Rwanda is to Uganda what Uruguay is to Argentina

Rwanda and Uganda can seem a lot alike, and not just because their names rhyme: both are landlocked, both agrarian, both have a recent past of extreme violence that gave way to stability and economic growth. Even the tribes are pretty much the same on either side of their shared border.

Sure, Uganda is a lot bigger, but for the rest: both are competitive authoritarianisms run by powerful presidents who have roots in 70s radicalism but turned pro-business in tandem – which is maybe not a surprise, seeing how, back in the Bush Wars years of the 1980s, Rwanda’s (now) president Kagame was a founding member of Uganda’s (now) president Museveni’s guerrilla movement. 

And yet, for all the similarities, there’s a central, glaring, unmissable difference: Rwanda works; Uganda doesn’t.

The closest parallel I can think of is Uruguay and Argentina, South America’s peas-in-a-pod republics, which are similarly indistinguishable in every way but two: first, size and, second, the fact that Argentina is an ungovernable mess while Uruguay has its act fundamentally together.

Like Rwanda, Uganda has elaborate formal mechanisms to prevent the abuse of state power for personal enrichment. Like Rwanda, Uganda has a very powerful president who takes his own developmentalist discourse seriously. Like Rwanda, Uganda has an ambitious long-term strategy for economic diversification and growth. But in Uganda, none of these things seem to manage the messy transition from good intention into on-the-ground-reality. In Rwanda, for the most part, they all do.

That ODI Report I’ve been raving about includes lots of compelling detail about what this may be, but doesn’t go into the question directly. It points to the existential threat Rwanda’s ruling party, the RPF, has spent most of its existence under as a powerful incentive to get serious about governance, but Uganda under Museveni has faced military threats that seem on something near the same order, without anything like the same salutory effect.

The report suggests, without ever quite saying so, that it comes down to the difference in style between Rwanda’s President Kagame and Uganda’s Museveni. Actually it’s hard to read it without thinking that, to be blunt, Kagame is just much better at his job than Museveni.

Kagame has managed to create institutional structures for the administration of state power in ways Museveni has resisted, and these structures are merit based in ways their counterparts in Uganda just aren’t.

Strangely in view of Rwanda’s reputation, among critics and apologists alike, for being a one-man show, the dependence of policy on President Kagame’s personal initiative does not appear particularly striking in the EAC context. The cabinet appears to function reasonably well as an instrument of collective leadership and responsibility, with the president exercising a powerful demand for performance from individual ministers and their permanent secretaries. This contrasts with the perverse combination of lack of interest and micro-management that tends to characterise President Museveni’s approach to his cabinet. The underlying difference is that Ugandan cabinet members are there to provide balanced access to power and resources for the regional power-blocs that Museveni needs to placate. Rwandan cabinets have to reflect the power-sharing principle in the constitution (no more than 50 percent of ministers from the RPF), but they are otherwise merit-based and typically include a significant number of independents, among them several younger women.

One outcome of this is a Rwandan state that comes across as almost freakishly orderly considering the country’s level of development.

A bit of an extended quote from that ODI paper seems called for here, because I don’t think many people have quite grasped how far out of the East African mainstream Rwanda is in terms of transparency:

A clear difference between Rwanda and its closest regional ally Uganda, and also other neighbours, is that occupying political office does not open the way to the acquisition and accumulation of wealth. There are politicians who are wealthy. However, they are few and far in between, and none of them is known publicly to have acquired their wealth by way of taking advantage of the office they occupy or have occupied. For members of the business community who join politics, and again there are very few, it is a requirement under the law to give up active participation in managing any business once becoming a member of parliament or a cabinet minister. This law applies to others occupying public office. Enterprises belonging to people barred from doing business are managed through trusts or by spouses or children. The same applies to civil servants.

Influence peddling, and any attempt to use public office for personal gain, is a strictly prohibited, prosecutable offence and has landed public figures in jail. Others have been removed from office for failure to declare their assets or for failure to explain the source of wealth that could not be justified on the basis of their known legitimate incomes.3 Also, businesses owned by public officials are eligible to offer services to the government, but only following very strict observance of rules pertaining to conflict of interest and disclosure. In practice, so strict are the rules that it is safer to ensure that a company with which a particular officer is associated does not supply goods or services to the government entity in which they work… These rules are strictly enforced.

In Uganda, by contrast, it’s been a long time since anybody described any rule as “strictly enforced”. In ODI’s telling, Museveni is a leader sincerely devoted to developmental outcomes but prevented from achieving reforms by the toxic dynamics of rent-seeking politics in the elite that has grown up around him, dynamics that have arisen because he just has no idea how to delegate successfully.

Of course, when no major decisions can be made without the top leader’s personal involvement, whole swathes of policy-space can just stagnate indefinitely simply because they don’t happen to catch the leader’s interest. It’s easy for tiny cliques of self-interested officials to colonize those policy-spaces, turning bits of the state into effective fiefdoms purely because the one person in a position to rein them in is off chasing some other shiny thing.

