Why have Ugandans continued to support NRM?

There is a general agreement even among staunch supporters of NRM that things have got worse for the vast majority of Ugandans (even the wealthy ones are worried about the mushrooming clouds of serious potential insecurity and instability). Yet election after election NRM is winning. Is it because the opposition parties have not offered a convincing alternative in terms of leaders and/or policies? Or is it because elections are grossly rigged or a combination of both? Notwithstanding, why is it that in the most recent by-elections FDC and DP are defeating NRM even in the latter’s back yard? One may venture to suggest that Ugandans are beginning to understand that their suffering is caused directly by deliberate NRM policies. What are these policies that have contributed to endemic suffering? Here are some of them.

First, when NRM took over power in 1986 it introduced a new Uganda shilling to replace the old one. To get the new shilling every Ugandan who had money in the bank and/or in the house lost 30 percent as service charge – a decision that was taken against professional advice. The government also knocked off two zeros from the old shilling, meaning that for every 100 old shillings you got one new Uganda shilling. A combination of these two deliberate policy decisions constituted a significant loss of purchasing power especially for retired citizens.

Second, the excessive and frequent devaluation of the Uganda shilling against the US dollar meant that the price of imports went up. For example, let’s say that before the devaluation the exchange rate was 10 shillings for one dollar. It means that if a bar of imported soap was worth one dollar, you would pay ten shillings to buy it. After devaluation when 70 shillings exchanged for one US dollar, it means that for the same bar of soap, you would now pay 70 shillings instead of ten. If your income remained the same as before the devaluation, it means that you would reduce expenditure on other goods and services by 60 shillings. That is what economists call opportunity cost. You would be worse off unless you borrowed 60 shilling to maintain the same standard of living as before the devaluation. But you would ultimately be worse off when you start repaying the loan. Thus, you will end up worse off if your salary remains the same. With devaluation of the Uganda shilling, all imports became expensive.

Realizing that Ugandans would not afford new manufactured imported products, the government decided to import used goods which are cheaper at the beginning but have a short life expectancy. You therefore replace them frequently which could probably end up more expensive than buying a new one if one could afford it. Take the case of vehicles. A second hand car is cheaper than a new one at the beginning. But the purchaser of the second hand vehicle buys spare parts more often than the owner of the new vehicle. If you are a taxi driver, you pass on the extra costs plus more to passengers who end up poorer because in order to pay for increased transport cost, they have to reduce purchase of other things if their incomes remained the same and don’t want or cannot qualify to borrow. Or to maintain the same level of welfare, you begin to sell assets like cows, goats or even land. At the public level, old vehicles emit more pollution gases than new ones. The more old vehicles there are the more they pollute the air, causing serious public health problems.

Third, in order to increase domestic savings, NRM government deliberately raised interest rates and has kept them there (the president often complains about them for public consumption but has done virtually nothing to bring them down which he could if he wanted to). People with money put it in the bank to earn interest rate. But borrowers could not borrow if the cost of borrowing was likely to make it difficult to make a profit. So, small and medium scale enterprises are discouraged from borrowing. If you add on the high price of imported intermediate goods for manufacturing industries you begin to see why Uganda investors are not doing well. They have either closed down or scaled back operations and dismissed workers. New enterprises are also discouraged. It is important to understand that it is small and medium scale enterprises that hire unskilled and inexperienced workers like most of Uganda youth because their operations are simple. Small and medium enterprises also contribute a significant share of economic growth and poverty reduction. This explains why unemployment of youth is very high and economic growth has remained low. The fact that economic growth grew at 3.2 percent against population growth at 3.5 percent means that incomes have fallen relative to the rising cost of living. The recent poll has shown that 81 percent of Ugandans reported that they are poorer, justifying the walk-to-work as a genuine reflection of the economic crisis and calling for government intervention, not with police batons and teargas but with public works programs to ease youth unemployment and other harsh conditions.

