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Why Museveni speech was thin on substance

By Agather Atuhaire

No good news, no new promises expected in new budget

President Yoweri Museveni has been forced to face the 9th Parliament twice in seven days – a situation he would have been glad to avoid if he had a choice.

On June 7, he was reading a mandatory State of the Nation Address to an rancorous Parliament at the Serena Conference Centre but he must appear once again this Thursday to listen to and comment on Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka’s Budget Speech, which is expected to leave his government exposed once again to both criticism and cynicism from a largely pessimistic population.

Compared to the many State of the Nation addresses that President Yoweri Museveni has made over the years, his speech on June 7 was peculiar in many ways. For instance apart from the reference on Shs 20 bn for lower level leaders, he did not make any populist promises as he normally does. While all previous addresses were compiled from figures provided by the various ministries and departments, this one was uniquely put together by State House. Why was this so?

Also, in all his previous speeches to Parliament, the President would constantly address the House as, “Madam Speaker and honourable Members of Parliament.” In last year’s speech, he mentioned the phrase more than 40 times. In last week’s speech, only once did he address the House as “Madam Speaker and Honourable members.”

It was not a coincidence and it appears to be a fair reflection of the rubbing of shoulders between the Executive and Parliament in recent months. Listening to that speech – arguably the most important in the year – and looking at his body language, a keen observer would easily note that the President was not particularly in the mood to make that speech, and more so before this 9th Parliament with which he has had a frosty relationship in recent months.

Not surprisingly, the ever-questioning 9th Parliament, including its Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, have been seen by the President as being unusually unsupportive of the Executive yet the NRM has a majority in the House. Indeed, the same Parliament has forced out more than half a dozen of his Cabinet ministers over corruption and its ad hoc committee on the oil sector is currently investigating three of his most trusted ministers over corruption.

In the last 12 months, the President has been forced to meet his own NRM caucus numerous times at State House and in Kyankwanzi, and every time the caucus, spearheaded by the so-called ‘NRM rebels,’ has given him all sorts of headache.

To make matters even worse, a noisy opposition led by Nandala Mafabi has also been a troublesome thorn in the Executive’s flesh as has been FDC boss Kizza Besigye who has given the government countless sleepless nights with Parliament seemingly casting a blind eye. One would therefore understand if the President preferred to keep away from Parliament, leave alone not refer to the MPs as ‘Honourable members.’

Mandatory address

Unfortunately, every year the President is constitutionally required to appear before Parliament to deliver the State of the Nation address – first to give accountability of what has been achieved over the last 12 months and secondly, to appraise Parliament and the country about the plans and strategies of the government for the next 12 months.

But unlike the previous ones, his two-hour speech this time did not seek to do any of those tasks. Instead, it was a well-targeted political tirade sprinkled with pointed references to the so-called “traitors,” “saboteurs,” “charlatans,” and “liars” who have given his government a very tough ride in the last 12 months. Of course millions of his listeners knew that it was not just the opposition politicians that were on his mind but the ‘rebel’ NRM MPs too.

“I should not forget to say ‘shame to the charlatans’, ‘shame to the liars,’ ‘shame to the opportunists,’ he roared.

Analysts said given the circumstances, it was not always going to be easy for President Museveni to appraise the country on the achievements of the past year, because quite frankly they have been few and far in between. Perhaps the most significant one was the turning on of Bujagali’s three turbines to generate 150 MW, which the President said had already brought about “a remarkable change” in the manufacturing sector. But even then, the critics say the completion of the dam is way behind schedule, while the proposed construction of Karuma Dam has also been hit with fresh controversy over corruption.

For Museveni’s government, it has generally been a year to forget – high inflation, frequent strikes and daily protests coupled with negative publicity both locally and internationally thanks to an overzealous and brutal Police force.

In 2011, the President was looking forward to making the Address because he was chest thumping – only weeks after winning the general elections with a wide margin. For obvious reasons, the Address was quite elaborate and well-organised – outlining the progress made sector by sector as well as the targeted interventions sub-sector by sub-sector. It also had a lot to promise for the future in line with his election manifesto.

But this time, he knew there was not much to show in terms of tangible achievements, neither did he have any populist promises to make. He also knew like most of his listeners, that the majority of promises and pledges he made in the 2011 Address, remained largely unfulfilled.

Probably deliberately, the president avoided addressing key sectors such as health and education. For instance, most Ugandans had expected that he would the country a briefing on the status of Universal Primary and Secondary Education, the Youth Fund or at least about the Jubilee celebrations that he launched recently.