At the height of the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, President Museveni frequently used the excuse of his preoccupation with defeating the insurgency to explain why the government had not done certain things. That preoccupation often involved his spending time camping in the theatre of war, presumably doing what field commanders were supposed to be doing and possibly distracting them in the process. It is a classic example of how he manages government business and why managing state matters in that way can produce stasis in areas he may not be paying attention to at any one moment. One of the outcomes of centralised or one-man decision-making is that there is a fire-fighting quality to the way the government is run, with things receiving limited attention before the president is off tending to something else. It explains why one of the biggest failures in Uganda is policy implementation across the board.

(This line interests me because it’s an excellent lead on the question that brought me to Ugandan political economy in the first place: how can it be that so much counterfeit seed stays in the market and nobody does anything about it? Maybe Museveni’s just not into seed.)

The overall picture that emerges is of a tragic Museveni, constantly undermining his own vision through his inability to create mechanisms able to deliver the policy goals he sincerely wants without his constant personal supervision. Or, alternatively, of a heroic Kagame, who’s managed to overcome the pull of personalized authority that’s proven irresistible in the whole rest of Africa to build a system in which he’s more law-giver than tyrant.

The social scientist in me wants to resist this Great Men-based version of history. We’re trained to think in terms of structures, not personalities. But in countries where the imperial presidency has such deep roots, is it really wrong to suspect one uncommonly gifted autocrat can shift a whole country into a different developmental path?

I don’t know, I’m asking…

18 thoughts on “Rwanda is to Uganda what Uruguay is to Argentina”

  1. Good post, very informative! In answer to the question you pose, I don’t think the dangers of Great Leaderism should blind us to the realities of Good Leaderism. In my life, there have been a few times when I could interact with Cabinet-level politicians here in Canada, both while they were in office, and afterwards.

    They all placed the highest importance on the individual doing the job. I used to hunk this was because they were dummies who didn’t get structures, but now I suspect I was the dummy.

    Once, I bitched about some policy I didn’t like, saying they should remove the individual and replace him with someone whose ideological stances were more like mine. The Cabinet Minister said that, if I knew them In terms of their capacities for work, for delegation, for strategic planning, there was no comparison. The fellow in the PM job proved his worth in cabinet every day, he said, and no one who saw him alongside his potential rivals would be tempted to remove him.

    Maybe we are not close enough to the place where the rubber meets the road, and so err on the side of structures.

  2. With regard to your last question, no, I don’t think so. There is the well-known example of Lee Kwan Yew, but one might also cite George Washington. If he had wanted to be king, the US might have turned out quite differently.

    On a slightly different level, we see all the time how a popular, highly visible person, such as a rock star, can move the dial on a social norm. Take Bono and private charitable giving for Africa (Ok, I’m not fond of this whole AfricaAid thing, either, but that’s not the point), Even a committed activist like the woman who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving can move the dial starting from essentially zilch in the way of resources, social capital or otherwise.

    So why not a guy who controls the powerful levels of the state?

  3. In case other Spanish speakers are also here, I recommend this fun post of how this relative order and stability shows itself in a very nice, and pleasant capital city, from the eyes of a Latin American traveller:

    A little excerpt: “Kigali es una ciudad limpia, ordenada, agradable, con una energía maravillosa y, sobre todo, muy diferente de lo que históricamente hemos creído que es África. […] Kigali es una ciudad muy pequeña y muy modesta pero que, en mi concepto, es una de las grandes joyas de África… a tal punto que no he conocido una sola persona que haya estado allá y no haya salido profundamente enamorada del lugar.”

    Translation: “Kigali is a clean, ordered and pleasant city with a wonderful energy, and it’s very different from what we have usually thought of Africa. Kigali is a small and modest city and in my opinion it is one of Africa’s great jewels, such that I have never met someone who has been there and hasn’t fallen in love deeply with the place”

    1. I heard Kagame has a particular thing about litter and specifically against plastic bags, which are almost impossible to find in Rwanda cuz they annoy the president. Las ventajas de tener derecho de hacer lo que te da la gana con un país…

  4. Never heard of an Uruguayan politician but have heard of a few from Argentina; less you hear more success? Bit like Columbia and the country next door to it; never heard of any from Columbia but plenty noise from the country next door. But maybe neither are successful.
    Good leadership is the point by House and is correct. The problem is they are so few and that is the bigger question; why? If you take the history of Botswana and Zambia since Independence the former has moved ahead and the latter has moved back. Leadership seems the difference; but why so few.

    1. You never heard of Jose Batlle y Ordonez? On this, the hundred year anniversary of his Unemployment Insurance Law? OMG!

    2. Ah, good old Jose. Eh, what country was he from. Seems ahead of his time which is probably why I have never heard of him either. Don’t mention De Soto and property rights or this will never end.
      I have never met anyone from South America though I did have occasion to go to a Cuban dentist in Africa. She had Spanish ballads playing in the background on a music system while she was pulling out one of my teeth.

