By Ronald Musoke
So why don’t Ugandans care?
The latest poll conducted in Uganda in December 2014 by the International Republican Institute (IRI) – the American non-profit that advances democracy worldwide, two-thirds of the respondents (69%) say the country is headed in the right direction. And 80% of the respondents say President Yoweri Museveni is responsible for the good ride.
According to the poll, most Ugandans feel either things have gotten better or remained the same.
When asked about the country, 52% said it was better. But only 48% said their personal living conditions was better and only 41% said the national economy was better.
Significantly, although the number of Ugandans that feel that their personal living conditions and national economy are better is low, those who feel that it has gotten worse is much lower; at 32% and 39% respectively. Since the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points the sentiments appear evenly divided on the economy.
On the politics, only 27% say it has got worse since the last election. Up to 46% said it has got better over the last 12 months. At a time when the opposition is crying itself hoarse over the need for constitutional and electoral reform, this cannot be good news.
Coming in March, which is international happiness month, partly because March 20 is the globally recognised `International Day of Happiness’, the results of the poll should make Museveni the happiest Ugandan.
With the country just months away from the next presidential election in 2016, the poll findings should be sweet music to Museveni and his supporters.
But each time political opinion polls are conducted in Uganda, they generate a lot of heated debate and no doubt, this one has done the same. This time the question is why Ugandans who say the government has performed badly on the economy, prices, jobs; health, education, taxes, and crime still rate it so highly.
“This remains the paradox of Uganda’s economic growth,” says Onesmus Mugyenyi, the deputy executive director, at the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE).
He says Ugandans cannot generally be happy because the gap between the rich and the poor is widening because wealth is still concentrated in a few hands.
“How can there be economic growth when it is prosperity for a few and not prosperity for all?” he asks.
He cannot understand how people can talk of being happy about the general health of the economy, including its impressive economic growth in recent years, when in reality the wealth is not ending up in their household.
Patrick Wakida is uniquely in position to analyse this poll. He is the executive director of Research World International (RWI) which makes him an expert on opinion polls, and also a top member of Uganda’s biggest opposition party; the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). According to him, the IRI’s poll only confirms one thing; Museveni is reaping the fruits of 30 years of one man rule.
“Ugandans only know one person: President Yoweri Museveni,” he told The Independent, “Museveni himself has become an institution; the government institutions which are supposed to be working are not working.
“Museveni’s brand has been thrown into people’s faces, everywhere.
“President Museveni has destroyed all the institutions of government”.
Museveni versus his government
The significant marker of what Wakida is talking about is that while Museveni’s personal ratings are high, those of his government are very low.According to the IRI poll, 80% of the respondents interviewed feel President Yoweri Museveni and not his government (67%) is responsible for the overall direction where the country is going.
Interestingly, about 45% think it is Ugandans responsible while 20% think it is the ruling party, the NRM. Others credit the military (7%), donors (6%), churches (5%) and big business (4%).
When asked “How well or badly would you say the national government has been handling”:(a)managing the economy? Up to 51% said well, and 43% said badly.(b)Keeping prices down? Up to 45% said well, and 50% said badly.(c)Creating jobs? Up to 30% said well, and 65% said badly.
Based on those three responses, Museveni gets more people – 52% – saying his government is doing quite badly and only 42% saying he is doing well. So why do many Ugandans go on to rate him favourably? It is quite paradoxical.
Cissy Kagaba, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda says part of the explanation is that Museveni knows his powerbase; the common grassroots people, and strategically goes for it when doling out handouts, government patronage and groceries.
“The big picture for us as civil society is that we should be able to intensify our advocacy role by localising the message; by telling the people that Museveni who is at the top of the chain of command has failed to handle the people who are corrupt—and these people are responsible for the poor service delivery in their communities.
“It is not enough for us to keep talking about billions of shillings missing because the people at the grassroots may not be able to conceptualise how much a billion is worth. We should be able to tell them what a billion means in terms of service delivery. Short of that we shall continue talking,” Kagaba told The Independent on March 23.
The other part of the explanation has to do with the opposition. Only 19% of Ugandans think any opposition party would do a better job than Museveni.
But Wakida found some poll questions flawed in the Ugandan context.
