On April 16th the US government imposed travel restrictions on an unspecified number of unnamed Uganda government officials including members of their immediate families. The justification was their alleged role in handling of the riots that took place in the country in November last year and the conduct of elections all of which, the US claims, undermine the democratic process and violate human rights. Of course it is within the sovereign right of the US to deny anyone travel to their country. But the justification for this action and the intended purpose are dubious.
Uganda’s opposition politicians, “human rights” and “civil society” activists are happy by these developments. Perhaps they genuinely see them as intended for our good. Yet instead of promoting democratic development and increased respect for human rights (whatever that means in the American imagination) these actions are most likely going to achieve the opposite result. The lecturing and hectoring of leaders of poor countries by Western powers about how these countries should be governed is often counterproductive. It is rare to find a country that democratized and improved its human rights record because of these tactics.
From Cuba to North Korea to Iran to Burma etc., these actions tend to strengthen hardliners while isolating the liberal/moderate forces in these governments. They also tend to embolden the opposition and “civil society” groups to ignore the necessary internal compromises and accommodations with the incumbent administration that are vital for democratic development. Emboldened by the support of great powers, opposition parties and “civil society” groups now feel incentivized to make wild allegations and claims, take extremely radical, idealistic and unrealistic positions that make building a consensus for liberal governance impossible.
Confronting uncompromising domestic opposition that is backed by the big powers, the government becomes more scared and develops a siege mentality. This strengthens the hand of hardliners inside the government who come to see opposition as treason and a free press as synonymous with foreign interference. This creates a vicious cycle as Western powers respond with heightened rhetoric and tougher sanctions. The economy begins to contract hurting the poorest who actually need protection. That is the story of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. It is hard to see any winners in the mess that engulfed that country.
There is a serious attitude problem in the West that has made it an enemy of the very democracy and human rights it seeks to promote. It is difficult to change the behavior of a country’s leadership through lecturing, hectoring and intimidation especially when this is done in public. Quiet diplomacy can achieve much better results than public threats. I have previously worked with Western ambassadors on key governance issues through quiet diplomacy and the results have been bountiful. Leaders everywhere need to show their people that they are independent and do not act out of cowardice and fear of foreign threats. This is a necessary part of their reputation as leaders, or what they should be seen to be.
Secondly, the West has a condescending attitude towards Africans. Otherwise why do they feel it is their business to make Africa democratic? Why don’t they believe that Africans, like Europeans in their history, can struggle for democracy and human rights and succeed without their assistance? The West did not remove Idi Amin, Sani Abacha or Jean Bokasa. In the West, democracy was a product of internal struggle that was slow, lasting generations and even centuries. There were no foreign lectures and threats. Why do they think Africa cannot follow a similar path without them intervening with lectures and threats?
It is also absurd for the West to demand that every country in the world should have one form of government – liberal democratic capitalism. Liberal democracy in the West emerged out of a very specific historic experience. Yet Western academia, media, diplomacy etc. present it as a universal value that can be transplanted to every society, anytime and under any circumstances. The West does not allow time for attitudes and values to change. Every country must adopt Western values instantly or face sanctions and even war. The West also believes that for other societies to be appreciated, they must mimic its ways. This is hubris gone mad.
Even if it were possible for all countries of the world to become liberal democratic, they need to be given enough time and space to find their way. Yet the problem is that the West wants to define and also determine the destination. Yet if we have to have politics at all, then the future of Africa will be determined by the political struggles that ensue, and the negotiations and compromises Africans shall make along the way. If that is to happen, then we cannot have a predefined and predetermined end. To define and determine the end means that we abolish politics.
In the specific case of Uganda, Western governments are intervening in a situation where they know very little. They are deploying their moral resources blindly and arbitrarily. Who is responsible for the killings that happened during last year’s riots? Who is responsible for the continued abduction of opposition activists? We know that in our part of the world, the people holding official positions may not actually be the ones making the decisions. Nearly all the leaders of mainstream security institutions in Uganda disapprove of these abductions. In sanctioning office holders, America and her acolytes are harming potential allies and leaving the culprits free. How does this promote the cause they seek?
