By Andrew Mwenda
In an ethnically diverse state, change in government is not change in governance; it’s replacement of one looting coalition by another. A lot of studies show that societies, nations and communities that have high levels of ethnic, racial or religious diversity tend to be poor at delivery of public goods and services. It does not matter whether a society is democratic or authoritarian; diversity tends to polarise politics, thereby making it difficult to organise public goods. Thus, from India’s democracy to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, from ethnically and racially diverse communities in the USA to Kenya under Daniel arap Moi, this story holds.
Yet there are also many cases (certainly not a majority) where an individual leader, a political party, a social movement or an ideology can overcome the negative effects of diversity. Some leaders, like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, were able to build a strong national consciousness that transcended ethnicity. In the former Soviet Union, the presence of a strong ideology (Marxism) tended to diminish the appeal of identity. Hence, ethnic diversity is not a sure sentence to public sector dysfunction.
Post-genocide Rwanda may also be succeeding. In a very short time, it has been able to build institutions that can ensure an impersonal application of public policy. Thus, whether it is in agricultural extension services, education scholarships, health insurance etc, one is able to receive public services largely (but certainly not entirely) without recourse to personal connections. Even in public sector jobs, Rwanda has a greater commitment to meritocratic recruitment than many of its contemporaries in Africa.
Of course Rwandan politics and society is still characterised by many iniquities. Many Rwandan elites who are Tutsi use personal connections and influence within the system to gain unfair advantage over rivals in business and for jobs. Indeed, it is impossible for any society to achieve complete meritocracy in anything that involves politics. Even in the private sector, it is difficult to completely eliminate favouritism. Yet even with these caveats, it is clear post- genocide Rwanda is building a more equitable society. It has promoted equality before the law, equal access to available opportunities and hence, a shared concept of citizenship.
Yet last year, former senior leaders in the government of Rwanda – Patrick Karegyeya, Kayumba Nyamwasa, Gerald Gahima and Theogene Rudasingwa launched a new political party in exile called the Rwanda National Congress (NRC). I know Rudasingwa well. He was director of cabinet in President Kagame’s office; and each time I was in Kigali I would pass by his office to share with him one idea or two. I know Karegyeya even better because we related a lot, shared ideas and jokes and debated often.
In one of their documents, “Rwanda Briefing” the NRC claimed that the Hutu in Rwanda are marginalised. Never mind that this newly formed “movement to liberate Hutu” is organised and led entirely by Tutsi – the four men above who formed it are all Tutsi. I sent an SMS to Karegyeya asking what they meant by the claim that the Hutu in Rwanda are marginalised. “Can you name for me one senior Hutu who has influenced anything in the government since 1994,” he replied.
This argument is both diversionary and simplistic. How can the influence of one or even ten Hutu in government reflect whether the Hutu generally have been marginalised or not? The measure of marginalisation should be the extent to which public policy impacts on citizens generally i.e. are there deliberate policies that exclude people of a particular ethnicity from the benefits of public policy?
Yet there are many Hutu politicians who have influenced policy in Rwanda even at cabinet level. A lot of the public policy innovations in Rwanda like health insurance were introduced through the political parties’ forum and through cabinet by Hutu politicians. Yet to gauge the marginalisation of a particular ethnic group, one would need to assess whether the state in Rwanda serves all its citizens equitably.
I replied to Karegyeya saying that 98 per cent of Rwandan children are going to school, up from less than 30 per cent in 1994. Also 92 per cent of all Rwandan citizens have medical insurance, up from less than one per cent in 1994. Today, 97 per cent of Rwanda’s pregnant women get antenatal care at least once during their pregnancy, up from less than 10 per cent in 1994. And 98 per cent of Rwandan women give birth with help of a medical professional, up from less than 15 per cent in 1994.
These achievements are even more striking because the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) inherited a collapsed state and economy. Both had been destroyed by the very leaders who claimed to represent the interests of Hutu masses. Yet in almost every indicator listed above, the Hutu masses had gotten a raw deal under Hutu leaders. According to most observers, the Hutu are the majority in Rwanda, some even suggesting as high as 85 per cent of the population. Therefore, the beneficiaries of all the public sector programmes above are largely Hutu.
The only benefit most Hutu masses received before 1994 was the emotional feeling that a fellow Hutu and a small cabal around him were the ones in charge of the country. They ruled and looted for themselves and their families, never for ordinary Hutu masses. Ordinary Hutu could not go to school, could not get medical care, etc. I do not underrate the power of such a feeling, but I do not agree that a government should sustain such emotional satisfaction at the price of keeping an entire people backward and un-served or under-served by the state.
Here is the real problem that the politics of identity throws into our faces and which makes Karegyeya’s argument (“can you name one Hutu who has influenced anything since 1994”) illuminating: it is NOT by making all citizens beneficiaries of state policy that makes a government in Africa to be seen as being inclusive. Rather it is co-optation of a few powerful elites from a given ethnic group and giving them positions of power and privilege that does the magic.
I am certain that if there were about five powerful Hutu politicians and army officers around Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame; and these five looted the country with impunity, dispossessed innocent people without fear, directed affairs of state at their whims and bullied and terrorised ordinary Hutu civilians to vote for Kagame, many would argue that the Hutu are not marginalised – well because these few have power and influence.
