Wednesday March 9 2016

What’s broken in Ugandan politics and its link to the London Underground

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I have done it for over 30 years, but every time I ride the London Underground railway, I get depressed.
The bloody Brits built the underground railway (the tube) in 1863. To speak figuratively and loosely, at that time in some parts of Africa, we were still living in caves.
Yet, 153 years later when an African president somewhere launches a small road, all the dancers and drums in the land are brought out.

And outside a limited attempt in Egypt and South Africa, there’s still no fully-fledged underground railway system on the continent.
In addition, we still can’t fix things like potholes – or competently hold an election (forget for a moment whether it’s free and fair).

Now there are those who say that countries like Britain and others in the West looted from empire and therefore grew faster from ill-gotten bounty. But as someone who fancies himself an expert on these issues, President Yoweri Museveni, is won’t to ask, why is it that countries like Britain managed to colonise other societies in the first place?
His own answer is technology. They were more technologically advanced.

Britain, a tiny island, truly punched above its weight for centuries, and until the US came along, was the most innovative nation by far.

We bring all this up, because after the election, we need to think seriously about the future of Uganda, and to amplify the benefits of democracy.

For without understanding democracy, it’s hard to appreciate the nature of modern progress.
There are two ways in which societies move forward. We need great innovators who come up with clever things – the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine, electricity, penicillin. Then we need great imitators, the chaps who are very smart at taking those innovations to the next level.
Germany took the innovations of the Industrial Revolution and became a more powerful nation than Britain. China has done the same with manufacturing.

But the more important group here is the original innovators.
For innovation to happen, there has to be freedom for people to innovate without fear that the monarch or dictator will punish them, although that’s a luxury enjoyed more today than in ages past.

Even the car, was invented in secret, as it was considered the devil’s horse.
Secondly, it’s important that there be no Big Man factor, and you need a political system – or at least philosophy – that recognises the limits of the monarch.

For example, it is nearly impossible to land a craft on Mars, if you have an all-knowing Big Man because the whole country will know, especially if he has no great scientific education, that he was not the one who made the Mars Lander.

Once you are in a country where all achievements have to be credited to the great and wise leadership of His Excellency, you can’t shoot for the moon. That is another reason why term limits are wonderful.

Thirdly, innovators need the security that will ensure they enjoy the fruits of their inventions, and not have others steal their ideas, or seize the rewards from them. In other words, you need rule of law and entrenched property rights. Related to this, is that you require just tax laws. If the tax man is too greedy, people won’t innovate.

We all know these. Where some of us fail, is how we see right of property. Not only is it important that the law secures my property, but I must have the guarantee that if I am law abiding, I will be free to enjoy the fruits of my labour.

That is why the practice in Uganda of ruining the businesses of Opposition politicians and supporters is madness.
For even if there are good property laws, if I fear that I will be jailed for my political views, and therefore not be free to benefit from my innovations, I will not create anything.

Finally, you need public officials and leaders to fear their people. If engineers told you they could build an underground railway sometime in the 19th Century, you took a gamble on it if the risk of failure was less than that of doing nothing to improve the people’s lives.

Some people these days like to dismiss these things as “discredited Western democracy”. So let us look at the Chinese.
There is one thing that forces the Communist Party to fight corruption, and to invest massively in infrastructure and other things. It is terrified of what would happen if its over one billion people revolt.

One of the ways it does that, while ensuring the Communist Party remains in power, is to give itself a chance to be led by a set of different ideas, avoiding a mistake being locked in for too long, therefore it has a two term limit for its leaders.
So whichever way you cut this, Uganda is clearly on the wrong path.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA (