If you think foreigners will initiate change in Uganda, you are mistaken

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.

In an interview with a foreign journalist in 1993, Museveni stated categorically that he did not need and would not miss knowledgeable and experienced Ugandans living in exile to participate in national reconstruction. He advised them to stay in the diaspora earn income and send some of it to their families at home. Since he came to power, Museveni has preferred foreign advisers and experts mostly young ones who have occupied key positions in Uganda’s strategic institutions. Museveni prefers to be tutored by foreigners than Ugandans.

While foreign experts mean well for Uganda, their advice usually falls short because they are not well informed about Uganda’s history and culture. They will advise on what they know rather than what Uganda needs. It is not the advisers’ fault. It is the fault of those who invite them. Look at the advice they are giving on birth control. They think once you flood Uganda with contraception pills, fertility decline will follow automatically. And they get disappointed when it does not because they do not understand what has kept fertility level high. If they consulted the local people they would understand. But their job is not to consult but to be consulted. Otherwise they would become students, not experts and lose their consultation fees and other allowances that sustain them. Uganda experts who offer pragmatic advice are marginalized or urged to seek work abroad. Or foreigners hire Ugandans that have been indoctrinated. Uganda may be the only country or among a few that has arrangements allowing citizens to go and work wherever and whenever they want even when there is an acute shortage of professionals that are leaving Uganda.

Preference for foreigners came through after Museveni’s election in 1996. He summoned his ambassadors and instructed them to focus on commercial diplomacy to attract foreign investors to Uganda. Incentives have been created to attract them in virtually all areas of human activity. Shopping malls have sprung up replacing Uganda small and medium shops that create jobs, apples have outcompeted mangoes so has tomato catch up and peanut butter etc. Nutritious cow ghee has lost market because of imported cooking oil. The case of imported second hand clothes and their adverse impact on local textile industry is too well known to be repeated here.

Museveni clung to foreign sponsored structural adjustment program (SAP) from 1987 to 2009 even when he knew from the start it hurt the majority of Ugandans. He only and reluctantly abandoned it in 2009 after it had been declared dead at the London G8 Summit. At the urging of some foreign advisers Museveni has continued to follow neo-liberal economic policies that favor operation of market forces. He has rejected incorporation of Keynesian aspects that are required in economic hard times to stimulate the economy and create jobs which other governments in developed and developing countries are doing right now.

Today (January 26, 2012) NRM is celebrating its 26th anniversary in power. Are they celebrating the success of commercial diplomacy that has attracted foreign investors that built or are managing hotels for tourists, increased fish and cut flower exports? Are they celebrating the success of experts that have advised Uganda to focus on raising interest rates to limit money in circulation and keep inflation in single digits until recently? What is NRM celebrating in the health sector: in children and maternity wards at Mulago and other hospitals and clinics or in the education sector? Is NRM celebrating success in food exports that have contributed to an increase in the number of Ugandans starving to death or stunted or are becoming insane? Eating too much cassava and maize without adequate nutrient supplements contributes to neurological disorders. What record is NRM celebrating in the employment sector especially for Uganda youth?

What we know is that the guerrilla war was very destructive (and possibly should not be repeated) and reconstruction in areas of operation is yet to be completed after 26 years. What we also know is that despite massive foreign support NRM has performed very poorly and it is beginning to crack under the weight of its mistakes. It failed to balance demands for security and development – disproportionately favoring the former. Thus, talk of urgent regime change or reform is in the air at home and abroad before the situation deteriorates further. Development partners, friends and well wishers are fully aware of political and economic causes which have included lack of a level playing field, massive corruption and human rights violations among others. Foreigners would welcome changes to make things better.

Ugandans will have to take the initiative for change. Once Ugandans are seen to be united and speaking with one voice under impeccable and patriotic leadership and there is chance of success, foreign support will follow. Thankfully, Ugandans have already taken the initiative. United Democratic Ugandans (UDU) has already brought different parties and organizations at home and abroad under one umbrella organization. A National Recovery Plan has already been prepared as a common platform for action to bring about political economy changes in Uganda. The Plan is accessible at www.udugandans.org. Hopefully foreign support will follow soon.