The big companies are the ones who borrow at high rates of interest because they still make profits. When they borrow from the local market, they convert the local currency into dollars and purchase machines that replace labor in their enterprises. Thus, large scale industries use local money to set up capital-intensive enterprises that do not benefit Ugandans in terms of jobs. Capital intensive operations require certain types of skilled human power that Uganda does not have. That is why you see skilled jobs going to foreign workers including those from Kenya while Uganda has a ‘sea’ of unemployed graduates who sadly don’t have the required skills.

Fifth, in order to have enough foreign exchange earnings for big businesses, the government decided to increase and diversify exports including of food stuffs traditionally available for domestic consumption such as maize, beans and fish. That is why NRM’s policy has been to encourage Ugandans to produce for cash and not for the stomach in order to export as much food as possible and generate foreign exchange. To achieve that goal has meant reduction of food availability in Uganda pushing prices beyond the means of many households. Because earning foreign exchange comes before food for domestic consumption that is why NRM has refused to provide school lunches for primary school children because that would reduce the amount for export. That is why unlike any other country, Uganda allows foreigners to enter Uganda with their trucks and purchase as much food as they can get provided they pay in dollars. That is why Uganda is the major seller of food to the World Food Program (WFP). For NRM earning dollars is more important than feeding Uganda people especially women and children. That is why over 30 percent Ugandans go to bed hungry every night. That is why malnutrition is now killing more Ugandans than malaria. That is why under-nourished women are producing underweight children with permanent physical and mental disabilities. That is why some Uganda children who don’t eat balanced and adequate meals have developed smaller brain size than normal children and cannot study well and work productively.

Sixth, in order to earn foreign exchange more quickly, NRM government through the prime minister has decided to take land from peasants and give it to the rich (foreign and domestic) farmers to produce more food quickly for export markets because landless and jobless Ugandans won’t have effective demand to purchase the food. Large scale farmers will likely prefer land where the infrastructure is good such as roads and near the airport or railway to facilitate export of food stuffs cheaply. We are likely to see small scale farmers in Buganda and Busoga losing much more land to large scale farmers than those in remote and unattractive parts of the country. Baganda and Basonga should be ready for the shock or prevent it before it occurs.

Seventh, consumers in developed countries prefer lean meat from animals that feed on grass than fatty meat from animals that feed on feeds like corn and soy beans etc (they also prefer naturally than artificially grown fish). More Uganda land is therefore likely to shift from crop cultivation to cattle grazing. And as Uganda becomes drier which NRM government doesn’t seem to be bothered about (apparently no mention of environment in State of the Nation address or budget speech), conditions will be more suitable for grazing than food cultivation. Those with skills in herding cattle will benefit and crop cultivators will lose. Uganda will ultimately become a cattle herding than a matoke cultivating country. And this will be a real economic metamorphosis that Museveni talks about.

Cattle herding requires fewer workers than crop cultivation. Consequently, there will be surplus labor which cannot be absorbed in towns which are specializing in services and industries that are largely capital-intensive. So what will happen to the excess labor? It will be sold to external labor markets a process that has already begun. Companies are already in place and more are going to spring up and multiply specializing in the export of Ugandans for a commission. That is why some commentators are saying that a kind of slave trade has entered Uganda through the back door. Others are using a more diplomatic term of human trafficking. It is not the name that counts; it is the outcome – selling Ugandans as commodities in return for foreign exchange. How many will return at the end of their contracts is any body’s guess!

Seventh, because NRM projects that in the long run, Uganda’s agricultural, industrial and service enterprises will be capital intensive, it has not been keen on building skilled capacities that will have no jobs and create political troubles because as one Uganda minister told me, it is easier to control illiterate than literate people. Uganda’s policy (perhaps accidentally) is like what obtained in apartheid South Africa which had no place for blacks in the modern sector. Blacks were therefore given low education as is happening in Uganda under NRM regime for low skilled jobs (what NRM calls mass education). The blacks were herded in towns and in rural reserves where it was easy to control them. The apartheid government would probably have exported them if there was an international labor market.

