Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Duracell president




A brief (and first) visit to Uganda this week to see present and potential partners allowed one to become rapidly acquainted with the picture of the recently (and controversially) re-elected President Museveni since his multitudinous election posters remained up and he beamed down as a sunny uncle figure in a curiously circular hat (as if he had just stepped out of the garden where he was tending his bees, see above).  Of his opposition, this very amateur observer could see no trace!

Uganda is the 'youngest' country in the world, with a median age of 14, so it may be unsurprising that, as our driver put it, many people would like to stay with the devil they know, have always known, as an ever-running president, rather than the devil they do not (and our driver took it for granted that every leader/politician was a devil of some kind and, given the sometimes murderous history of Uganda, a benignly corrupt one under which the country continues to modestly develop is to be prefered.

So if one is to develop a better narrative for democracy, one is going to have think harder about the benefits beyond the more abstract sense of its rightness, even a narrative about 'inequality' has no traction if this is pitched in terms of what simply might be possible if it were reduced. What are the examples of what is possible when it is?

Then you touch down 'home' in Switzerland and find yourself inhabiting one - a kind of living example. It would be easy to dismiss this (or indeed any example) as 'exceptionalism' but that is a mite too easy. It is hard to recall, in this land of well distributed plenty, how strikingly poor Switzerland has been for much of its history. It is only at the outset of the last century that the country fully came into its own and it has done so (like Singapore in the post War period) with virtually no natural resources.

One important element in that journey has been 'trust'.

I found myself telling my driver on the way back to the airport, in response to several of his stories illustrative of a low trust society, my story of how at a restaurant last year in my home canton, the card reading machine was malfunctioning when it came to paying the bill. 'Did I have cash?' 'No,' I replied, 'I have not got used to carrying that amount of money about with me' (after all it was a Swiss restaurant bill)! 'You live here! In that case put your address on the top of the receipt and we will send you a bill'. They did and I paid it. I thought my driver was going to go off road and my days would end wrapped round an Ugandan tree as he turned in incredulity and took his hands of the wheel to emphasize it!

One of the challenges of a 'duracell' president is that it exemplifies both a fundamental lack of and inhibition to the development of trust.

I cannot let go, build succession, be ultimately replaced for I do not trust anyone else - neither to preserve my legacy nor, of course, to ensure my abuse of that trust, in corruption, does not come back to haunt me. In the short term, this can reap the rewards of stability, of a continuity of policy, but at the serious risk of failing to build a deeper continuity, one that is culturally embedded in a society, not freighted with it being imposed by one man; and, that is a society that trusts itself and one another. This may or may not go hand in hand with recognisable democracy but it does appear to be a grounding foundation for a successfully prosperous country, in the long term, that can survive any individual, after all even the best batteries always run out.




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