When you read through our papers lately, it is hard for you not to come to a conclusion that Uganda has gotten it overly wrong–again; and that the country is tailspinning into chaos. A friend who lives in South Africa the other day called Uganda a political and economic “basket case”. So, looked at from anecdotal evidence it seems everything in Uganda is heading south and everyone is doing badly, yet, objectively, the country is doing better than most if not all of its peers.
So why does everyone seem to predict doom? The answer is simple, and no prizes for guessing: the media.
With the explosion of radio, television and the internet over the last two decades it has become increasingly easy and fast to get news from every corner of the country–most times in the palm of your hands through a smartphone. Like they say nothing travels faster than bad news. And the phenomenon is not unique to Uganda; whereas globally we have seen a reduction in deaths from conflicts over the years since 1400, tuning to a cable channel every morning and watching horrifying images of the war in Syria and Iraq would make you think the world is headed for a nuclear armageddon.
In the last five years, I believe there are few columnists I have religiously read as the veteran Charles Onyango-Obbo. In his article today he seemed to argue that Uganda, and by extension Africa, has largely failed to develop because we lack the democracy and political freedom to unleash our innovativeness. It is not so often that Charles shoots himself in the foot – it is rare enough that when it happens, we’ve got to say something!
Obbo speaks for many educated Ugandans/Africans who see the “lack” of democracy on the continent as the a major reason for our backwardness and poverty. But how true is this?
We would need to ask ourselves: what is the correlation between political freedom (democracy) and innovation? Going by Obbo’s line of thought, it would seem that repressive regimes led by “big men” stifle innovation and keep away creative people. Lack of respect for private property laws, due to weak institutions, would also keep the best minds from innovating. However, to what extent is all this true?
Elizabethan England (1558-1603) was particularly characterised by brutality, high-handedness – you would be burned at the stake for praying to God the wrong way! – and royal absolutism, yet the same repressive period has been depicted as the “golden era” of English history because it produced such literary greats as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe; Sir Francis Drake, the first man to circumnavigate the globe, would set sail in 1577 – setting the stage for Empire and colonialism; and ground was set for Isaac Newton and other scientists to thrive in the following century through innovations by astronomers like Thomas Digges. So England under queen Elizabeth I, while being repressive, also enjoyed more prosperity than it had ever before; it also saw an explosion in discoveries and innovation that would influence much of the world–forever, some would some would say.
Fast-forwarding the clock hand to the last century, it was Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union that released the first satellite into space – a feat democratic America would only match a year later, to their dismay. The same USSR would transform from an agrarian society to a nuclear power in less than a century. Now, it takes quite a bit of brains and innovative “freedom”to build a satellite that will take a man into space or to turn an agrarian society into an industrial one in under a century. But the soviets are not among the best democrats around the block. Maybe innovation and democracy are not fraternal twins, nay?
To use Obbo’s example of why in over 50 years of independence virtually no African country with the exception of South Africa and Egypt has built an equivalent of the London Underground rail, we would need to look at Egypt and South Africa – the latter’s repressive apartheid history and the former’s rich civilisation history under the Pharaohs. Either way, it doesn’t do Charles’ “democracy favours innovation” argument any, well, favours.
A more nuanced explanation would be that we haven’t developed the capacity, or the need, to build such projects as the Underground. So we will bring out drums and flutes to cheer the Big Man next time he launches a two mile stretch of tarmac – because that is our immediate need.
To put the argument to rest, we dusted the shelves for a tool I had come across a year ago – The SCImago Institution rankings. This tool has data on scientific publications by all countries in the world from 1996 to 2014. Since scientific innovation is key to the economic prosperity of nations – the most scientifically innovative countries are equally the richest – it would be interesting to see the correlation between science innovation in democratic and other not-so-democratic countries. So we ran the numbers…
Whereas in the global West, indicators tend to suggest a positive correlation between democracy, prosperity and scientific innovation – the top 10 countries, with the exception of China, also rank as the most democratic, with the strongest institutions and intellectual property rights. In Africa, the view is a little blurry, the list of 10 countries with the highest scientific publications has such democracy bad boys as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia and Uganda (in 9th position). The surprises are Zimbabwe as number 12 and Senegal in 13th position. Zambia can only manage 20th while Africa’s third biggest economy, Angola, comes in at a distant number 34.
The findings, instead of answering our question, raised more: if repressive regimes were a hindrance to innovation and ideas, then how come of the top 10 countries on the continent in terms of scientific knowledge generation and output 7 are either dictatorships, monarchies or one-party states?
Stability, frequent elections and smooth transfer of power in Zambia, Senegal and Ghana do not seem to have created a better environment for scientific innovation and publication than in less democratic Uganda, Ethiopia or Sudan.
So the problem in Africa would seem that we, our intelligentsia, tend to spend more time hanging our heads in the clouds of democracy theory when we should be focusing on our feet standing in the sands of reality.
Whereas Uganda has staggered on its democracy path over the years, and its peers seem to have fleeted past it in democratic gains; the country’s problems cannot be entirely explained by its democracy or lack thereof. Neither can the success or failure of any other country.