No leader can build a strong nation by neglecting food, education and health

There is no country in the world that has progressed without paying sufficient attention to food and nutrition security, healthcare and education. The vital role of nutrition, healthcare including safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and general hygiene has been stressed in mortality decline. General education has also been recognized as a pillar in nation building.

Mothers Union in Uganda provided women with general education in home economics: adequate and balanced diet, drinking boiled water and avoiding eating raw food, washing hands with soap or ash after using a toilet and before touching food, draining stagnant water to eliminate breeding space for mosquitoes, washing clothes, bathing regularly and keeping the house and its surroundings tidy etc.

At school teachers made sure that pupils were clean: bathed, brushed their teeth, had no lice and wore clean uniforms. Pupils were required to bring lunches and by sharing different foodstuffs they ate balanced meals. Parents therefore made sure that there was enough food at the household level. Consequently, they tended two fields: one specifically for foodstuffs for domestic consumption and the other for cash crops such as coffee, cotton or tobacco. Food for domestic consumption was never sold. Parents would be alerted when their child showed signs of sickness and would be taken to a dispensary for check up. Schools were inspected regularly to make sure standards of teaching, quality of lunches and the general health of pupils were maintained.

The combination of home and school care minimized sickness and reduced absenteeism thereby increased attendance and improved performance. At secondary level, school lunch was provided by the school. This was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Thus, a combination of modern medicine and vaccinations with good nutrition and hygiene resulted in a rapid mortality decline, increased school attendance and improved performance and quality education. The independence government invested in infrastructure and institutions that expanded schools and health facilities including teachers and medical staff colleges laying the foundations for vibrant national building. Roads and energy infrastructure was provided and cooperatives and extension services helped peasants to improve productivity, market surplus and earn cash income with which to purchase what they could not produce.

The 1993 World Bank report observed that between 1963 and 1970 Uganda’s health service had developed one of the best in Africa through low-cost health and nutrition programs. The government had established a network of vaccination and immunization programs that reached 70 percent of the population. And Uganda attained a reputation for very high quality education.

These laudable nation building achievements occurred in large part because national leadership in collaboration with development partners implemented what it promised notwithstanding some political difficulties in the second half of the 1960s.

Uganda’s development lost a decade and a half between 1971 and 1985 because of political instability, economic mismanagement and the guerrilla war. Out of this despair came hope based on the ten point program crafted by the National Resistance Movement (NRM). It was a comprehensive, development and people-oriented program based on broad consultations, compromise and win-win ideology.

For implementation, the program was unfortunately placed in the hands of a wrong leader – Museveni. Although the global environment had changed from state intervention in economic and social sectors to market forces and laissez faire capitalism when Museveni came to power in 1986, there was room for smart government intervention witness the changes made in Chile after the 1982-3 recession when the entire neo-liberal Chicago Boys were dismissed and replaced by a pragmatic team that adopted a public and private partnership program.

Museveni refused to make the necessary changes in economic policy to address social, institutional, infrastructural and environmental deficits. The funds released through the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poorest Countries) initiative for anti-poverty programs appear to have gone somewhere else because absolute poverty still stands at over 50 percent in 2011. Additionally, Uganda has received on average development donations to the tune of $700 million annually but there is nothing to show for it.

Museveni does not believe in nation building – not at all. He has a deep-seated notion of self-preservation and aggrandizement which he believes can be realized by denying development to the citizens through suppressing the pillars of nation building. He strictly applied macro-economic tools to suppress education, healthcare, food security and agriculture that provides livelihood to close to 90 percent of Ugandans.

He opened Uganda’s economy to cheap imports, removed subsidies, imposed unaffordable charges on fuel, education and healthcare, froze public service wages, introduced labor flexibility that fixed low wages in the private sector and strangled labor unions, closed or downgraded schools making it impossible for many children to attend and price liberalization and devaluation of Uganda’s currency made it very difficult for farmers and small and medium enterprises to purchase inputs. Museveni eliminated cooperatives that served people particularly in remote areas albeit imperfectly.

Subsequent free primary education has failed miserably judged by the high dropout rate of over 80 percent and very poor quality of graduates many of them unemployable. Similarly, healthcare has also performed miserably because there are no drugs, supplies and adequate staff.

Unlike in developed and developing countries, Museveni has flatly refused to support school feeding programs when we know that they work in increasing attendance and improving performance especially of girls. Girls have dropped out of school in Uganda in large numbers, got married and began having children in their teens. And we are blaming them for being loose. If Museveni had provided lunches the problem of early marriage and high fertility would have been significantly reduced because they would have stayed in school longer and escaped temptations or coercion.

Meanwhile, a disproportionate share of accumulated savings has gone into building instruments of repression and funding his and his party’s election in 1996 and since then. The amount of money being dished out to buy votes for Museveni and NRM candidates for the elections on February 18, 2011 is staggering while at the same time the minister of finance is reporting that the government has gone broke. It is not difficult to tell where the money has gone.

After 25 years as president, Museveni has lost credibility at home and abroad. Uganda’s failure to present a report and Museveni’s failure to address the MDGs World Summit in September 2010 on progress since the Millennium Declaration was adopted by world leaders in 2000 signaled that things have gone wrong. Indeed they have.

Just before the MDGs Summit, pictures of malnourished children and bodies disfigured by jiggers appeared on the internet and TV screens all over the world. Viewers wondered what has happened to Uganda’s success story and star performance. Museveni could not explain these sad developments and chose to stay away.

To salvage what is remaining of Uganda before it falls into a precipice, the voters must send Museveni home on February 18, 2011. Uganda needs new leadership that engages other people rather than goes it alone, that has credibility in the sense that it means what it says and finishes what it starts (there are so many excellent development programs that have not or have been partially implemented), that governs by persuasion and not by decree or force that spills blood, that helps the poor and vulnerable and creates opportunities for self-determination, that is believable and leads for others.

Desmond Tutu summarized the qualities of a good leader when he wrote “The good leader is one who is affirmative of others, nurturing their best selves, coaxing them to become the best they are capable of becoming. This style of leadership is not coercive but plays to the strengths of others, giving them space to fulfill themselves. The good leader is not threatened by the accomplishments and gifts of others, for this leader is really not a one-person band but a team player. Such leaders are often described as charismatic… They are inspirational because in the end they enable others to blossom and not to wilt. Such a leader will almost always be courageous, willing to stick his or her neck out, and take unpopular decisions [and] risks…

“I believe too that a good leader has intuition, a knack, the capacity to read the signs of the times, and to have an uncanny sixth sense of knowing when to go for it…

“The real leader knows too when to make concessions, when to compromise, when to employ the art of losing the battle in order to win the war. Some leaders make a virtue of being hardliners. You might win, and then one day comes the shattering almost ignominious loss” (Essays on Leadership. Carnegie Corporation December 1998).

This is the leader Uganda needs. Sadly, Museveni is not.