Why did NRM lose the human touch?

I first came into contact with some leaders in the NRM government at Ntare School in the early 1960s. We reconnected in the late 1970s in Lusaka, Zambia. I participated in their informal conversations and was impressed by what they were planning to do particularly in the economic and social sectors. The agenda was people-centered. To them everything – security, politics and economics – was to serve the interests of Ugandans who are sovereign.

This message of hope was contained in the ten-point program published in 1985, shortly before the NRA captured power in January 1986. Uganda would be united and prosper with no one left behind. Religion would be a matter between the individual and his/her God. The government would ensure that classrooms, teachers and instructional materials were available in sufficient quantity and quality. Adequate hospitals and dispensaries would be built, properly staffed with trained staff, and equipped with medicines and supplies. Preventive programs in line with primary health care requirements would also be provided. Households would have adequate and balanced diets for a healthy, productive and active life. These pronouncements and more endeared the NRM government to the people of Uganda who were prepared to do what it takes to make the government succeed in its noble mission, including postponing elections. The president, ministers and senior civil servants travelled abroad to sell their program which was well received in the international conferences and summits.

The inherited economic difficulties were aggravated by low earnings from Uganda’s main commodity export of coffee, external debt increased, inflation rose rapidly reaching over 300 percent in 1986. At the same time the government was grappling with political and national security challenges. Government intervention in the economy came under attack from external forces that wanted it to be left to the market forces and the private sector.

By the beginning of the 1990s, economic growth had improved averaging 6.5 per cent per annum. However, the president and his government was not happy because the benefits of economic growth had not trickled down to the people whose standard of living remained far below the minimum level required to meet the basic human needs of housing, clothing and feeding. The government recognized that signs of hardship were common. Wages were still low, farmers had not been paid, children were dropping out of school and travelers resorted to walking long distances because they could not afford bus fares (South February 1991). The government was thus worried about the human condition of all Ugandans. I talked with some senior government officials and ministers and I know they were genuinely concerned about the state of human affairs and wanted to do more.

Then almost suddenly things began to change after the 1989 conference of parliamentarians and other stake holders which took place in Kampala. The government talk shifted from the ten-point program language of mixed economy to neo-liberalism. Privatization, liberalization, diversification of exports and macroeconomic stability occupied center stage in policy making discourse. Social sectors were treated as non-productive in the short-term and were accordingly accorded low priority. Discussions with Ugandans which hitherto had been active including parliamentarians were superseded by those with development partners especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Instead of encouraging housing for the ordinary Ugandan the rich constructed huge houses on the hills of Kampala while many urban dwellers squeezed into slums that were spreading rapidly. Instead of developing textile to provide new clothes, stimulate cotton growth, create jobs and increase incomes, Uganda’s markets were opened to second hand clothes that suffocated the textile industries and forward and backward linkages with adverse outcomes. Instead of encouraging households to improve their food intake, they were encouraged to sell, a decision that has been accompanied by acute food shortages, rising food prices and serious under-nutrition especially of women and children.

Then came privatization of public enterprises – a very unpopular venture among Ugandans. “Prodded by the World Bank, the president sees privatization as the only way of escaping the tribulations of running his cash-strapped economy… The announcement of the privatization program caused an uproar, not only in the… interim parliament, but also amongst Ugandans in the streets” (New African September 1992). Museveni chose to go along with World Bank advice and ignored his people. The advertisement and sale of some enterprises were done secretly and cheaply. For example, the Agricultural Enterprises together with its six subsidiaries were sold for $7.6 million, “although the value of the assets was put at $36 million… The government also agreed to take over the responsibility for the company’s debts amounting to $4.2 million”(New African September 1992). Privatization resulted in loss of jobs as the new management dismissed workers to improve efficiency.

In order to balance the budget as a condition for obtaining international assistance, the government dismissed public servants. Those retrenched had reached the age of 55. Others were dismissed for alleged laziness, drunkenness and general poor performance. The exercise was so arbitrary that many innocent people lost their jobs. The president is reported to have said “… he does not have any regrets over the lay-offs… I am fervently in support of privatization. I am tired of corrupt unpatriotic and backward bureaucrats who do not know the value of social property… No one will derail me from my mission”(New African September 1992).

While President Museveni’s popularity soared internationally and he became the darling of the west, he and his government increasingly paid little attention to the human aspect in Uganda’s policy making process. Subsidies on agriculture, education and health care etc declined or were eliminated with serious adverse human outcomes.

The more foreigners got the more they demanded. They have been demanding land ownership as a condition for attracting foreign investment. But “The selling of large tracts of land to investors is a potential point of conflict with the local population because people will feel their land has been taken away by foreigners” (South February 1991). The struggle over Mabira forest is well known to be repeated here except to remind ourselves that it resulted in loss of lives, injuries and destruction of property. The government has come up with a smarter strategy though no less damaging namely expanding municipalities so that the incorporated land is managed by the council making it easy to sell or lease it to private enterprises. This approach has already caused controversies which are being ignored by a regime that is increasingly becoming dictatorial. The total effect of these actions has been a drastic decline in the human condition of the majority of Ugandans especially those in remote rural areas.

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