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What Uganda’s protests tell us

By Andrew M. Mwenda

On March 16, 1989, the ultra modern subway system of South Korea’s capital Seoul came to a standstill. Six thousand workers went on strike; 3,000 of them defiantly occupied the roundhouse from which the locomotives dispatch. The president, Gen. Roh Tae Woo, ordered a crackdown: 6,000 policemen in full riot-gear surrounded the roundhouse arresting 2,300 of the striking workers. Within days, the strike was crushed and the subway resumed its impressive efficiency.

The military dictatorship seemed invincible. Commentators pointed at the brutal efficiency with which it had crushed the strike and concluded that democracy was a distant a dream for South Korea. They argued that since the state-sponsored Federation of Korean Trade Unions was the most dominant labour union in the country, workers could not provide the stimulus for democratic reform. The private sector, they argued, was also too embedded within the state, depending on state-created rents. So it was incapable of offering an alternative vision.

Yet just when the dictatorship looked most solid, it began to collapse. Crushing individual strikes was within the state’s ability but commentators had missed the social and political changes that lay behind it. The country’s industrial transformation had produced new social groups with new ideas and aspirations. Factories were producing labour militancy alongside electronics and semiconductors. The repressive power of the state could not stop the growth of insurgency among South Korea’s workers. Between 1987 and 1990, the country lost 18 million workdays to strikes ‘ a 200-fold increase since 1980. This was unsustainable.

By 1992, South Korea had sustained economic growth for 29 years. The new social groups ‘ workers, students, civil society and business were becoming restless. That year South Korea held its first democratic elections and has not looked back. The most notable presidential candidate was Chung Ju Yung, the founder of Hyundai. His campaign motto ‘Get government out of business’ once again proved that business had developed a vision for South Korea in opposition to the state.

Uganda has sustained economic growth for 22 years now. Although Uganda has not seen South Korea-style dramatic industrial transformation, a number of developments stand out. The boom in education is churning out tens of thousands of unemployed youths. Rural-urban migration is creating restless slums and streets. There has grown a sizable middleclass and private sector. Traffic jams are spreading from Kampala to Mbarara. Many Ugandans are building good homes but there are no access roads to them; they are travelling abroad and returning with new ideas and aspirations.

Consequently, the country is witnessing growth in civic insurgency. The arrest of Kizza Besigye in November 2005 led to some of the worst riots in our history. There have been a dozen full-bloodied protests since ‘ over Mabira forest, Kiseka market, Kabaka-Kayunga etc. In July, youths in Kyenjojo closed down the road to Kampala demanding humps to stop speeding motorists causing accidents. In Wakiso, civilians arrested their LCV chairman and poured soil on him demanding a better road. In Mityana, citizens attacked a hospital where negligent nurses had caused a mother to die in childbirth.

In all these cases, the police have been unable to contain the protests ‘ in more dramatic cases government has had to bring in the army.

In this country and continent, we tend to obsess about the procedures of democracy rather than its substance. The real democracy will not come from laws passed in parliament and the good manners of our leaders. It will come from civic actions of an increasingly enlightened citizenry. Ugandans are more demanding and the government is now under siege.

The state can close four radio stations today, contain streets riots and threaten other media in Uganda into self-censorship. Although the state is winning some of these individual battles, it is losing the war of social change. People are talking in bars, others are organising in markets and many are getting ready for another protest. Civilians armed only with stones are taking on the military armed with mambas and APCs. Yet it is not the unemployed youths who will bring about change of government ‘ governments are rarely overthrown by forces from below. It is elites who cause change by providing the spark to existing social dynamite.

The current regime has based its survival on economic growth. This gives it more resources to rent elite support, build the military and security services to repress those who resist and to deliver some welfare, however incompetently, to the poor. Yet growth is producing militants; unemployed youths, restless graduates, committed civil society activists, embittered intellectuals, an enlightened middleclass etc, all demanding better government. The government survival strategy is inevitably producing social forces seeking change.

Therefore, the NRM government will not fall due to its failures but its achievements ‘ its collapse will be brought about by the very social forces it has helped create. The only way it can postpone the triumph of democratic forces is to find a resource from which it can generate revenues without pursuing economic growth. A stagnant economy will arrest the rate of the production of social forces committed to democratic reform. The forces of protest will therefore be unable to find replenishment.

That is why we should worry about the entry of oil revenues into our economy and politics. Oil is a resource that government can tax heavily and yet remain profitable. It is also a resource that government can earn millions of dollars from without having to negotiate with citizens about public policies and political institutions for growth. Oil revenues may demobilise civic activism and increase elite corruption and state coercion.

With oil, government can afford to ignore economic growth and yet retain the resources to rent political support and buy weapons and train the army and police to coerce those who resist. Government can also afford to do away with foreign aid. It will afford to ignore bothersome donors ‘ these mzungu who insist on respect for press freedom, rule of law, due process, human rights and sound macroeconomic policies. The biggest threat to a democratic future in Uganda therefore is not the government’s current penchant for repression but its expected oil windfall.

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