NRM policies are ruining Uganda

Let me start with this statement by way of clearing the air. Some have raised questions, even written to me, about my motive for writing so much in so short a time: who is behind it, who are my research assistants and who is funding it? Some have even suggested that I am driven by a desire to unseat NRM government and President Museveni in particular; that I am too radical, too assertive, too sectarian.

Let me make it very clear and hopefully for the last time. Because I was uncomfortable with the way geography, economics, population and history were taught in senior secondary school and at the undergraduate university level – because what they taught did not match the situation on the ground where I was born and raised in southwest Uganda – I decided very early that I was going to study in a multidisciplinary fashion and do multidisciplinary research in order to understand the interconnections and correct distortions in those subjects. It is therefore not by accident that I studied geography, demography (population), economics, international law, international relations, sustainable development and world history. And because I did not want to be influenced by anybody in one way or another, I never asked for or accepted sponsorship, or mentor or research assistance. So I have worked alone to this point.

I began serious research work in the early 1970s and used my own resources to set up a library and pay for publication of my ten books. My work has focused on the Great Lakes Region because I realized that you cannot study Uganda meaningfully outside that framework. My research and writing have been of a historical nature going as far back as possible. In all my work I have tried as much as is humanly possible to be factual – or to put it slightly differently – to tell the truth. The overall motive has been and still is to share information about what I have learned, at times covering areas that are taboo with all the risks and other implications. Policy makers need to have correct information and I have tried to make a modest contribution in that regard. In this connection, I have contributed to Ugandans free of charge several hundred copies of my books. The future will take care of itself.

Let us return to the topic under consideration – why NRM is ruining Uganda. I have come to this conclusion having reflected on what was done under colonialism, during the decade of the 1960s and since 1986. From 1971 to 1985 Uganda experienced severe economic and political difficulties that resulted in drastic decline in economic growth and provision of services and infrastructure. Real GDP declined by 20 percent and GDP per capita was reduced to $170. Because of these special circumstances, this period has been left out.

Notwithstanding shortcomings of colonial rule such as indirect system of governance and converting Uganda into a raw material exporting country, there are things that the administration did well and should be appreciated. In the interest of time and space, let us focus on a few areas. A decision was taken that in Uganda land belongs to the indigenous people to grow food for domestic consumption and crops for export. So Ugandans owned and used their own land. Second, the British understood the importance of food and nutrition security in human development. The administration encouraged food storage so that regular supply was maintained. Fisheries were developed to provide an affordable source of protein. Nutrition clinics were established to treat undernourished children and mothers and to teach how to prepare and serve balanced diet in a hygienic environment. Inspection teams were established to ensure compliance. Mothers Unions provided home economics lessons to women. Schools were provided with lunch to improve attendance and performance. Balanced diet, boiled drinking water and good sanitation and general hygiene including washing with soap reduced mortality and morbidity.

Although health facilities were few and far between, they provided good service. The premises were kept very clean as a model to be emulated in homes. The dispensary in my county had a staff of four people – medical assistant, midwife and two dressers. They came to work on time, in their uniforms and served everyone without favor. They charged no fee or demanded any bribes. If you chose to give one of the staff a chicken or pineapple, etc that was out of custom not because you wanted better treatment. Cases they could not handle were referred to the district hospital at the district headquarters in Kabale.

Like in health, education facilities were few and far between. But they were staffed with qualified and dedicated teachers. Schools were inspected regularly and the quality of education was good. Admission into higher classes was based on performance. Students who did well but came from poor families were assisted. That is why good students from poor families made it all the way to university and got commensurate jobs upon graduation.

Performance of Obote and his UPC party in the 1960s has been well summarized by the World Bank as follows: “GDP growth was about 6 percent a year from 1963 to 1970, and relative price stability was maintained. At independence in 1962 Uganda had one of the most vigorous and promising economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the years following independence amply demonstrated its economic potential. Uganda’s social indicators were comparable to, if not better than, most countries in Africa. The country’s health service had developed into one of Africa’s best. Uganda pioneered many low-cost health and nutrition programs. There was a highly organized network of vaccination centers and immunization programs reached 70 percent of the population. Although school enrolment was still low, Uganda’s education system had developed a reputation for very high quality”(World Bank 1993).

NRM under the leadership of President Museveni came to power in 1986 with a country tailored ten point program drawn up by staff with practical experience in Uganda’s history, economics, culture and diversity. It was an excellent program based on public and private partnership. However, the program was abruptly abandoned in 1987 in favor of structural adjustment program (SAP) that introduced market forces and privatization of public enterprises, foreign direct investment and liberalization of the economy as well as export diversification, balanced budget and price stability. It neglected social services to be taken care of by trickledown economics. The role of the state in the economy was virtually eliminated and employment of foreign experts was part of SAP arrangements.

