Why Uganda must reject another military government

The life of an average woman in Uganda's rural areas

The life of an average woman in Uganda’s rural areas

Readers must be wondering why I am writing prolifically about Uganda on a wide range of topics. There are three main reasons.

1. Uganda is at a crossroads and we must decide quickly which development path we need to take and the kind of leadership required. It is now recognized that the principal constraint in Uganda’s development is the background and quality of leadership. We need to examine economic and social performance under civilian and military leadership since independence in 1962 and draw conclusions.

2. I have been covering many topics in an inter-connected manner in economics, politics and regional/international relations because development is multi-dimensional. I have introduced a seminar on Radio Uganda Boston, USA on political economy to show how politics and economics affect each other and shouldn’t be treated as separate entities in policy formulation. The NRM government’s approach is virtually one dimensional. For example, in increasing crop production and livestock herding especially with introduction of commercial goats, the government has not taken environmental degradation seriously into account. Also, education has not been linked with employment opportunities to the extent that over 80 percent of Uganda youth are unemployed.

3. It was decided at the second UDU conference in Boston, USA in October 2011 that we should step up civic education because there was a serious shortage of information leading to taking inappropriate decisions with adverse outcomes.

Uganda’s development under the civilian regime

Apart from the 1966/67 political and constitutional crisis, Uganda did very well in economic and social development in the 1960s. By 1970 Uganda’s economy was growing at a comfortable rate of close to eight percent, the fastest in East Africa. Furthermore, economic growth fed into social sectors and raised living standards. This rapid economic growth and development was recognized by the World Bank among other partners and by the NRM government itself. Here is what they wrote.

In its 1993 report on “Trends in Development Economies” the World Bank recorded that “Despite being landlocked, [Uganda] had ample fertile land and a favorable climate for agricultural growth, a relatively well-developed manufacturing sector, and an adequate transportation system. GDP growth was about 6 percent a year from 1963 to 1970, and relative price stability was maintained. At independence in 1962 [colonial administration was civilian] Uganda had one of the most vigorous and promising economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the years following independence amply demonstrated its economic potential. Uganda’s social indicators were comparable to, if not better than, most countries in Africa. The country’s health service had developed into one of Africa’s best. Uganda pioneered many low-cost health and nutrition programs. There was a highly organized network of vaccination centers and immunization programs reached 70 percent of the population. Although school enrolment was still low, [by 1970], Uganda’s education system had developed a reputation for very high quality” (World Bank 1993).

This is what we call economic growth and development showing the inter-linkage between economic growth and social advancement. Economic growth per se is necessary but not a sufficient condition for improving human condition. In Uganda particularly since the 1990s we have had jobless economic growth and highly skewed income distribution, leaving over fifty percent of the population trapped in absolute poverty.

In his statement of December 1989 at a conference in Kampala on Uganda’s economy, the minister of finance acknowledged that Uganda’s economy did well up to the early 1970s. He stated “The country had a diversified export base and earned substantial foreign currency to meet its needs. The industrial sector produced a wide range of consumer goods to satisfy local demands and a little surplus was exported to the neighboring countries. The civil service then was well formed and had capability to implement programs. There was an enterprising Asian and African middle class which ran the private sector effectively. Indeed the economy was growing at a rate of 5% per annum” (Papers Presented at the Uganda Seminar on the Economy since 1986 June 1990). Although still neocolonial in structure, NRM recognized that Uganda economy was buoyant during the civilian government in the 1960s.

Although frustrated by adverse security situation and the guerilla war, IMF/World Bank conditionality, transport bottlenecks and natural adversity like drought, the UPC civilian government recorded a comfortable real GDP growth rate averaging 6 percent per annum between 1981 and 1984 as its record in the 1960s. Agricultural performance was largely responsible for this growth (Uganda Human Development Report 1996). Under the civilian government between 1963 and 1970 and between 1981 and 1984 Uganda’s economy and society did reasonably well particularly in the 1960s.

Thus, under UPC, the civilian government led by the cabinet crafted and implemented appropriate policies that produced real results that improved the quality of life of the vast majority of Ugandans particularly in the 1960s.

Uganda’s under-development under Amin military regime

Things changed abruptly reversing the development trajectory after the military overthrow of the civilian government in 1971 and the ascendancy of Amin. Instead of running the country on well thought out development policies and following standard procedures, Amin adopted a different approach based on instructions from God communicated to him through dreams. And Amin had many dreams.

