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What is Africa’s problem?


Revisiting Museveni’s ideas about Uganda and our wider continent after his 35 years (and counting) in power

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | And so it was that recently, while perusing my library, I decided to reread President Yoweri Museveni’s book, What is Africa’s Problem. It is a collection of his writings and speeches when he was still young and idealistic. Nearly 30 years since it was published, the book shows that Museveni’s opponents, like the president himself, suffer from a gross misdiagnosis of Africa’s developmental challenge. The overriding theme of the book is that the main cause of “failure” (whatever that means) in postcolonial Africa can be reduced to one word: leadership.

It is good that Museveni has ruled for 35 years. Had he left power much earlier, we may not have been able to see the inherent contradictions and degree of his naivety as we do now. In that book, Museveni reduces most of the problems of post-independence Uganda to the personality, mistakes and decisions of former presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Combined, the two ruled Uganda for 21 out of the first 23 years of independence.

Now 35 years in power, Museveni can invent many excuses to explain his performance. But he cannot change the fact that the “fundamental change in the politics of our country” has not materialised. And neither has the structural transformation of the economy and society happened. By and large, he has ruled using the same tools Obote and Amin employed: repression, manipulating ethnic schisms, corruption, patronage, militarism, election rigging, intimidation, illegal detention, etc. The only difference is that he has been more skillful at this game than his predecessors and in restraining (and only to a degree) the excesses of the army.

Many elites in Africa believe that the problem of Africa is leadership. And by leadership they mean the president and the small cabal of his handlers. This assumes that had better men and women been in charge of state affairs, African countries would be the same as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Africa has seen many changes of government without much accompanying change in the governance strategies employed by successive leaders and equally without any fundamental change in developmental outcomes.

In 2021, Uganda, like just practically every other country in Sub Sahara Africa, is still poor. Most of our people (70%) live in rural areas and depend on subsistence agriculture for a livelihood. There is a small educated elite, living largely in urban areas, that dominates the state and economy. Our exports are still primary (with very little or no value added). Manufacturing as a percentage of GDP has not changed in the last 30 years. All of Africa is de-industrialising. Elections are rigged, the opposition repressed, human rights routinely abused, corruption (except in extremely rare circumstances like post genocide Rwanda) thrives and tribalism rules.

Of course, there has been some improvement in both governance and the economy over the last 25 years. Governments are less murderous than they used to be. Military coups and civil wars have significantly reduced. The economies are growing faster than they did in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The institutions of state in most countries have somewhat improved under the paternalistic supervision of our Western masters. But these improvements have been slow and incremental, not revolutionary, reflecting the passage of time and the lessons learned from past mistakes.


  1. Lomonyang Simon Adingli

    Andrew Mwenda, you are right when you say M7 has no difference from his predecessors in running the affairs of Uganda. Corruption, extrajudicial killings, repression of the opposition, human rights violations, election rigging, etc. are the order of the day in the tour of this regime. I think there is no way the regime can escape most of the enumerated facts if only Ugandan and Huma Right Watchdogs come up with strong evidence to ICC.

  2. Now do we also hjv justifiable reasons to go to the bush ..

  3. But Andrew, how does being “more skillful” in the game of wrongdoing make Gen Tibuhaburwa better than his predecessors, whom he demonized as swine? In other words, how less a swine is Mr. Museveni?

    Mr. Museveni’s swiness is worse than his predecessors because, over 35 years and counting, the number of casualties (social economic and political victims, vis-a-vis human rights violations) under Gen Tibuhaburwa’s barbarism is unimaginable.

  4. It is great to resurrect some thoughts from antiquity. Am certain that is one of the many thoughts that gather dust on book shelves. The Green Book of Muamar Gaddafi and the Juche Idea of Kim il Sung fall under such modern antiques but as you can attest it was empty double talk. The pupportd authors came out inept when the highest responsibility of their fellow countrymen fell on their shouldes. Ironically most thinking about the African problem, intentionally utilizes examples that faiil to put the problem in proper context. It would make sense if we compare African countries with each other. In Uganda we would well compare with South Sudan or.Malawi. India or Pakistan or Singapore will distort the picture due to their respective sizes.
    All I can say is that publishers of such books will find it hard to make a sale.

  5. As Mwenda revisits past writing, he’s soon revisiting familiar walls of prison.

  6. 1.The Tiger Nations developed because of favorable legal reforms in Commerce and Trade .So what is Africa ‘s Problem;she is still not confident in her own skin when it comes to making key Economic Reforms.
    2.Its of late that the supersonic global changes in Trade and Economics has opened the eyes of Ugandans/Africans they are now fed up of being a laughing stock.
    3. To me;Procurement is just about fraud i actually dont know why there is a whole programme called Bachelor of Procurement offered in some Universities.I cried and cried and cried when the President requested the COIVD team to directly contact Toyota in Japan when purchasing the vehicles they needed than relying on middlemen can you imagine the middlemen quoted 3 time the market price?Just imagine how much Ugandans have lost through procurement procedures.
    4.Why was the World Bank and other International Donor Partners against Uganda giving contracts to the Army?Its because Ugandans have realized that there is no big difference in the services they offer .
    5,Africa is still a Trade Virgin she is the girl to watch on the Trade Broadway.

    • But Winnie, the more the law a country has the more corrupt it becomes. In other words, more laws more outlaws to deal with; and the hellish court backlog and overflowing jail that goes with it.

      And Winnie think of it: in 1986. while Singapore was launching its City Subway mass conveyor public transport, Ugandans were going backward: introducing Boda-boda, abominably murdering each other on their streets and bushes, abducting each other chest thumping, promoting and awarding each other bloody hero medals.

      That’s the problem of Africa: for decades being led by self-confessed authors and masters of violence, whose ascend to power and wealth are ends in themselves, but not national interest. For example look at what is happening in Sudan is embarrassing for the continent, especially for countries that are already on the path of democracy.

  7. I agree and disagree with Museveni. I will not say why I agree with him, but will say why I disagree with him. As you rightly put it, nearly all African countries have that problem. Different leaders have ruled our countries, but the results have always been the same. This suggests that there is a bigger and deeper problem than the problem of leadership in Africa.

    Let me give an example. We always say we’re poor because our (different) leaders are bad. I’ve often argued that the (different) leaders come from among us, who are not any better either. In other words,we can’t expect our leaders to be much different from us if they’re from among us. Most of the leaders in most developed countries are different because they come from different societies. If we substituted the Germans for us Africans in this continent, Africa would develop faster and would be completely different. So, unless we diagnose the bigger and deeper problem and address it, Africa will always be the way it is today or was yesterday.


  8. Thanks, Andrew. You have merely criticised M7’s understanding of Africa’s problem. I hope in your next article, you will discuss what Africa’s problems really are.

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