In a tweet some time in May, Gen David Sejusa alluded to State building as one of the biggest failures of the current political establishment in Uganda. I am paraphrasing somewhat, so these are not Gen Sejusa’s exact words.
Just for the record, Gen Sejusa served at the highest levels of the Ugandan State and was among the leading core of commanders that helped Mr Yoweri Museveni to enter State House through the force of firearms.
Despite his many flaws and failings, he is a human being, Gen Sejusa is a brilliant Ugandan of his generation. He has a fine grasp of statecraft and a dispassionate understanding of the contours of modern government. So it was a remarkable moment of introspection from someone who served at the centre of Uganda’s State-building project and one with a fine conceptual, theoretical and historical grasp modern statecraft.
I told Gen Sejusa that in my view, nation-building has been NRM’s biggest failure, bigger than State-building. To be sure, State-building and nation-building are coterminous. They feed into each and co-vary. It is a common feature for weak states to suffer crises of national identity.
There is a tendency to conflate their conceptual boundaries and empirically collapse the two. But they are distinct albeit connected. When we talk of a State, we refer to the institutional and bureaucratic apparatus for managing public affairs. The range of agencies, bodies, organisations and departments vested with coercive power and non-coercive authority constitute the entity we call a State.
By contrast, a nation is a sociocultural composition, a community of people with a shared ethos, values, history and heritage. In modern times, it is standard practice to have a centralised entity, the State, with power and authority to manage the affairs of a community united by a common identity as a people, inhabiting a territorially delimited physical space. Both nations and States are human creations.
They are products of forces and processes involving individuals and groups of people. Nations and states are not pristine or natural artefacts, rather they emerge from historical struggles and concrete contestations over resources, security, commerce, ideas, etc. Nations and States are engineered and imagined; they are produced and reproduced through long and complex processes.
Let me set aside this somewhat abstruse conceptual excurse and return to the crux of General Sejusa’s remark on Twitter, made in the context of Uganda’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and especially the conduct of security personnel. When the NRM through its military muscle captured power in 1986, the primary and most critical task was to rebuild the State and attain a functional system of managing public affairs. The counterpart task was to unify and heal a people traumatised by war and years of insecurity.
Historically, the nucleus of State building has always been military organisation and the centralisation of the use of force. This is the tried and tested route that the NRM/A pursued. This process requires painstaking cultivation of systems and mechanisms for collecting public revenue used to establish the infrastructure for social development through education, healthcare, roads and other critical public goods and services.
Accomplishing these tasks requires a public system based on merit, probity and competence. Success on the State-building front helps in constructing a national identity based on a shared national imagery, cultivating a sense of common belonging through shared collective goods and services such as schools and hospitals. The coercive and soft power of the State plays a crucial role in weaving together otherwise disparate social groups that may not naturally have much in common.
In sum, this is the twin-task, of nation and State building, that Gen Sejusa and the government he helped bring to power were up against in 1986. What is the report card today? In some respects, barring the despicable conduct of elements in security agencies, Uganda’s coercive state capacity is modestly good. The capacity to assess and collect public revenue is at best average. Provision of critical public goods and services is poor.
Our national identity is appalling. We are a socially fragile country. There are latent ethnic and religious tensions that could explode anytime. The rule of Mr Museveni is deeply nepotistic and thrives on rampant corruption. Merit and competence are not the primary considerations for appointment to important public offices.
To his credit, Gen Sejusa has been among the few with the courage to speak out against some of these ills although many will fault him for flip-flopping.
Mr Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).