1. Amin dreamt that God instructed him that all civilians in the cabinet must become military cadets so they are tried in military courts for mistakes committed in discharging their duties. This decision undermined incentive as doing virtually nothing was safer than initiating programs that might fail along the way. It is reported that when the minister of finance advised Amin that money isn’t just printed on orders of the president, he was punished.

2. Amin dreamt that God had instructed him that all Asians – non-citizens and citizens alike – be expelled from Uganda within 90 days because they had “milked Uganda cows without feeding them”. He stuck to the dictates of the dream and Asians left the country on time without giving thought about economic and social implications. The temporary benefits to those who took over Asian businesses soon evaporated and the economy headed down the drain accompanied by social decadence.

3. Amin dreamt again. This time he was instructed that all land in Uganda be brought under cultivation regardless of who owned it to boost GDP growth without paying attention to environmental consequences and potential conflicts over land ownership. This reckless dream resulted in massive destruction of vegetation in wet lands, on steep slopes and in water catchment areas that had been protected against human activities. Disputes over land ownership ensued with some serious consequences especially in areas where land is in short supply. And hunting of wild life was so severe that surviving animals migrated to DRC where they took refuge! The exposed soil was subjected to serious erosion from strong winds and heavy tropical storms, losing its fertility in the process and resulting in reduced productivity and total agricultural production. GDP soon declined and Amin was faced again with the old problem of providing adequate goods and services for a restive population especially mercenaries from Sudan and DRC.

4. Having run out of domestic options to keep the population in line, Amin dreamt that Uganda’s land lost to Kenya should be recovered all the way to Naivasha. He thought this adventure would rally Ugandans behind him and buy him time. Then he changed his mind and decided instead to invade Tanzania, provoking a military response that he regretted for the rest of his life. Amin was overthrown in 1979 with much destruction in human lives and properties particularly in Masaka and Mbarara towns and areas between Tanzania border and Kampala.

The point being underlined here is that Amin behaved as a military commander while president of a country issuing decrees as he was used to issuing orders as a military commander. He had no time for ministers and advisers and ignored policies that they had drawn up.

The human, institutional and physical capital that had been built before he assumed leadership of the country was devastated. Ugandans died, Ugandans got imprisoned, Ugandans fled the country and those who stayed drifted from town to the countryside to a relatively safe distance from the wrath of Field Marshall Amin.

Uganda’s under-development under Museveni military regime

Notwithstanding the failures of Amin’s military regime, Ugandans gave Museveni benefit of the doubt because of his development rhetoric during the guerrilla war and the fact that he had attended college at Dar, Tanzania against Amin who completed grade two.

No sooner had he settled in than he began to behave like Amin in terms of taking unilateral decisions. Quite early on in his presidency he indicated that he was the only person with a vision for Uganda, similar to military commanders.

1. It is believed that the idea of barter trade was Museveni’s and he wouldn’t entertain any advice. Those who attempted were sidelined. As Kanyeihamba then minister of commerce in charge of barter trade reported, the whole idea was a failure and a big liability to Uganda. Uganda ended up worse off than if it had followed classical trade practice of exporting agricultural raw materials in exchange for manufactured products.

2. Museveni virtually alone took the decision to abandon the well prepared and balanced ten point program and replace it with the worst form (shock therapy) of stabilization and structural adjustment program (SAP). He rejected reports and dismissed the minister of finance and governor of the central bank who apparently supported a gradual and sequenced approach to minimize social and environmental costs. He strictly adhered to the IMF/World Bank rigid conditionality based on market forces and private sector as the engine of growth and trickle down as the mechanism to distribute the benefits of economic growth with a huge cost that forced him to abandon SAP in 2009.

3. He embarked on privatization of public enterprises without adequate studies and consultation with parliament, insisting that mistakes should be corrected as they surfaced. Privatization has turned out costly. Investment and job creation have fallen far below expectations.

4. Diversification of export production has deprived Ugandans of adequate food with serious nutritional deficits especially among children and women. Because of this poorly constructed trade strategy, food surplus regions such as Mbarara, Bushenyi and former Kigezi districts have become food deficit areas.

5. Museveni didn’t pay much attention to the environmental consequences of his decisions. He allowed construction in towns to be directed by the wishes of developers. Consequently areas in Kampala for instance that had been reserved as water drainage channels were taken over by buildings that have blocked water runoff with flooding and mosquito breeding in stagnant water as the result. Kampala hill slopes have been de-vegetated to create room for housing without steps to control water runoff. In rural areas extensive clearing of vegetation to increase agricultural production and ranches for livestock herding to increase beef exports have seriously destroyed the environment with adverse hydrological and thermal regimes as manifested in frequent and severe droughts and floods; local climate change and spread of mosquito into previously cooler places like Kabale with devastating health consequences especially among children without immunity.

