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The gravedigger Paradox

How Museveni’s success is creating conditions for his fall

On March 16, 1989, six thousand workers on the Seoul subway system in South Korea’s capital went on strike, paralysing the city’s transport system and turning the morning’s rush war into chaos. About 3,000 workers occupied the roundhouse from which the subway locomotives were dispatched. The government of Gen. Roh Tae Woo responded with the full repressive capacity of the state. Over 6,000 police officers in riot gear surrounded the roundhouse and took over 2,300 of the striking workers off to the police station. Within a few days, the strike was crushed and the subway resumed the impressive efficiency of its normal operations.

What had led to these events? I first wrote about this in 2009, in The Independent.

Between 1961 and 1989, the generals ruling South Korea had initiated one of the most dramatic industrial transformations in the history of economic development. The economy had grown more than 16-fold and so had the revenues of the state. Increasing public revenues had made it possible for the State in South Korea to invest in professionally and technically well equipped army and police forces. So the repressive capacity of the state was at an all time high.

But as Peter Evans has argued in his book, Embedded Autonomy, while defeating the strike was well within the state’s capacity, neither the repressive power of the state nor the co-optive abilities of the state sponsored Federation of Korean Trade Unions would to stop the growth of insurgency among Korea’s workers in the late 1980s. Korean production lines produced labour militancy alongside semiconductors, electronics and cars. As industrial output grew, so did insurgency among workers. Strikes disorganised industrial production; more than 18 million working hours were lost to strikes between 1987 and 1990 – a 200 fold increase compared to 1980-1983 period.

Thus, although Korea’s generals and their well equipped army and riot police had won many battles against striking workers and students, they were losing the war for democratisation of the country. By 1992, the writing was on the wall and the generals yielded further democratic space allowing a more open political system. Today, South Korea is largely a democratic country with minor hitches and hiccups.


Meanwhile, at the beginning of 1995, Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire was deeply entrenched in power in Kinshasa. For 30 years, the state over which he presided preyed on its citizens, “terrorising them and despoiling their common patrimony.” In the process it destroyed 60 percent of the GDP it had inherited in 1965. By stifling economic growth, the state undermined the development of a strong and diversified civil society. Most citizens remained poor peasants in rural areas; those migrating into cities becoming illiterate and apathetic slum dwellers.

The declining economy could not produce what its dynamic counterpart in South Korea was doing; an educated middle-class, an organised working class, a militant student movement, an exposed and ambitious business class i.e. the social forces with a vested interest in reforming the neo-patrimonial character of the state. Thus, although economic decline limited its ability to sustain a strong military and police, the absence of aspirational civil insurgent forces meant that Mobutu could retain power. When he fell, it was due to external invasion than domestic pressure. Poverty was the regime’s insurance against the instability born of a growing economy.

Indeed, even where economic decline has produced change – as in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the insurgent rebel movements led by Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh were more backward-looking than the neo-patrimonial states they overthrew. The lesson is that success has greater capacity to produce change, progressive change. Sustained economic failure, on the other hand, does not produce the forces for change; and when it does, it produces the wrong type of change – predatory warlords.

The German philosopher Karl Marx had argued centuries ago that for the bourgeoisie to achieve their project of accumulation, they had of necessity to produce a class – the proletariat (workers) – whose interest conflicts with those of capital. The more successful capitalists are at accumulation, the more they produce a class of people who are being exploited by capital and therefore angry with it and plotting its downfall. Marx called this “the grave digger problem.” A similar logic seems to underline successful states/leaders. The lesson from Korea and Mobutu’s Zaire is that it is success more than failure that produces gravediggers. It seems President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is following suit.

Since April of this year, his government has been under constant pressure. First, his main opponent, Kizza Besigye, led the Walk to Work protests that paralysed Kampala. By using brute force to crack down on protestors government helped the campaign generate considerable political momentum. However, over the months Walk to Work has lost its initial steam and is now almost on a stretcher. But if Museveni had calculated that his political problems would end if Walk to Work lost bite, he was dead wrong. Uganda has ever since been in constant crisis.

Walk to Work was followed by a strike by Uganda Law Society; then women activists with pots and pans joined the fray. After that, it was the traders who closed their shops protesting the depreciating shilling. Then taxi drivers shut down the city protesting high fuel prices. As inflation reached a-two-decades high at 21 percent, lecturers at the country’s major university, Makerere, went on strike forcing government to shut the university down – indefinitely. Then teachers across the country went on strike prompting government to threaten to fire all of them.

Medical workers have threatened to down their tools too and city vendors in Kampala are threatening their own action. Against this backdrop is a campaign by environmentalists to save Mabira forest which the President has allocated to a business family to plant sugarcane. The Save Mabira campaign has been joined by the Indian community in Uganda. During the 2007 protests over Mabira, Ugandans beat up and even killed several Indians because the President is giving the forest to an Indian business family. To save themselves, Indians are this time joining the Save Mabira campaign.

