It is leadership that counts

In search for solutions to Uganda’s daunting development challenges, I have studied, read and consulted widely in time and space to draw some lessons. I have examined the role of politics and economics, the role of ideologies (capitalism and socialism), the role of democratic and authoritarian leaders and the role of civilian and military leaders etc in the development process.

In economics we were taught that a country’s development would depend on the abundance of the factors of production – abundant labor, abundant fertile land and abundant capital in the form of roads, railways, harbors, machines, telephones and computers etc. Countries that were well endowed would do better than those that were less endowed.

On this basis alone, Uganda being more endowed than Kenya, Ugandans would be ahead of Kenyans in economic growth, transformation and social development. We know this is not the case, at least in terms of life expectancy and trade benefits within East Africa.

North Korea took more natural resources and industries than South Korea at the time of partition but see where South Korea is compared to North in levels of economic growth, transformation and standard of living.

Subsequently it was argued that ideology matters more than factors of production. Capitalist countries would always do better than socialist countries. Capitalist Ivory Coast was presented to be ahead of socialist Ghana. Capitalist Kenya was shown to perform better than socialist Tanzania. Right now Ghana is way ahead of Ivory Coast. China a socialist or communist country is galloping ahead of many capitalist countries.

We were taught that civilian governments perform better than military ones. In South Korea, General Park performed exceptionally well and laid the foundation for the rapid economic growth, equity and transformation.

At one time we were advised that the youth in their thirties and forties should replace those in their fifties and sixties. They soon realized that experience counts. That is why wise young leaders have close advisers with grey hair who are increasingly being called upon to lead in difficult circumstances where experience is more important than up to date theoretical knowledge acquired mostly in foreign institutions.

We were taught or advised that democratic countries in terms of holding regular elections perform better than those that do not. Uganda did not have post independence elections in the 1960s and yet performed much better than Uganda under Museveni that has held elections every five years since 1996.

Based on this analysis and the environment in which I conducted the studies, I have come to the firm conclusion that what counts is leadership. You may have well educated and experienced people as ministers or permanent secretaries but when they are poorly led there isn’t much they can do. It is the commitment of leaders, it is what they want to do or achieve that counts. Let us use South Korea under General Park and Uganda under General Museveni as illustrations.

General Park of South Korea came to power with a genuine mission in the 1961 military coup – to end inequality, poverty and the associated ills including hunger. He wrote that the people of Asia feared poverty and starvation more than oppressive duties imposed upon them. He added “In human life economics precedes politics and culture”.

Before Park came to power in 1961, the people of South Korea suffered extreme poverty. Throughout the 1950s, most Koreans remained desperately poor. Under the corrupt regime of Syngman Rhee, the economy remained static with many people going hungry. There was no electricity in the countryside where two-thirds of the population lived. Poverty forced households to ration household food and to use ashes instead of soap to wash their clothes and walked long distances to and from work.

All this changed after 1961. Park, Korean leader from 1961 to 1979, launched a modernization and reform program borrowing as much as possible from the experiences of post World War II Japan. Controls were introduced on imports and foreign exchange and export industries were encouraged. Literacy campaigns were conducted for adults and children. Park believed that the army was the most efficient institution in the country and he put it to work. Generals supervised the construction of infrastructure – roads, railways, ports, power stations and oil refineries. People got jobs, incomes and purchasing power with which to improve their standard of living.

In agriculture, reforms were introduced including land reform that put land into the hands of people that used it more productively. In 1971 a New Village Movement (NVM) program was launched. It urged Koreans to improve farms through mechanization, repair homes, clean their areas, install running water and electricity, build roads and bridges and above all plant trees that prevented further soil loss and provided fuel wood and timber for many purposes. Koreans were encouraged to save and invest in productive sectors. Family savings were sunk into export manufacturing enterprises.

In the area of industry, South Korea began with light industries for export taking advantage of its cheap, hard working and disciplined labor. It then moved to heavy industries such as steel, shipbuilding and vehicles from scratch with government financial assistance.

Since the early 1980s, General Park’s momentum and mission was inherited by a new breed of Koreans that began a managed liberalization and privatization of the economy while keeping high economic growth and quality of life unlike in many countries that took on structural adjustment like Uganda where economic inequality, social and ecological conditions worsened.

South Korea recovered quickly from the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s and has continued to grow. Hyundai became the world’s leading shipbuilder and by 1983 the iron and steel company (POSCO) was producing 9.1 million tons of crude steel per year.

The rapid economic growth was accompanied by equitable distribution of benefits of growth that translated into improved lifestyles for the Korean people. Modern housing became affordable, people owned cars, ate well and dressed better.

Then they began to demand democracy which came in 1987. It is true that there were hardships along the way. Overall, however, for most Koreans the benefits have exceeded the drawbacks.

Here is a country – South Korea – that had very few natural resources and had been devastated by the Korean War. Yet within a few decades it is an industrialized and modern country with a population enjoying a high standard of living and life expectancy. By contrast, North Korea that started off better endowed has sunk into abject poverty and cannot even feed its people adequately. The difference between the two countries is definitely in leadership.

This brings us to Uganda. Uganda, like North Korea, began with more endowments and better prospects than neighboring Kenya and Tanzania. Uganda did much better in the 1960s economically and socially than succeeding decades. Since the 1970s, Uganda has been defined more by poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and dispossession.

