Museveni has to be flexible to save Uganda

Museveni as Uganda leader has to recognize before it is too late that Uganda belongs to all of us. His notions that Uganda is his because he fought and won and that he cannot be thrown out of the house like a chicken should be dropped without further delay. He is not going to keep the opposition out in the cold forever because the laws of nature do not work that way. Museveni knows how it feels to be kept out of government by illegitimate means. He went to the bush to change all of that. But he has since 1996 done exactly what he opposed and caused him to fight a five year destructive guerrilla war on somebody else’s territory mostly in Buganda without commensurate compensation. He should not for a moment think he has monopoly to wage war against illegitimate governments. Others can do so and succeed as he did. But Uganda does not have to go that far again.

President Museveni needs to be flexible and exhibit wise and pragmatic leadership after his many years in power and create room for every Ugandan to have a comfortable place under the sun. Winner-take-all ideology is no longer viable. Uganda is well endowed to comfortably accommodate everyone if greed and other motives as contained in the 50 year master plan did not stand in the way. From time immemorial when the disadvantaged and desperate members of society complain and their voices are not heard by the rulers eventually they take the law into their own hands and turn the tables upside down. Remember the poor and unemployed who have no property have very little to lose. Those who have should try to accommodate those who do not or they could end up losing everything. It is understandable therefore why rebellions, revolts and revolutions take place in societies where liberty, justice and dignity are trampled by those in power who refuse to read the writing on the wall about popular discontent until it is too late. Leaders are more often than not offered an olive branch like becoming constitutional instead of absolute rulers but they refuse to reach for it. Peasant revolts in Europe, the French and Russian revolutions were carried out by poor and exploited workers and peasants who had called for reforms but their voices were ignored. Rulers thought their troops and neighbors would keep them in power should there be an uprising. The French Revolution started in Paris by poor, unemployed and hungry people and was joined by peasants and population in other towns. It was 7000 unemployed Parisian women that marched twelve miles from Paris to Versailles the quiet and comfortable seat of the king and demanded that he attends to their problems. They forced him and his family to move to Paris so that he could feel their pain from a close range. French troops refused to use force against people who had suffered more than enough and foreign troops were nowhere in sight. Similarly, poor and unemployed Russians led by women demonstrated demanding that their problems especially food be attended to. Instead Tsar Nicholas II ordered troops to disperse them or worse. The troops refused the order and joined the demonstrators forcing the Tsar to abdicate ending the Romanov’s dynasty. In Africa there are plenty of examples of leaders whose rigidity caused them to be overthrown. Monarchies or institutions that have survived are the ones that have exercised flexibility and pragmatism. We see princes and princesses marrying from commoner families because they have understood the feeling of the people.

Museveni’s rule of Uganda is reminiscent of feudal Europe where the lord was everything and exploited peasants mercilessly who produced for the lord and went hungry during hard times or subsisted on poor quality food. They could not afford better quality wheat bread even in good times which was for the lord and his family. Peasants/serfs ultimately got tired and became angry and could not take exploitation any more especially when the lords tried to keep their wages below the market price determined by demand and supply of labor. When they added on poll tax in England peasants organized a revolt that forced the poll tax to be dropped. Resistance to exploitation continued in Europe until feudalism collapsed.

In Uganda, Museveni has exploited peasants in various ways and kept them down. For example, he urged them to produce for cash than for their own needs, causing too much debilitating hunger. He has refused to support school lunch so that he maximizes food for export to earn foreign currency to cater for the comfort of the ruling class, keeping children from poor families out of school because they cannot study when they are hungry. Structural adjustment program which was introduced in 1987 to remove imbalances in the economy and pave the way for rapid economic growth and improvement in the standard of living of all Ugandans has been used to achieve the opposite: entrench poverty and vulnerability. The donors cannot complain because they are the ones that imposed it through international financial institutions. How did NRM use structural adjustment in ways that have impoverished the majority of Ugandans of whom over 50 percent live below the poverty line or are extremely poor? To understand the extent of poverty in Uganda you need to see how the poor are missing the joys of Christmas. They simply cannot afford.

