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Beyond campaign rhetoric

How journalists have allowed campaign rhetoric to obscure issues that are fundamental to the election

President Yoweri Museveni’s campaign strapline; `Steady Progress’ sounds like a slogan from a communist pamphlet, not a marketing sound-bite in a competitive election. With it, the President is not promising anything new or spectacular but merely more of the same. This reflects a severe lack of imagination in the President’s campaign strategy.

The leading opposition candidate, Dr. Kizza Besigye, has the most powerful message that resonates with voters. Besigye claims that Museveni has mismanaged Uganda and points at widespread poverty and poor delivery of public goods and services, especially in health and education, saying they are a result of corruption and greed.

Besigye uses anecdotal evidence like Abim Hospital and Paya Primary School in Tororo to drive his point home. He uses these to call for radical change. Nowhere is campaign rhetoric more appealing (and dangerous) than where it makes use of (and abuses) undeniable truths. Ordinary voters want a simple message. And Besigye has it. The problem is Museveni, he says. The solution is to get rid of the president.

This is where journalism has failed Ugandans. Rather than explain, journalists have been carried away by images of Abim and Paya to propagate Besigye’s campaign rhetoric. For example, journalism should ask the question: has the Museveni administration been a disastrous failure? You cannot judge something you cannot measure. So what measurement can we use to confirm the validity of campaign claims?

lastwordLet me illustrate. New York is the richest city in the world and I visit it more than four times every year. While the per capita income of the USA is $54,000, that of New York City is $111,000. Yet when I walk through certain parts of Brooklyn, I see many homeless people begging on the streets. Does this anecdotal observation disprove the fact that New York is the richest city in the World? If anecdotes are all we needed, then Museveni would use Ugandan tycoon Sudhir Ruparelia as evidence of how wealthy all Ugandans have become.

So to test Besigye’s hypothesis that Museveni has mismanaged Uganda, we need to find neutral and scientifically developed indicators. One such indictor is annual growth of GDP. So I got data from the IMF on economic growth for 189 countries to see how Museveni has performed. Over the last 25 years, Uganda has had the 11th fastest growing economy in the world, the fourth in Africa. Indeed, if oil and mineral rich exporting countries are removed from the sample, Uganda is 7th in the world and 1st in Africa.

This is an incredible feat for a landlocked country that had been torn apart by military coups and civil war leading to state and economic collapse. Indeed between 1989 and 2013, Uganda’s economy grew faster than the economies of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Mauritius, Botswana, Thailand, and Malaysia – the growth miracles of the last half of the 20th century. I am not campaigning for people to elect Museveni. But whoever is challenging him should demonstrate a strategy to meet and exceed this record.

I decided to use another indicator – export earnings. It tells us the ability of a country to earn foreign exchange. For this, I wrote to the IMF asking for the export growth figures of Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal over the last 25 years. These three countries have never suffered military coups and dictators of the Idi Amin type, nor had international military invasion or prolonged and brutal civil war (though Senegal has had a low intensity conflict in Casamance). But these are not the reasons I selected Kenya, Tanzania and Senegal for my letter to IMF. I will explain later why they are in my sample.

The IMF figures show that in 1991, Uganda was earning $200 million from her exports. Kenya was earning $2.2 billion (eleven times more than Uganda), Tanzania $1.02 billion (five times more than Uganda) and Senegal $1.36 billion (almost seven times more than Uganda). According to IMF, in 2015 Uganda earned $5.4 billion in export of goods and services i.e. our export earnings have grown 27 times. Kenya earned $11.4 billion, Tanzania $9.6 billion and Senegal $3.8 billion. Do the maths and you will see that Uganda under Museveni has leap-frogged Kenya and Tanzania and overtaken Senegal.

This is critical. The biggest threat African economies have always faced is reliance on one or two major export commodities for an overwhelming share of their foreign exchange earnings. When such commodities suffer a sharp fall in their international price, the local economy is hit hard. It is happening right now to Zambia due to the fall in the international price of copper. It is also inflicting damage to the public finances of Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria – the nations that depend on oil for a large share of their foreign exchange and budgets.

In 1990, Uganda faced a similar structural vulnerability. Coffee was our largest foreign exchange earner and we depended on it for 94% of export earnings. Today, coffee is still Uganda’s leading export, earning Uganda $400 million in 2015. But that is only 7.4% of our export revenue. Thus Uganda under Museveni has successfully diversified its exports and cushioned herself against risks of single commodity price volatility.