This export of human beings is happening under all sorts of disguises. To confuse Ugandans NRM is now saying that Ugandans have a right to work wherever they want and NRM cannot violate their right to do so but when Ugandans demonstrate in exercise of their right security forces descend on them with tear gas – a clear case of double standard. Most Ugandans that have entered this labor market are working under horrible conditions. Is this how we should treat our fellow citizens?

I have over the years in my capacity as a citizen written to the president, prime minister, speaker, leader of the opposition, minister of finance, Uganda ambassador to the United Nations in New York, permanent secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs and many ministers, church leaders, development partners and many others cautioning against Uganda’s economic direction. I have also distributed free of charge about five hundred copies of my ten books to government officials and private sector from the president all the way down. Some of my communications with senior government officials are contained in chapter three of my book titled “For Present and Future Generations: Using the Power of Democracy to Defeat the Barrel of the Gun” published in 2010. I did not get a response except acknowledgement by one or two officials. I suspect they don’t want a debate because they can’t justify what they are doing. I created a blog www.kashambuzi.com to involve more Ugandans and others in a debate about what is happening in Uganda. For six months in 2011 I co-hosted an English program on Radio Munansi to sensitize Ugandans, friends and well-wishers so that they can take the necessary action. The future of Uganda is not in NRM’s hands but in Ugandans’ who are sovereign.

UDU of which I am privileged to serve as Secretary General has prepared a National Recovery Plan (NRP) with a view to reversing the current trajectory as outlined above. The Plan has stated the challenges and what needs to be done to resolve them. Ugandans have been presented with two choices: to continue supporting NRM and go down the drain or to support UDU and get Uganda back on the right development path in which everyone will be an active participant and a beneficiary of the outcomes.

Keeping quiet because you are afraid of NRM’s brutality is inexcusable. The only fear in Uganda now is fear itself. NRM government is aware of serious consequences if it violates the rights of Ugandans when they call on it through demonstrations to make life better for them. If you have noticed lately, police violation of Uganda rights has declined and NRM is losing by-elections because violence during campaigning and voting and counting votes has eased. This didn’t happen by chance. UDU has contributed a significant part in bringing police brutality to the world’s attention through press releases (which some of you have read) and behind-the-scenes discussions and the world has responded by sending signals in writing (which some of you have read) and in private to the NRM government to refrain from beating up and killing peaceful demonstrators. So, go out and make your case especially the youth whose future has been damaged. Go out there and do what you can peacefully (without destroying property and attacking fellow Ugandans including security forces) and the world will support you through various ways. UDU will certainly support you. The women have so far dome wonderfully and do more until your demands are met.

Fellow Ugandans, don’t wait because nobody will solve our problems for us. There is no point in keeping and surface when the struggle is about to end and you begin to make all sorts of demands because of such and such. The more you wait the more you lose. So come out and be counted. When the rumor we hear that immigrants and refugees are going to be naturalized is realized our numerical superiority will be reduced by the number of naturalized citizens and we don’t even know who and how many they are and why they can’t return to their countries since conditions in neighboring countries have stabilized. We gave them a shelter when they needed one. They shouldn’t turn around and demand citizenship. If NRM cannot cater for her own citizens how will it cope with additional millions of naturalized citizens who will step up their demands. We also hear that national borders in East African community will be eliminated as economic integration and political federation progress. How many Ugandans have agreed to that and who authorized them? For me Uganda national boundaries are inviolable. We ask members of parliament to be vigilant including those in the East African legislature. You are legislators to promote and protect Uganda interests not to sell them. We ask our church leaders to lead their flock, to be the voice of the voiceless. NRM’s tricks should not trap anyone with promises of development funds for Faith-based projects. The world will be watching what we Ugandans do for ourselves and will extend a helping hand when it realizes that we are serious about change. NRM is having its own difficulties. It should not try to solve them by dragging others into their political arena. Those who are comfortable today may be out in the cold tomorrow (and we have seen that happen) or may hand their children an empty plate.

As noted above, UDU has provided a fundamental alternative to NRM’s failed policies. The choice between NRM and UDU is yours.

Eric Kashambuzi

Secretary General, UDU

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