Change is coming to Uganda

Change is coming. There is no doubt about that. What is unclear is when and how. Change could come sooner than later as it did in 1979 and 1985 that took the country and new leaders by surprise, calling for preparedness just in case (UDU already has a National Recovery Plan). It could come through violence or peaceful means. Our conclusion that change is coming is based on history lessons and internal dynamics in present day Uganda.

In societies where change has taken place, there was by and large external influence and internal discontent. Regarding external factors, the American Revolution was influenced by the writings of European enlightenment thinkers about liberty, equality, separation of power and Thomas Paine’s advice on independent America. The internal discontent was caused largely by British taxation of Americans without being representation in British parliament. The French Revolution was influenced by European enlightenment writers and French soldiers experience in America’s war of independence which made the Old Regime in their country anachronistic. Internal discontent was generated by the wide gap between the privileged high clergy and nobility who did not pay taxes to the government but taxed commoners for their own use and government revenue. The nobility and the clergy that constituted 3 percent of total population owned 40 percent of total land. The Russian Revolution was impacted by external and internal factors similar to those in France. In Eastern Europe, the influence of Radio Free Europe among others and Gorbachev’s restructuring and openness reforms together with economic failures of socialism generated forces for the 1989 revolutions. Thus, revolutions in America, France, Russia and Eastern Europe were created by external and internal dynamics. What about Uganda?

Uganda‘s story started off differently under the NRM regime. Until about the turn of the century, Uganda was presented as a success story in politics and economics. NRM’s resistance committee system was seen as the launch pad for democracy from below and needed nurturing. At the economic level, Uganda was applauded as a success story in neo-liberal economics. Uganda’s economy was opened up to trade, public enterprises were privatized, inflation was controlled, export diversification was promoted, prices were liberalized, subsidies were removed, retrenchment was undertaken and labor flexibility introduced. The conditionality of IMF was met in full. Peaceful conditions in the south and availability of simple farm implements enabled utilization of excess capacity to increase agricultural production, economic growth and create jobs.

Notwithstanding, Ugandans were warned that the first three or so years would be difficult as NRM put the house in order. After that it would be smooth sailing and the tide would raise all boats to a higher level of prosperity. Museveni even boasted that within 15 years Uganda would be an industrialized country with a middle class society. Initially economic growth and per capita income posted good results. Any problems they could not solve immediately were blamed on previous regimes especially UPC and Obote. By mid-1990s Uganda’s economic growth reached the highest level of 10 percent and began a down ward trends since then. And statistics revealed that poverty had declined considerably but the method used raised questions. So up to the mid 1990s, external and domestic factors were favorable and NRM scored high marks.

Beginning with the 1996 elections things began to go wrong in politics and economics. The elections have been marked by violence meted out to opposition candidates and their supporters. At one stage, the situation was particularly frightening in the two neighboring districts of Ntungamo and Rukungiri when the military had to be brought in. On the economic front, the benefits of economic growth did not trickle down as expected. Instead, they bubbled up in favor of a few families. Corruption, sectarianism and cronyism began to raise their ugly heads contradicting government rhetoric to stamp them out once and for all. At that time, Ugandans could observe, but not talk. The anti-sectarian law prevented anyone from making comments that may imply tribal or ethnic antagonism that were seen by government as divisive and not tolerated. So corruption in politics and economics went on unreported for quite some time. But as they say everything has a beginning and ending.

Some courageous reporters began to write stories about impoverishment of Ugandans and what was causing it which in large part was sectarianism; in one case the validity of the report had to be tested and was found to be true by independent researchers otherwise there would have been serious trouble. This opened the door to criticize sectarian and corrupt practices. External reporters who had embellished Uganda’s political and economic success stories began to change and criticize the government in measured tones. The UN that was fond of drawing lessons of success on the economy, Universal Primary Education (UPE) and HIV & AIDS began to scale back as reports showed that things were not as rosy as previously thought. Stories began to emerge that structural adjustment had severely hurt social sectors especially education and healthcare and income distribution was highly skewed in favor of the rich. As the private sector generated fewer jobs than supply of labor unemployment of youth rose rapidly. Other reports showed that education quality was very poor and dropout rate very high. A UN report on environmental degradation warned that if steps were not taken urgently Uganda could turn into a desert within 100 years.

