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Why Uganda has no citizens

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Last week, I was in Stanbic Bank to pay tuition fees for my niece, Cynthia. My sister Florence died when Cynthia was only seven. Now she is 19, pretty, vibrant, ambitious, intelligent and ready to take on the world and change it. Although she qualified for law, her score was not enough for state sponsorship at Makerere University. Since she has always wanted to be a lawyer, I decided to pay to keep her dream alive.

But as I sat in the bank waiting to get my pay slips, I reflected on why this cost is incurred by me personally. First, at both a personal and business level, I pay over Shs 400 million in taxes per year. Therefore I should not be meeting my niece’s needs privately. A week before Cynthia was meant to begin school, Makerere arbitrarily increased fees by 40%. Reason: the state does not send the required funds to meet the financial obligations of its sponsored students. Makerere now has to ‘tax’ private students to pay for government students (read: I am being double taxed.)

I paid Shs 1.8 million in tuition. But Cynthia has to pay Shs 600,000 for accommodation, Shs 400,000 (meals), Shs 300,000 (shopping) and Shs 300,000 pocket money. Total: Shs 3.6m for one semester! Elsewhere, students get loans subsidised and guaranteed by the state. I used to think these are a feature of rich nations with highly developed financial systems. Rwanda with the most underdeveloped financial sector in East Africa has a functioning student loan program managed by the Student Financing Agency for Rwanda (SFAF). The other country with student loans is Kenya.

If Cynthia was a citizen of Rwanda, her education would not depend on personal favors from her uncle. She would have secured her rights as a citizen by going to SFAR and getting a student loan. She does not need to pay her education on the basis of money in her wallet. She can finance it based on expected future streams of income.

Last week, I also went to bury my girlfriend’s brother James Kanyesigye. His children brought everyone to tears as they spoke about the future without a father and the resulting uncertainty of their continued education. Never mind that their late father was Mrs Janet Museveni’s cousin. It was clear they knew that their education does not depend on their citizenship but on personal relations.

Only last year, my housekeeper got a stomach problem. Doctors recommended surgery. He could not go to any public hospital and get the service because they are all dysfunctional. We went to International Hospital Kampala. The bill: Shs 2.8m. I proudly but painfully paid.

If my housekeeper was a citizen of Rwanda, his life would never have depended on my personal generosity. He would have paid 1,000 Rwanda Francs (Shs 3,000) per year for Mutuelle de Sante (Mutual Insurance) and his bills at any hospital would be covered up to 90%.

To liberate him from this dependency on my generosity, I now decided this year to pay for him private medical insurance as part of his wage. In all his struggles for self advancement (I also jointly pay his university fees with a British professor friend of mine), my housekeeper has never received any form of public support – which makes me wonder why he has everlasting support for President Yoweri Museveni!

Many people radically misunderstand Africa’s primary failure. The best example is the fixation with democracy and accountability without reference to the history of the modern democratic state. Previously, people living in a territory were subjects of the state or clients of powerful individuals (patrons) on whom they depended for their well-being. The evolution of the modern state was occasioned by the transition of people from subjects to citizens, which led to universal equal treatment of all people.

Clients and subjects supplicated before patrons for favours; their ability to get anything depended on the whims of their patron. But because such power was personalised, it tended to be arbitrary; the quality of service depended on the personal character of your patron.

Through fits and starts, Western Europe moved towards a situation where certain services (for the poor) like education and healthcare shifted from being privately provided by patrons as favours to being publically provisioned by the state as rights. Citizens could stake claims on the state to serve their interests. It is this that facilitated the emergence of the modern democratic state; failure to grasp it has vulgarised debate on democracy in Africa.

In most of Africa, access to public services does not depend on citizenship but on one’s connections to powerful individuals. This defeats democracy; people do not  vote for public services but for personal favors ‘“ for a candidate who buys them alcohol, sugar and soap during the campaigns, for one who met their funeral or wedding expenses etc.

Secondly, citizenship rights need an administrative apparatus with agents of the state tasked with performing their duties through an impersonal application of rules. You get public services on the basis of clearly established administrative criteria ‘“ not on personal whims.

It is here that Rwanda has proven it is building a modern state and therefore putting in place the actual building blocks of a democratic society. On several occasions, buses moving from Kampala to Kigali have crashed killing and injuring travelers, both Ugandan and Rwandese. Sadly, all the accidents have taken place on Ugandan soil.

On each of these occasions, helicopters equipped with doctors and medical kits have flown from Rwanda, landed on Ugandan soil, and evacuated every injured or killed Rwandan citizen. The Ugandans have been left dying on the roadside in their own country. When the helicopters land, the only qualification for evacuation is not your personal relationship with anyone in Rwanda; it is your Rwandan passport.

It is possible that Rwanda’s administrative and political reforms can be easily overwhelmed by that nation’s deeply held ethnic rivalries. But for now, we can speculate that Rwandans have a template to vote for public services, not alcohol. My niece and many other Ugandans yearn to be citizens, not subjects. They want rights, not patrimonial favours.

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