How the current crisis in Burundi is likely to ignite a regional conflagration
Pierre Nkurunziza wants to remain president of Burundi. His opponents don’t want him to. Nkurinziza says the constitution allows him another term in office. His opponents say the Arusha Accords, which formed the basis of the constitution, do not. The Constitutional Court of Burundi ruled in favour of Nkurunziza. His opponents reacted by organising mass demonstrations on the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, and beyond. This seemed to take the country to the precipice. Seeing vulnerability, some army officers staged a coup, which Nkurunziza’s spokesperson called a “joke.” He was right! The coup makers lacked sufficient support in the military and police. That sealed their fate.
Why does Nkurunziza want to remain president when his people “don’t want him”? Well he said that “his people” (he said 90%), want him to stay. He claims his opponents are a small but noisy minority who do not respect the constitution or the courts. We do not have a scientific way to determine who has the numbers. But if the opposition is strong, the cause is not lost. They should seek to defeat Nkurunziza at the polls. It is difficult for an unpopular incumbent to rig and win. If he does; he can stimulate mass demonstrations leading to collapse. Only effective control of the military and police can save a weak incumbent from defeat. Even then such success is rare.
What do we make of Burundi’s crisis? To his national confederates, Nkurunziza has won two rounds now: the constitutional court case and the coup. This places him in a comfortable position to face his opponents in the elections with a psychological advantage. Unless they mobilise new mass demonstrations and paralyse his government, Nkurunziza is likely to clobber them in next month’s election. In fact the defeat of the coup has now furnished Nkurunziza an opportunity to eliminate his opponents in the military. It has also provided him an excuse to use the military and police to crack down on his opponents – both violent and pacific.
Why elections in India select criminals for politicians but produce dedicated public servants in Norway and Sweden
I have argued before that the very specific way democracy has evolved in Uganda is injurious to the common good. I use the word “very specific” because I am aware that other countries have had a different experience. Yet Uganda is not unique. Last week, I concluded this column showing how India faces a similar crisis as Uganda. Indeed, many democracies in Africa may have faired better than autocracies. But they too have evolved a pattern of politics where the public sector hardly embodies a collective vision. Instead it reinforces a pattern of politics that confers privileges on a few at the expense of the many.
I have grown to doubt the view that democracy per se automatically produces improved governance. The commitment by incumbents in power to be honest, serve the common good,and be accountable for their actions may have little to do with elections and any regime of checks and balances.For example, the commitment of Kabaka Ronald Mutebi and his indefatigable Katikiiro, Peter Mayiga, to serve the good of Buganda is not based on them being elected. Rather, they have been socialised into Kiganda traditions that impose on them a sense of honour to serve their people well. This is the same experience I find in the gulf states of Dubai, Qatar and Oman. There, quasi-traditional monarchs serve their citizens diligently even without democracy.
I am increasingly of the view that being accountable and committed to one’s citizens and subjects is not a result of being elected. It has a lot to do with values, norms, traditions (i.e. shared cultural understanding) of leaders and the conscience of elites, etc. In those countries where checks and balances work, they are consequences of the search for, not the cause for the existence of, accountability.
How electoral competition eliminates public spirited candidates and increases the numbers of self-interested ones
Around election-time,many candidates for office from across the political divide come to me for advice or assistance. We discuss practical political issues: How do I raise money for my campaign? Who are the individuals (there are hardly any organisations) I can approach for financial contributions? Who are the political godfathers (in the church, state or business) I can court? What issues should inform my platform? Which political party ticket should I stand on? In answering these questions, one realises how far removed from theory our actual politics is.
What are the implications of a candidate’s electoral victory coming from courting an ethnic/religious base? What does dependence on political godfathers for electoral success imply on efforts to institutionalise power? What happens when campaign finance for candidates comes almost entirely from their personal savings and atomized individual contributions instead of organisations? How about lack of deeply rooted political loyalties?
In many of my conversations, a candidate will tell me they share the views of FDC. But their constituents are staunchly NRM. Running on FDC ticket is a losing strategy. But they want to go to parliament and make a contribution. What should they do?Besides, if you disagree with the corruption of NRM, politicians in FDC, UPC, DP etc. are not any better. Some are driven by ideals. But many are driven by the same base motivations as NRM. Kizza Besigye has told me his own disappointment at FDC politicians telling him they want to get into power and also eat (or loot) like NRM.
