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Uganda’s angry classes

By Ronald Musoke

The wealthy, at 42%, are the least optimistic

Political opinion polls by their nature are supposed to be situational, often times, commissioned to gauge those things that are in the public domain at the time.

If responses of Uganda’s richest people in the recently released opinion poll by Research World International (RWI) are anything to go by, then, the big question likely to float around for some time is, whether Uganda’s well-to-do are finally getting out of their cocoon to have a bigger say in the forthcoming 2016 general elections.

According to the poll, the well-to-do, or so-called `AB’ socio-economic class are Uganda’s senior government officials, top business owners and managers, top commanders of security forces, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. According to the poll, this group seems to be unhappy with the current performance of the country’s economy and doubt that President Yoweri Museveni’s government can improve things.

Surprisingly in this, their responses are similar to those of their labourers, maids, drivers and cooks; the so-called DE or poorest socio-economic class.

It is the C1 and C2 class, the so-called “middle-class”, the junior middle managers and professionals, nurses, journalists, mechanics, and teachers, who are the most optimistic and happy with Museveni. The question the poll results raise is why?

Several questions on the performance of the economy formed a big component of the opinion poll commissioned by the Daily Monitor and the Uganda Governance Monitoring Platform in April with the aim of assessing the opinions and attitudes of voting-age Ugandans two years ahead of the 2016 general elections.

The poll which was conducted between April 15—27 in 117 parishes and 89 districts across the country categorised Uganda’s population into the wealthy (AB class), the well to do and highly educated (C I & C2 class) and the low-class rural population (DE class).

Looking at the range of responses given by Uganda’s richest people, they appear unhappy by the current performance of the economy.

Questions asked included: “Are you better off economically as a person since the 2011 elections?

“Do you think your well-being shall improve in the near future?

“Do you think this country’s economy shall improve during the current government?”

Happy middle-class

For each of these questions, the richest people seem more negative than the poor rural and low class Ugandans.

For instance, when asked if in their view since the elections in 2011, the country was better economically, 64% of the wealthy (those in the AB class) said no; while only 31.5% of the rest of the respondents in the other socio-economic classes said the country was not better off.  It did not matter if the respondents were rural or urban based.

Interestingly, when asked whether, at an individual level, they were better off economically since the 2011 elections, 64% of the rich said no. The so-called “middle-class” the C1 and C2 class were the happiest with Museveni with 55% saying they are better off. Among the poorest, only 46 said they were better off economically.

The pattern is repeated when respondents are asked if they think their well-being shall improve in the near future. On average, 68% of Ugandans are optimistic about the economic future. But the poorest are the least optimistic followed by the wealthiest at 63% and 64% respectively. The upper middleclass, the C1 class, are the most optimistic at 76%.

When asked if they think the country’s economy shall improve during the current government’s tenure, most Ugandans are cautiously optimistic at 56%. The wealthy, at 42%, are the least optimistic. The top middle class or working professionals are the most optimistic at 57%.

On question of governance, the wealthiest Ugandans appear to be grumpy and alone.

Consider their response to this question: “How satisfied are you with the service delivery by the NRM government?”

Of the wealthiest class, the AB, over 80% are unimpressed [with 17% saying they are extremely dissatisfied; those dissatisfied are 47%, while those neither dissatisfied nor satisfied are 17%]. Only 20% think NRM is doing a good job. By contrast, only 52% of the poorest DE class thinks Museveni is doing a bad job of service delivery.

On another question, about how free they are to talk politics, 50% of the wealthy say they are not free to talk politics. This is possibly because they occupy top government positions. On the other hand, 73% of the poor say they are free to talk politics. The most dissatisfied are in urban areas and in eastern Uganda.

On whether the 2016 elections will be “free and fair”, 58% of the wealthy say NO, but 66% of the poor say YES. Only 3% say they “don’t know”.

Uganda’s middle class too does not believe the Electoral Commission can deliver credible elections, and when asked if term limits should be reinstated, they overwhelmingly said yes.

The pessimism of Uganda’s well-to-do could be as a result of the economy being affected by politics of the time says, Stephen Biraahwa Mukitale, the MP for Buliisa and also chairperson of the Committee on the National Economy in Parliament.

