person.

Generally, because it is ideally seen as working for the common good, the State – as umpire, referee or adjudicator of society – must be above bias; it must not act in favour of a few privileged groups or the dominant class. It must be seen to be autonomous or independent of the influence of powerful individuals or groups in the society so as to serve the collective good. Its role is thus superior to that of the government, whose main interest is self-preservation and perpetuity in power.

The State must thus have the equanimity to arbitrate between citizens and the Government given that even the best of governments are prone to threaten civic rights and citizens’ liberties. Though the State is headed by the Head of State who is also the head of a government, it can only fulfill its mandate if it acts independently. Like a Jumbo Jet whose systems work autonomously to the extent that it can even fly by auto pilot, the State must be able to function with minimal government interference.

Like the Jumbo Jet can autocorrect human errors and even refuse to take off until the pilot performs certain safety procedures, the State must be autonomous. Indeed, the State must shield the government and the Head of State from their own excesses, which would otherwise endanger the society.

And through an intricate system of checks and balances and separation of powers, the State is also capable of self-preservation by protecting its own composite institutions from each other’s excesses. This is because failure of one organ of the State spells doom for the whole social system. The difference between the State and the Government is therefore clear; governments can come and go, the State is a permanent public infrastructure.

In countries with a valetudinarian or emasculated State, the government has captured, subdued and subjugated the State machinery and usurped its powers and mandate. The common plea by Ugandans – tusaba gavumenti etuyambe (we plead to the government to come to our rescue) – is an indictment on the State. The government has been elevated to divine status at the expense of the State. Some people have rebuffed the idea of a ‘welfare State.’ Yet, by definition, every State is a ‘welfare State’ in the sense that it has a duty to ensure the welfare of all in society.

Not even the least of the citizens is left behind or unattended to. All members of society are treated equally. While it’s true for instance, that there are destitute people on the US streets, State effectiveness ensures that if one murders one of the destitute on the street, he would incur the very same punishment he would get if he murdered a prominent person.

That’s not the case in fragile States. In countries with an absentee State, only the powerful get attention.

In conclusion, I contend that a strong State is the only panacea for the rampant social ills resulting from the morass of ineffective public administration infrastructure and unchecked misuse of power and which lead to inequity and impunity. Great countries don’t have a great government; they have great State machinery.

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Peter Nyanzi is a journalist. [email protected] @Nyanzi_p on Twitter

One comment

  1. A 52 year old person living with HIV in Bukomansimbi District is able to get her ARVs regularly and her children who work as touts in Kampala visit her regularly. They support their mother and the relatives in Bukomansimbi. They have been doing this since 1997. James Ogwaro holds an LLM and MBA. He lectures at Mukono University, Makerere University and Kyambogo. He has been doing this since 2008. Uganda has existing institutions which include the Taxing entity, civil service, the army, courts of law, Legislature, security agencies, the Executive and local governments and public agencies like the Schools, Hospitals, Road network, Central bank and security system. We may experience longevity but the difference is in the quality of delivery, service life and wellness of people. For the 52 year old person living with HIV in Bukomansimbi District may be able to get her ARVs regularly. Her children who work as touts in Kampala may be able to visit her regularly, but the state has to have disability support. It is breaking an already broken family and clan support system without putting back into it. James Ogwaro may hold an LLM and an MBA. He may have lectured at Mukono University, Makerere University and Kyambogo since 2008, but who looks into his burnout issues? How much deeper does he engage his students? What would be his ideal student output? There is a direct link between stature, quality and state presence.

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