If the NRM government had done what it promised in its ten-point program, we would not be discussing the role of religion in Uganda’s development and politics. But since 1987 when it launched structural adjustment, the government left economic growth and distribution of benefits to market forces and trickle down mechanism and concentrated on building and consolidating security forces and engaging in regional and international ventures. By 2009 the government realized that the economy and society did not do well under structural adjustment and abandoned the model. Economies in success story countries like South Korea and Singapore grew at an average rate of ten percent for decades with state participation. And economic benefits were shared equitably. In Uganda, economic growth has fallen far short of ten percent. And the benefits have disproportionately gone to the few families that were already rich and are boasting in public, leaving the bulk of Ugandans trapped in absolute poverty, unemployment, sickness, functional illiteracy and hunger. Desperate Ugandans are flocking to their churches in search of relief. Therefore religious leaders have an obligation to act including calling on the government to take appropriate action. NRM government, instead of listening and collaborating with religious institutions to find a lasting solution, has begun accusing them of engaging in anti-government subversive activities thereby dragging them into confrontational politics.
Modernization is a process that involves all stakeholders in a political, economic and social environment. Thus there is always an interaction among politics, development and religion. When a government does a good job in addressing social challenges, religious leaders applaud political leaders for a job well done and pray for them to continue the good work. When there is praise of government by religious leaders, the former does not talk about religious involvement in politics. When, on the other hand, government neglects conditions of the people and religious leaders bring it to the attention of leaders even in a constructive sense, the latter complain of religious interference in politics with intent to destroy the government, an engagement that government would not tolerate.
What religious leaders in Uganda are trying to do to improve the economic and social welfare of Ugandans in collaboration with other stakeholders including the government is not new. Leo XIII became Pope at a very difficult time. In 1891 he published Rerum Novarum in which he called for social justice within the framework of the existing system. The Pope appealed for economic and social reform to achieve justice. He called upon the state “to promote the interests of the working class by assuring just wages and adequate conditions of labor, by encouraging the formation of unions, by safeguarding the integrity of the family, by taking responsibility for the welfare of all members of the community”(Milton Viorst 1965). The Pope participated in political economy discourse in a constructive manner.
Similarly, under Pope John XXII, the Catholic Church continued to play a pivotal role in social reform. In his messages under what he called “reawakening of the Church”, the Pope introduced daring reforms including addressing the problem of economic inequality. He called on the Catholics to care for the needy and underprivileged not only for believers in the Catholic faith but for “the whole of humanity”. He called on the clergy and the faithful alike to engage in economic and social reform in order to help the poor and oppressed through peaceful means. The Pope’s proposals were approved at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The Pope’s call to all people of goodwill around the world toward peace and social justice had a profound political impact particularly in Latin America where the Church worked for peace based on justice and human improvement through social reforms and action.
In Brazil, about a million Catholics mostly from poor working class formed religious associations. In the repressive military years of the 1970s, these associations were the only mass political movement in the country. Bishops and priests spoke out against injustice at times risking their own lives. The Catholic Church and its leadership have spoken clearly about easing the conditions of the poor, marginalized and powerless people. The work of late Pope John Paul II is particularly noteworthy.
During the 2011 Christmas sermons religious leaders throughout Uganda expressed concern about the deteriorating economic and social conditions of their flock and called on the authorities to do something to ease the suffering which is spreading and deepening as unemployment and prices rise, making it difficult for many households to put food on the table. The facts are indisputable that Uganda under the NRM regime is not doing well politically, economically, socially and ecologically. United Democratic Ugandans (UDU) has prepared and issued a National Recovery Plan (NRP) accessible at www.udugandans.org as an alternative to Uganda’s failed policy. It was formally sent to the government for comment. In this plan, political, economic, social, democratic and ecological problems were analyzed and action-oriented solutions recommended.
What is needed is that instead of confrontation and intimidation, the government should encourage collaboration. Instead of spending more public funds on purchasing military equipment to silence dissent, let NRM invest that money in development. Shooting and jailing dissenters will not solve the problem. In 1905 Russian authorities fired and killed some workers who gathered in St. Petersburg to demand better wages and improved working conditions. Shooting them didn’t silence them. Instead demonstrators went on strike that spread to the entire country causing more problems for the government and landlords who faced the wrath of peasants. NRM’s rush to use force indiscriminately including those working constructively to find a peaceful solution will not work. UPC II used force and intimidation against those who opposed the government. It didn’t work because the majority of Ugandans were determined to change the regime. It won’t work this time either. Why? Because the eyes and minds of Ugandans are opening up and they are seeing what is hurting them in a country well endowed. They are beginning to understand connections among those doing well from all parts of the country, not only from Ankole and Kigezi. And they have started shedding fear. The genre is out of the bottle and won’t be pushed back in.
Countries like Singapore and Costa Rica that invested wisely in the economy and people do not need significant security forces (Costa Rica only has a police force). Commenting on Singapore, Brower (2002) noted “The city’s rate of economic growth rose to above 10 percent by the 1970s, remaining at that level for the next twenty years. Soon the population’s living standard was second only to that of Japan among Asian countries. … Militarily insignificant, its security depended on its vital role in the economic development of South Asia”. Singapore has involved everybody in the development process and built excellent skilled human power. NRM should, like Singapore, call on all Ugandans including religious leaders and craft a comprehensive development program based on UDU’s National Recovery Plan for rapid economic growth with equity and sustainable development. Finally, NRM government should draw a lesson from Louis XIV and Louis XVI of France. When Louis XIV realized that antagonizing the nobility would cause him trouble, he decided to convince them to work with him. And they did. By contrast, when Loius XVI refused to accommodate demands of those who opposed him, he lost his throne.