As Museveni once said, praising one African country as performing better than others is like discussing who is taller among dwarfs. Governments have come to power by different means: elections, military coups, death of incumbents, popular insurrections, foreign invasions, protracted armed struggle and/or retirement of some presidents. The leaders have also been of different stripes – nationalist leaders of independence struggles, military upstarts, democratic populists, conservatives, radicals, capitalists, socialists, revolutionary guerrillas, young and old etc. Yet both the governance strategies they have employed and the developmental outcomes they have registered remain stubbornly similar with variations only in degree or detail but not in substance.
So, as I read Museveni’s book, I got the sense that he genuinely believed that Uganda (and Africa) had the capacity to rapidly transform at the same pace and scale of Singapore and South Korea but had only been frustrated by bad leadership. It is a belief deeply embedded in the mind of most African elites I talk to. Now 35 years later, I wondered what he thinks. Our country has registered tremendous progress over the last 35 years. But it is not on the scale of what we saw in East Asia in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And neither is it anywhere comparable to the pace and scale of structural transformation we are witnessing in China today and in countries like Vietnam.
Hence, in 2021 Uganda is the actual prototype of a neocolonial state. The commanding heights of our economy – banking, manufacturing, telecommunications, mining, large infrastructure construction firms, etc. – are largely owned by foreigners. We still produce and export raw materials or semi processed goods which fetch little value in global markets. No African country has developed a brand anywhere near Hyundai, Kia, LG and Samsung. Even in what I consider to be Africa’s best managed country, Rwanda, I do not see transformative change on the pace and scale of Singapore or China – it remains a well-managed poor country.
The lesson from Museveni’s book and record is that his diagnosis of Africa’s problem, like that of so many others, was fundamentally flawed. He grossly misunderstood Africa’s core problem. He ignored the structurally obdurate factors – domestic and international – that can neither be wished away nor changed easily. Like many before him, he focused on the smaller part of the problem – political leaders. He was unable to see that leaders are products of the societies they govern; how they govern is greatly shaped by their circumstances, much more than their personalities.
Indeed, I would even go further to argue that the main lesson from Museveni’s book and his record in government is that actually, leaders do not really matter. Ok, that is an exaggeration on my part, but I exaggerate only to stress a point i.e. that they matter only marginally. Their decisions are rarely stupid. Rather they are a response to reality. Within narrow margins, their political decisions can make a difference. But in a fundamental sense no leader of Burundi or Chad, however brilliant, can turn it into a global power. Intellectuals in Africa need to begin studying the broad impersonal forces that constrain our nations and our leaders – and even our societies broadly – and compel them to act the ways they do.