The path to democracy, liberty, justice and dignity through the ballot box has not produced the desired results in Uganda and will not unless major reforms are undertaken. In developed societies institutions and laws permit citizens to elect representatives and hold them accountable. When they do not perform they are either recalled or voted out at the next elections. In Uganda these institutions and laws have been virtually destroyed. The NRM government has returned Uganda to the law of the jungle where strong animals do what they want with weak ones with impunity. Currently, in Uganda the weak are losing land to the strong, the weak are denied quality education and healthcare which are provided to the strong, the weak are going to bed every night on empty stomachs while the strong are busy exporting Uganda food and the weak are unemployed while the strong are importing workers through a liberal immigration policy etc.
Too often people involved in the struggle for change confuse the goal and the strategy or the means to achieve the goal. The goal remains the same but the strategy adapts to changing circumstances. Let us take South Africa as an illustration. The African National Congress (ANC) was formed in 1912 to end a white minority system of government (the goal) by non-violent means based on Gandhian principles and tactics (the strategy). However, following the massacre of peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960, ANC changed the strategy from nonviolent campaign to armed struggle. The goal or the principle remained the same. The war got prolonged and became very destructive and expensive on both sides. Under the mature and wise leadership of Mandela and de Clerk and perhaps assisted by a hidden external hand, ANC and apartheid government decided to negotiate a settlement. The ANC suspended the guerrilla war and began negotiations (a new strategy) to end the white minority system of government (the original goal). In 1994 after hard negotiations of give and take the white minority government system was defeated at the negotiating table and black majority rule was achieved with Mandela as president, Mbeki as first deputy president and de Clerk the last president under the white minority government as second deputy president. In the course of the negotiations the whites were assured that they would not be thrown into the ocean. Three further observations are in order. First, it is important to note that negotiations cannot take place until both sides have agreed to the solution. A third party working covertly or overtly may be needed to create an environment for a decision to be taken and negotiations to begin. Second, negotiations must be conducted with honesty by all stakeholders and implement the agreement reached. Third, negotiations must continue notwithstanding obstacles that may even lead to a temporary breakdown until an agreement is reached.
Ugandans and development partners who reason that Uganda is on course to achieve full liberal democracy as an expression of the will of the people to choose who should govern them in a free and fair environment, hold them to account and even recall them if they consider them incompetent, dishonest or heedless of public opinion are missing one fundamental point. As long as Museveni is in power full democracy on a multiparty basis will not be permitted. If you read his speeches and interview reports carefully and dialectically and watch his actions you will not fail to realize that Museveni did not go for military training and suffered hardship until 1986 to bring democracy to Uganda.
Uganda is at a crossroads economically and politically. If we do not take the correct path, the country will under-develop rather than modernize. Three ideas namely comparative advantage, structural adjustment and the ballot box have been tried in Uganda. All three have failed to deliver the desired outcomes. We need to examine each one and recommend a way out.
Comparative advantage means that a country should produce the good (s) in which it has an advantage over others, trade with others and obtain what is not worth producing at home. When the British arrived in what later became Uganda, they found that the people were engaged in a wide range of economic activities according to their natural resources. Some were herders, fishers, crop cultivators, hunters and manufacturers of a wide range of products that included pottery, wooden, iron products and cloth from hides and skins and bark cloth. These producers exchanged (bartered) their goods in local and regional markets in Eastern and central Africa. Production and barter benefited equitably those involved. On balance, the terms of trade were favorable.
There is general consensus that NRM has reached a point of no return. It has been bedeviled by rampant corruption, sectarianism, human rights abuses and infighting. It is therefore rotting away and features of decadence are there for all to see. The economy is in a comma – or very close – and social sectors are dying – if not dead already witness some hospital wards that have turned into hospices – and the environment is drifting towards desert conditions as warned by a United Nations agency not so long ago. NRM propaganda based on economic growth and expected social benefits from oil has not convinced the public so has the argument that external factors are responsible for Uganda’s economic, social and ecological illness. NRM has lost the will and capacity (in part because the government is broke) to adjust to the wind of change. Ipso facto, it has tenaciously clung to the discredited and subsequently abandoned neo-liberal economics which failed in many respects including trickle down mechanism to distribute equitably the benefits of economic growth.
The issue of immigration has taken center stage in domestic, regional and international debates. Global economic hardship and the associated high unemployment as well as demographic dynamics have triggered the resurgence of interest in reviewing the benefits and costs of immigration. In Uganda concerns about immigrants’ disproportionate participation in the economy, politics and security forces are being expressed in various forums. Globalization and East African economic integration processes have opened Uganda gates to all kinds of immigrants with serious political, economic, moral and cultural repercussions.
