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Abstract What can be learned about policy prioritization in Africa by examining long-run trends in public expenditure and employment? Many have contended that Africa’s post-colonial leaders pursued economically unproductive budget policies that prioritized the growth of their patronage networks over socially beneficial spending, resulting in bloated payrolls, persistent deficits, and a large rent-seeking public service. Using a purpose-built dataset of annual public expenditure and employment series from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda for 1960-2010 against which to test these assumptions, this article questions whether there was anything exceptional about the growth or composition of East Africa’s post-independence expenditure. All three states grew and contracted in roughly the same periods as other regions of the world, although their contraction after 1980 was particularly marked. Industrial policy and capital investments influenced budget priorities in the early independence era, while military expenditure and debt service payments escalated in the late 1970s. The government wage bill, meanwhile, fell as a proportion of total spending over the same period. To finance employment growth while the wage bill contracted, governments allowed real wages to plummet in the 1970s-90s. In light of these external constraints and legacies, this article questions whether a budget unencumbered by patronage would have looked very different.