Uganda needs a multi-sector development strategy

Reports coming in about Uganda’s development record since 1986 are very troubling, to say the least. There are many reasons for this very poor performance. Two of them stand out prominently – the Hamitic myth and guerrilla mentality as well as single sector approach to development. To move onto the right development path will call for an honest and critical analysis of the status quo.

Without any offence intended, Museveni and his Bahororo, Batutsi and Bahima advisers came to power in 1986 with the long-discredited Hamitic myth that they are from a superior (white) race, intelligent, physically fit and attractive and born leaders. That myth bred over-confidence and complacency. Museveni used to tell reporters confidently that there was no problem his government would not handle, adding that the big problems had already been dealt with – successfully. Ugandans inside the country who criticized government policies and method of implementation were branded bankrupt or noisy empty tins in the opposition camp bent on sabotaging government development efforts and sabotage would not be tolerated. Ugandans who commented from abroad were described as people living on another planet and out of touch with the reality in Uganda. Foreign commentators were simply accused of interfering in domestic affairs of a sovereign state. The very poor 25-year record of economic, social and environmental performance hopefully has convinced Museveni (a Muhororo) and his Batutsi and Bahima cousins beyond any reasonable doubt – as confirmed by others many years ago – that they are not superior and more intelligent than other Ugandans and therefore not born to rule others in perpetuity. Most donors, however, turned a blind eye and deaf ear while mistakes were being made by NRM government because of Uganda’s role in regional geopolitics. Geopolitical interests overshadowed those of Uganda citizens. Continued external support to Museveni and his government will only prolong the long suffering of innocent Uganda citizens.

Regarding guerrilla mentality in governing Uganda, Museveni shelved conventional approaches to development particularly in the early part of his administration and adopted a single sector approach when he agreed to structural adjustment in 1987. Museveni believed he could command Uganda’s economy as he had commanded the guerrilla forces between 1981 and 1985. His decision to run the economy without external assistance when the treasury was empty and he had inherited an external debt of $1.2 billion confirms his belief in using guerrilla strategy in the development arena. Museveni’s decision to control the allocation of everything from foreign exchange to salt and sugar and soda, etc confirms his determination to govern unconventionally which failed and caused much suffering to the citizens.

In theory Museveni preached integrated approach to Uganda’s development. In practice he favored a single sector strategy without paying attention to the impact on other sectors. This was perhaps dictated by his conversion to a market economy in which an invisible hand is in charge of directing the economy and the associated interconnectedness among various sectors. Let us review a few concrete examples.

First, Museveni and his government focused on earning foreign exchange by increasing the production of traditional exports of cotton, coffee, tobacco and tea. The government also diversified into non-traditional exports mostly of foodstuffs and livestock (cattle and increasingly goats) traditionally produced for domestic consumption. This strategy was developed without paying attention to the impact on the environment and domestic food security. The result has been extensive de-vegetation and deforestation as more land was cultivated to increase and diversify exports. The introduction of cut flowers, expansion of pasture for large-scale cattle and goat herding and felling trees for timber exports have caused serious ecological deterioration and biological loss and associated hydrological and thermal adversities. The dry season has become longer and hotter, water tables have dropped, lakes have shrunk and permanent rivers and streams have become seasonal or disappeared altogether including the mighty Kiborogota (roaring like a lion) river on Ntungamo/Rukungiri border causing adverse changes in rainfall patterns. Consequently, Uganda is experiencing unprecedented droughts and floods, food shortages and localized famines that have necessitated food aid.

The export of food without determining domestic demand including for school lunches and growing cut flowers in areas previously used to grow food for local consumption in the Kampala/Entebbe areas and vicinity, have resulted in insufficient food availability in quantity and quality leading to severe under-nutrition especially of mothers and children.

Until Museveni made fish an export commodity, fisheries had been developed for the sole purpose of providing affordable protein to low income households. Fish together with beans (another affordable source of protein) have become major export commodities with serious protein deficiencies. Consequently, Ugandans have resorted to eating insufficient amounts of and nutritionally-deficient maize, plantains and cassava without nutritional supplements. Eating a lot of maize and cassava has resulted in neurological abnormalities including insanity. This explains in part why the number of mentally unstable Ugandans has increased contributing to domestic violence. There are other problems associated with a focus on increasing foreign currency.

Under-nourished mothers produce underweight children with permanent disabilities when they survive. Most of them die. Brain development takes place during the first three years from conception which coincides with insufficient food intake. Thus, by failing to establish linkages between foreign exchange earnings with environmental management and food security, Uganda has ended up with a devastated ecological system, undernourished mothers, underweight children whose physical and mental development has been severely impaired undermining human capital formation to meet the demands of a globalizing 21st century.

