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Uganda’s opposition must speak to our aspirations

I pick up where I left off last week: the tragic collapse in the quality of government in Uganda has gone hand-in-hand with corruption on a scale never previously witnessed. Roads are full of potholes, schools are burning, hospitals are death traps and public parks are overgrown bushes. Public institutions no longer embody a national vision. Instead, they reinforce the pattern of private advantage that benefits a few at the expense of the many.

Unsurprisingly, there is widespread discontent among Ugandans. This should be grist to the opposition’s mill. Yet the opposition seems weak, divided and unable to inspire confidence in the public. Why? I want to suggest that the opposition is weak because it addresses itself to the NRM’s failures rather than its achievements.

The NRM has presided over sustained economic growth for over 22 years now. This growth has led to a continuously growing domestic revenue base, buttressed by an influx of foreign aid ‘ thus giving Museveni access to greater resources to manage his politics. For example, in 1988/89, Uganda collected only Shs 44 billion in tax revenues. In 2008/09, it will collect Shs 4 trillion. In 1992/93, Uganda’s budget (domestic revenue plus foreign aid) was Shs 647 billion; for 2008/09 it is Shs 6 trillion. Uganda’s continued growth has lifted many Ugandans out of poverty ‘ the number of people living in poverty fell from 56 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2005/06.

The opposition mistakes the failure of the state to deliver public goods (roads, schools, hospitals, dams and railways) and services (water, electricity, medical care and education) as a sign that the economy is not growing. But while Uganda’s public services may be decaying, the private sector is thriving. Industries such as telecommunications, banking, import and export trade, hotels, restaurants, media, IT, construction, transportation ‘ boda bodas now penetrate even the remotest village ‘ have grown by leaps and bounds. All this is the result of the NRM government’s early decision to open up Uganda’s economy through deregulation and privatisation.

Yet the failures of the state are beginning to negatively impact on the very groups that have benefited the most from growth. Strategically, it is among the beneficiaries, not the losers from NRM’s rule, that the opposition will find support. Those who have built nice houses on Kampala’s many hills are angry at dilapidated roads. Buyers of cars are frustrated by traffic jams and potholes. Businesses are losing money because of chronic power shortages. The middle class are effectively taxed doubly, triply or even quadruply because they have to look after relatives who cannot access public health care or good public schools.

The opposition think that many Ugandans have grown poorer. So they market a message of disillusionment designed to appeal to a class ‘ the poorest ‘ that is shrinking and that the opposition is anyway ill equipped both organisationally and financially to reach. So they miss the opportunity to raise funds locally. Instead, they seek funding from donors. The danger of this strategy is that the opposition, like the government, will become accountable to donors rather than to the people of Uganda. It is through such well-meaning but ill-conceived policies that donors undermine democratic accountability in our countries.

Since 2000, opinion polls in the Daily Monitor and the New Vision have consistently shown that the lower you go on the income and education ladder and the deeper you go into rural areas, the higher is Museveni’s support. Yet at every election, the opposition positions itself as the champion of the poorest ‘ even though it does not have the organisational structure, let alone the financial resources, to reach them.

The irony is that for the opposition to succeed, it needs to take greater advantage of Museveni’s achievements than it does his failures. For example, to raise funds, it should be addressing itself to those groups that have thrived over the last 22 years ‘ the private sector (small, medium and large-scale enterprises), the growing middle class, Ugandans working abroad, civil society leaders. These are the very classes that are disillusioned and no longer see politics as a vehicle for promoting their interests. The challenge for the opposition is to listen to them, study their problems and articulate their interests.

Uganda has become a land of aspiration. Even in the remotest parts of rural Uganda, youths are mortgaging their land to microfinance institutions to get loans to buy boda-bodas for business. High interest rates and the increasing price of petrol lead many to fail; so they lose their land to lenders. Yet these youths should be seen not as losers but as innovators seeking new economic frontiers ‘ breaking away from agriculture to enter the service industry.

I spent Christmas in Kabarole District where I held 11 group discussions with ordinary people. During the talks, I realised that the cost of credit and the price of petrol now form a critical aspect of rural politics. Yet 20 years ago, petrol was a distant problem (many youths were riding self-made wooden bicycles) and no one knew what interest rates were. The challenge for the opposition is how to become a voice of this aspirational class.

When I visited a trading centre near my home, I saw that around two thirds of the structures were built of permanent materials; 20 years ago, none were. I also noticed that there were 12 cars parked in the centre ‘ all owned by residents ‘ a change from zero cars in 1988. Shops were fully stocked with all sorts of industrial goods that were unheard of 20 years ago. Electricity has arrived through the rural electrification program. Youths are vending Warid, MTN and Zain airtime. Bell and Nile Special, Coke and Pepsi are competing ferociously. Satellite TV is there too. A typical scene here will see locals watching Manchester United clobber Arsenal in the English Premier League as they down a Pilsner while speaking to their friends on a cellphone.