“Political stability is number one for any economy’s performance and we need to guarantee that. At the moment, the business community interprets the succession question within the NRM Party as unstable, hence their pessimism,” Mukitale says.

Uganda’s middle class are known for being politically aloof when it comes to influencing the direction of where their country should be headed yet a country’s middle class are the makers of the economy.

They pay the bulk of a country’s taxes and feel the pinch of the economy when it is going wrong which makes it only natural for them to actively participate in the running of the state.

“The middle class are the tax payers, traders and manufacturers who have been at the receiving end of the economic instabilities over the last three years,” says Mukitale. “All this has built up the pessimism amongst Uganda’s wealthy class,” Mukitale says.

Better off than 2012

Despite the pessimism, Ugandans are generally more positive than in March 2012 when Afrobarometer Survey released results of an opinion poll it conducted between November and December, 2011.

Back then at least 75% of Ugandans polled believed the country was heading in the wrong direction, largely because of poor economic performance. 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.

Back then the country, especially Kampala where about 80% of the country’s GDP is made, was reeling from rising inflation which at one time was 30% with the price of a kilogramme of sugar rising from Shs2500 in February 2011 to Shs10, 000 in August 2011. The opposition’s ‘Walk to Work’ campaign was at its strongest.

Mukitale adds that the country also was in the middle of an energy crisis with the business community running their premises on fuel-guzzling generators, until Bujagali was switched on in October, 2012.

The high inflation and interest rates also saw many in the business fraternity lose their properties, and a number of them have not recovered from this shock.

On the urban-rural divide, Lawrence Bategeka, an economist says people in the urban areas tend to depend on salaried employment, and trade opportunities. These are less and because of the shrinking of the regional market owing to the war in South Sudan, the urban people are a complaining lot.

“When you bring in the issue of the government trying to increase the tax base, these are the people the government always tries to reach first,” he adds.

Different expectations

Onesmus Mugyenyi, the deputy executive director of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), a public policy think tank based in Kampala says the difference is because “expectations of the middle class and those of the rural people are obviously miles apart.”

“The wealthy think the country should be doing much better,” he says, “In the countryside as long as they are able to access UPE and once in a while get a panadol which they never used to get, they are happy with that.

“Unlike the rural folk who are looking at finding market for their produce, the wealthy class is looking at bigger opportunities [infrastructure, more jobs, and technological advancement].”

Bategeka adds that the pessimism about Uganda’s economic performance despite the fact that the economy has been reported to be growing over the last one decade, including the last three years, needs to be well understood.

He says one needs to understand that within the growing economy, it is the services sector which has registered big growth but even within the services sector, it is the financial services and telecoms sub-sector which are much smaller and employ fewer graduates that have been growing.

The other sector is construction.  Bategeka says because these sectors have tended to employ fewer graduates, it is understandable when a pollster asks a non-beneficiary about the performance of the economy what kind of answer they will give.

On the other hand, it is easy to understand the optimism within the rural folk because the rural economy is now diversified.

“There are now more non-farm activities especially in areas neighbouring the urban areas whereby the people directly linked to the growing sectors are happy,” says Bategeka.

Even with farm activities, household incomes are rising because there is relative ease for these people to find market for their produce despite the fact that Uganda’s agriculture has been growing very slowly at about 2% per annum. If it were not for the diversified rural economy, those people would not be as happy.

Laissez faire middle class

So will the angry wealthy now become more active in promoting change? Not so, says Cissy Kagaba, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition -Uganda. She says Uganda’s middle class’ laissez faire attitude will continue as long as their status quo is not threatened.

“As long as they can still put food on the table and take their kids to school, they are comfortable,” she told The Independent on May 27, “They may express their dissatisfaction of having a million shillings less today than a couple of years back but they can still afford to put food on the table.”

She added: “Like the majority of Ugandans, a lot of them fear to come out and speak openly about what is happening in the country. This is being myopic.

Unless they start seeing beyond today, nothing will change in Uganda. It is important that we leave our comfort zones and see the big picture.”

Kagaba says the middle class might have spoken out during the polling process but they did so privately.

Mugyenyi says the lack of participation is down to the fact that the middle class has no confidence in the political process and they know that their participation will not bring about change. It is a view shared by many, including Cissy Kagaba.

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