6. From the beginning, Museveni didn’t believe that Uganda should be developed along the classical stages of economic growth starting with the Green Revolution to Industrial and Information and Communication Revolution. At a conference in Addis Ababa to launch the report on Africa’s Green Revolution, President Museveni asked specifically whether development must always proceed from green to industrial and finally to information revolution. The response was yes. From his body language Museveni didn’t buy it and hasn’t implemented it in Uganda. Instead Museveni has chosen to develop Uganda like Singapore, a city state based on high tech. That is why he has created Greater Kampala and encourages rural-urban population mobility and paid little attention to rural and industrial development. This is confirmed by the fact that some seventy percent of Uganda’s National Gross Income (GNI) is generated in Kampala with less than two million people out of a total population of 25 million. With Greater Kampala now operational and under his overall supervision, more resources will be invested there and it will generate a higher level of GNI than at present. The countryside and manufacturing sectors will likely continue to be neglected. Business in Greater Kampala is likely to be more capital intensive in a sea of unemployed youth. If Museveni had listened to advisers he would have realized that in a country like Uganda with over 80 percent of the population still in the countryside engaged in agriculture, priority would be assigned to the sector. His kind of vision to develop Uganda like Singapore is the wrong way to modernize Uganda.

7. Like Amin, Museveni has had a high propensity to interfere in domestic affairs of neighboring countries in Sudan, DRC, Burundi, Kenya and Rwanda. Apart from diverting huge amount of human and financial resources, Uganda has had bad relations with neighbors except Tanzania. Uganda has been dragged into the United Nations Security Council several times on allegations of military actions and plundering the resources of a neighbor.

The cost of decisions taken by Museveni, the only man with a vision for Uganda’s development has been very high. The economy has slowed from 10 percent in mid 1990s to around three percent currently against a population growing at 3.5 percent which means that per capita income is declining and poverty spreading and deepening.

Socially, all systems in education, healthcare, nutrition and housing are on the verge of collapse. Environmental degradation in rural and urban areas is alarming. Expert reports have warned that if drastic steps are not taken quickly Uganda could become a desert within a hundred years. But Museveni hasn’t paid commensurate attention presumably because by then he won’t be in charge of Uganda.

While Museveni knew there were failures arising from his vision, he thought they could be hidden by reporting economic growth, inflation control, accumulation of currency reserves in the central bank and export diversification. Suddenly diseases that had disappeared reappeared with a vengeance, water bodies home to a variety of fish were depleted, deforestation encroached on Mabira forest mobilizing resistance he had never seen, sprawling urban slums harbored unemployed criminals and demonstrators that have threatened peace and stability.

Museveni is now on the defensive blaming others including for inadequate foreign aid. Be that as it may, Museveni is now presiding over a failed state characterized by rampant corruption, sectarianism, cronyism and excessive mismanagement of public resources. Borders are crossed at will and refugees are grabbing citizens’ land particularly from vulnerable, powerless and voiceless citizens in areas like Toro where Batutsi from Eastern DRC enter Uganda. Overall, economically, socially, environmentally, politically and diplomatically, Uganda’s star has fallen.

Summing up and recommendation

The UPC two civilian regimes in the 1960s and early 1980s have performed much better and delivered superior outcomes than the military regimes from 1971 to 1979 and from 1986 to the present and still counting. The civilian regime especially in the 1960s experienced rapid economic growth and social advancement as it should be. Under the military regimes Uganda has experienced under-development with poverty, hunger, disease and unemployment rising while economic growth has declined precipitously from 10 percent in the mid 1990s to three percent currently.

Based on this record of civilian and military performance since independence, it is very likely that another military government or military leader as president will do the same. There is no room for another benefit of the doubt. Military leaders (no disrespect please) whether they are nice people or not or whether they come from good families or not are trained to handle military matters and make military decisions that are handed down to the rank and file without consulting them but civilian populations can’t be treated like that. They consult, discuss and strike compromises with their governments. There is a story, true or not, that when Bushenyi leaders could not agree on splitting the district into two, Museveni broke the impasse by dividing it into four and the matter was brought to an abrupt end. Uganda can’t afford to be governed like this again. With another military president the trajectory will remain as it is today or worse.

Ultimately the choice between civilian and military leadership resides with the people of Uganda. My job as civic educator has been to provide information so that an informed decision is taken.




2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
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