Also, he left many civil servants and their families disappointed when he demanded that the “clamour” for better pay should stop. This was in response to civil servants notably teachers who have been agitating for better citing the rising cost of living.

Months ago when the teachers laid down their tools in protest over a paltry Shs 260,000 salary that a teacher earns per month, they were told that their salaries would be increased gradually up to the 100% that they had demanded.

But the president dashed any such hopes of a pay rise anytime soon, saying the only people who deserved a pay raise were the scientists “who can’t be easily replaced” – a view that many Ugandans including Mufti Shaban Mubajje did not concur with because of the disparities it creates among civil servants.

“He shouldn’t have said that only scientists deserve a pay rise,” the Mufti said. “Does he think the markets taht the scientists go to buy basic commodities are different from those that other public servants go to?” he asked.

As expected most MPs were not impressed by the President’s speech. Kalungu West MP Joseph Ssewungu said if Museveni had done some research, he would have found out that that the teachers are running to neighbouring countries like Rwanda and sooner or later they would be hard to replace too.

But Museveni wisely chose to summarise the achievements of his government over the past 26 years instead of dwelling on the current state of the nation, making promises or proposing uncertain proposals to give Ugandans a better future.

Undoubtedly, what appeared to be on Museveni’s mind throughout was the need to stamp his authority as one who is in control, remind the MPs of who is boss and of course recount his contribution to the liberation Uganda and good governance over the past four decades.

“Today, I stand here with pride as one of the founders of NRM, ever since 1971, when we started the struggle against criminality and misrule in Uganda,” he boasted.

Missing project briefs

But most Ugandans would say they know that all too well. They would have expected the president to spend more time on updating them on the progress of the different projects he talked about during his state of the nation address last year.  For instance, he talked about measures to improve agriculture last year, which included financing agriculture through an Agricultural Credit Facility. There was no update on that but instead he faulted some Ugandans for failing to use Uganda’s 40 million acres of land, which is suitable for arable farming. Neither was there an update on the youth venture capital fund promised last year.

Many would have expected that the President would highlight the areas where the economy is still doing badly and the proposed solutions. Instead, he spent more time heaping blame on the opposition for the country’s economic woes particularly the weak Shilling and inflation.

Indeed, analysts said many Ugandans were left disappointed with the President’s speech. “He lost focus by concentrating on the last 26 years,” said Nicholas Opio, a lawyer and political analyst.  “He should have provided concrete proposals.”

Terego County MP Kassiano Wadri also described the speech as humorous but disappointing in substance.

“He tried to be funny but I was disappointed at the way he trivialized issues,” he said, adding, “in a state of the nation address you give accountability to the country but his speech was just rhetoric and it defeated the whole purpose of the occasion.”

Wadri was quick to dismiss the president’s talk of saboteurs, saying it had become “his song.” He said Museveni thinks he would get away with what he had failed to do through the blame game.

Pertinent issues

On the security front, Ugandans have been living under a terrorism threat for some time. Most people would have expected a briefing on the government’s readiness to offset such threats. With hundreds of Ugandan soldiers now fighting in Somalia, most Ugandans also expected to be briefed about the conditions there.

Critics also felt Museveni’s speech was out of touch with reality when he appeared to down play the importance of small scale businesses like salons and bars, which employ millions of Ugandans.

Shadow minister for Tourism, Trade and Industry Kevinah Taaka said the president should not appear to be discouraging innovation and self employment by thinking of foreign investors as the solution to Uganda’s employment challenges. “He is here praising foreign investors instead of encouraging and supporting local investment,” she said.

With his focus probably on a better future, Museveni said the “the sky is the limit,” a view that many of his rational listeners across the country would be reluctant to share given that no concrete proposals were put on the table on how the country would get there.Not even Makerere University Economics professor Augustus Niwagaba was optimistic. He said Uganda’s economy is far from recovery, adding that commodity prices are still high and that unemployment rate is still worrying.

Other analysts faulted him for talking about the same issues and the same projects over and over again instead of presenting new ideas. They argued that in sectors like the energy sector, the President has been talking about Bujagali and Karuma for the last five years yet they seem to be moving at a snail’s pace, and other renewable energy sources are not being considered though they are more reliable and affordable for Ugandans.

For instance even when Bujagali is completed, with a unit of electricity for domestic use costing Shs 525 and suggestions that that the tariffs would raise further next month, it is highly unlikely that a sizeable number of Ugandans will benefit from the dam either.

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