Second, because Kampala city is built on seven hills, there is a lot of water runoff when it rains. To avoid floods, colonial, Obote and Amin administrations did not permit construction in valleys which were preserved as drainage channels. When Museveni came to power with a non-conventional and ‘I know it all’ mentality, he invited developers and allowed them to select sites for their enterprises. Some chose to build shopping malls or industrial complexes in the drainage system including in one drainage channel that runs through the golf course. Environmentalists, Ugandans and foreigners, complained about the negative impact. Museveni rebuked them as anti-development and dismissed them as bankrupt and noisy empty tins. The unhappy outcome has been unprecedented floods in frequency and volume. Pictures of people, animals and vehicles on the verge of drowning leave no doubt that Museveni and his government made a mistake of omitting a nexus between urban development and environmental concerns.

NRM government’s preference for private taxis and motorcycles over buses in Kampala city has created traffic congestion and air pollution with adverse effect on business and health. Constructing more streets and establishing pollution control standards were omitted from the equation.

Third, when the government introduced stabilization and structural adjustment in 1987, it focused on inflation control and economic growth without paying attention to equity and employment considerations. Controlling inflation to five percent per annum or less was accompanied by high interest rate as money in circulation was drastically reduced. The resulting inflation to the tune of 30 percent or more discouraged small and medium-sized enterprises that provide jobs from borrowing to start new business or expand existing ones. Some existing enterprises retrenched staff to balance their books. The result has been unprecedented levels of unemployment with over fifty percent university graduates. In spite of this serious unemployment problem, the central bank continues to stress low and stable inflation rates at or below five percent. Everywhere central banks have the additional responsibility for employment, overall health of the economy and the standard of living of the people which the central bank of Uganda is not or is not seen to be exercising.

Uganda government has also focused attention on economic and per capita income growth regardless of distributional aspects by region and class. This omission has resulted in concentration of economic activities in Kampala city and highly skewed income distribution that has benefited the rich and disadvantaged the poor of whom some 20 percent have become poorer in a country where economic growth has by far and consistently exceeded population growth. Population growth therefore has not undermined economic development and provision of social services. It is skewed income distribution that has. Yet article after article in local newspapers is blaming population explosion and recommending birth control as a solution. Birth control – imposed or voluntary – will not solve a problem caused by bad economic policy. Both analysis of population growth as Uganda’s principal development problem and recommended birth control as the only solution are wrong. Meanwhile, the ministry of finance continues to stress economic growth as an end in itself.

Fourth, since the government introduced Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1997 under political pressure, it has failed to adjust it to the requirements of the job market. Its achievements have been based on gross enrolment without much attention to attendance and quality. Consequently, many children have dropped out of school, got married in their teens and began having families in a cultural and subsistence environment that favor many children especially boys. Many of those who graduated performed poorly and are virtually unemployable, hence staggering levels of unemployment and disguised employment or under-employment. A recommendation to introduce school lunches that improve attendance and performance and has many supporters at home and abroad has been flatly rejected by the president even without government financial contribution involved. The motive has remained elusive. Secondary and tertiary education has produced similar results. Here again, the government missed the nexus between education, employment, income and low fertility rate.

Finally, NRM government has escalated the liberal immigration and refugee policy began in the colonial days. Consequently Uganda has attracted legal and illegal immigrants and refugees and livestock from the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions in such large numbers that conflicts with indigenous people are on the rise about employment and land pressure in particular. There is no empty arable land left in Uganda to accommodate new immigrants. The situation will therefore worsen as more East Africans flock into Uganda within the framework of the East African economic integration and possibly eventual political federation. Integration and federation should ease not complicate lives of people. Whatever overall advantages may accrue, the interests of Ugandans must come first. By way of emphasis, the first and topmost responsibility of national governments is to protect the interests of citizens. Uganda governments and citizens must therefore keep this in mind as negotiations for economic integration and political federation proceed. Right now, member states of the East African Community and their peoples are at very different stages of economic, cultural, social and above all political development that a gradual, incremental and sequenced approach is the best and logical way forward. If they persist, the different political systems from that of Tanzania which is more democratic to the one in Uganda which is more dictatorial and authoritarian will render integration and federation untenable. Let us not deceive ourselves! For lack of a better expression, ongoing fast track political federation negotiations could be likened to producing an agreement that puts wolves and foxes and sheep and chickens in the same house! Figure out what the results would be and who would devour whom.

The interests of presidents must not be allowed to overshadow those of citizens or the interests of some countries to supersede those of others. Negotiators and leaders must always remember that they have a responsibility to their people in the short, medium and long run and a legacy attached to their names. While conducting negotiations, those responsible should draw lessons from the experience of European Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) particularly on the controversial issue of political federation. The nexus among all relevant sectors and interests is especially important in negotiations that may lead to the East African political federation. We do not need to rush!

There is overwhelming evidence that Uganda’s economic, social and environmental performance over the last 25 years has been a disappointment in large part because of government failure to establish inter-linkages among various sectors and to listen to constructive comments. This omission should be corrected in the five-year development plan launched in 2009.

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