For many observers in Uganda and abroad, these crises, coupled with the inability of government to do anything to stem the tide of what seems like a slide into chaos is evidence that Museveni has “lost it” and is “out of touch with reality”. The mass media has cast him as an ageing dictator who has failed to lead. All this is partly true – but only when you look at the tactical aspects of Uganda’s reality. However, looking at structural fundamentals, this crisis is evidence of Museveni’s success, not failure. The President should be happy with the protestors whom he should embrace rather than be angry and beat or kill them.

Throughout his political career, Museveni has argued that the problem with “pre-capitalist” societies is that political struggle tends to get polarised along “unprincipled” lines of religion, tribe or even clan. The counterpoint to this, Museveni has always held, is that in capitalist societies politics is polarised around “principled” issues of an economic nature – wages, prices and public policies. His stated objective was to transform Ugandan politics from a contest over identity (religion, tribe and clan) into a contest over “real issues” that impact on the lives of people – things like trade policy, fiscal policy, foreign exchange policy etc.

Over the last 23 years, Museveni has presided over a rapidly growing economy and thereby a rapidly transforming society. Economic growth has led to rapid population growth; so the country is suffering from a youth bulge. But it has also led to rapid urbanisation; vibrant economic activity in cities has attracted many youth out of the idleness of the village to seek opportunities in urban centres. Meanwhile, growth combined with government policy has led to mass education as student enrolment in private and public schools, is at an all time high.

For example, almost 9 million students are enrolled in primary school today, up from 2.5 million in 1990; 1.3m in secondary school up from… and university enrolment now stands at 70,000, up from 6,000 in 1990. Over 400,000 youth graduate from tertiary institutions every year. The output of graduates far outpaces the rate at which the economy can create jobs. All these changes are taking place in the context of rapidly spreading mass media; Uganda now has over 200 private FM radio stations, over 150 newspapers, 20 local television stations and more than 3.2 million people access internet.

Education and urbanisation are liberating forces; they expose people to the mass media and through it to the outside world. This exposure produces high aspirations and expectations. So they begin to demand more. Problem is that all too often the rate at which aspirations and expectations grow is faster than the rate at which any economy is able to produce opportunities to meet them. This mismatch between the production of aspiration and opportunities leads to social frustration. And many Ugandans, especially these educated youth are frustrated and restless.

Here is the irony that confronts most successful and transformative leaders: The people who are frustrated with Museveni are not so frustrated because the government has failed but because he has been successful. They are able to make these demands because of the education, urbanisation and the spread of post-modern communication technologies that have been produced by his policies. The same people demand for more not because Uganda is producing less but because their appetites are growing faster than the country can whet them.

While previous political contests in Uganda tended to revolve around ethnic and religious issues and were spearheaded by tribal and clan leaders, today’s contests are organised by Uganda’s emerging middle classes and are about public policies: wages (teachers’ and lecturers’ strikes), prices (demonstrations against food-price inflation), the foreign exchange rate (the strike by traders) and environmental concerns (over giving Mabira Forest to a business family to plant sugar cane) – perhaps the best expression of middle-class sensibilities in Uganda’s politics ever. Museveni should be happy because his dream of issue-based politics has come true.

Secondly, the direction of demand for prudent macroeconomic management has also changed. For instance, in 1989, inflation in Uganda was 240 percent. The pressure to tame it did not come from street protests by Ugandans but from the IMF. However, in April when Ugandans took to the streets to protest high commodity prices in the Walk to Work campaign, inflation was only 11.2 percent.

Here is the transformation that has taken place in Uganda over the last two decades: The pressure to control inflation is no longer an external imposition but a domestic demand. Conversely, the desire for macroeconomic stability has penetrated the social consciousness of the Ugandan public. During the last presidential campaigns, Museveni broke this policy consensus by indulging in reckless spending. As a consequence, the domestic constituencies he has cultivated in favour of macroeconomic stability are angry with him hence the demonstrations. Museveni is therefore in a contradictory position of fighting the fruits of his own efforts.

Museveni’s real challenge is not simply how to manage his failures but how to manage his achievements. He is like someone who began a small business that grows into a complex multinational corporation. The founder may have been successful at managing growth, but the business reaches a level of complexity that exceeds his skills to manage it. It is possible that if Museveni appreciated this, he would retire and let those who are more energetic and skilled carry his work to the next level.

Of course, the NRM has performed abysmally in the management of the public sector. Even the most passionate supporters of the NRM would attest to this. Public schools, hospitals and roads are all but dead or dying – that is if they are not ghosts i.e. fictions in government reports. Public services like education, health and agricultural extension services suffer from chronic incompetence, absenteeism, corruption, foot-dragging and apathy. Although important, these failures are not fundamental. The new social groups produced by an expanded economy are already organising political action to force the state into action – hence the demonstrations.

