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Why are our politicians corrupt?

By Andrew M. Mwenda 

In this column last week, I argued that after every successive election in Uganda, the quality of government has tended to deteriorate. Many Ugandans think this is because our nation has a sham democracy. ‘Were we to have genuine democracy,’ my friend Erias Lukwago, MP for Kampala Central, told me, ‘elections would produce better politicians and better government.’ I used to hold this view but I have grown to realise that my programmatic vision tended to blur my analytical eye.

Could it be that in a poor, largely agrarian and illiterate society like ours, the best democracy one can get is a sham one? In one of his most thoughtful insights, Karl Marx argued that every society is built on an economic base ‘ the hard reality of human beings who must feed, clothe and house themselves. That organisation can be pastoral or built around hunting or grouped into handcraft units or structured into a complex industrial whole.

Marx argued that whichever form human beings seek to solve their basic economic problems, society will need a ‘superstructure’ of none economic activity and thought ‘ bound together by laws (or customs), supervised by government (or clan or tribe), inspired by religion or philosophy. For Marx, the superstructure cannot be selected at random; it must reflect the foundation on which it is raised. Therefore, no hunting community can evolve or use the legal framework of an industrial society; and similarly, no industrial society can use the conception of law, order and government of a primitive hunting village.

In most of Africa, the ‘superstructure’ that governs us is liberal democracy; its foundation being industrial societies of the West. Most voters in Uganda are peasants who depend on the vagaries of nature for their livelihoods. This fosters the evolution of particular social adaptations like reciprocity and patron-client ties. What happens when a superstructure of industrial capitalism is transplanted unto a largely peasant society?

In a 1998 study for the World Bank, Prof. Joel Barkan found that the average cost of running for parliament was between US$ 40,000 to 60,000 in a country with a per capita income of US$280. Last week, I interviewed MPs and found that the average cost of a parliamentary election in 2006 was between US$ 130,000 and US$200,000 with some candidates spending well above US$ 500,000. Some of this goes for posters and campaign ads. But a lot pays for sugar, salt, soap and alcohol to voters.

Yet as anyone reading this article knows, the demands on the financial resources of an individual MP do not stop with election time. Throughout his tenure, an MP in Uganda (and many other African countries) is saddled with demands from his/her community; paying fees and or medical bills for his/her constituents, contributing money to their funeral and wedding expenses and fundraising for community projects like schools, churches and clinics.

We should therefore not be surprised that competitive elections lead to undesirable outcomes: Increased corruption, reduced government effectiveness in delivering public goods and services, diminished accountability and the weakening of checks and balances. Given the above electoral demands, every election will tend to eliminate the morally high-minded (unless he/she adapts to the reality) and favour the unscrupulous.

Democracy is a great public good ‘ it sounds dangerous to write discrediting it. I suppose this is the reason those who see the dysfunctions of the Ugandan system call it ‘a sham democracy.’ I think it is a democracy you get in our circumstances. Every promising democrat in Africa (with the exception of Nelson Mandela) has fallen victim of the very vices he campaigned against.

There is a consensus among Ugandans that Yoweri Museveni and the NRM presided over a fairly enlightened government that was committed to public service up to about 1996. Yet till then, the regime was less democratic compared to today. It had not been elected. The state dominated both the electronic and print media. Political parties were banned in everything but name. There were many political prisoners in Luzira. Yet in spite of all this, the regime enjoyed a high degree of legitimacy.

Today, there are many radio and television stations and newspapers and although the quality of debate is poor, the quantity of it is impressive ‘ and it is debate nonetheless. Internet usage is increasing. Political parties are freer. Parliament is vocal. Civil society is more diverse and vibrant. There have been regular elections at both the national and local level. Many institutional checks on the exercise of power have been put in place.

Yet, over the last 14 years, we have seen the quality of parliament deteriorate, the president has become almost like a medieval monarch and the state’s commitment to the public good has significantly declined. Corruption has been increasing every year and in many ways acts as a lubricant that turns the wheels of our democracy. As Charles Onyango-Obbo has observed, the quality of our government has so deteriorated that even Joseph Kony’s LRA are like ‘maggots’ feeding off the ‘regime’s decomposing legitimacy.’

All these failures seem to me to be by-products of our democratisation process ‘ a process that is ongoing in a society the majority of whose people are poor, rural, agrarian, illiterate, and with deeply held ethnic loyalties that are stronger than their national identity and where the political class lacks independent economic means of livelihood. It needs a politician of truly heroic proportions (I used to think that Museveni is such a person) and some degree of authoritarianism to stand above the demands of our social structure.

So that I am not misunderstood: I am not suggesting that we do away with elections and democracy. On the contrary, authoritarian regimes in Africa have been as predatory as (if not worse than) democratic ones. But I think Africans need to begin a conversation on how to structure electoral competition and democracy in a way that reduces the incentives for politicians to steal, to bribe, to be incompetent and to be selfish.

I do not have all the answers to such difficult issues, although I do have opinions. The purpose of this article is to provoke a debate on this important issue in our national evolution.

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