Uganda leaders and their foreign backers who believe that Ugandans are docile and will not be influenced by Arab Spring Revolutions need to think again before it is too late. The Egyptians had all along been regarded as docile people. But at the start of 2011, they rebelled against what was considered to be a stable government with strong foreign support, powerful military and sophisticated secret service and within less than three weeks, the government was gone. Foreign backers switched sides and congratulated the revolutionaries for a job well done in the name of democracy and will of the people.
History is full of cases which show that a revolution in one place impacts on subsequent revolutions in places where there is discontent. Common discontent such as poverty, unemployment, hunger, inequality and police brutality etc brings people together as in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen to get rid of a government responsible for their suffering. The discontent in Uganda is similar to what obtained in these Arab countries before the revolutions: high levels of poverty, unemployment, hunger, inequality and police brutality etc. In a world that has been reduced to a village by transport and information technology news and ideas are being shared instantly. For example, many Ugandans already know the details of how Wael Ghonim and colleagues organized the Egyptian revolution from his book titled “Revolution 2.0” published in early 2012. Here are a few illustrations.
The American Revolution was influenced by 18th century enlightenment ideas about liberty, equality, happiness, tolerance and separation of powers. Tomas Paine’s pamphlet titled “Common Sense” published in 1776 in which he called for an immediate declaration of independence had an impact on Americans. Thomas Jefferson who drafted the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 was influenced by these ideas including the notion that people are entitled to get rid of governments which deny their inalienable right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In 1781, French soldiers including Marquis de Lafayette who participated in the American war of independence returned home. They brought with them revolutionary ideas they picked up in America. One of them was the idea that a ruler’s powers could be limited or overthrown by his own subjects and set up a republic. These ideas were contained in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen namely Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In the new constitution the absolute monarchy was reduced to a constitutional monarchy and eventually replaced with a republic.
In 1825 Russian soldiers that fought in Europe against Napoleon picked up the ideas of the French Revolution. The military officers known as the Decembrists organized a coup in December 1825 against the absolute monarchy in Russia. Although it did not succeed, it planted revolutionary seeds that would influence subsequent events, culminating in the Russian Revolution of 1917. And the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848 borrowed heavily from the French Revolution of 1789. Driven by political, economic and social grievances, the 1848 revolutionaries demanded liberal constitutions and concessions from autocratic leaders. Some leaders fled the country and others gave in and granted the constitutions that were demanded. Although some rulers later rescinded the concessions, neither Europe nor its autocratic kings were ever the same again. The safety of their thrones or their persons had gone. To stay safe, secret services were established to nose out and remove troublemakers from the scene before kings arrived because they had lost the confidence of their subjects. Not least, the decolonization of Latin America was very much influenced by the enlightenment ideas and the American and French Revolutions.
The decolonization of Africa was influenced by the independence of India in 1947 and the Afro-Asian collaboration. This led to the independence of Ghana in Sub-Saharan Africa in 1957. The impact on East Africa was so strong that the proposed dates had to be advanced especially for Kenya with many white settlers thanks to the influence of Ian Macleod who was British Colonial Secretary at that time. In French West Africa, the influence of Guinea which opted for independence in 1958 and joined the community of nations including the United Nations and its specialized agencies was overwhelming. The reception Guinea received on the international stage and its seat in the General Assembly of the United Nations influenced the remaining French colonies to demand independence which was granted to all of them in 1960 making it a special year in African decolonization. Most of North African countries had got independence earlier than Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Eastern, Central, Northern and Western African countries independence left southern Africa under colonial or white minority rule. Because of strong white settler control, many western and some African observers believed that countries in this region would not become independent in our life time, if at all. But Blacks had different ideas. They vowed they could not be left behind. They stepped up propaganda and guerrilla activities with Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique and white minority governments in South Africa and Zimbabwe. When Angola and Mozambique got liberated in 1975, pressure built up among Zimbabwe guerrillas to speed up the war, resulting in forming a Patriotic Front between ZAPU and ZANU. With fighting and political forces united backed by international sanctions, the Ian Smith Rhodesian government was pushed against the wall. Smith capitulated and a constitutional conference was convened in London where a decision was taken to have independence based on majority rule in 1980. Namibia became independent in 1990, leaving South Africans under the minority apartheid regime.
Those who followed closely political developments in South Africa after Angola and Mozambique; and Zimbabwe got their independence in 1975 and 1980 respectively will tell you that South African blacks were energized like never before. The Soweto student uprising of 1976 was in large part influenced by the independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1975. Trade Unions also stepped up organization and agitation. The independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 was followed immediately by student uprising in Cape Town and beyond. Every group including guerrilla fighters, political, women, student and religious stepped up the struggle to bring down the apartheid regime as soon as possible. They even demanded international sanctions to be imposed against the apartheid regime regardless of the impact they would have on their welfare. The international community was also pressured to release Mandela and other political prisoners and unban liberation movements. The surprise came in 1990 with the release of Nelson Mandela and then unbanning liberation movements and releasing political prisoners. White South Africans held a referendum that endorsed negotiations for a new South Africa. Negotiations that some considered impossible took place with a few hiccups, resulting in drawing up a new constitution and forming a government of national unity. In 1994 apartheid government exited and a black majority independent government was ushered in.
The point being made here is that Ugandans are human like other humans. They see and hear and get influenced by what is happening around them including removal of dictators from power as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. They see Syrian government under pressure to yield to demands of opposition groups. The military coup in Mali has also revealed that governments considered democratic and doing relatively well economically can also be unseated. Possibly some vital concerns in Malian society were not given sufficient attention by those who claimed that Mali was a success story.
These lessons should send a signal to NRM government and development partners that in Uganda the situation characterized by high poverty and unemployment, hunger and crumbling education, health, ecological, infrastructural and institutional systems caused by corruption, sectarianism and mismanagement is one that cannot guarantee stability and security for long. Government statements about Uganda’s sound economic fundamentals, oil and tourism potential for a better future for all Ugandans have been rejected by Ugandans who are focusing on why a country blessed with abundant natural and human resources and has been receiving generous external support should find itself in such a pitiful situation for the majority of Ugandans. The debates at home and abroad especially since the stolen elections of 2011 (international observers confirmed there was lack of a level playing field rendering results null and void) leave no doubt about what is in the minds of opposition groups. They have to participate in national affairs that affect them because winner-take-all arrangements instituted by NRM won’t be tolerated any longer.
Ugandans are increasingly losing interest in the ballot box because democracy at gun point will always favor the ruling NRM. Alternative methods that can bring about peaceful change in the first instance are under serious debate. Uganda belongs to all and none should be excluded because of fraudulent ballot box results. Because of serious imperfections in Uganda’s ballot box system, major decisions like term limits and joining the East African political federation should not be resolved through elections because NRM will always get what it wants. It might as well decide what it wants without wasting resources on so-called referendums.
A government of national unity is the answer to tackle the daunting political economy challenges that NRM has no will and capacity to handle. Diverting development resources into police, secret service and the military will only aggravate dissent and destabilize the country further. Ugandans cannot and won’t sit idly by when our neighbors like South Sudan are getting rid of or moving away from governments that have oppressed and dispossessed them of their rights and freedoms. Uganda lost its assets through privatization of public enterprises (I am not aware how much revenue was collected and what it was used for) and Ugandans are fast losing land, the only asset and source of livelihood for people who are functionally illiterate. Without land and functional education to get Ugandans jobs outside agriculture, many Ugandans will end up landless and jobless, if not already so. These developments cannot be tolerated and must be corrected before they lead to unhappy outcomes.