Why Uganda’s social and cultural fabric has crashed

Contrary to popular belief that Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power to end the long suffering of Ugandans, the truth of the matter is that the long suffering has been used as a tool to keep NRM government in power indefinitely. This may sound cruel and unkind or even incredible but sadly it is true.

Museveni, his government and NRM members of parliament soon realized that it is easier to govern poor and vulnerable people because they are helpless and voiceless and can easily be manipulated through persuasion or intimidation or both. Museveni and his group also realized that Uganda elites and donors cannot be easily manipulated or intimidated because they have a voice. Therefore according to Museveni and his team the two groups needed to be accommodated and integrated fully into government actions so that they share credibility for success or responsibility for failure. To stay in power indefinitely two things have happened.

First, in 1986 Museveni created a government of national unity including representatives from all regions, all parties and all faiths. He created a political space for all categories of Ugandans including women, youth, disabled and the private sector etc. The big shots that could not be included in the cabinet, Museveni appointed them as his advisers or gave them other lucrative jobs.

Museveni soon realized that he had left out some noise makers at Makerere and other institutions of higher learning. He invited them and offered them hard-to-refuse jobs with high sounding titles, big money and other benefits.

All beneficiaries were then instructed in the meaning of collective responsibility: that once a decision has been taken you have to implement it whether you agree with it or not short of that you resign and that is in part how FDC was born. People who were criticizing government policy before they accepted government jobs became strong advocates of the same policy overnight!

In order to raise money to cover all the expenses connected with these and other appointments, Museveni descended on the poor and vulnerable Ugandans and imposed on them, inter alia, a thirty percent charge for converting the old into the new currency. Some in the donor community objected strongly for fear that such action would likely cause a recession, spread and deepen the suffering of Uganda people and lead to political instability.

Knowing that the masses that constitute some 90 percent of Uganda’s total population are helpless and voiceless politically Museveni ignored the donor concerns, went ahead and extracted thirty percent to pay salaries of the politically powerful Ugandans he had installed into expensive jobs and the security forces that he relies on.

Second, the donor community gave Museveni a very important instrument which he used very effectively to further weaken the poor and vulnerable Ugandans. The instrument was structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Structural adjustment called on the government to reduce government expenditure and balance the budget; retrench public servants; diversify exports; increase interest rates to attract savings, reduce money in circulation and control inflation; remove subsidies on education, health, transport, housing etc; privatize Uganda’s economy, and introduce labor flexibility to attract investors who would pay the lowest wages with impunity to maximize profits. Furthermore because social sectors of education, health and housing etc were treated as non-productive in the short-run they were accorded low priority in resource allocation.

The government opted for the ‘shock therapy’ and most extreme version of structural adjustment which was favored by external advocates over the gradualist and sequenced approach resulting in the sacking of the minister of finance and governor of the central bank that favored the latter option that would have minimized the social impact. Museveni replaced them with supporters of the external advisers’ option of shock therapy who are still in charge even after the government has launched a development plan, signaling to the donor community that still cherishes the virtue of SAPs that the building blocks of structural adjustment program are still in place and Uganda civil servants in the ministry of finance and central bank who support them. In other words, no change!

The donors knew that to implement a shock therapy program required a bold, determined and authoritarian leader capable of using force if necessary to maintain law and order. Museveni is such a leader. According to I. W. Zartman “Ghana and Uganda [under Jerry Rawlings and Yoweri Museveni military rulers] have shown the importance of a strongman …”(SAIS Review Summer-Fall 1993).

To facilitate the exercise of authoritarian rule, the donors did not set a limit on security forces expenditures. Generally, where harsh SAPs were being implemented donors advised but did not insist on limiting defense expenditure. According to R. K. Mclymont (2009) “No demands concerning military spending were made [by donors]”. Using this omission Museveni strengthened the instruments of repression including spies in almost every household and kept the poor and vulnerable silent, forcing or bribing them to vote NRM at election time.

The donors also knew that the implementation of shock therapy adjustment would not work in a democratic setting where public opinion matters and elections can be used to throw unpopular government out of power. Mindful of this constraint, the donor community quietly allowed Museveni to postpone the launching of multiparty democracy while at the same time other governments were under pressure to go multiparty or lose international assistance.

Consequently Museveni and his cabinet and with strong support of NRM members of parliament voted to reduce resource allocation to social sectors, end subsidies and introduce user charges particularly in education and health, refuse to provide school lunches because food has to be exported to earn foreign exchange to repay external debt.

So what are the consequences on the poor and vulnerable? We shall cite two examples. In order to make ends meet, many Uganda women including married ones have become sex workers with all the risks involved including HIV & AIDS. Research conducted in Uganda included an interview with 65 seropositive and 65 seronegative Baganda women in Kampala. The study found that the HIV infected women had more sex partners than the uninfected women. All the women were aware that to avoid HIV they have to limit the number of sex partners. However, according to McGrath et al., “there are situations, such as economic need, when it is acceptable in Baganda culture for a woman to have a partner outside of her primary union. If sexual partnerships involve financial gain or increased financial security, then simply advising them to reduce their sexual contacts without recognizing the potential economic harm that may result is problematic” (H. A. Baer et al., 1997).

Second, the NRM policy of production for cash and not for the stomach in concert with the need for cash has resulted in households selling almost all the food with serious adverse nutritional consequences. According to Christine Obbo “… the commoditization of food is affecting the health status of children, as women sell more nutritious foods, such as eggs, fruits and vegetables, to generate incomes and then spend some [if not all or even more] of the money they earn on medical care for problems of malnutrition. … the real causes of poverty existed prior to the implementation of SAPs, which only aggravated the situation of the vulnerable (women, children, and the elderly)” (B. House et al., 1995).

There are many more examples. I urge readers to identify, talk or write about them so that the government and the development partners can do something to ease the long suffering of Uganda people. The two examples above have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt how Museveni, his government and with donor support has used resources to buy the support of the strong in government and security forces at the expense of the weak, helpless and voiceless majority to prolong his stay in power.

To make ends meet, the poor and vulnerable citizens of Uganda have had to sacrifice their cultural and social values. This regrettable development should not be allowed to continue. For a start Ugandans must insist on the adoption and implementation of human security that guarantees freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom of all Ugandans to live in dignity.

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