Democracy in a corrupt society is a liability

Under President Yoweri Museveni, the philosophy of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) is that to rule you must impoverish, divide and corrupt the people. The NRM is implementing that philosophy through a combination of impoverishment, division and corrupt practices and tactics. The donor community has unintentionally – one would guess – assisted NRM in achieving its philosophy through structural adjustment, decentralization and massive donations. There are stories that the NRM is determined to rule Uganda uninterrupted by Museveni family for at least fifty years.

The NRM government adopted the adverse and extreme version of structural adjustment program – shock therapy – which has, inter alia, three major elements: retrenching public servants, reducing or eliminating subsidies and applying the full force of labor flexibility.

Retrenchment was applied selectively targeting non-NRM supporters and/or used to settle scores. Non-supporters of NRM were removed from public service en masse as the staff had to be reduced roughly in half and NRM made sure the retrenched servants did not get jobs anywhere else. For example, interest rates were set so high supposedly to control inflation that starting a small business was virtually impossible. Either you joined the NRM or you wallowed in poverty with your family and relatives that depend on you!

Reduction or elimination of subsidies was applied with full force particularly in education and healthcare. This decision hurt the poor particularly hard whether NRM supporters or not. Children dropped out of school in large numbers and others fell sick partly because of poor feeding as food had to be sold in response to government policy on production for cash and not for the stomach, forcing parents to sell their meager assets particularly land in order to get them treated or they died prematurely for lack of the equivalent of a dollar or two to purchase medicines. Selling assets drove more people into poverty and vulnerability.

Labor flexibility allowed domestic or business employers to pay close to nothing to their workers who would be hired and fired at will. Collective bargaining was crushed in preference for market forces that would determine wages on the basis of demand and supply. Demands for improved work conditions resulted in summary dismissals in some cases.

The donor community applauded the NRM government for taking bold steps to stabilize the economy. NRM was graded a ‘star’ performer making Museveni and his government the darling of the West and a success story to be emulated by other developing countries that wished to eliminate poverty and exit out of subsistence into modern economy and society.

Impoverished people and those who wanted to exploit them further began to look for ways to make ends meet. They were presented with the decentralization option. It was argued that decentralization would bring services closer to the people, more money would be allocated to the new districts, more jobs would be created and they would be appropriately represented in parliament with commensurate benefits. But districts would be granted on condition that the people signaled that they would vote for NRM. Those who complained that the districts were becoming too small to be economically viable were reminded that the government was responding to the democratic wishes of the people and the donor community did not seem to object.

Impoverished people are easy to corrupt especially when they are illiterate and in remote areas. In Uganda some ninety percent of the population lives in a rural subsistence economy. Ugandans have come to see elections – the basis upon which Uganda’s democracy is defined – as an opportunity to ease poverty-induced pain by getting free things. They do not care about the content of political campaign messages. They will go with candidates that give more free things like local beer, salt, matches, soap and donations to churches to fix leaking roofs or repair broken windows or as we are told to line the pockets of some priests. That is why NRM which has more corrupt means than other parties obtains more votes in rural areas than in towns. Poor and illiterate rural people are easier to corrupt than the elite who reside in towns where NRM does poorly in elections. This explains in part why NRM does not care about the high level of unemployment or the rising diseases of poverty. Poverty and vulnerability serve NRM’s political interests quite well. In a true democracy NRM would not win 2011 elections given the high level of unemployment and appalling level of absolute poverty. Some FDC supporters vote for NRM because they get free things from NRM which FDC is not able to supply or is prevented from providing.

If democracy is going to be meaningful and survive in Uganda, the country needs a level playing field. This can be realized in the following ways. First, donors should refrain from pumping money into the treasury during election time because much of it will finance NRM campaigns and donors should not pretend that they do not know that. Second, the Electoral Commission should be truly independent and absolutely transparent short of that more rigging by NRM than other parties is guaranteed. Third, international observers should monitor the whole electoral process from registration, campaigning, casting and counting of ballots and announcing of results. They should deploy more observers in remote areas where corruption is highest.

Otherwise Ugandans should forget about ever getting Museveni and his ruling NRM out of power.