All this is political economy, not people’s daily life. The young graduate who cannot find a job is not concerned about the opportunities for education that Museveni has created. He is bothered by the stress of joblessness. The trader who has thrived largely because Museveni has fostered a liberal trade policy takes that economic policy environment for granted. Now he is asking for a stable exchange rate to keep his business profitable. The teacher is interested in better pay, not the history of how teaching jobs have been created by Museveni’s promotion of universal primary and post primary education. The Ugandan president is therefore in a contradictory position of fighting the fruits of his own efforts.

Although he still has good control of the security forces, Museveni can only succeed at quelling individual riots, strikes and demonstrations. Like the South Korean generals before him, he is going to find it increasingly difficult to stop the forces of democracy and accountability that his economic reforms have produced in the new Uganda. So although he has registered many victories against protesters, he will lose the war.

Museveni is now more susceptible to the gravedigger problem just like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia early this year. Both had been fairly successful in fostering economic and structural change. The social forces produced by such structural change formed the army of militants determined to bring them down. The youth we saw on the streets of Cairo and Tunis were using modern communications technology and speaking the language of the militants of Europe almost 200 years ago during the 1848 revolutions that brought down Klemens von Metternich of the Austrian empire.

The problem of most transformative leaders is always the inability to match social change with political reform. Although Museveni has promoted rapid social change – witness the expansion of education and urbanisation – he has not promoted similar reform at the level of political institutions and practice. Museveni still manages Uganda of 2011 as if it is 1990. He is always organising and mobilising religious, tribal, sub-tribal and even clan groups as the central fulcrum of his politics. He calls such groups to State House for tea and dishes out personalised favours to them in order to retain their support and that of their followers.

Yet Uganda of 2011 has produced new social forces – traders and vendors, bureaucrats and politicians, students and industrialists, youths gangs and youths innovators, unemployed and employed graduates, twitteratis and facebookers, activists and de-activists, mafias and free masons, thieves and saints, money making churches and money losing ones, homosexuals and transgenders; and it has produced the Red Pepper. All these groups are now competing for space in the new Uganda. Museveni meets with some of them. The old religious, ethnic and clan groups have not gone away, but they are dying – rapidly becoming a thing of the past yet Museveni is still stuck with them.

Just look at the selection of his current cabinet; it is dominated by the old guard, men and women long past their 70th birthday. It is always good to have such old people in government – they bring institutional memory and wisdom. But when they form the most critical advisory group of the government, there will certainly be little room for creativity, innovation and reform. Meanwhile, one hardly sees anyone in cabinet and other high state offices that are filled by representatives of the new and emerging social forces that are the future of Uganda.

During his campaigns, Museveni seemed to notice the influence of these new social forces and tried to court them using rap music, post-modern technology and money. Museveni’s campaign was superior to all his opponents in the way it used new social media, mobile phones and music to stimulate enthusiasm in his candidacy. Yet he has not taken advantage of the lesson of his campaign strategy. For immediately after the re-election, he fell back to the old ways of organising government; relying on old and dogged religious and ethnic power brokers to form his government.

Visiting Museveni at State House Entebbe or his country home in Rwakitura is like visiting the court of Felix Houpheouet Boigny or Mobutu Sese Seko. You will encounter delegations of traditional groups representing tribes, sub-tribes and clans who have come to meet the chief. They are feted on food and drinks as they sit around for hours waiting to meet the President. Then he comes out and holds a five hour meeting with them. This may be good to boost their sense of importance, but it is valuable time lost that could better be used to plan and strategise for industrialisation, a process that Museveni is a leading advocate of.

The Ugandan president does not seem to realise that the era of neo-patrimonial rule is dying. Uganda is so changed that it needs more institutions to manage our current complexity. Yet Museveni seeks to sustain the old ways in a new Uganda. Rather than be a bridge to the future, he has remained a bridge to the past. It is the tension between new demands and old practices that is causing constant political crisis. The new social forces produced by Museveni’s reforms cannot understand his neo-patrimonial approach to politics – they see it as archaic.

As a consequence, Museveni has increasingly become a drag on the ability of the country to move to the next state of consolidation. He has stabilised the political dispensation, sustained growth, tamed the army, facilitated the growth of a large and diversified private sector, a large and educated middle class and thereby laid the structural foundations for transformation. Yet his politics has remained unchanged in the face of this structural change; largely pandering to old social forces and unable to bring the new ones at the centre of his politics.

The political crisis in Uganda is therefore a product of the tension between an emerging new society and the prevailing political institutions and practices. If Museveni has successfully modernised Uganda, his biggest failure has been inability to modernise his politics. The neo-patrimonial compact that was very successful in creating our initial achievement has run out of steam. It may still be effective in organising traditional collectivities but it is unable to address the needs of the new emergent classes on the political scene. We do not know where the tension between the new and the old will lead us. What we know is that Uganda is in urgent need of reform.

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