Then came the 2009 announcement by the government that structural adjustment program which was NRM flagship had been abandoned for failure to deliver as expected, confirming what critics had been saying all along. UN reports showed that absolute poverty was over 50 percent, not 25 percent as reported by government. Reports on hunger, child and maternal mortality were unacceptably high. Demonstrations in Uganda in which many people were killed and those in New York tarnished the image of the regime. Uganda was registered as a failed state under military dictatorship. The situation was so bad that Uganda did not submit a report on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for review at the 2010 United Nations General Assembly and the president who was scheduled to address the Assembly turned up after the special Summit was over. The Five Year National Development Plan that replaced structural adjustment Program has not been implemented either for lack of funds or interest because neoliberal economics has continued to dominate Uganda’s development agenda. The United Democratic Ugandans (UDU) an umbrella organization of opposition parties and organizations at home and abroad has prepared a more realistic National Recovery Plan which has been reviewed favorably at home and abroad. It is posted at The opposition needs political space to implement it, hence the demand for political change.

The 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections fiasco whose results were rejected by the opposition, the impact of the Arab Spring Revolutions and world leaders calls for ending long-serving dictators have emboldened Ugandans to demand political change. They are pulling down the walls of fear constructed around them by anti-sectarian and anti-terrorism laws. This is a major step forward that should not be underestimated. Radio stations broadcasting from abroad and at home and websites are providing useful information and encouragement. Like never before Ugandans are demanding true liberal democracy that is inclusive, participatory, transparent and holds public officials accountable and guarantees civil liberties. Youth, women and faith-based organizations are out demanding change. For the first time Ugandans are demanding to know the profiles of their leaders and this demand won’t go away. Leaders from Ankole who are dominating the political, economic and security sectors have raised questions about who they are. A recent report titled “Police overwhelmed by opposition” shows that top jobs in the police are occupied by Banyankole. Police officers from other parts of Uganda are either resigning or fired on disagreements about how to deal with the opposition (The Indian Ocean Newsletter April 7, 2012). Is the military similarly affected? What is the role of religion in Uganda’s political change?

From time immemorial, religious leaders have played critical roles in political change. Priest John Ball played a critical role in the English Peasant Revolt of 1381 that forced the government to end poll tax. Priest Abbe Sieyes of France whose pamphlet titled “What is the Third Estate?” laid the foundation for the French Revolution of 1789. Priest George Gapon led the 1905 workers demonstrations in Russia that set the stage for the February 1917 Revolution. Priest Laszlo Tokes caused a political storm that forced the leader of Romania out of power in December 1989. The teaching of the late Pope John Paul II on justice and condition of the poor has contributed tremendously especially in Poland and other Eastern European countries in their struggle against communist rule. The anti-apartheid work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is too well known to be repeated here. Cardinal Sin of Philippines mobilized his parishioners and prevented Marcos from stealing the 1986 election.

Priests in Latin America have done commendable work in advocating that Christians must fight to free the oppressed people. Priests in Mexico spearheaded the struggle for independence in that country. More recently, under the slogan of liberation theology, church leaders and theologians have preached and practiced Christian teachings about the liberation of people from oppression, deprivation and dispossession. They have given voice to oppressed people crying for justice and freedom and become a basis for political change in Latin America and other countries. The late Archbishop Oscar Romero worked tirelessly and fearlessly in advocating justice for poor people. Ugandans expect their faith leaders to stand up courageously and be the voice of the poor, unemployed, illiterate, hungry and sick members of their flock.

The above analysis has shown beyond doubt that the three external, economic and security pillars upon which NRM has sat are beginning to crack. The external support is on the retreat. Press releases urging the government to stop abusing Ugandans’ human rights and freedoms confirm that change. The economic, social and ecological systems are on the brink of collapse. And the security forces are breaking apart or are becoming undisciplined. Museveni cannot run a country of 33 million people by relying on officers from southwest Uganda however loyal they may be. Baganda who supported NRM are unhappy so are religious leaders and their flock. The unemployed youth and students are becoming restless. Women who cannot put food on the table may start demanding relief without which they will take over streets or march to state house with support of sympathetic police and soldiers to plead with the president. French women walked twelve miles from Paris to Versailles to plead with the king for help. He gave them some bags of grain from royal stores. But that was not enough and he faced tougher times a few years later.

To save Uganda, NRM should come out of denial and accept reality. There is political wind blowing across Uganda. NRM should work with the opposition to reach a mutual agreement on how to govern Uganda collectively. We appeal to security forces to desist from attacking innocent people driven by suffering to demand relief. Their goal is not to remove NRM from power, but if it does not accommodate others it may remove itself by generating forces demanding total change. War in the first instance should be avoided because NRM will be given an opportunity with support of the international community to sweep the country clean of “undesirables”. Attack NRM where it is weakest. Organized civil resistance which is legitimate will do the job. Already NRM is worried about the opposition. Just unite under able leadership and do not cooperate with NRM and you will see how relatively easy the job is. As much as possible strategies should be location specific under smart champions, operating in invisible small bands and simultaneously to overstretch the capacity of security forces to the point of surrender.