ANDREW MWENDA: Why the belief that Ugandans are angry because youth lack jobs and other economic opportunities is mistaken
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW MWENDA | Last week, President Yoweri Museveni inaugurated a $600 million fertilizer and aluminum plant in Tororo. A few days before, he had opened a new $150 million bridge over the River Nile in Jinja. And a few days earlier he had been to Kapeka where he opened a Chinese ceramics factory that will produce 40,000 square meters of floor and wall tiles per day. Even a few days before that he visited the $2 billion Karuma hydro electricity project that will produce 600MW of electricity.
There is a lot happening in our country that the priests of the new secular religion of development would cheer at. Yet there is widespread anger, social frustration, and anxiety on social media and in streets. Many elite commentators say the Museveni administration has gotten worse and is doing little or nothing. They argue that people are angry because government has failed to deliver public goods and services and jobs. I hold the opposite view: that the anger we see is because the government has actually been very successful in promoting economic and social change.
From the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s, I was one of the critics of this government. My quarry was poor investment in transport and energy infrastructure plus widespread corruption and incompetence, especially in the army. At the time most roads were in a state of disrepair with potholes everywhere. Electricity was being rationed; public sector employees were being paid wages below subsistence; the army was full of ghosts and was procuring junk military hardware, hospitals and schools were missing, the cost of public administration (political patronage) was taking 20% of the entire budget.
Since 2008, the Museveni administration embarked on a huge infrastructure-building program. Only 1,200km out of the 2,200Km of paved roads that were in good condition in 2008, today we have more than 7,000km. From only 380MW of electricity in 2008, Uganda shall have over 2,000MW of installed capacity by March next year when Isimba and Karuma are completed. The UPDF is today entirely different from the army Maj. Gen. James Kazini commanded until his removal in 2003.
In 2008, Uganda was depending on donors for nearly 50% of her budget. Today that number is down to less than 25%. In 2008, about 65% of the budget was going to recurrent expenses, today 60% of the budget goes to development. On such issues as life expectancy, prevalence of malaria, child and infant mortality, availability of drugs in public hospitals, the quality of houses for ordinary people and the gini-coefficient (the measure of income distribution) there was been a lot of improvement in the ten last years.
I do not want to clog this column with statistics demonstrating quantitative and qualitative improvements in the indicators I have referred to above. I hope the reader will trust that I am writing this on the basis of hard data. Suffice it to say that on the most critical indicators the Museveni government has done more in the last ten years than it did in the first 22. Therefore, anyone following this government’s performance would refer to the period 2008 to 2018 as its golden age. Yet for most elite Ugandans online and on the street this is the worst period in Uganda’s history. Why?
This brings me to the central argument of this column already highlighted in the title – chasing the wind. It is a common belief (or assumption) among many analysts that economic prosperity leads to individual and public satisfaction with the government seen as responsible for it. Even Museveni believes that creating more economic opportunities and jobs for the masses would increase public confidence in and support for his administration. Yet on the contrary and historically, rapid economic improvement has produced anxiety, frustration and anger among the public.
For instance, the transition from backward, poor and feudal existence to modern, affluent industrial nations in Western Europe was not smooth. It was accompanied by equally rapid growth in social frustrations and public anxiety leading to the development of such ideologies and social movements such as socialism, communism, fascism, anarchism, nihilism, terrorism – (yes, terrorism was produced by capitalist transformation in Western Europe). Indeed, it was in the struggle to stave off social revolution at home that the European bourgeoisie sought colonies abroad.
The same applies to Uganda. The more successful Museveni’s administration is in transforming the country the more it would generate increased anger, anxiety and social frustration. If the anger is insufficient to topple him, it is because Museveni has been less successful. Our country remains a rural society dependent on agriculture, not industry. If the last eight years has witness growing public anger, it is because they have been the most successful. Holding many other factors constant, if Museveni were to be more successful in transformation he would face a social revolution.
Of course the claim that increasing prosperity produces anger and frustration in the masses does not hold in every society. There are rare examples such as Singapore where increasing prosperity led to a broad consensus among elites in favour of the growth model. The same is happening in China today. But South Korea’s experience mirrored that of most of Western Europe and the USA. In Africa, Ethiopia is the most successful state in promoting rapid economic growth but is equally beset by constant protests. Rwanda is the second best performer in Africa but has secured a broad elite consensus in favour of its growth ambitions.
Creating more economic opportunities will not cure widespread social frustration and anger in Uganda. The angriest critics of Museveni are not ordinary peasants in the villages or even the much hyped unemployed youth in towns. They are Ugandan professionals with jobs. The lesson is that as growth picks apace, people go to schools and urban areas where they are exposed to the outside world. Their expectations and aspirations grow faster than the rate at which the economy can produce opportunities to satisfy them. It is the mismatch between people’s expectations and available opportunities that leads to social frustration, anger and anxiety.
As I have already noted with Singapore, China and Rwanda, it is possible for economic transformation to be achieved without any major social upheaval. But this trajectory is rare and has only been seen in a few countries. For most of history, rapid social and economic change has produced anger and anxiety that Uganda is unlikely to escape. In promoting economic prosperity in the hope of containing public anger, Museveni is chasing the wind.