Museveni’s end of 2009 address suffers from obscurantism

During his first inaugural address in 1986, Yoweri Museveni denounced the philosophy of obscurantism, a situation where ideas are deliberately obscured. Because NRM and its leadership were not interested in the politics of obscurantism, they, like good doctors, would diagnose correctly the ills of Ugandan society before announcing corrective measures. He touched on Uganda’s core development challenge when he condemned Uganda leaders who travel in executive jets while 90 percent of Ugandans have no shoes.

After a careful and comprehensive analysis, NRM recommended solutions to Uganda’s economic and social ills in a ten-point program in which, inter alia, production for domestic and external markets would be balanced and Uganda would be metamorphosed into an integrated, self-sustaining and independent economy.

On January 26, 1990, President Museveni announced a major economic policy shift that abandoned the popular ten-point program in favor of the Washington Consensus based on market forces and laissez-faire capitalism. He embraced export-led growth that diversified into non-traditional exports mostly of foodstuffs traditionally grown for domestic consumption.

The president and his government did not tell the nation that the shift was dictated by donors as a condition for financial and technical assistance. The government opened the country to all stakeholders with new ideas knowing full well that many of them were experimental and may undermine Uganda’s development prospects.

The assessment of economic and social progress shifted from jobs, shoes, food, textbooks, medicines, corruption, sectarianism and environment etc to controlling inflation, balancing the budget, promoting GDP and per capita income growth, adjusting exchange rates to facilitate export growth, and accumulating foreign currency reserves.

Meanwhile interest rates went through the roof and suffocated investment opportunities for small and medium enterprises that create jobs more than any other sector. Ipso facto Uganda experienced galloping unemployment never known before. To continue export diversification as required under Washington Consensus conditions, the government ignored rising hunger, school drop outs for lack of school lunches and associated high levels of poverty. Ugandans were blamed by government for being lazy and drinking too much alcohol – in effect telling them it was their fault.

Eventually, the truth came out for all to see including the donor community that had encouraged religious adherence to stabilization programs and shielded government from criticism. The diseases of poverty manifested in rising malnutrition, scabies, jiggers, trachoma, malaria and above all increasing infant mortality which is a reliable indicator of economic and social progress or lack of it.

In September 2009, the government made another major economic policy shift from the Washington Consensus to National Development Plan. Henceforth, the economy will be guided by Keynesian rather than monetary economics and the state will play an active and strategic role in partnership with the private sector.

Presumably fearing political repercussions at the start of presidential and parliamentary campaigns, the president, in his end-of-year address, did not tell the nation in specific terms why there had been a major economic policy shift. Therefore his address suffered from the politics of obscurantism by skipping the following illustrative critical areas.

First, by focusing on per capita income growth, the president did not tell the nation that highly skewed income distribution had translated into unacceptable levels of poverty, hunger, school drop outs and unemployment. Unless redistribution measures in the form of creating remunerative jobs are undertaken and children stay in school, Uganda will remain a poverty-stricken, hungry, jobless and restless country.

Second, the president did not tell the nation that human development begins with the health of the mother. There is indisputable scientific evidence that an under-nourished mother will likely produce under-weight children with permanent physical and mental disabilities. The number of under-weight children is unacceptably high, at 12 percent. Add on 40 percent of under-five children who are under-nourished and you have an idea of the magnitude of human development challenges. Under these circumstances, Uganda will not build adequate human capacity for the 21st century. As brain development takes place during the first three years of life, Uganda needs to do better with the development of children under the age of five.

Third, possibly because of a conflict of interest in export growth based on natural resource utilization and environmental protection, the president was not able to articulate the serious environmental challenges and what needs to be done to address them. The nature of the discomfort can be deduced from the fact that he fitted one sentence in a paragraph under international relations.

Like a good doctor, the president needs to go back to the drawing board, analyze development challenges comprehensively in an integrated and mutually-reinforcing manner before making recommendations for the new decade.