Yet, we still have the same land mass, water bodies albeit shrinking under man-made climate change, infrastructure and abundant labor that served us well in the 1960s. We still have the hospitals and clinics, roads, hydroelectricity and schools that were constructed in the 1960s or earlier. So why has Uganda deteriorated so rapidly?

We cannot escape the conclusion that leadership has been the principal cause. Since the 1970s Uganda has been cursed. We had General Amin who did not quite understand what development meant and would not listen to those who understood it. He felt that handing over Asian properties to Ugandans to buy him popularity would work. He thought that clearing all vegetation to increase agricultural production would sustain him in power until he died since he was life president.

Then came General Museveni who studied economics and political science or political economy as he has corrected us at Dar es Salaam campus of then East African University. While General Park of South Korea came to power through a military coup in 1961 with a clear mission, General Museveni came to power in a military coup in 1986 with a hidden mission – to regain Bahororo (Batutsi from Rwanda) power and to reconstruct and expand the tiny short-lived Mpororo kingdom in southwest Uganda and northern Rwanda that disintegrated from internal forces around 1750 and was absorbed into Ankole and Rwanda. This has been his mission if Ugandans and neighboring countries cared to know.

To achieve it, he chose to impoverish and dispossess Ugandans so that they do not have the economic power and political voice to challenge him. Do you still remember the 50 year master plan drawn up at Rwakitura in 1992 under the chairmanship of General Museveni?

That is why he has spent much time and resources in great lakes politics and wars removing Bahutu regimes in Rwanda and Burundi and those in Zaire and then DRC who opposed his Tutsi Empire project. That is why the East African economic integration and political federation – not the current domestic economic crisis – have become his number one priority. That is why since his stolen re-election in February 2011 he has visited neighboring countries more times than never before in such a short time and has even donated money to build schools in Rwanda presumably to get support for fast track political federation with him as the first president or emperor.

It is hoped that leaders in Uganda and other East African countries and their citizens fully understand Museveni’s mission.

Kenyans may go along with Museveni’s project because of interest in economic integration that will open up more trade opportunities for manufactured products, land for resettlement of landless Kenyans and jobs for her skilled workers but this could happen by sacrificing sovereignty under a political federation Museveni wants that is being rushed through.

Uganda will likely lose in all areas. Uganda will be outcompeted by industries from Kenya. Ugandans will suffer losses in the labor market by more skilled Kenyans. Uganda will also lose land to people coming in from overpopulated Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya and Eastern Zaire filtering in through Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda’s western porous border. Additional livestock from neighboring countries will exceed the rangeland carrying capacity with environmental degradation and more cattle diseases.

Ugandans have a duty and responsibility especially legislators and civil servants engaged in negotiations to promote and protect Uganda’s national interests. Museveni is there to promote Bahororo/Batutsi interests for present and future generations. We must make sure we fully understand the profiles of those negotiating on behalf of Uganda.

We must also establish early on what will remain under domestic jurisdiction because federation won’t end the nation states in East Africa. A common currency which is under discussion must be negotiated very carefully and more broadly in terms of how it will affect trade, competition and jobs especially for countries still at a lower level of development. Lessons should be drawn from EU and NAFTA.

We therefore have a right to analyze professionally what Museveni is doing and how it will affect the interests of Ugandans in present and future generations. We call on all Ugandans especially in the media, legislature, religious and traditional leaders, civil societies, civil and security servants to be on guard. It is our children that will suffer if we do not pay close attention and take preventive or corrective measures.

Land is an asset that must not be negotiated away in exchange for anything else. With no industries to provide jobs and no skills to compete in the globalized market, land is the only asset that we have. We cannot afford to lose it. Those who were born or live and earn their living in urban areas might not realize the importance of land.

When you sell or lease Uganda land to countries and companies that then produce food and raw materials for their own people and own industries and not for yours and you have to buy from these countries and companies possibly at a higher price to feed your people and your factories that is when you will realize too late that land is a vital asset. To prevent things like this from happening, we need informed, visionary, principled and patriotic leaders. Let us hope that Ugandans truly understand the gravity of this land issue.

Thus, whether Uganda progresses or not will be determined by the quality and intentions of present and future leaders. We have already experienced mistakes made by inexperienced Ugandans under Museveni’s regime witness barter trade and privatization of public enterprises. We have seen those who have put lining their pockets through massive corruption ahead of national development interests and punishing those who have dissented.

Under Museveni Uganda has retrogressed because he wanted it that way – and still wants it that way.

That is why he has allowed many foreign pet projects to be experimented in our country in exchange for keeping him in power.

Museveni knew structural adjustment caused untold suffering to our people but he abandoned it after it was abandoned at the global level at a summit of G20 leaders in London in 2009. But he has continued to implement structural adjustment elements under the so-called National Development Plan. He still believes government is the problem rather than a solution to Uganda’s development challenges.

That is why Museveni has categorically refused to provide school lunches to Uganda primary school children as agreed by NEPAD of which Uganda is a member. He has argued government has no money for school lunches yet Museveni has money in US dollars to donate for school children in Rwanda. Isn’t this blatant action enough to make us refocus on our leaders?

Although it is difficult to predetermine whether an individual will be a good leader or not, we have to make an effort to choose leaders that have demonstrated through various practical activities and public engagement that they can serve the people well. Picking leaders whose roots and other indicators of who they actually are is a dangerous gamble we must strive to avoid for the future of our children.

I look forward to constructive engagement. Privately, if you wish, you can send comments to