Ugandans have a right to be angry at their government

Ugandans have a right to be angry and to show it when a mother produces an underweight child because she is undernourished in a country that exports food to earn foreign currency to meet the needs of the few rich families; an infant dies of jiggers because of poor housing conditions and lack of shoes; a child dies of hunger because the mother is forced to produce food for cash rather than for the stomach; a child drops out of school for lack of school lunch because the government has sold food to feed children in neighboring countries; jobs go to foreign workers when Uganda graduates are unemployed because of a liberal labor and immigration policy; domestic industries are closed and workers dismissed because of a trade liberalization policy that allows in cheap used or subsidized imports; droughts and floods cause hunger and famine because of reckless and unsustainable de-vegetation policy that has adversely changed thermal and hydrological regimes; people who lose elections or are censured by parliament for corruption are appointed ministers; family members, relatives and friends of key officials are appointed, promoted or reassigned to positions they do not qualify for while qualified people are sidelined; children of rich people attend private schools at home or abroad while those from poor households languish in neglected public schools and graduate without learning anything; members and relatives of senior officials go abroad to deliver or get treatment while those from poor families die in child birth or from preventable and curable diseases because the health system has been plundered; well connected citizens steal huge sums of public funds and are not touched while junior officers who steal ‘peanuts’ to make ends meet are arrested and jailed; weak and voiceless citizens are ‘politically’ robbed and dispossessed of their land and property as in Rukungiri through municipal legislation; twenty percent of Ugandans get poorer and many more hungrier in a country that has been boasting of eradicating poverty and all its offshoots of hunger, disease and illiteracy; government divides up the country into many economically unviable districts making them dependent on central government for budget support with stiff conditionality; and government hosts expensive international conferences when money is needed to meet basic human needs of Uganda citizens etc, etc. Anger has also been accumulating for the following illustrative deceptions.

First, while still waging a guerrilla war from 1981 to 1985, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) deceived Ugandans that it would end poverty and all its offshoots thereby ending the long suffering of Ugandan people. The Movement further deceived Ugandans that its government would be servant and not master of Uganda citizens. Religion would be a personal matter between an individual and his/her God and would have no role in Uganda politics. Government would ensure that farms, schools and hospitals run smoothly to meet demands for food security, quality schooling and healthcare. It would maintain law and order, protect individual’s or households’ and community property especially land which is life and only asset for the overwhelming majority of Ugandans. It would ‘replant hair’ on bald mountain tops and steep hillsides to check erosion and valleys to restore biodiversity, check flooding and reverse local climate changes. Large swathes of land had been irresponsibly cleared for quick economic returns by a few Ugandans compromising benefits for present and future generations.

Second, deceptions were soon revealed as soon as the NRM formed a government in 1986 through the barrel of the gun rather than the ballot box, removing the inconvenience of transparency and accountability requirements. Greed of the few who fought the guerrilla war triumphed over the welfare of the majority. Those who fought the guerrilla war became master rather than servant of the people.

To make the fighters comfortable, the government robbed 30 percent of citizens’ savings disguised as a ‘service charge’ for exchanging old for new currency. The government also dismissed en masse or marginalized many experienced public servants disguised as meeting structural adjustment conditionality while the main reason was to make room for guerrilla fighters and their family members, relatives and friends. Experienced Ugandans at home and abroad that were not connected with the fighting or supported the guerrilla war in other ways were ignored. Many guerrilla fighters and their supporters got ‘juicy’ jobs in public and private sectors they were neither qualified nor experienced for. Much less they were not prepared to work hard or upgrade their skills since they had fought or supported fighters in various ways including taking care of their families during the bush war. To fill the gap, the government preferred to recruit young foreigners and advisers rather than bring back experienced Ugandans living abroad. Their inexperience and lack of knowledge of local conditions and Uganda’s culture made these young foreign experts make many costly mistakes which would have been avoided by using experienced Ugandans. The young foreign officers and their senior advisers preferred market forces and private sector in all areas of human endeavor. Institutions like cooperatives, though by no means perfect, that had served the people especially in remote rural areas were abolished leaving the people they served previously without an alternative. The private sector would not serve in areas where profits were not attractive.

Ipso facto, the private sector concentrated in areas and sectors with minimum costs and maximum profits. The capital city of Kampala became the magnet for services and a few manufacturing enterprises in the country. Consequently, some 70 percent of national income is concentrated in the capital city with 2 million people out of 33 million Ugandans. Agriculture, Uganda’s economic pillar that supports some 90 percent of Uganda’s population has been neglected receiving some three percent of national budget instead of 15 percent as agreed by AU heads of state in 1993.

The NRM government privatized public enterprises in a hurry and at throw away prices, retrenched staff and took over deficits before handing them over largely to foreigners or Ugandans who had fought and their supporters. Arguments that what was needed most was to improve management and not sell the enterprises fell on deaf ears. In fact sale of public enterprises was speeded up in large part to forestall the building up of opposition forces. Ugandans were deceived that by selling these enterprises, the government would generate revenue for economic and social development.

Deceiving Ugandans that by selling food in export markets would raise more family cash incomes, transform subsistence agriculture and diversify their consumer and producer options was perhaps the worst deception of all. Diverting the food sector from serving domestic needs that had sustained Ugandans since colonial days to the export market contributing to widespread hunger brought anger to a boiling point. Ugandans survived the brutal 1970s and the bloody first half of the 1980s by accessing food from their gardens or local markets. Diverting food to neighboring countries and beyond for the sole purpose of earning foreign currency to import goods and services for the rich few families, selling land to foreigners and the rich elite to produce cut flowers, fruits and vegetables for export markets left many Ugandans hungry and as expected very angry. How has this anger been expressed?

First, when the government proposed to sell part of Mabira forest to a foreign firm while Ugandans had been brutally evicted from it, there was angry reaction. Angry Ugandans in concert with environmental protection advocacy groups mounted demonstrations resulting in loss of lives and many injuries.

Second, lack of jobs has created a vast pool of idle, hungry and frustrated youth ready to bounce on the government when a moment presents itself. In September 2009 the moment arrived when the government prevented the Kabaka (King) of Buganda and his officials to visit a part of his kingdom. The youth mounted a massive unarmed demonstration in the capital city of Kampala. The government panicked and authorized disproportionate use of armed force killing over 70 citizens and injuring many others. The brutality of the regime was exposed to the international community that had treated the government with kid gloves for embracing shock therapy structural adjustment and taking a strong stand against terrorism. There is general consensus in Uganda that the NRM government has conveniently exploited the terrorism menace to stifle political dissent and trample human rights and freedoms.

Third, Uganda communities living in the United States have demonstrated twice in a row in September 2009 and 2010 respectively during President Museveni’s visit to the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly meetings. The demonstrators’ anger can be measured by the messages on placards and in the media that have included genocide, land grab, impoverishing citizens deliberately to control and exploit them with impunity, rampant sectarianism and corruption, invading neighbors, exploiting their resources, killing, wounding and displacing their people and refugees and accusing western countries and corporations of supporting a regime that has lost trust of its people and can only hope to win 2011 elections by massive rigging as in the past.

There is no doubt that this anger will get worse if donors who are believed by most elite Ugandans to have kept the unpopular NRM government in power for twenty five years do not take steps to reverse the present political economy trajectory. Thanks to communications technology that has enabled sharing of information not only in real time but also to places around the world that did not know what was going on in Uganda under the NRM dictatorship and the protective cover provided by major donors and corporations.

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