The benchmarks that Rwandans should discuss as forming the basis for sustainable peaceful transfer of power
President Paul Kagame believes in presidential term limits and desires to retire in 2017. I say this with a lot of confidence because I have had many discussions with him on this matter and his views have been consistent. He is also an admirer of former Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, whose example of voluntary retirement inspired(s) him. Fortunately for Kagame, he can still retire. The question is: When? Unfortunately for him, 2017 is not an appropriate year. Tanzania in 1985 was very different from Rwanda today.
Tanzania has always enjoyed an unusually high degree of national unity since before independence. Many scholars wrongly attribute this to Nyerere. This is only partly true – and only in the sense that Nyerere helped consolidate that unity. Yet even during colonialism Tanganyika was not characterised by the ethnic/religious divisions prevalent elsewhere in most of Africa. In the 1960 elections, for example, TANU won 70 out of 71 seats in parliament – the other one seat going to an independent candidate. The opposition Africa National Congress won only 0.3% of the vote.
This was different from most of colonial Africa where elections did not produce political parties with such overwhelming national support. Colonialism (depending on the pre-colonial social formations) had fostered strong ethnic or religious identities. Emergent political parties were therefore based on identity, a factor that made it difficult to craft unity.
How the flaws in the post-apartheid political settlement have shaped the current anti-immigrant sentiments
Last week, “popular” anger in South Africa exploded into a new wave of violence. Youths wielding machetes and looking like Rwanda’s interahamwe in 1994 roamed the streets burning and/or slashing their victims without pity. The violence was both saddening and illuminating. It was saddening because it reinforced the stereotypes about Africans as being of barbaric disposition. It was illuminating because it demonstrated the fundamental flaw in the political settlement in post-apartheid South Africa.
A lot has been written about how Nelson Mandela crafted South Africa into a democratic society whose cornerstone was respect for diversity – hence the term “rainbow nation”. And there is a lot of truth in this narrative. For example tensions between whites and blacks have been held at bay in spite of high levels of inequality. However, the drive to elevate Mandela to super human, almost godly, status tended to over-simplify South Africa’s reality, exaggerate the results of his work, and push under the carpet glaring pitfalls in the political system that replaced apartheid.
Mandela is rightly credited for helping craft a democratic constitution for South Africa. But the discourse that has been sung loudly by Western leaders, mass media, scholarship, and regurgitated by many African elites has always focused on the rituals of democracy even when these did not serve any democratic function. For example, in negotiating the end of apartheid, Mandela allowed white South Africa to retain (almost intact) the economic structure of apartheid.
Apartheid was essentially an economic system. Its aim was to keep the “native” Africans poor so that they can provide cheap labour to the white industrial aristocracy that owned the commanding heights of the economy – finance, mines, manufacturing, etc. The “democratic” constitution of South Africa entrenched a regime of “rights” to protect privileges that were accumulated through racial oppression. It paid only lip service to the demands for social justice and equity that had animated the struggle for independence.
How improved performance of the two companies tends to attract increasing hostility from parliament and the public
The Members of Parliament in Uganda, supported by a loud section of our chattering elite class, seem determined to hold to wrong things dearly even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Last year, a select committee of parliament recommended that government terminate a concession agreement with electricity distributor, Umeme. It provided considerable grist to the anti Umeme mill. Then two weeks ago, another select committee recommended that then-minister of Finance, the chairman of the board and the managing director of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) are punished for buying shares in Umeme; a company they claimed is “making losses”. Again, the anti NSSF-Umeme coalition went wild in celebration.
Yet the complaints raised by parliament against NSSF buying shares in Umeme cannot stand even mediocre scrutiny. They claim that NSSF did not seek clearance of the Solicitor General (SG) before buying the shares. To be fair to the legislators, this is based on the evidence given by the SG to the committee. Yet the parliamentary committee should have invited NSSF officials and hear from them as well – a basic principle of natural justice. It turns out that NSSF actually sought clearance from the SG office. In a reply dated October 28, 2013, the SG advised that this request was unnecessary since in buying shares on the stock market there was no legal contract, agreement, treaty or document to sign, which needed such clearance.
