Editor's note: what follows is an interview with Andrew Mwenda, Political Editor of the The Monitor, Uganda.
Richard Tren: Uganda has had many years of stable government and increasing prosperity -- it certainly must be vastly improved since the days of Idi Amin. However recently you were charged with sedition. Is individual liberty and the freedom of the press improving or deteriorating? Can you put the Museveni government into some sort of historical context?
Andrew Mwenda: Media freedom and freedom of expression generally, in Uganda, has two contradictory elements -- one juridical, the other political. At the juridical level, Uganda has some of the world's worst laws governing media and free expression. The NRM government (since 1986), has not only retained all the repressive colonial, and post colonial laws (including Idi Amin's decrees) on the statute books, but has actually reinforced with them new and more repressive laws.
Yet at the level of political practice, the government has tolerated a high degree of media freedom in Uganda over the last 15 years. However, whenever it feels threatened, the government falls back on the repressive laws to gag the media. So, the repressive laws act as a sword of Damocles over journalists' heads. I cannot even say there is a reversal of liberty in Uganda because the country has lived in this contradiction for nearly two decades now. There are always movements back and forth on the liberty front.
Tren: President Museveni changed the constitution to stand for a third term, even after he himself had criticized such behavior in the past. What sort of message does this send to African leaders and what sort of message does it send to the West?
Mwenda: Museveni is aware that there is very little the West can do to stop him from clinging to power, even illegitimately. However, his success in amending the constitution to remove term limits is sending a message across the continent that such is doable. Now, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria has launched his own campaign for a similar amendment -- and hold your breath, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa will catch the cold. But this should not surprise you, it is vintage Africa. The interests and constituencies that support the infrastructure for democracy like the professional middle-class are nascent, weak and divided along ethnic lines in most of Africa, or are historically discredited like the white dominated private sector in South Africa. But the struggle continues.
Tren: Jeffrey Sachs, Bono and Bob Geldof all call for massive increases in aid transfers to African countries. What do you consider the consequences of this will be?
Mwenda: The road to hell is always paved with good intentions. The calls by Sachs, Bono and Geldof fall into that category. First, their calls for more aid assume -- and wrongly so -- that the primary problem in Africa is lack of a resource base to generate revenue to invest in what the World Bank prefers to call "poverty reducing expenditure areas" -- free primary education, basic health care and infrastructure like roads. Of course these are good for the poor, but they are not poverty reducing. At best, they can be welfare improving.
The primary problem for Africa is one of governance. The poor in Africa do not have basic social services because they are ruled by repressive, corrupt and incompetent governments. These governments spend millions of dollars annually on their corrupt and ineffective militaries, on ostentatious consumption by the political class, and on obese, profligate and highly incompetent bureaucracies. The institutions are very corrupt and incompetent that they stifle both domestic entrepreneurial initiative and frustrate foreign direct investment. These actions are not sustainable in the long term, of course, as these governments eat away the very economic foundation of their political survival.
Foreign aid is the subsidy governments in Africa employ to avoid facing the consequences of their own folly. Without aid, many governments in Africa would stare regime collapse in the eye. Some would be stupid, retain the old ways and collapse. But many would be forced to reform their monetary and fiscal policies, to be frugal and prudent, to put in place public policies and political institutions that favor rapid economic growth and capital accumulation. They would have to listen more to their own people and foreign investors in policy making and policy orientation. In short, they would be forced to establish good, effective, accountable and democratic governments. Good and accountable government is not a product of altruism, but enlightened self-interest. Sachs, Bono, Geldof, Tony Blair -- and all the many good but naive people of the West -- need to learn that simple, commonsense logic.
Tren: Given that Western countries are determined to increase aid transfers, how can these funds be put to good use and be used to ensure accountable government and an improved life for ordinary Ugandans?
