Ugandans at home and abroad have begun peaceful demonstrations against the failed regime of Museveni, massive rigging of presidential, parliamentary and local elections, and refusal to address the rising prices of goods and services especially of fuel and food.
When Museveni came to power in 1986, he promised democracy, free and fair elections, law and order, equal development opportunities for all and a society devoid of sectarianism and corruption. The people of Uganda would be sovereign and the government would be its servant. To avoid abuse, the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judiciary branches would be strictly enforced. And merit would be the criterion for appointments and promotions. These promises were contained in the ten point program which was developed and adopted by consensus during the guerrilla war and published in 1985.
Once in power Museveni took a different path. Without consulting the public, he dropped the popular ten point program and replaced it with structural adjustment program in 1987. He dismissed or marginalized Ugandans including the minister of finance who opposed the severe (shock therapy) version of adjustment and threatened those who opposed the new program, marking the beginning of dictatorial rule that has intensified over the last twenty five years.
The implementation of structural adjustment was based on the operation of market forces and laissez faire capitalism, trickle down mechanism and a significantly reduced role of the state in the economy and balanced budget. Free trade, comparative advantage, privatization of public enterprises, retrenchment of public servants and elimination of subsidies in social sectors of education, health and housing as well as in agriculture were implemented. It had been hoped that through a trickle down mechanism, the benefits of rapid economic growth would benefit social sectors and the private sector would create employment for retrenched public servants and new workers.
However, in practice things have worked differently. Democracy through free and fair elections has been denied. All the elections since 1996 have been rigged in favor of Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. The 2011 elections are particularly troubling because over five million Ugandans were disenfranchised and an equal number of foreigners were bused into the country from neighboring countries and voted for Museveni and his party. As foreigners are not allowed to vote the election results are illegitimate. The Commonwealth Observer Team reported that the entire electoral process lacked a level playing field, implying that the results are null and void. The presidential opponents of Museveni have refused to concede defeat and the opposition has rejected the results. It is calling for the formation of a transitional coalition government to organize free and fair elections.
Uganda’s economy and governance have been characterized by skewed distribution of income in favor of a few families and blatant corruption and sectarianism. As a result over fifty percent of the population live in absolute poverty, over 80 percent of youth are unemployed, some ten million Ugandans go to bed hungry every night, forty percent of children under five are undernourished, over 80 percent of primary school children drop out of school every year in large part for luck of school lunch which the government has refused to support although endorsed by NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development). School lunches improve attendance and performance especially of girls.
The failed economy has resulted in the emergence and spreading of diseases of poverty which include jiggers, scabies, trachoma, tuberculosis, malnutrition and malaria. Reduced public investment has severely undermined institutions, infrastructure and social systems which are on the brink of collapse. The extensive clearance of vegetation to increase agricultural production for export and domestic markets has severely damaged the environment which is now characterized by rising temperatures and reduced rainfall. Consequently, Uganda is experiencing frequent and longer droughts and floods with adverse impact on agricultural production and food availability.
These adverse outcomes have created challenges for the government which has responded with brute force and a president that has become dictatorial and insensitive to the needs of the public. Instead of allocating more resources to the development sectors to reduce suffering, Museveni has decided to invest more in security forces to crack down dissent.
A combination of external and domestic factors has resulted in rapid increase of prices especially on fuel/kerosene and food. Whereas other countries like Kenya have responded by intervening to reduce prices including by reducing taxes, the government of Uganda has totally refused to intervene arguing that the causes are externally induced for fuel and “Acts of God” for food. External factors and Acts of God have been aggravated by domestic policies – high taxes, liberal export of food and pumping too much money in the economy during the election campaigns. Consequently, there is a high tax on fuel and kerosene. The government could have eased the price by reducing tax or increasing the supply of fuel from national reserves or using foreign currency reserves to import more fuel but the government has refused.
The food shortage has been caused in part by low rainfall which is partly the result of environmental degradation starting especially in 1974 when Amin authorized extensive de-vegetation to increase crop cultivation and herding, a policy that has continued and intensified under Museveni’s government to diversify agricultural production for export. The encouragement of food exports to neighboring countries and beyond has further reduced domestic supplies driving prices up beyond the means of many households.
Peaceful demonstrations that began in March and intensified since April are designed to convince the government to agree to a transitional coalition government to arrange free and fair elections and to intervene in the economy and address the rising prices especially of fuel and food. The government has responded with disproportionate force against peaceful demonstrators notwithstanding that Ugandans have the right to march, assemble and express opinion peacefully.
The brutal use of force has been condemned by the international community including western governments, non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and the media. We appeal to the Secretary General of the United Nations to use his good offices and help end the brutal violation of human rights in Uganda, a member state of the United Nations that served on the Security Council two years ago and is now a member of the Human Rights Council.
Professor Eric Kashambuzi