Uganda’s story about immigration goes back to the 1920s. Pull economic factors as Uganda began cultivating cotton and later coffee that required a lot of labor and push political and economic factors in neighboring countries especially then Rwanda-Urundi resulted in many immigrants entering Uganda in search of work. Other immigrant workers came from Kenya and then Tanganyika. They located in areas where they could find jobs according to their skills. Those with herding skills went to cattle herding areas in all parts of the country particularly in Ankole, Buganda, Eastern and Northern Uganda. Those with farming experience found jobs in cotton and coffee growing areas in Buganda and parts of Eastern Uganda. Some workers returned to their countries of origin, others stayed. Some of those who stayed married local women, adopted local languages and culture and got completely assimilated. Others adopted local languages and names but married women mostly from their country of origin or from their ethnic groups already in Uganda and resisted assimilation or Ugandanization.
There are some Ugandans who are still calling on foreigners to initiate political change in Uganda preferably through the barrel of the gun to end abuse of power and the suffering it has caused there. Why should they? Foreigners have had it so good until now under Museveni like never before. Conditions for them (enabling environment) are better than in colonial days in many respects. Take land as an illustration. Governor Bell, Commissioner Spire and Director Simpson refused foreigners to own or lease land except for a few plantations. They argued successfully that land in Uganda belongs to peasants and it should remain so and convert it into commercial enterprises.
Museveni is changing all of that. He has given foreign developers the land they want and where they want it. A model school that Ugandans were proud of was pulled down in Kampala City because a developer wanted the site. Construction has taken place in previous water drainage channels in Kampala City because those are the sites the developers wanted, causing flooding and breeding ground for mosquitoes. Museveni shouted down advisers who argued against such developments. Uganda farmers have lost their land where they grew a variety of crops for own consumption and sell surplus in urban areas in the Entebbe-Kampala corridor in order to create space for cut flower production for export. Mabira forest is under constant threat because that is where the developer wants to grow sugar cane for export. It is reported he has refused other sites. Although Museveni has delayed the decision on Mabira forest he will likely yield in the end because foreign interests have triumphed over national ones.
The NRM captured power undemocratically through the barrel of the gun in January 1986. To compensate for gaining power at gun point, NRM conveyed a message of hope. The acting NRM Chairman Yoweri Museveni (Chairman Yusufu Lule passed a year earlier) spelled this message in the ten point program. It was grounded in democracy; security; consolidation of national unity and elimination of all forms of sectarianism; defending and consolidating national independence; building an independent, integrated and self-contained national economy; restoration and improvement of social services and the rehabilitation of the war ravaged areas; elimination of corruption and misuse of power; redressing errors that have resulted into the dislocation of sections of the population and improvement of others; co-operation with other African countries in defending human and democratic rights of our brothers in other parts of Africa; and following an economic strategy of mixed economy.
The history of elections in Uganda has been a sad one.
1. The ballot box did not work in 1961;
2. The ballot box did not work in 1962;
3. The ballot box did not work in 1980;
4. The ballot box did not work in 1996;
5. The ballot box did not work in 2001;
6. The ballot box did not work in 2006;
7. The ballot box did not work in 2011
Consequently, the ballot box is rapidly losing meaning in Uganda and has come to be seen as a formality to meet donor requirements for continued foreign aid and technical assistance. The conditions that make the ballot box work such as independent electoral commission, independent judiciary and term limits do not exist in Uganda. Museveni who has become NRM and the Uganda government by concentrating power in the presidency has defied everyone. In the absence of a level playing field, regime change won’t happen in Uganda through the ballot box. Make no mistake about that. All the 2011 election observer missions reported lack of a level playing field throughout the entire electoral process – from voter registration to the announcement of results. Museveni who is bent on staying in power for life and converting Uganda into a dynasty is not going to allow:
Admitting failure is a sign of wisdom and maturity and represents flexibility to look at the situation objectively with a view to identifying the real causes of the problem and provide appropriate solutions. Uganda’s economy had been sick for quite some time but it slipped into a comma in 2011 in part because of the global crisis but more critically as the result of reckless practices during the election campaigns. But the NRM government has refused to accept the obvious hoping presumably that time will correct the situation and return Uganda to normalcy. The author wrote to the president, speaker, prime minister, leader of the opposition and minister of finance advising that Uganda’s economic health was faltering, needing urgent attention. The advice was ignored, not even acknowledged.
To appreciate Uganda’s problems one has to go back to the 1987 decision by NRM government to abandon the ten point program in favor of ‘shock therapy’ structural adjustment program (SAP). The foreign advice NRM received and adopted is similar to what was imposed on Bolivia. During the 1980s and 1990s, Bolivia like Uganda, was a poster child for Washington Consensus market doctrine. Bolivia swallowed shock therapy neo-liberalism whole. Using privatization as an illustration, Bolivia sold off the airline, trains, phone and electric companies, public water system of Cochabamba City and gas and oil fields.