Wednesday October 25 2017

An African president’s journey: From Commander-in-Chief to Tribalist-in-Chief

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  


André Guichaoua is a professor at the prestigious Faculty of Economics at Panthéon-Sorbonne University, France.
In a recent syndicated article on elections in Africa, he argued that most votes are largely a ritual, with results known before the vote, oppositions suppressed, and most incumbents enjoying too big an advantage to be defeated.
He lists leaders who, through all sorts of shenanigans and amending constitutions, have prolonged their life in office - from Congo’s Denis Sassou-Nguesso, to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and beyond.

Despite that, he argues, elections are still important for a couple of reasons. First, they point to the skills of the Big Men in being able to keep power, and orchestrate the affection of the people. An inept autocrat will invariably lose power. Which leads to the second point - that every election poses a risk to even the most entrenched Big Man. However, we have heard these arguments before and some of us have made them too.
The interesting and fresh argument that Guichaoua makes, though it still highly debatable, is when he writes that: ‘At every stage of wealth creation, profits are essentially redistributed according to private interests (emphasis mine).

It is, therefore, easy to understand why each head of state believes themselves best placed to serve both national and personal interests, and the interests of the political-ethnic groups they represent’. He doesn’t dwell much on it, but it is a very intriguing point for several reasons. For starters, the argument has been made that the more Uganda and other countries become richer and expand their middle class, the more democratic they will become.

Whether this democracy be liberal democracy or “African democracy”, the two sides tend to argue that with education and prosperity, the possibility of citizens to make freerer election and governance choices will improve.
What Guichaoua’s point suggests, is that the expansion of the African middle class could result in a shrinking of the democratic space. Thus what is happening in Uganda today, might not necessarily be rolling back the democratic clock, but actually a taste of an inevitable future. Scary, right?

That is because “every stage of wealth creation”, throws up dynamics for the Big Man to stay, not leave. And it comes from the dual role of the president and Commander-in-Chief. The president is often national leader, but also patron of vested private interests that leech off the system and/or tribal chief of his people, Guichaoua intimates.
In practical political terms, in the first role he is Distributor-in-Chief or (I think the Baganda might call him “Omugabuzi omukulu”) of public goods. In the latter role, he is Tribalist-in-Chief, The Man who brings the bacon home to his ethnic mates.

Uganda has loosely had two broad stages of wealth creation. The first, driven by massive donor-funded reconstruction and economic reforms, happened from 1987 to 2001. The second, from the reduction of conflict in the country, especially the north, increased foreign direct investment (FDI), the benefits from East African integration, and peace in South Sudan from 2002 to 2011. The third wave, has been built on hope and oil, and we are still sitting in the waiting room, expecting it to happen in the days ahead.

Our democratic future, then, might well hang on who will be the best distributor of oil proceeds. Note that Guichaoua is implying that the president for life doesn’t have to be corrupt, or be in it for the sole reason of stuffing his stomach, although that is a powerful incentive. He might be short-fingered and clean, as we have seen elsewhere in Africa, but still seek to cling to power and beat down or jail the Opposition.
One complication of this is that some could argue that if a country is poor, and there is no wealth being created, then it has a better chance at free elections and democracy – the very opposite of the conventional view on this subject.

The second point from this, is probably less problematic. It suggests that the more partisan and parochial base of the president – the insiders in his party and also tribe or region – need to be persuaded that if he departs, a new leader from within the party, or outside will not take food out of their mouths or persecute them.

That the next Omugabuzi will not distribute the goods unjustly and discriminate against them, as indeed Their Man did with other groups. Without these guarantees, they will feed his worst instincts and mobilise against free elections and any kind of democratic reform.
As we debate, one sad thing is that after a short break, it seems we are back to the past. If you are pessimist about Africa, especially its democratic prospects, you are more likely to turn out to be right today.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia. com and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3