For instance, he told The Independent, how could most Ugandans be expected to say anything negative or predict the economy and their personal wellbeing in the next 12 months?
“It is just human nature for everybody to keep hope alive,” he said, “In a country where most people live hand to mouth; they don’t know how much they earned last year, you cannot ask them to predict their well-being in the next 12 months.”
Wakida and Mugyenyi could have a point. Ugandans may be poor today, but they definitely are not miserable.Put differently, in the view of most Ugandans, Museveni has performed badly on the economy, but they still rate him highly on other areas. Up to 62% of respondents said the government was doing well on fighting crime, 61% on delivering health services, 59% on clean water, and 57% on roads.
But only 25% said it was doing well on fighting corruption, and only 44% on the economy.
Poor on economy
Museveni’s approval ratings on the economy have been consistently low over a long time.
For example, in March 2012, Afrobarometer; the highly respected researcher of African affairs, released results of an opinion poll it had conducted just months after the 2011 general elections. Back then, at least 75% of Ugandans polled believed the country was heading in the wrong direction, largely because of poor economic performance.
Wakida’s RWI quickly followed the Afrobarometer survey with its first ever poll on May 22, 2012 in which they wanted to understand the opinion of the public a year after the election. RWI’s poll was conducted between March 19 and April 6, 2012, and over 80% disapproved of the performance of the economy.
When RWI in 2014 again asked Ugandans a similar question about how satisfied they were with the service delivery by the NRM government, 80% of the wealthiest class; the AB, were unimpressed (with 17% saying they were extremely dissatisfied; 47% dissatisfied, and 17% neither dissatisfied nor satisfied). Only 20% thought the NRM is doing a good job.
This survey was commissioned by Monitor Publications Limited and the Uganda Governance Platform.
When asked to give their views about the country’s economy; including whether they thought the economy would improve during the current government’s tenure, the majority of Ugandans; 56% were optimistic.
But it is not unusual to find citizens of countries whose economies are not doing quite well saying they feel quite optimistic.
When the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an organisation of global researchers, did a survey on happiness for the United Nations in 2014, it found that the poor people in Sub-Saharan Africa are actually happier than the rich in Europe, South East Asians, Middle Easterners, and even North Africans.
The only people happier are the Latin, North Americans and South Asians.
This survey found that based on findings from 2005 surveys, Ugandans were happier today than back then.
When Gallup, the American research-based consultancy firm, did a survey on happiness in 2014, Uganda did not score that well compared to countries in the region.
Rwandans, with a positive index score of 79, were the happiest people in Africa, followed by Kenya at 77, Nigeria at 76, and South Africa at 75. On a scale where the least positive country, Sudan, scored 47, Uganda was at a distant 64 and was about midway of the 143 countries surveyed.
Poor Ugandans were more positive though than rich South Koreans, Tunisians, Ethiopians, Israelis, Egyptians and Ukrainians.
The Gallup findings were almost similar to those of the 2013 happiness survey done for the United Nations by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
These surveys found that instead of focusing on their countries’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per household; which is a measure of how rich or poor each citizen is on average, people are more concerned with issues like social support, generosity, and freedom to make choices.
Based on this, it appears one of the most significant questions that the latest IRI poll asked Uganda was this one: Which of the following statements comes closest to how you feel about the National Resistance Movement’s 2011 campaign promises?
Up to 57% of respondents said they felt the NRM government had failed to deliver on its promises. But significantly, they said they felt it was committed to delivering them. Another 12% said they believed the NRM had delivered on its promises. That is 70% positive view of NRM’s commitment and delivery of its promises. It contrasts sharply with 24% who said the NRM was never committed to delivering on its promises.
Part of the trust in the NRM is a result of its having effectively dealt with issues that have concerned Ugandans in the past. These include war, political instability, ethnic tension, democracy and political rights.
When asked what they feel are the most important problems facing the country that government should address, only 0.3% of Ugandans mentioned war, only 1% mentioned political violence, 3% democracy and political rights, and 6% wages, incomes, and salaries.
Instead, the biggest number; 29% mentioned unemployment, 26% infrastructure roads, water, poverty,24% education and health, and 21% corruption.
Based on the poll finding, it appears Ugandans are no longer concerned about political issues and are more focused on socio-developmental issues.