Karl Marx said that capitalism came to the world dripping with the blood of labour. He was right.
When the Europeans came to colonise Africa in order to open it up to their industrialists at home, they confronted the same challenge of how to create not only a monetary economy but also a labouring class out of the peasantry.
In Uganda specifically, the British wanted “natives” to produce cotton (to pay for the Uganda Railway) and also provide labour on public works. But Africans were subsistence farmers producing food for their own consumption. They did not want to produce crops they did not consume or take jobs on public works to earn money they did not need.
To transform a subsistence economy into a monetary economy, the British needed to create demand for money among the natives. The solution was extortionate taxation.
The only way to get money to pay tax was by selling one’s labour to public works or selling cotton to the British (that is the origin of calling it a “cash crop”). So the British instituted a brutal and violent tax collection system using local chiefs. To create incentives for effective (and ruthless) measures to collect taxes, the British government used to pay chiefs a commission on taxes they collected.
The lowest head tax was the value of a big he-goat, today at Shs 150,000 to Shs 250,000 depending on which part of the country you are. (Uganda abolished graduated tax when it was Shs 5,000). Africans diverted their energies from producing food to pay this tax with tragic consequences. Food production plummeted and people starved to death.
Jan Jorgensen in `Uganda, A Modern History’ has recorded this tragedy: in Buganda, the population declined from over one million in 1888 to 650,000 in 1920. In Busoga, the population declined from about one million in 1890 to 220,000 in 1923 – it was genocide. Thus although our people could not eat cotton, the British proved that cotton could eat them.
It is on the basis of this knowledge of capitalist development that I am inclined to believe that if Africa has not transformed, at least as rapidly as we would wish, it is not because our leaders and elites broadly are greedy and brutal. It is because they are too morally tied in webs of social obligations with their people to act brutally to transform our nations as the Europeans did at home and in the colonies. The other restraint could be the unwillingness of the “international community” to tolerate it.
Hence Museveni, his arch rival Kizza Besigye along with most Ugandan elites campaign to protect the people from “land-grabbers”. Yet land-grabbing, if it is by Ugandans, would be a sign of an incipient capitalist class seeking to introduce the commercial motive into agriculture.
In protecting peasants’, Museveni, Besigye and other elites in Uganda may achieve some humanitarian objective but at the price of disabling the very mechanisms that have historically facilitated the penetration of commercial relations into agrarian structures and thereby transformed societies and created the wealth of nations.