I admit that in the real murky world of politics in Africa, this trade among elites has been the most effective way to satisfy the masses in our ethnically diverse societies. For instance, even if public goods in Toro region like schools, roads and hospitals were rotting, and people there cannot send their children to school or find doctors and medicines in hospitals, but Noble Mayombo, Tom Butiime and Adolf Mwesige were seen as a powerful influence in government, people would argue that Batoro are not marginalised. Why? They would be in power. And true, Batoro would show up in large numbers to vote Museveni because he has given “their sons” power. While I know that this is how politics has worked in Uganda and Africa for long, I disagree with it as a way to organise society.
As Karegyeya’s SMS showed, the figures demonstrating benefits to the masses through public policy mean nothing in the Hutu-Tutsi equation in Rwanda. All that matters is to have a few but very powerful Hutu around Kagame. Then the Hutu would not to be seen as marginalised. Timothy Kalyegira in Uganda, for instance, has told me severally that the release of one person, Victoire Ingabire, would be the most satisfying thing the Hutu would like to see from Kagame – more than all the medical insurance, education scholarships, roads, well development resettlement villages, agricultural extensions services that have given every family an exotic cow, etc.
Kalyegira may not be right on the specific case of Ingabire (I think if his heroine went to Rwandan villages, ordinary Hutu peasants would shun her). But he is right on the general application of this theory to the crisis of the state in Africa. Most leaders build their power base by placating powerful ethnic-elite interests at the expense of services to the masses. The system has worked: in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, DRC etc. It has sustained many leaders in power.
In fact many African, but most especially Ugandan elites, falsely think the failures manifest in service delivery are due to some deficit in democracy. Again, many studies show that at lower levels of per capita income, democracy in ethnically diverse societies tends to generate what economists call “the tragedy of the commons”. Every ethnic group looks at national wealth as a resource shared with other ethnic groups. If it has a chance at power, it seeks to cling onto power as long as possible in order to appropriate as much of that common wealth as fast as possible. Change in government is therefore not a change in governance: it is replacement of one looting coalition with another.
Thus, in Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Zambia, presidents appoint powerful individuals from key ethnic communities into positions of power and influence. These individuals link the president or ruling party to their co-ethnics. They may loot public resources with reckless abandon. But whenever they are prosecuted, they mobilise their ethnic communities to defend them. “He is the only son we have at the eating trough, why are they persecuting him?” Even a well intentioned president feels the heat and retreats from prosecuting a thief. It is through ethnicity that corruption has been fed and fattened in Africa.
This is the real challenge Africa faces as we try to build states that can place the interests of ordinary people at the centre of public policy. The political process everywhere tends to be dominated by powerful elites. Yet this is much more pronounced in Africa largely because of the interaction between poverty, ethnic diversity and low levels of education. Elites use identity to obscure the real issues that concern the masses.
For instance, Uganda’s Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, is without doubt a very powerful man. He enjoys the confidence of President Yoweri Museveni. He exercises a lot of influence in government. And he comes from Kanungu district. So many people think the people of Kanungu are not marginalised because Mbabazi is in power.
When I visited Kanungu in February, I found the main referral hospital in the district, Kambuga Hospital, in a bad state. The gardens are overgrown, the beds are broken, the mattresses are rotten, the buildings are murky and have gone without repair for years, the patients are not attended to due to a high incidence of doctor and nurse absenteeism, the hospital has few relevant drugs, money for its renovation was stolen, instead of the recommended six doctors the hospital has three of whom two were on study leave etc. In short, Kambuga Hospital is sick itself and is required to attend to the sick.
Yet popular feeling in Uganda is that westerners are “eating” i.e. they are not marginalised. According to Uganda Demographic and Health Survey of 2006, fifty per cent of all children in western Uganda were stunted, second only to Karamoja. In Kanungu I saw kilometres upon kilometres of electricity lines crisscrossing banana plantations, running above peasants’ homes on their way to serve a few homes of the elite. It was clear that ordinary people in Kanungu have got a raw deal. The patients I visited in Lira Hospital were getting better services than those in Kanungu. Yet we think the Langi are marginalised.
This form of politics where the power and privileges of a few elites is what it means by being marginalised or included is a politics that is both profitable in keeping leaders in power and winning them votes and also promoting corruption, patronage and systemic state dysfunction. It alienates the state from the citizen, makes it a prey to a few influential elites and leaves the ordinary masses without much access to desperately needed public goods and services.
For the last 60 years, Africa has fought many wars, gone through many military coups, generated increasing electoral violence on the issue of identity. Yet most ordinary Africans have less attachment to identity. All Afrobarometer surveys have found ethnicity most pronounced in cities than in villages; among elites than among ordinary peasants. This goes to show that it is largely elites who rely on identity to build a political base. They sell fear of “the other” to their constituents in order to win them over on emotional rather than principled grounds.
Africa needs individual leaders, public institutions, political parties, mass media, social movements and civil society organisations that can lead the struggle to liberate the state from this capture by a few elites using ethnic sentiments to build a political base. We need statesmen not politicians.