Andrew Mwenda: Promoting Liberty, Holding Governments Accountable in Africa

ANDREW MWENDA IS ONE of the outstanding spokesmen for liberty, democracy, and free markets in Africa. He is the editor of the Ugandan news magazine, The Independent, which since its launch in late 2007 has become renowned for its reporting on corruption and incompetence in the Ugandan government. The government has retaliated by raiding The Independent’s offices, confiscating computers, and arresting Mr. Mwenda and his colleagues. Nevertheless, The Independent continues to publish.

Outside Uganda, Mr. Mwenda is perhaps best known as an advocate of African empowerment and a skeptic of Western efforts to help Africa with official development aid. At the 2007 Technology Entertainment Design conference, Mr. Mwenda gave a talk in which he argued that foreign aid allows African governments to rely on political favors rather than good economic policies to stay in power. This was the speech that the rock star Bono infamously heckled. Recently, The Insider talked with Mr. Mwenda about foreign aid, Bono, entrepreneurship, and dealing with threats from the Ugandan government.

The Insider: You are known as a promoter of African empowerment, and part of your message has been skepticism of traditional efforts by developed countries to help Africa through development aid. Why do you believe foreign aid is a problem?

Andrew Mwenda: I think that aid is a problem because it distorts the incentives of both donors and recipients. When governments have to depend on their own citizens for revenue, they develop a vested interest in the prosperity of their citizens. When governments depend on foreign donors for revenue, they develop a vested interest in manipulating international donors for money. The only way the people of Africa can hold their governments to account, can participate in the policymaking and the policy implementation processes in their own countries is for them to be the source of the revenues that sustain governments in power. But because our governments depend on donors for money to build roads, schools, and hospitals, they do not look at us as citizens. They look at us as clients who they can bribe with welfare handouts from international donors. But if our governments depended on us for that revenue, they’d look at us as citizens whom they are supposed to account to because they depend on us for the public expenditure of revenues.

TI: How do you get across this message that aid is a problem, given that it’s very typical of people to equate aid with generosity?

AM: Outside of government (governments here depend on aid) and outside of non-governmental organizations (which also depend on foreign aid), most Africans don’t believe in aid. Most Africans actually believe in investment and trade as the vehicles for improving welfare. Most Africans know that aid has always gone to finance incompetent and corrupt governments, and therefore it has never been the vehicle for improving their livelihoods. Lining the pockets of corrupt politicians and civil servants is not the formula for building a successful and viable economy. There’s a broad consensus in Africa against aid.

The consensus in the West for aid is stronger. And I think it is because of the history of colonialism which has convinced many people in the West that Africa’s failures are a product of Western colonialism. And therefore aid is given, I think, out of some form of guilt consciousness.

TI: One of the people who takes issue with your argument is the rock star Bono. You and he had a very interesting exchange of views at the 2007 Technology Entertainment Design Conference. Have you talked to Bono personally about this?

AM: Yes we have. After that exchange we were able to meet at another time and have dinner together. We had dinner for about three or four hours—very long dinner. And we exchanged views. I was impressed by his open-mindedness because he was willing to listen and even adjust his views. And in fact later, he even sent to me a paper he has written which is called “How to Make Aid Delivery More Efficient.” But I still have some issues with it, because I personally believe that aid works under rare circumstances that are difficult to recreate. One, if you find a government that is extremely honest, competent, and efficient and those governments are rare in the world. Two, aid can only work if it goes to support private sector development. And finally, aid would only work if it rewarded innovation and creativity and not if it subsidized corruption and incompetence.

TI: If most citizens in Africa see the problem, and African governments have a different view, then what needs to change—what needs to be done to get African governments to understand the problem and to change? Obviously African governments may not want to change. How do the citizens go about changing the government?

AM: Well, we can just make them change by one thing. Let us stop subsidizing them from abroad. When the governments run out of revenue and they do not innovate new ways of generating revenue domestically, they will fall. Unpaid soldiers will spread military coups. Unpaid policemen will join the soldiers in the street. Elites who they will not be able to bribe will join the ranks of the opposition. So a government in fiscal shortage or in fiscal decline is equally a government in political danger. The moment governments in Africa realize that the public expenditure needs cannot be sustained from abroad, they will immediately develop a vested interest in harnessing the domestic economy—the gross potential of the economy. But, in fact, the beginning point of reform in Africa is to scale down aid.

TI: The Independent just turned a year old in December and you just wrote a very interesting column where you look back over the past year. You made a comment that when you started the newsmagazine the thing you worried about most was not government harassment—because you took that for granted—but you were worried about whether the product would succeed in the marketplace. How is the magazine doing? And what sort of hopes do you have for this coming year?

AM: The magazine did very well the first year, because our circulation grew 30 percent above our expectations. Even our advertising revenue was almost 30 percent above our expectations. So we were very satisfied. This is going to be our growth year, and we’re looking at improving the quality of our product and the delivery and distribution. But we are facing serious challenges. Our challenges are not coming right now from the market, because we have been extremely successful in the market. The government, realizing we are successful in the market, has now brought political pressure to bear on us—has stopped printers from printing our newsmagazine. It has been lobbying advertisers to stop them from advertising with us. Remember that in spite of privatization and liberalization, the government of Uganda remains the largest consumer and largest formal sector employer. For most businesses, their profit margin lies in the ability to get government contracts and government handouts. And the government says: “OK, we will not give you a contract if you advertise with The Independent. They are using political influence to distort the market. So where we have sufficient audience to give high advertisement revenue, the government is using its muscle and its control over resources going to the private sector to undermine our business’s ability to perform efficiently in the market. The second cost the government has imposed on us is by keeping us at police stations and in court; by doing this, they reduce the amount of time we can devote to strategies for our newsmagazine, editing it, generating stories. So this year is going to be a challenging year because a new threat has come and that is not just interference, but a direct attempt to undermine our existence as a business.

TI: It sound like perhaps Uganda is going backwards on press freedom. Is that correct?

AM: Well, I should say that the role of The Independent is to push the frontiers of democracy forward. The government wants to maintain the status quo. And they are scared that our role will expand those frontiers, and therefore we are involved in that battle. I can tell you we may suffer setbacks once in a while, but I have no doubt whatsoever in the final triumph of liberty and freedom of expression in Uganda.

TI: You were recently recognized at the Committee to Protect Journalists annual awards. Does support from those sorts of outside organizations make it harder for the Ugandan government to go too far in harassing you and persecuting you?

AM: Remember that first of all the government of Uganda depends on Western aid for its own political survival here. And the Western governments would be embarrassed to be seen to be giving money to a government that is busy harassing independent newspapers. So in a way, when international actors like CPJ highlight our woes, there is incipient pressure on the government of Uganda to exercise restraint. So they’re very helpful in putting breaks on what the government of Uganda can do. Without them, the government of Uganda would have killed me. Last year they planned to kill me, but they feared the response of the international community. Then they planned to kidnap my fiancé. They would have shut us down here as a newspaper, but they are afraid of the international reaction to such a reaction.

So the international community’s vigilance over what is happening on the democratic front in Uganda is very, very, very important in terms of imposing restrains on how the government of Uganda behaves.