How the obsession with our internal weaknesses has obscured the international dimension of Africa's problems
Now in his 32nd year as president, Yoweri Museveni faces a dilemma.
Uganda is still a very poor rural agricultural economy in spite of having sustained an impressive rate of economic growth over 30 years. Museveni's (and Africa's) problem is excessive reliance on advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the main agents of multi national capital. In 1987, Museveni accepted IMF and World Bank policy prescriptions out of desperation rather than conviction. This opened doors for foreign financial and technical assistance to aid a bankrupt state. As the economy recovered, Museveni was able to use growing state revenues and foreign funds to rebuild the state and consolidate power; rewarding loyalists, buying off opponents, providing some basic public goods and services and defeating armed insurgents.
Museveni was, therefore, quick to see and seize the benefits of IMF and World Bank policy prescriptions in politics and economics. When a state is recovering from collapse, you need to divest it of many responsibilities. This improves performance. And when an economy has been destroyed, removing onerous controls improves it. Hence Museveni became ideologically converted. But he was misled to think these policies that are good for recovery in the short-term are the solution to structural transformation - which is long-term.
IMF and World Bank did not stop at Museveni. They also cultivated close relationships with the most influential sections of the Ugandan society and state. So they courted journalists, academics, businesspersons, civil society leaders and the bureaucracy - especially the ministry of Finance and the central bank. They gave such people internships and fellowships to go to USA or UK be indoctrinated with the free market dogma. Within the bureaucracy, they paid such people salaries above the rest of the civil service.
Henceforth, to be an influential bureaucrat, you had to have good relations with donors. To have such influence, you had to share their free markets ideology. Once you had this profile, you could negotiate aid i.e. revenue to the state. This meant that now Museveni would look at you as an asset - the man or woman who handles donors and brings in cash to finance his political survival. You would be promoted and placed in strategic positions.
This is the context that led to the rise of Tumusiime Mutebile, Keith Muhakanizi etc. I admit I was one of these people in the media. Looking back 30 years later, one can see the results. Most of the influential pillars of opinion, including Museveni's critics such Charles Onyango-Obbo, are advocates of the free markets and low inflation.
Thus, disagreements within Uganda are never about the viability or suitability of our macroeconomic policies and the philosophy that justifies them. The disagreement is about the right way to implement them or what donors call "governance." "Good governance" (whatever it means) became the catch phrase in development thinking. The policy debate was settled. Every African country should court foreign direct investment, control inflation, sell off state enterprises, liberalise and deregulate, promote private sector led-growth, control inflation below 5%, etc. and prosperity will follow.
With this consensus, the debate shifted to governance. If an African country is failing, it is because of "poor governance" i.e. leaders are selfish, greedy, and cruel. Concepts like a "predatory or "vampire" state and books like "The Criminalisation of the State in Africa" came to life. The gospel was this: the problems of Africa are internal - corruption, nepotism, incompetence, greed, selfishness, etc.
A Kenyan professor, PLO Lumumba, has made a name selling this "condemnAfrican-leaders" narrative. He is feted in African capitals where his listeners, largely African elites, cheer him in loud admiration. His criticisms are not without basis. Indeed, nowhere is criticism more effective (and dangerous) than when it uses (and abuses) obvious facts. But remember that Africa has been changing leaders; since independence 278 in all. So if all of them are greedy, selfish and cruel, what should Africans do? The answer is obvious: seek salvation from abroad. This is how we got to Libya's current crisis.
Steve Biko said that the biggest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is never his militaries but the mind of the oppressed. Africa has been ideologically conquered. The Western ideologues succeeded in using some aspects of the truths about Africa to promote a narrative that undermines the faith Africans have in themselves, their leaders and institutions. Hence we look abroad for salvation - exactly as colonialism did 130 years ago. This is why Bob Marley urged Africans to liberate themselves from mental slavery.
So we are back to the height of the scramble for Africa in 1884 when Europeans partitioned our continent amongst themselves. One needs to read the words used at the Berlin conference to understand today. They claimed Africa was backward and poor, both materially and spiritually. So it needed civilisation, commerce, and Christianity - to be brought by Europeans. Africans were suffering under the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs. So they needed to be liberated by civilised Europeans.
It is in this context that we can understand how King Leopold II of Belgium formed a "philanthropic" organisation to "civilize" Congo. A territory 77 times larger than his own country was given to him as a private estate to "civilise". He proceeded to exterminate 15 million Congolese, three times worse than Adolf Hitler's six million Jews. But the West doesn't talk about this. And all colonial governments with varying degrees did commit genocide in Africa.
The narrative that African problems are essentially internal was designed by Western journalists, academics, intellectuals, governments and international financial institutions but has been largely articulated by African elites. White people are careful not to be seen as racist when they criticise certain practices in Africa. So they are always on the look out for African intellectuals to do the dirty job. We unwittingly fall into the trap. Once such an African intellectual is identified, he/she is invited to Western universities, think tanks, given access to their media etc. to condemn Africa.
Yet the claims that corruption, nepotism, dictatorship, greed, etc. are the evils that have undermined our prosperity are false. All developed countries had as much (or even more) corruption than African countries today. And their leaders were dictatorial, shortsighted, selfish, corrupt, greedy, irresponsible, human rights abusers, mass murderers, and power hungry. In spite of all these (or even perhaps partly because of them) today's rich nations transformed from poverty to riches. Why not Africa?