NRM introduced user charges for education and healthcare knowing full well that peasants would not afford. Some schools were closed down and many others downgraded from secondary to primary level and some clinics had no qualified personnel and medicines and supplies. Many children dropped out of school and patients could not visit a clinic because they could not afford the charges which NRM knew would happen. It suited NRM well because illiterate and sick people are easy to govern since they are voiceless and powerless. The retrenchment of civil servants was done so selectively that certain groups were disproportionately disadvantaged. As a result NRM created the ‘new poor’ through unemployment. Government also decided that employment opportunities would be created by the private sector as the designated engine of Uganda’s economic growth. But private sector does not thrive in a country that has set interest rates so high, has devalued the currency so much as to make imports very expensive, crumbling roads, serious energy shortages, congested city, skilled labor problems, declining security and above all rampant corruption. Consequently the hoped for privatization of Uganda’s economy has not occurred as expected. Consequently unemployment of youth is over 80 percent. Removal of subsidies on agriculture, expensive agricultural inputs, collapsed market arrangements and abandonment of cooperatives have made agriculture an unattractive business sector and resulted in massive rural to urban migration of economically active labor depriving rural areas of labor while in towns this active labor cannot find work. Areal agricultural expansion to increase and diversify agricultural exports has contributed to massive environmental degradation and local climate change, translating into reduction in rainfall pattern and increasing and prolonging temperatures that have contributed to droughts and floods detrimental to crop cultivation and livestock herding. Overfishing to increase foreign exchange earnings has left many water bodies virtually empty and deprived households of once affordable source of proteins.

Let me end up with corruption. It is true that rampant corruption especially when combined with dictatorship and inefficiency has been singled out as a factor that can and does contribute to regime change. Because of Tsars’ tyranny, corruption and inefficiency Russians grew more discontented as time passed. The monarchy became alienated from the people who ultimately rebelled and ended the Romanov dynasty in 1917. Sadly, Uganda is following in these footsteps marked by rampant corruption, dictatorship, inefficiency and mismanagement. Corruption which is spreading and deepening in Uganda has become a serious development constraint. Dismissing one or two individuals from the cabinet is not the answer. All those accused of corruption regardless of their loyalty to the president and ruling party should be suspended and go to court for a ruling. Defending some while the president lets others lose their jobs has raised the issue of double standards and questions the sincerity and seriousness to stamp out corruption.

Ugandans have expressed concerns about imperfections in the political, economic, social and ecological sectors calling for reforms to return the country onto the right development trajectory so that everyone participates in policy decisions that affect their lives. These concerns have fallen on deaf ears and NRM continues to report economic growth as an end in itself which is wrong. Economic growth makes sense only when it translates into poverty reduction and improvement in general welfare of citizens. The press statement issued by the Uganda Media Center on March 9, 2012 clearly confirms that Museveni and his administration have not heard the calls for reforms. Paragraph two on the second page of the press statement is particularly troubling. Here is the paragraph. “In addition, Uganda was among the first sub-Saharan African countries to embrace market reforms in the late 1980s and graduated as a mature reformer in 2006 with sound economic fundamentals and much improved governance. Real GDP growth accelerated from an average of 6.5 percent year-on-year in the 1990s to over 7 percent during the 10 years leading up 2009-10. Not surprisingly, Uganda qualifies as one of the few durable African success stories. Yet its continued prosperity hinges on shifting the economy to higher productivity level and integrating all regions into the development process. The coming ‘oil era’ should have a powerful impact on the wider economy”. Why did the statement fail to tell us something about the social and environmental impact of this success story? This rigidity if not addressed quickly may break the camel’s back sooner than later.

Reliance on national security forces and foreign support to avert a rebellion could turn out to be wishful thinking. King Louis XVI who had hoped his troops would disperse the Paris mob did not show up nor did foreign troops. This could happen in Uganda. Ugandans who do not want war have offered an olive branch in the sense of negotiating a transitional government to organize free and fair multi-party elections at an appropriate time. A National Recovery Plan (NRP) has been prepared by United Democratic Ugandans (UDU) and distributed widely including to the NRM government to serve as alternative to the failed structural adjustment program which was abandoned in 2009 and replaced by a National Development Plan that has not been implemented. It is in the interest of Uganda that Museveni as Uganda leader reaches for the olive branch in good time.