The third scientifically generated indicator we can use came last year when Stanbic Bank conducted a continent-wide survey of all the economies of Sub-Sahara Africa. It aimed to provide a picture of the most reformed and therefore best-managed economies where investors can expect a good rate of risk-adjusted return. It identified six countries – Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

For many who believe longevity of governments or lack of term limits on presidents is Africa’s biggest problem (as I used to think and argue passionately), this is cause to pause and reflect. All the six had not seen a change of government (ruling party) in almost three decades. Four out of six did not have term limits. Five out of six had governments with a military background. Four out of six had had long serving leaders. None had ever seen an opposition party defeat a ruling party in an election. Religious faith in these political dogmas fails to stand the test of evidence.

The fourth neutral indicator of economic performance is poverty reduction. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of widespread poverty in Uganda that politicians can point at to make their case. Let us again use scientifically aggregated data that captures the overall picture of poverty in Uganda. According to the Uganda Demographic and Household Survey for 2012, the number of people living in poverty has fallen from 56% in 1992 to 19% in 2010. This number could be much lower today.

Or we can use figures from international organisations that compare Uganda with her neighbors. According to the joint IMF/World Bank Global Monitoring Report for 2013, the number of people living in poverty in Uganda is 38%, Kenya at 43%, Rwanda 63% and Tanzania 68%. Yet Uganda has the least public expenditure per person. This year, it will spend $150 per person, Kenya $436, Rwanda $208 and Tanzania $216.

But if Uganda has been performing this well in all these indicators, why is the state delivery of public health and education services so bad? The obvious answer seems to be that Museveni has been abysmal at managing these services. It also seems reasonable to conclude that this is because of the corruption and incompetence of his government. Indeed, even I had always believed this to be the case.

But this is where my biases run into trouble. The World Bank in collaboration with the Africa Economic Research Consortium has done the most comprehensive qualitative and quantitative study of healthcare and education performance in Africa between 2012 and 2013. It covered Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal – the reason I used these countries in my letter to IMF. The results are depressing and justify anger against Museveni if Uganda is looked at in isolation. For example, there is high absenteeism of teachers and medical workers in Uganda. Ugandan doctors perform at the level of Kenyan nurses. And only 65% of teachers passed mathematics they teach, only 58% passed English.

If you think this problem boils down to Museveni’s personal leadership (as I used to think and argue passionately), look at this. The difference in diagnostic accuracy, absenteeism among medical workers, adherence to clinical guidelines, equipment and drug availability and management of maternal neonatal complications between government and private health facilities was statistically insignificant. The same applies to education indicators as the tables attached this article show.

For someone like me who has been arguing for the privatisation of government education and health facilities in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness, this was a total repudiation of my beliefs. If this mismanagement is attributable to Museveni’s leadership, what explains the disastrous state of the private sector? The problem seems society-wide. Public sector failures are a reflection of a general problem in society. One could argue that it is the role of government to enforce standards in both public and private institutions. Granted.

But the beauty of the World Bank study is that it also has data on Kenya, Tanzania and Senegal. And Museveni is not president in these countries. Most critically, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal have term limits and presidents change regularly and (for Kenya and Senegal) we have seen an opposition party and presidential candidate defeat an incumbent, and power changes hands. They, therefore, have the political systems that Uganda lacks and which we believe are the magic bullet for good public sector performance.

In nearly all the critical indicators Kenya performs better than Uganda. But these differences are not statistically fundamental. Museveni (and any reasonable analyst) can say Uganda has been digging itself from the ditch created by mismanagement under Idi Amin, our international war with Tanzania, and civil wars that lasted 25 years. Indeed, Uganda’s performance is significantly made worse by statistics from the northern region, where civil war lasted decades and ended only ten years ago.

But most critically, Kenya has a much larger budget of $21 billion compared to Uganda’s $5.4 billion. It spends thrice more money per person per year than Uganda ($436 against $150). However, Uganda performs better than Tanzania and Senegal on most indicators. Tanzania spends $216 per person and Senegal, $333. The worst indicator for Uganda is unusually high absenteeism rates even by African standards and Museveni should take blame for this. However, controlling for public expenditure per person, Uganda beats Kenya, Senegal and Tanzania in government efficiency and effectiveness.

Here, therefore, is the real problem with Museveni’s campaign. It is not that he has performed badly. Rather the President is poor on message. His campaign team has proved incapable of leveraging his achievements and – through skillful use of anecdotes, graphs, pictures, and videos- showing that his government is one of the best performing in Africa on many critical indicators and therefore capable of doing more good.

With available evidence, Museveni’s campaign would then warn voters against listening to the angriest voices and mistaking Besigye’s bluster for vision. Museveni should then have used his record to make a big promise that shows foresight and imagination – a fresh deal that points the way to new opportunities, especially for the youths. Instead, Museveni’s people, in a panic, have let him be associated more with violence and intimidation that is actually obscuring his record. That is the actual disaster.

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