In order to promote economic growth and export diversification changes that were made came to be harmful to Uganda. Promotion of cut flower cultivation and export beef production resulted in peasants losing their land and source of livelihood. Areas around Kampala and Entebbe have been converted from foodstuff into flower gardens resulting in felling trees that did not hinder peasant agriculture, using fertilizers and pesticides detrimental to the environment. Clearing large swathes of vegetation for ranches has reduced water seepage into the soil, lowered water tables; increased soil erosion due to the powerful force of wind and rainfall and disappearance of streams and shrinkage of lakes. The adverse changes in hydrological and thermal regimes have resulted in desert conditions, frequent droughts and floods that have contributed to reduced agricultural productivity and food shortages. Fisheries which had been developed and beans grown to provide a source of affordable protein to low income families have become a major source of foreign exchange earner at the expense of domestic consumption. The rigid emphasis that Uganda must diversify and export no matter what has resulted in a population that is not eating enough and faces prospects of increased neurological disabilities and outright starvation, undermining human capital development. As human development begins at the time of conception the nutrition status of pregnant women is very important. Under-nourished mothers produce underweight children with permanent physical and mental disabilities if they survive. Eating balanced diet three times a day must be taken seriously as a national security issue especially for pregnant women, lactating mothers and children.

NRM government has been arguing in favor of export policy because there isn’t sufficient domestic demand. But this has been presented only in numbers that Uganda’s population at 33 million is too small for economies of scale. What should concern the government also is the low domestic purchasing power. With the majority of 33 million Ugandans absolutely poor, unemployed and underemployed and increasingly becoming landless, there is no purchasing power. Focusing on export markets implies neglecting to boost Ugandans’ purchasing power. The government should make a concerted effort to reduce poverty and promote employment with good incomes to boost purchasing power.

The problem of skilled human power is being addressed in the wrong way at least for medium and long term purposes. While it makes sense to hire foreign skilled workers to fill vacant posts in the short run, the government has to make plans to retain trained skills already in the country and invite those living abroad and train Ugandans for medium and long term purposes. Ugandans of equal training and experience earn less than foreign experts whose salaries and other benefits are much higher in order to attract them. Human capital development is a complex business. It embraces adequate nutrition, quality education and healthcare which are deteriorating in Uganda. Although quality in and relevance of education have been discussed and written about very little has been implemented. Countries like India which are forging ahead in rapid economic growth invested heavily in education at the science and technology level in particular. The so-called ‘economic miracle’ countries of Asia have succeeded economically in part because they invested heavily in quality education at primary and secondary schools and specialized training at the tertiary level. And the trained human power has been retained or returned home whereas in Uganda the opposite is the case – skilled staff is encouraged to seek work abroad and those already abroad to stay there. This policy appears at first sight to be dictated by demands for earning foreign currency but whatever the real reason in the long term Uganda will be a net loser.

A population that is unhealthy is a liability to the nation. Sick people are expensive in terms of resources devoted to treating them and the income lost while sick and relatives abandon work to attend to them. Sick children cannot learn well and a poorly educated population has low productivity and is expensive. Deteriorating health conditions that are drifting towards a precipice and food and nutrition security that have deteriorated drastically are undermining Uganda’s human capital formation.

Let us conclude with Uganda’s ecological conditions. At the start of the 20th century Uganda was described as the “Pearl of Africa”. It had fertile soils, tropical vegetation full of wild game, perennial rivers, water bodies and wetlands, adequate rainfall in amount, timing and duration and a mild climate. These conditions allowed Uganda to grow food throughout the year, to feed its people adequately and generate surplus for export to earn foreign currency. Although de-vegetation began seriously during the Amin regime, it has accelerated under the NRM government. Ecological conditions have deteriorated to the extent that a specialized agency of the United Nations warned a few years ago that if Uganda does not move quickly and reverse environmental degeneration, the country will turn into a desert within 100 years – within, not after 100 years. Some parts are already showing signs of desertification during the dry season. Yet the government has talked but not acted. It is not lack of resources that has prevented action. It is lack of will and appropriate priority setting.

After 26 years in power, NRM government has little to show to justify its continuation. Economic growth and inflation control which were used as success stories have now become history. Uganda needs an annual growth rate of 9 to 10 percent to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 including reducing absolute poverty and hunger in half. The current annual growth is around five percent against a population growth of over 3 percent. Inflation which at one time was reduced and kept around 5 percent is now close to 30 percent. Structural adjustment that dominated Uganda’s economy since 1987 was abandoned in 2009 having failed to deliver largely because it lacked adaptation to changing circumstances. NRM trusted market forces, laissez faire capitalism and trickle down mechanism too much without state intervention to correct imperfections of the market. This was a big omission that has tarnished the NRM image and reduced it to a poor manager of state affairs. Uganda is now described as a failed state under military dictatorship. The time for change to save Uganda and her people is now. NRM so deeply divided and engulfed in corruption and sectarianism has lost the will and capacity to govern no matter what NRM friends may want us to believe. The writing is on the wall in capital letters for all to see. Relying on suppressing dissenters will not turn the situation around. The new development paradigm – different from the abandoned neo-liberal economics that NRM staff was used to – needs a new team.

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