Africa: Reconsidering Governance in Africa

The official opening ceremony of the 30th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa on 28 January 2018.

If you follow debate on Africa anywhere in the world, everyone will tell you that the main problem with our countries is governance. Yet this claim is new, picked from the World Bank's World Development Report of 1989. Now it has entered the lexicon of politics as a religion; the very reason we need to focus on it. In the 1960s and 70s, the main issue was that African countries are poor because of their integration into the world economy as producers of unprocessed raw materials.

We African elites have learnt about the governance principles of the western world largely through books, media and in class. Often these sources give us the governance ideal, which, while reflecting an aspect of reality in the West, do not give the full practical application of the ideal. The actual practical politics of the West diverges quite significantly from the ideal.

Let us also remember that the governance strategies of the West evolved organically out of their own experience - their political and social struggles. These struggles themselves were rooted in a particular culture and were nourished by nutrient norms, values, habits and shared mentalities. So the governance strategies, principles and institutions of the West reflect a particular historic experience that cannot be universalised.

To now transplant them from their habitat and treat them as universal has two major problems. First being neophytes, we seek to transplant the ideal, not the actual practice. We are blind to or ignorant of the myriad accommodations and adjustments Western societies have to make daily for the ideal to work.

Second, we superimpose this governance ideal on a society with entirely different social structures, history, culture, norms, values and shared mentalities. We then imagine such a transplant will work just fine. Just imagine we get the governance strategies, principles and institutions of Buganda kingdom in 1880 and take them and superimpose them on the people and society of United States of America today. Then Americans have to travel to Uganda to learn in Luganda about how to manage their own industrial society. How would they work?

Karl Marx argued that every society is built on an economic base - the hard reality of human beings who must organise their activities to feed, clothe and house themselves. That organisation will differ vastly from society to society and from epoch to epoch. It can be pastoral or built around hunting or grouped into handicraft units or structured into a complex industrial whole.

For Marx, whatever form in which people solve their basic economic problem, society will require a "superstructure" of noneconomic activity and thought. It will need to be bound together by customs or laws, supervised by a clan or government and inspired by religion or philosophy.

Marx argued that the superstructure cannot be selected randomly. It must reflect the foundation on which it is raised. For example, no hunting community would evolve or could use the legal framework of an industrial society; and similarly, no industrial community could use the conception of law, order and government of a primitive hunting village.

If Western governance strategies, principles and institutions work well in the West, it is because they reflect the historic reality of the societies. If they are failing in our nations, it is not because the leaders are not committed. It simply means that these strategies, institutions and principles do not fit the context. We have peasant societies still living at subsistence level trying to run affairs of government using governance strategies, principles and institutions of an industrial society. And we complain that they are not working. They cannot work.

For these borrowed governance strategies to work they need a lot of domestication. Every day, Africa leaders and elites are domesticating them. But we call such domestication dysfunction. Yet "dysfunction" is the way such copy and paste institutions work, not the way they fail. Our political struggles are always over whether we are running the systems as described in books. Most of our political and constitutional struggles are over how "correctly" we are applying the ideal.

Consequently we have spent over 50 years changing leaders for not upholding these governance ideals without ever fundamentally changing the quality of governance itself. President Yoweri Museveni who came to power pontificating how the problem of Africa is leaders staying too long in power is trapped in power. He has been in it for 32 years and doesn't seem to have a plan to leave. Now he has to find new explanations for his original statements. His critics consider him power hungry. That is only partly true. Critically, Museveni finds himself also a hostage of that power.

To avoid being misunderstood, let me be clear: our problems are largely local. Even the demands to solve them are largely locally generated. This is not to deny the external pressures and influences which come through NGOs, donor pressure, ideological capture etc. That is why I have used the word largely. Yet in spite of the local origins of our problems, the problem begins when it comes to designing any framework through which we can solve them. We don't examine our specific circumstances. Instead we retreat to a theory in a textbook published at oxford or Harvard, itself developed out of the experience of Britain or USA. One of the factors behind our many frustrations and failures is this mismatch between demands and solutions.

Today, Rwanda could be the most successful country in Africa in terms of the functioning of public institutions. The leadership of Rwanda is also deeply modernist. But in spite of its modernist ambitions, it has tapped deeply into its culture, norms, values and traditions to design her governance architecture. This could also have been facilitated by two things.

First a shared culture and history means there is something to appeal to. Uganda and most Africans countries don't have such a shared history and traditions given our ethnic heterogeneity. It becomes difficult to mould common and shared values among so many nationalities.

Second, the 1994 genocide offered Rwanda an opportunity for a fresh and clean start. The destruction it wrought was so deep and comprehensive that it practically obliterated old forms of social control, and left society too weak to resist reform. The group that captured state power was tightknit and strong and could therefore mount relatively unified action without generating significant secondary contestations from other societal forces. The circumstances that have created Rwanda's success are rare to find and difficult to recreate.


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