African countries negotiating their post-colonial existence faced two primary choices. The first was to undo the State as a colonial construct and rebuild from scratch as smaller, independent states built around the pre-colonial polities, or federate into larger commonwealths with negotiated terms of engagement.
The second choice was to continue with the colonial state as a fait accompli and forge ahead with a nation-building agenda, usually through heavy doses of nationalism, pan-Africanism or a ‘developmental’ agenda in which pre-colonial identities were suppressed under the new flags, anthems and the tangible edifices of ‘development;’ dams, roads, schools, stadia and the like.
Both choices were not without risk. Pre-colonial polities had contested territorially and a return to that status quo could merely reproduce those contestations or generate new ones. Inheriting the colonial state meant continuing to command compliance to the cause through coercion, like the colonialists.
This led to colonialism under local faces and, as the native colonisers increasingly genuflected to the metropolis for support and endorsement, the emergence of the neo-colony. Most countries took the second choice.
Not only was inheriting and running the state as a going concern easier, it also provided an economic surplus that the new political elite could appropriate for their own ends, and to power the gravy train of political patronage to keep the natives at bay.
To keep themselves in power, the new rulers thus maintained coercion politically through the introduction of monolithic political systems, or violently through the establishment of military dictatorships.
Because they were ‘natives’ with local constituencies, to please and reward, corruption became a reward mechanism and the way many of these states worked rather than failed.
In many cases, those constituencies were primarily tribal and or religious, which led to an obvious and immediate contradiction; leaders who on the one hand preached the water of new nationalist or even pan-African identities and ideologies, while drinking the wine of patronage and patrimony.
It wasn’t uncommon, for instance, for such leaders to urge austerity while splurging public resources on their kith and kin, or thunder about the need for merit and competent execution while appointing relatives and loyalists to important offices for which they were unqualified and ill-suited to visit, let alone occupy.
Ordinarily, most people would have looked the other way and steered as far away from the State as is legally possible. But nationalisation in the post-colonial period had swollen the size of the public sector while deregulation had, in many countries, put large chunks of the economy in foreign hands.
Control of the state, therefore, became synonymous with direct control of resources, and was the basis of political instability and armed insurgencies. Many who took arms to challenge the state did so by mobilising their relatives, friends and in-laws – against whichever group was in power.
Once power was obtained, they had to reward these supporters, often corruptly, and, in any case, at the expense of those who had belonged to or served the ancien regime, or who could not demonstrate sufficient personal contribution to the acquisition and retention of power.
This, in turn, provided and continues to provide ground for disgruntlement and counter-mobilisation against the State and the nouveau-riche whose interests it is seen to represent. The nature and basis of this counter-mobilisation is a good indicator of what State and publics have evolved in the post-colony.
In normative terms, the individual’s interests should, over time, become more important than their identities. When a neighbour begins a project next to your bedroom window, you are less interested in her religion than in knowing she isn’t building a pigsty.
But if the rising tide only raises a few boats, and if the boat occupants are perceived not to represent enough of the masses, it is inevitable that counter-mobilisation will be anchored around identity, including tribe. It can’t be wished, waved or legislated away.
The choice is as it was 50 years ago: We can build a society that is equitable and meritocratic, in which hard work is rewarded and the greater good – the national interest – articulated and defended and in which opportunity is not wedded to access to or control of the State; or we can renegotiate our terms of engagement and draw up minimum acceptable standards, norms and values, including the sharing of power and resources.
We need not render the ‘tribe’ in colonial lenses as backward; we can use it as the building block for a super-structure called Uganda that belongs to us all. If we want all Ugandans to love Uganda, Uganda must love all Ugandans.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.