Mwenda: The only way foreign aid can be meaningful to poor countries is when it is channeled through private commercial banks as long term, affordable credit to the development of private enterprise generally, and indigenous private enterprise particularly. The other money should support universities, research institutions and policy think tanks. Throwing money at corrupt governments is certainly not a smart way to help the poor. Many of the current poverty reduction programs like free universal primary education, free basic health care, etc. that international donors fund are actually used by the governments as a political resource to win elections. Why should donors finance the political fortunes of a given ruling party? If a government feels it needs to win votes by providing free primary education, let it build institutions and put in place public policies that promote increased private sector productivity so that it can collect more taxes from there, not from international donors.
Tren: What role do you see the African Union playing? Does it have a legitimate voice?
Mwenda: The African union is a club of Africa's corrupt, repressive and incompetent regimes, and can therefore not be a force for much good on the continent.
Tren: It seems to me that many young Africans are fully aware that the failures and poverty in Africa are the fault of the political elite and that Africa has to reform itself, rather than blame outsiders. Is this a fair reflection and when, if ever, will it translate into domestic economic policies that will foster free markets, private enterprise, growth and prosperity?
Mwenda: The world, as Thomas Friedman has noted, is flat. Africa's young professional middle class have left their governments to wallow in their own mire by going to work abroad. They know the depredations of their governments better. They also know that governments on the continent are saved from suffering the consequences of their thieving ways by the international humanitarian lobbyists through foreign aid. They have decided to express their political rejection of this alliance (between corrupt, nepotistic African regimes and international donors) by choosing the exit option -- they go to countries where their skills are best appreciated and rewarded. The world is flat, and highly skilled labor has limited barriers to travel and work elsewhere. Africa's brain drain is therefore a form of political protest by the continent's most skilled professional against the folly of their governments.
Now you begin to see why the middle class in Africa does not turn to protest -- like has happened in many regions of this world in the past. There are other options because of the way the world has changed. Governments in Africa recruit people on the basis of tribe, religion or political loyalty. That is why they are incompetent. But the moment the West stops subsidizing this incompetence with foreign aid, governments in Africa will discover the importance of rewarding professional merit, of offering long term career rewards to their most skilled citizens and begin to devise ways to attract their most talented human resource back home.
Tren: In Europe and the US, "Fair Trade" campaigns are gaining ground and in general anti-globalization campaigners appear successful in arguing against trade liberalization among African countries. What effect will this have in the long run and do you suspect that anti-trade campaigners in Europe and the US represent the interests of African consumers?
Mwenda: There is a mountain of evidence to show that openness to trade is better for the poor. The international fair trade activists want to eat their cake and still have it. If they want the West to open up, then they should require the same for African countries. In fact, the largest reductions in poverty in Uganda between 1992-2000 (poverty headcount fell from 56 percent to 34 percent) was mainly because of the liberalization of coffee marketing. It allowed peasants to get over 80 percent of the international price of their crop (up from 19 percent which the government marketing board was paying) because local and international coffee dealers were roaming every village looking for coffee to buy.
But Africa's inability to trade is not because of trade barriers in the West -- that is only an excuse, not an explanation. It is due to the bad policies and poor institutions in Africa itself. The proof of this fact is that even when the West has given Africa preferential access to its markets, Africa has not traded. For example, under the Cotounou Agreement -- formerly the Lome Convention and under Everything But Arms -- the EU allows many products from Africa duty free access to its markets. Under the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), the US has a similar arrangement with governments in Africa. In both cases, Africa has not increased her trade. Even Africa's most successful nation -- Botswana -- has never met its beef quota under the Beef Protocol of the Cotounou Agreement.
Tren: What sort of Uganda do you think your grandchildren will live in?
Mwenda: I want to hope against hope that it will be a prosperous and free nation run by an effective and accountable government. I pray that the international aid activists stop being naive by throwing western taxpayers' money at corrupt and brutal regimes in the name of helping the poor.
Richard Tren is a director of the health advocacy group, Africa Fighting Malaria.