How the debate on amending the Constitution to remove term limits is evolving in Rwanda and the issues to consider
President Paul Kagame recently said he does not want Rwanda to amend the constitution to remove term limits. But I do not think this will stop calls by ordinary citizens who want him to stay. If I were not conversant with Rwanda, I would have thought this is an argument by the president’s courtiers telling lies to retain power. Whoever underestimates the amount of pressure on Kagame to stay should try a referendum. Indeed Kagame has rigged the debate by taking a position. This places senior politicians and military and security chiefs in a difficult position of having to openly disagree with their boss. But even this may not stop the momentum that has begun at the grassroots.
It is possible the removal of term limits will stimulate secondary political contestations that will lead Rwanda back to instability. This is because the biggest challenge facing developing nations, is how to ensure peaceful transfer of power from one president to another and one ruling party or government to another. Kagame’s greatest contribution to Rwanda would, therefore, be his ability to midwife a peaceful transfer of power to another president as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania did. Then he could retire to mentor and nurture this new political culture behind the scenes.
The likelihood that Kagame’s stay will stimulate instability is premised on the fear that if people realise there is no way the president can be removed peacefully, they may resort to violent means. And if removal of term limits diminishes Kagame’s national prestige, he may retain power only by buying favours from elites; hence corruption and likely instability. Here we need examples of presidents in Africa who tried to cling to power by removing term limits and thereby stimulated instability. To my knowledge none of the countries that has removed term limits has collapsed.
How Uganda’s politics cannot create a government that delivers public goods and services efficiently
Last week, I proposed the need to rethink the role of the state to fix our education system. I argued that we should separate the financing of education from its provision. The state should retain a role in financing and wherever possible outsource provision to the private sector. I proposed that we do this by giving vouchers to poor parents to send their kids to good private schools.
There were many and legitimate criticisms to my proposals and I admired the insights offered. But there were no creative recommendations. The only suggestion was that the state should pull up its performance socks and eliminate corruption and incompetence. This is too banal. A better suggestion would have been to remove the current government in the hope that a new one may improve things. Yet I think the problems of our public sector have more to do with our politics than with President Yoweri Museveni personally and his NRM party organisationally. Many may suggest that I am creating an excuse for our president. But I think that finding a villain to blame for our problems may not be completely wrong but it is overly simplistic. In any case, what if regime change doesn’t happen?
Regime change is good and Uganda needs it. But that is not what is most likely going fix our education system and other problems that bedevil our public sector. Let us examine the specific reality of Uganda’s politics. To build a successful electoral coalition, political parties win over powerful elites from our different ethnic and religious groups. So Abdul Katuntu and Salam Musumba deliver Busoga to FDC while Hillary Onek and Jacob Oulanyah deliver Acholi to the NRM. So these elites act as the bridge between the party and their co-ethnics! The exchange relationship in this bargain is actually a trade in private goods, not promises of public policy. How?
Unhappy with their officials, what the two presidents are asking for is a return to the past, not a leap to the future
Three weeks ago, President Paul Kagame; during a government leadership retreat, expressed disaffection with top officials for delaying government projects unnecessarily. Then last week, President Yoweri Museveni, during Uganda’s leadership retreat, expressed a similar sentiment about his ministers.
Kagame and Museveni’s frustrations provided considerable grist to their critics’ mill. I received many cheeky messages saying: we have always told you that these governments are not working; now the two presidents have admitted it themselves.
I have interacted with both presidents and their governments for over a decade now. It is clear that both Museveni and Kagame are complaining because they have been successful, not because they have failed. Indeed, their frustrations are going to increase, not decrease. This is because power to implement government projects has gotten increasingly institutionalised. If the presidents want things to move faster, they may have to retreat to personalising the state and ruling arbitrarily. This may be contradictory coming for me especially on Uganda since I have always accused Museveni of personalising the state. But the reality is more nuanced. Here is how.
Sometime in 2003 while a reporter at Daily Monitor, I visited Museveni at State House Nakasero and spent a quiet evening with him. He told me that in early 1986 after NRM had taken over power, Uganda was facing a crisis of soap. The president instructed his aides to fetch businessman Mukwano who was the manufacturer of soap. Museveni said that when Mukwano appeared in his presence, he looked terrified, perhaps fearing he was going to be jailed or even killed because he had been close to the government of Milton Obote.