  5. Can hardly believe it. A man who got a cigar from Castro and was a gun-toting revolutionary can actually run an economy. I am going to lie down. What a shock. Please don’t disillusion me any further with any similar posts or links. This thing might catch on.

  6. I used to think that the difference might partly be down to the fact that M7 has been in power longer than Kagame, and thus had made too many Faustian pacts to stay in power that his regime had lost all its developmentalist oomph. Maybe there is still time for Kagame to get similarly trapped, but I agree with you that for now the evidence appears to suggest Big Man character is the principle determinant. Maybe Kagame saw M7’s missteps and learned from them?

  7. Maybe it has something to do with the country size and ethnic diversity? Rwanda might be inherently more governable than the much more diverse and large Uganda (which has also never embraced federalism and decentralization is largly a scam).

  8. Have you ever asked a Rwandese person about Kagame? Probably not if you were in Rwanda; it’s illegal to speak about him in public, people have been known to mysteriously disappear after mentioning his name, and there are plenty of other equally terrifying and strictly enforced laws. I’ve lived in Uganda for 3 years and also been to Rwanda and know many Rwandese people. From that experience what I can say is that the reason Rwanda is in such better order id because Kagame strikes the fear of God into Rwandese people. That’s not to say that Museveni isn’t hugely corrupt, but at least Ugandan people don’t fear their president the way Rwandese do.

  9. I am a Rwandan (note, not Rwandese) and can say authoritatively you don’t know what you are talking about. Yes, President Kagame is completely inflexible about corruption; not a few senior government officials, including ministers, have faced arrest and trial for breaching their duty of trust to the Rwandan people by dipping their fingers into the public purse or by mismanagement of public resources. Many of such people, knowing and fearful of the guaranteed consequences, have escaped to foreign lands to avoid jail and claimed differences with the Government as their reason for doing so. You would hardly expect such people to admit they are fugitives from justice, would you?
    As for fearing President Kagame, I don’t know of any other incumbent African national leader who is more accessible to ordinary citizens, whether in his frequent upcountry visits, by e-mail or on twitter.
    Please therefore stop spreading falsehoods online.

    1. And I should add. If you can’t go to Rwanda for anr reason try and go to any of the many Rwanda Day celebrations organized by Rwandan diasporas around the world where President Kagame is usually the main guest. These events are simply electric. The many thousands of Rwandans and friends of Rwanda who attend each of these events will usually interact with the President after the formal speeches are done with. These Rwandans of the exterior crave to embrace and have pictures with their president and he will almost always oblige, moving from table to table to meet as many of them as possible. This is hardly the attitude of a leader who strikes terror in his compatriots – except those who would like to terrorize Rwandans, return us to genocidal politics or steal their meagre assets. For those, arrest, trial and jail is assured. And many of the latter proliferate on media comment spaces and sometimes in mainstream media coverage.

      As a Rwandan who is always conscious of our painful history and can literary see my countries rebirth every day in front of my eyes, I thank God we have a leader who is focussed only on his people’s welfare and cares little for elite opinion of him.

  10. Very interesting parallels! I wanted to point out, though, that many of the Rwandans I knew in the two years I lived there were always looking for ways to get to Uganda and talked about how much they preferred it to their own country. Though Rwanda is cleaner and more orderly, I think a lot of Rwandans found Uganda to be much freer and more vibrant (I certainly did!).

    1. I am a product of both countries and know them very cl9sely having grown up in one (not just lived there for two years). I like both for different reasons and not because they are opposites in varying aspects. When Ms. Ambrose says that many of the Rwandans she knew in the two years she lived there were always looking for ways to get to Uganda, I wonder why they didn’t; there is no law that stops a Rwandan to travel or even emigrate out of the country. Residence requirements in Uganda are also quite easy for Rwandans and other East Africans; visas, for instance, are not required.
      As for freedom and vibrancy, it all depends on what freedom means for you. In a Rwanda, the law and regulations are strictly applied. Security is paramount and you will see women and young people, Rwandans or expatriate, jogging or walking alone in the cities at night. If you hunger for nightclubbing, yes Kampala – even Bujumbura – rather than Kigali is the place for you. But if you want assurance that you will not be a victim of violent crime, opt for Kigali rather than Kampala. In Uganda anything goes. In Rwanda the law and rules are enforced, no matter who you are. If you prefer to live in a place where the law is only enforced against some rather than all, and where you can bribe you way out of any crime, then you definitely want to avoid Rwanda.

  11. I am Ugandan. The problem is that Ugandan leaders seem(infact are) greedy. Instead of planning for economic growth and dev’t, they are usually busy planning how to stay longer in leadership. That is the main reason why we lag behind. Besides that, Uganda is fairly good to stay in. That is why we have many Rwandans staying here but a few Ugandans would really want to stay in Rwanda or anywhere else in East Africa.

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