Uganda is now caught up in the contradiction of extreme wealth alongside excessive poverty and extreme luxury alongside mass deprivation.
After a long period without any public issue around which to galvanise popular discontent in their favour, the opposition in Uganda has finally found one in the escalating food and transport costs. For the first time, the opposition is rallying the public on a grievance that touches the stomachs and wallets of millions and not one where it is merely fighting for power. Therefore the cat and mouse fight between them and the police has only begun and has potential to open the road to Tunisia and Egypt.
Over the last 20 years, President Yoweri Museveni has set in motion policies that have fostered rapid economic growth and thereby laid the foundation for the structural transformation of Uganda. A few people are making large sums of cash reflected in fancy cars, magnificent homes, modern shopping malls and high rise office blocks. This has attracted large numbers of youth from rural areas seeking to take advantage of opportunities in towns. However, the number of immigrants into towns far exceeds available opportunities hence slums, unemployment and crime.
Uganda’s growth has ignited a boom in education from both public and private institutions. In January, Daily Monitor reported that Uganda produces 400,000 graduates from tertiary institutions every year but the public sector can only take 20,000. Both education and urbanisation are liberating forces: beneficiaries gain access to local and international media. This expands their horizons which in turn increases their expectations. However, the growth in their aspirations tends to be faster than the growth in opportunities. The mismatch between expectations and available opportunities leads to social frustration.
Human talent for innovation is not evenly distributed in any society; only a few tend to be exceptionally good. Thus, when governments liberalise the economy to allow for market competition and efficiency, those who reap the largest share of benefits are the ingenious; and in the case of a patronage system like ours, those who are politically well connected. The simple tend to lose out thus generating envy among them. Economic envy and social frustration are the stuff out of which revolutions are incubated.
Therefore, Uganda is now caught up in the contradiction that characterises most rapidly growing economies of poor countries – the production of extreme wealth alongside excessive poverty and extreme luxury alongside mass deprivation. Since those who enjoy the high benefits of growth are few and those who are deprived are many, the political terrain tends to get charged. This is the common risk of all capitalist societies.
In the 19th century, the uneven distribution of the material benefits of economic growth led to the development of ideologies such as socialism, communism and nihilism. These ideologies challenged the legitimacy of capitalism as a system of organising human affairs. Their political strength combined with the inherent structural instability of capitalism forced the Western world to create welfare states. Social welfare was a redistributive mechanism intended to make everyone a beneficiary of growth without making everyone’s benefits equal as communism had promised.
Many people who support free market systems fail to understand the political and social value of some level of redistributive policies. For capitalism to survive, it needs to have a spirit – not just an abstract ideology of the inalienable right to the fruits of one’s innovation – but also the sense that everyone gains by the free market system. It is this value that is missing in Uganda because the system is too elite driven. There are hardly any successful social welfare programmes to make an ordinary person feel the benefits of growth.
It is in this context that fuel and food prices have colluded to give the opposition an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Uganda’s opposition has consistently been opportunistic, always only coming out to struggle for access to power and privilege rather than to fight for the interests of the ordinary person. Now for the first time, they have got their act right. They have announced their determination to sustain a campaign to boycott motorised transport and walk to and from work daily. Symbolically, it shows their concern for the urban workers, unemployed and poor, not their desire for power.
The rising cost of living, especially in Kampala is social dynamite waiting for a detonator. Even the most ardent supporters of NRM are feeling the pinch. It is going to be extremely difficult for NRM to ask Ugandans to tighten their belts when it is indulging in extravagant spending on sophisticated fighter jets worth over Shs 1.8 trillion. How can an economy that cannot feed its own people buy such expensive military-ware?
To make matters worse, Uganda may not avoid the morale booster impact of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Events in the Middle East have shown many that peaceful protest can bring down even the strongest government. Although the political system in Uganda is more open and competitive compared to Egypt and Tunisia before their revolution, we still suffer the sense that people cannot change government through elections. President Museveni has been in power forever and gives no indication of leaving.
Museveni is in a catch 22 situation. If he allows the opposition leaders to walk to Kampala, they may attract large crowds. How far will they grow? Can the regime contain masses of discontented demonstrators? If it blocks them and holds them at police stations, for how long will it keep them: for a day, a week, a month? If it releases them and they try to walk again, it may be forced to jail them indefinitely thus turning them into martyrs and heroes.
The future is always indeterminate. How the current political stand-off plays out will depend on how the opposition exploits every opportunity to put government on the defensive and how the regime addresses popular discontent in order to disconnect the masses from the opposition leaders. One measure may be to indulge in public acts that cast the government in the light of a caring patron. For instance, it can suspend buying fighter jets and claim that the money will be used to subsidize food and fuel prices. Then it can jail those accused of stealing CHOGM funds. It can also offer some relief bread to a few.
Which way will it go? Stay tuned!