These developments have transformed politics in rural areas. This presents the opposition with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that most people know that the material quality of their lives has greatly improved under Museveni and the NRM. The opposition needs to offer an alternative policy agenda that seeks to build on what people have achieved. Criticising Museveni without an alternative is no formula for success.

The opportunity is big. Items like sugar, soap, bottled beer, soda and bread that were luxuries in 1986 are now basic essentials for many people. As people in rural areas stock their shops, the state of roads and the price of fuel have become big political issues. When it rains, for example, the lorries that carry farmers’ crops from village to town and industrial goods from town to rural trading centres get stuck. This increases the costs of transportation and therefore lowers the farm-gate price of farmers’ crops, while increasing the prices of industrial goods.

When I move around Kampala ‘ in the offices of Warid, Zain, MTN, Orange, UTL, Barclays, Crane, Standard Chartered, Stanbic, UBL or the ministry of finance ‘ I am always impressed by the crop of young Ugandans I meet. Here are energetic, talented, well-educated, smart and ambitious people who are thinking of mortgages, home ownership and stocks. They will be drawn to a political party that talks about the future rather than quarrel about the past.

In downtown Kampala, I encounter businessmen and women making money in the liberal economic environment. The major issue for them is how to expand their businesses. They are potential contributors to a political struggle to change. Along Kanjokya Street, where the offices of The Independent are located, you find many NGOs that have become incubators of a new breed of Ugandans, with policy advocacy programmes on education, agriculture, health, land and the environment.

Thus, although Museveni has destroyed many parts of the public sector, he has presided over the growth of a large and fairly diversified private sector and civil society. Even in the public sector, some institutions have retained life and vigour: the Bank of Uganda, the ministry of finance, URA, Uganda Prisons, National Water and Sewerage Corporation are some examples. The young people working here and in Uganda’s fast-growing private enterprises represent the future. For the opposition to appeal to them, it has to speak to their needs and aspirations.

The message the opposition should be ramming home is that Museveni and his NRM represent the past, not the future; their achievements were realised in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s. Since 1996, Museveni has been losing appeal because of his personal corruption and nepotism and the crass materialism of his regime functionaries. He seems acutely aware of this, hence his increasing reliance on material incentives to retain support or buy silence. He moves around dishing out money in brown envelops. He has 71 ministers, 114 presidential advisers, 145 commissions and semi-autonomous government bodies, 167 resident district commissioners, 80 districts, 30 ambassadors, 36 security organisations and innumerable donor projects at every arm and leg of government.

Today, the closer one gets to the presidency, the worse is the level of institutionalised incompetence, mediocrity and corruption. Visit State House and you will be shocked by the lack of intellectual life around the president. The people around him are largely his kinsmen and women. Unemployed, perhaps unemployable, a retreat into seeking tribal favours was the only career option open to them. They have little value to the president except to take his orders, sing his praises and shield him from enlightened opinion.

The opposition should be the centre of this new enlightenment by attracting the brightest to its ranks. Today it is constrained in its policy agenda by limited supply of intellectual resources. This is partly because outside of the market, the highest concentration of intellectual power in Uganda is still to be found in the state/NRM. This is reflected by the cost of political appointments – in budgetary parlance called Public Administration Expenditure – which this financial year amounts to almost a trillion shillings.

This extensive patronage has worked because economic growth and donor aid have given the regime access to ever-increasing resources. The NRM has used patronage to crowd the opposition out of the market for individuals with skills and clout to provide leadership and organisation. Where patronage has failed, repression has been employed.

The best of Uganda’s brains live abroad, and the opposition needs to leverage them for money, ideas and organisation. The balance of our intellectual class is to be found in the foreign aid-funded civil society. Though bureaucratised by accountability to donors and therefore lacking in political activism, it can be still be mobilised. The challenge for the opposition in Uganda is how to harness the new and emerging intellectual class in the private sector and civil society to directly and indirectly support democratic reform.

The opposition needs to understand that in politics, it is often success, not failure, that produces its own gravediggers. Karl Marx argued over 150 years ago that for the bourgeois to accomplish its project of accumulation, it had of necessity to produce a class (the proletariat) whose interests were at odds with those of capital. The proletariat, Marx argued, would dig the grave of the capitalist. The government of a growing economy like that of Uganda is more susceptible to the gravedigger problem than that of a stagnant one like Somalia. This is because growth produces new economically empowered groups that can effectively challenge the status quo.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

www.andrewmwendasblog.blogspot.com

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