We are writing these stories not because we are driven by radicalism or assertiveness as some people have suggested but because we want to save a bad situation from getting worse. For those who care to know two worrying developments are taking place in Uganda – land grabbing by foreigners and inferior education for indigenous population. These developments are reminiscent of the recently ended apartheid system in South Africa where the indigenous black population lost most of the land to the minority white population and got inferior education. It took almost one hundred years of struggle, abandoning education, loss of lives and long term prison sentences from 1912 to end this unjust system but the effects are still being felt. Let us examine the land issue as it relates to Uganda.
When we were growing up in poor families in southwest Uganda we were told again and again that our future was in education and not in tilling the land, a profession left for those who failed at school. To drive the point home we were punished at home and at school for whatever wrongdoing by doing agriculture work in school or family gardens. So Ugandans developed a dislike for agriculture and by extension land ownership. Educated people distanced themselves from rural areas and most would not even think of investing a small portion of their income in agriculture or rural development. Village life was something to be avoided.
Uganda has been described as a failed state under a military dictatorship disguised as democratic. Many of those supporting the NRM government publicly have misgivings when contacted privately. The question that has occupied center stage in discussions about the future of Uganda is what should be done to turn the country around before it is too late. Five ideas have been proposed.
First, there are those who are still committed to NRM for whatever reason and want it to stay. They are suggesting that pressure should be applied to NRM leadership to make the necessary changes and reverse the current failed trajectory. But the changes they are suggesting such as restoration of presidential term limits, ending corruption, sectarianism and mismanagement, formation of an independent electoral commission, limiting advantages of incumbency, restoration of independence of the judiciary and keeping the military out of politics will ensure defeat of NRM at the next elections. NRM is not a popular party and it is these malpractices that have kept it in power. In free and fair elections NRM cannot win. Therefore NRM is unlikely to go along with this advice. NRM has become like a very sick person that cannot work anymore and has to be retired. In other words NRM does not have the will and capacity under fundamentally changed economic circumstances – from neo-liberalism to public-private partnership – to turn the country around. If allowed to stay in power, NRM, crippled with all sorts of problems, will only make matters worse and the damage will be more costly down the road.
We are writing these stories, incredible or controversial as they may be, for the sole purpose of finding a lasting solution to Uganda’s daunting challenges so that all Ugandans have peace and stability in which to create wealth and enjoy happiness. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the history of Uganda and philosophy of our leaders. Those who reason that going into history is unnecessary or counterproductive and we should therefore forget about it and move on forget that the past impacts the present in significant ways. There are also those who argue that we should not focus on one leader but the institution. They too forget that history is full of examples of one man rule who decides what to do and how to do it and the rest just toe the line or get sidelined or fired or worse if they don’t. Therefore understanding Uganda’s problems begs a comprehensive analysis of its history and the philosophy of its leaders. Failure to understand Amin as a man of split personality with a brutal past and medical problem resulted in some 300,000 loss of lives in the 1970s.
The National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power with domestic and external sponsors (those who fund and champion its cause) and gained supporters (those who are won over). The original sponsors and supporters of NRM inside Uganda had suffered political losses under Obote’s government – Catholics had lost elections twice to UPC and Buganda had lost the kingdom and ‘Lost counties’ referendum. Those who sponsored and supported NRM outside Uganda did not trust Obote despite his pledge to introduce capitalism under structural adjustment. They believed he was still a socialist and could not be trusted. The common characteristic is that those against Obote and UPC were in a hurry and could not wait for the next elections in 1985 or 1986 to defeat UPC that won the 1980 elections. They chose a military option for quicker results. Various guerrilla groups were formed, some of them merged into the NRM. NRM captured power in 1986 exactly five years when elections were due. So the results were not quicker but were clearly very destructive of lives, property and infrastructure and many deficits still remain unresolved.
There have been debates whether a country should consolidate its political or economic base first. On balance the consensus is in favor of the latter – the economy should form the foundation upon which to build the nation’s democracy and governance. The importance of the economy was recognized from the early days of Uganda’s protectorate. In his letter dated July 1, 1899 appointing Sir H. H. Johnson as Special Commissioner for Uganda, the Secretary of State, The Marques of Salisbury, stressed that the main object in Uganda was to organize the administration on lines that would facilitate the development of the economy to meet the requirements of the Protectorate. The issues of land tenure, agriculture, transport, trade and currency occupied center stage of the Commissioner’s work during his stay in the country.
Although a trade unionist, Obote understood the importance of the economy in Uganda’s post independence development. During the early part of UPC I (1962-1970), apart from being Prime Minister Obote also served as Chairman of the Planning Commission. He stressed the importance of economic independence through rapid economic development. Agriculture and rural development the source of livelihood of the majority of Ugandans, raw materials for industries and export earnings were given pride of place in Uganda’s first 5-year development plan (1961-1966). During UPC II, Obote did not lose sight of the importance of the economy in Uganda’s development. That is why he added the post of minister of finance to that of the president.
Ugandans especially women are impoverished, unemployed/underemployed, sick, functionally illiterate, tired, frustrated, hungry, many in exile, voiceless and powerless and understandably angry at the NRM regime that has created these outcomes since 1986 contrary to its promises because of wrong policies and uncaring dictatorship. Ugandans had hoped to change all this by defeating NRM at the 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections. But as the majority know and international observers reported there was lack of a level playing field and NRM stole the elections and formed an illegitimate government with over 70 ministers. Having lost faith in the ballot box, Ugandans are searching for a formula to unseat an illegitimate regime (some claim it is a legitimate government), establish a transitional government to organize free and fair multi-party elections.
We should thank those individuals and institutions that have brought the issue of EA integration and federation to the center stage in political economy discourse. That this matter is being discussed at all is in itself a step in the right direction. This discourse has brought together people from different schools of thought including theoreticians and practitioners, those who think this is a matter for legislators and not the masses and those who advocate inclusiveness and full participation. What should be made clear at the outset is that there are few, if any, East Africans totally opposed to the EA integration and federation. Differences are about how to get there without leaving anyone behind or disadvantaged. Each participant must realize net benefits.
There are two major reasons why we should pause and reflect on this exercise: (1) Uganda’s current priorities and (2) lessons from integration and federation record.
What Uganda needs right now is to enable households put food on the table, help the unemployed and underemployed find remunerative jobs in decent working conditions, prevent Ugandans from falling sick and when they do have them cured, affordable energy to facilitate economic and social transformation, roads and communications infrastructure to facilitate mobility. These are issues that are better handled at the national level. Given the current economic, social and environmental crisis Uganda should focus at the national level, using regional facilities to enhance progress at that level.