Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: In Africa The President Is The Giver And Taker by Nicholas Sengoba

It was Nigeria’s former President Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo who asked another General seeking to rule Nigeria perpetually, what the General had left in State House that made him want to go back all the time -even against the will of the people.

Of course the ironies of African history and politics came back to haunt Obasanjo when he made a futile bid for a third term by trying to manipulate the constitution and lift the two-term limit provided therein.

Back home our own term limits “vanished” the moment President Museveni and his supporters realised that “Uganda’s problems were not time bound” and that apart from him, there was no one in existence with a vision to lead this country to prosperity.

On that note after 21 years he remains the occupant of State House and is destined to do so for as long as his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), “persuades” him to stand and he remains as “overwhelmingly” popular as he has always been.

A few weeks ago, former Ugandan President Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa was granted an audience at that very State House by the Head of State. Binaisa’s mission? To plead for the “operationalisation” of the constitutional provisions that grant him privileges as a former head of state.

He got a nod of approval and now has a smile on his face just like the Rt. Hon Prime Minister, Prof. Apolo Robin Nsibambi, who held a Church service to thank God and the President for “facilitating” his treatment at a London Hospital- seeing that our own Mulago national referral hospital is miserably wanting.

What the two elderly citizens got from State House are the apparent selective precious benefits derived from what the General before Obasanjo and Obasanjo himself wanted to cling onto. That privileged position to run a state in which all institutions are rendered ineffective and in constant need of the President’s patronage and presence.

One of the hallmarks of governance in Africa is the stark reminder of the heavy bearing of Presidential power and its democratically detrimental effect as a substitute for institutions supposed to run the state.

Institutions like the legislature, judiciary, the police, army, plus the civil service besides the public health, and educational sectors, exist in an unhealthily designed environment that ensures that they eventually fall on their knees.

Not only are they poorly funded, they are also staffed with incompetent and kleptocratic managers often employed on the strength of their ethnic background, nepotism and sectarian political support for the government.

Because of the awareness of the parochial “strength” on which they are deployed, managers of many state institutions act outside the law to the disadvantage of the organisations and more often than not are only answerable to the “appointing authority.” In most cases if that authority is not the President, then it is a powerful high ranking official who derives his clout from the President.

Besides, the knowledge of their inadequacy in not being suitably qualified to run these institutions, the managers are constantly indebted to the appointing authority and are usually blackmailed or manipulated to commission all sorts of actions injurious to the prudent running of these institutions.

(That explains why whenever commissions are set up to investigate vices in such organisations, no serious action is taken to bring the culprits to book.)
With the institutions gone to the dogs, the African President then enters the picture and keeps himself busy, relentlessly giving “guidance” and direction on who deserves what amount of which national resource.

If he is not carving out a chunk of ancient forest, wetland or school to an investor, he is supervising who should run a market, bypassing the forestry, investment and local government authorities respectively thus getting credit from the recipients of “his generosity.”

This acts in his favour for to become “deserving,” one has to be a “loyal cadre,” who understands and promotes the ideals of the government. The President may likewise use this power to bring an errant citizen in line by denying him or her the right to enjoy a national resource.

The “midnight visits” to State House and the conversion of the odd political “Saul” to “Paul” is mainly motivated by this factor –the desire to have a share of national resources by humiliating oneself, compromising and succumb to the whims of the President.

In other cases the terms of service and especially the retirement benefits of bearers of crucial offices like judges are never made very clear. It then becomes a worrying possibility that such officers may serve with the apprehension that their send off will be commensurate with how they help or hurt the (selfish) cause of the President in the course of their work!

As long as state institutions and resources are at the President’s disposal for use to reward and punish for the sake of political patronage, the quest for genuine democracy may as well be forgotten.

Nicholas Sengoba can be reached at:

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in The Daily Monitor

© 2007 The Monitor Publications Ltd.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007