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…