We must ask ourselves whether in taking these decisions the American government is acting in the interests of Uganda at all. It is very possible that these actions are taken to please some constituencies at home such as the human rights mujahedeen and the democracy Taliban. These groups do not act out of any deeper knowledge of the problems of the countries involved and their context. They act out of prejudice, unrealistic idealism and misguided self-righteousness. Consequently, they do not even care about the consequences, often unintended, of their actions on the very environment and people they purport to care about.
Western leaders and their cheerleaders in Africa are even blind to the colonial foundations that inform their current positions. One colonialist said that the African is a child and as with children nothing can be done without the whip of authority. So Africans needed the benevolent and paternalistic hand of the West to save them from themselves. In the colonial period, it was to save us from the tyranny of our customs and the despotism of our rulers. Today every Western country still seeks to liberate us from the same, hence their campaigns against homophobia and female circumcision (to save us from our backward customs) and the campaign for democracy and human rights (to rid us of despotic rulers). This kind of relationship – of master and servant – cannot produce any meaningful results.
Yet the West should look at itself for evidence of why interventions, even when deep, don’t work. According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in its September 2011 report, America had spent $72 billion to “secure, stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan” between 2002 and 2010. Then in 2010, President Barak Obama decided to increase the spending in order to get the “right” results. According to Carl Eikenbury, in 2012 America was spending $100 billion a year in Afghanistan. Yet the government it was financing could only govern the capital city of Kabul. The rest of the country was largely controlled by the poorly armed, poorly trained and poorly resourced Taliban. Why have 20 years of trying to reengineer, fix and tinker with the governance of Afghanistan not worked? I will return to this question in my conclusion.
In 2016, I compiled data from IMF on Uganda’s public expenditure between 1986 and 2015 – a total of 30 years. Then I adjusted each year’s expenditure to inflation. The government of President Yoweri Museveni, which I consider very corrupt and incompetent, had spent a total of $66 billion over those 30 years. Meanwhile, it had secured Uganda and you could not launch an armed rebellion in any village and last a week. Equally, it was holding the peace of South Sudan and Somalia, helping stabilize Central Africa Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. How could America with 150,000 troops and over $500 billion fail in 20 years where Museveni had succeeded with 12% of the money over 30 years?
The failure of the Western project in many poor countries has always been an attempt to impose a particular governance ideal on societies which are ill-equipped to handle it. This governance ideal – the Western liberal democratic system and its accompanying values and institutions – took centuries to develop in the West. It evolved organically out of their history and is rooted in their culture and political struggles. That is what makes it legitimate hence successful. And most critically, it works because there is sufficient revenues to make it work the way it does.
Over the years, I have come to realize that we tend to see governance in poor countries using the lenses of the Western mind. We know that “good governance” is based on the example of the Nordic countries and other rich nations of the West. So we judge all deviation from this norm as pathological. Yet what we see as governance pathologies are actually the most effective and affordable means of governing a poor society. In fact, the West was largely governed just like many poor countries when it was still agrarian and poor and had the same per capital revenue and per capita spending as them – through a combination of corruption, patronage, clientelism and repression. So there is a relationship between resources and strategies of governance.
My advice to the West is hard to accept but the most realistic. These poor countries cannot be governed using the governance ideal you insist they must. They just cannot afford it. They do not have the resources, the attitudes, structures and institutions that make that ideal possible in the West. (I must add that the governance ideal I am talking about is just an ideal. No Western country adheres to it completely). If you want to help poor countries, understand their challenges first and try to develop strategies that meet them where they are, not where you want them to be or imagine them to be. You will not fix our problems easily, painlessly and quickly for the simple reason that that has never worked anywhere, not even once.
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