Western economic and political models have failed in Uganda

The collapse and abandonment of structural adjustment in 2009 and the disastrous February 18, 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that the two western models have no place in Uganda’s political economy. How did it all begin?

In 1981 the revenue starved government of Obote was forced to sign a structural adjustment agreement with the IMF in order to open the door for other donors to enter and support Uganda’s development efforts. The agreement had stiff conditionality including a balanced budget and low inflation. A combination of drought and guerrilla war necessitated deficit financing slightly above the ceiling agreed with the IMF. The latter would not budge and withdrew support at such a critical moment. IMF action meant that the door was shut to other donors because agreement with IMF is a prerequisite for foreign aid. Therefore, other donors had to leave or reduce support to humanitarian activities. Under the pretext of excessive human rights violations, the World Bank pulled out as well.

Lack of resources to meet the needs of the public and armed forces and other aggravating factors led to a split in the armed forces and a discontented population. Consequently, Obote’s government was overthrown in July 1985 by a section of the national army.

In order to avoid a similar political catastrophe, Museveni abandoned the ten-point program and adopted a structural adjustment modeled on Thatcher’s shock therapy version. This version championed in Uganda by Linda Chalker and Paul Collier called for macroeconomic policies including low inflation pegged at five percent as in Britain (Steve House and William Maltby 1999). Thatcher’s version also called for privatization of public enterprises, liberalization of Uganda’s economy (resulting in a flood of cheap imports), dismantling trade unions and introducing labor flexibility associated with low wages and hire and fire at will to maximize profits, promoting export-oriented economic growth and replacing state intervention with the invisible hand of market forces and laissez faire capitalism in Uganda’s economy.

External advisers knew that these drastic measures would be unpopular and give rise to demonstrations and opposition to structural adjustment. Museveni was therefore tacitly allowed to build strong security forces to crush demonstrations and opposition groups. Thus, security forces were exempt from drastic budget cuts. In fact defense budgets exceeded by a wide margin the agreed upon ceiling and implementation of conditionality in other areas was relaxed.

Strengthening security forces to thwart opposition groups and demonstrations against structural adjustment gave Museveni a unique opportunity to build his intelligence, police and military forces that he has used with impunity to crush opposition parties and violate human rights in the name of maintaining stability which is a yardstick that western powers have used to measure success in Uganda at the expense of freedom.

For his part, Museveni opened Uganda’s markets to cheap imports that have knocked out domestic industries contributing to high unemployment, launched export-diversification strategy that has deprived Ugandans of adequate food, privatized public enterprises and handed them over to foreigners and drastically reduced budget support to social sectors, infrastructure and institutions which have crumbled. Support to agriculture has averaged four instead of 15 percent of government budget.

Museveni has taken the unprecedented route of moving from agriculture to capital intensive services which has resulted in 70 percent of GDP concentrated in the capital city of Kampala with less than 2 million residents out of a total of 32 million Ugandans. Skewed income distribution in favor of few families and foreigners has been the result.

The overall outcome – everywhere for all to see – has been disastrous in all areas of human endeavor – high unemployment especially of youth; absolute poverty with many getting poorer; malnutrition especially of mothers and children; diseases of poverty represented by jiggers and scabies etc; rising crime and alcoholism; human sacrifice and urban slums; climate change and ecological decay.

After many years of cover up in cooked economic growth and per capita income statistics, the performance record became so embarrassing to the government and donors (especially after the explosion of the diseases of poverty reflected in jiggers and malnutrition) that they decided to abandon structural adjustment in 2009. They came up with a five-year development plan that disappeared soon after its launch. Blaming rapid population growth will not absolve the inappropriate western economic development model.

Western imposed democracy in the form of periodic elections has been even more disastrous. Every election since 1996 has been rigged in favor of Museveni. And rigging has got worse. The February 18, 2011 presidential and parliamentary election has been the worst.

Museveni who was groomed, helped to capture power and sustained it by western powers was given enough time, resources and publicity to build popularity in Uganda. Western powers even allowed him to postpone introduction of multiparty politics while other countries like neighboring Kenya were being forced or else they would lose foreign aid. But Museveni is not a popular man and will never be in Uganda!

Western powers that have offices in Uganda should have known this by now. When an investment is bad or it has run its course, you abandon it. Sinking more money into it incurs more losses. And western powers are losing the support of Ugandans because of their continued support for Museveni. The removal of Mobutu Sese Seko restored Congolese support for western powers.

To rig re-election, Museveni bused in foreigners from neighboring countries; inflated voter registration (Ntungamo and Kawempe were scandalous cases); disenfranchised very many indigenous voters using a partial electoral commission which the donors tolerated; intimidated vulnerable northerners (afraid they would be sent back into concentration camps if they did not vote for Museveni and NRM); bribed massively with money suspected to be donor funds for development purposes, explaining why the Uganda government has gone broke.

Where is the IMF that has offices in Kampala that monitor balanced budgets? Why did it allow Uganda government to go broke? And why hasn’t it withdrawn as it did with Obote II? Why hasn’t the World Bank asked where its development loans to Uganda have gone? Is the World Bank not aware of violation of human rights under Museveni’s regime? Why hasn’t it withdrawn support as it did during Obote II government?

It is these double standards that have made these two institutions in Uganda unpopular and possibly elsewhere.

Western powers should have realized by now that their economic and political models have failed in Uganda. They should facilitate Ugandans to design their development model suitable to their circumstances (foreign and mostly young experts do not quite understand Uganda’s history and culture). Ugandans should also be able to freely and fairly elect their leaders. Election observers have so far shown bias towards the incumbent Museveni and his party. If they are not prepared to cover the whole electoral cycle (they arrive a week before polling day and are deployed mostly in areas like towns where the opposition is going to win) and to be impartial then frankly they should not come back to Uganda. They are welcome as tourists!

The people of Uganda have paid a heavy economic and political price and are quickly losing patience. The February 18 election has broken their hearts. They know foreigners are taking over their country. They are now convinced that western powers favor Museveni over them and stability has triumphed over freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom to live in dignity. And resistance is building up. We need to diffuse it because prevention is better than cure.

Some people mistakenly think that Ugandans are passive and docile. A few weeks ago many people thought Tunisians and Egyptians were passive and docile too! We do not need to wait to prove that Ugandans can actually behave like Tunisians and Egyptians and force the president to step down.

The material for popular revolt is there including rumors of discontent in the armed forces. What is needed is a spark. The presidential candidates that lost should not go to court because the verdict is clear. And once they have lost the case they will diffuse the spark for popular uprising.

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