The electoral promises President Museveni is making to win elections now – UPE and USE – are creating conditions like those of Ben Ali.The revolution in Tunisia that has toppled President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali is the most exciting event in Africa today. First, Tunisia has enjoyed high rates of economic growth under Ben Ali. Second, it has undergone rapid urbanisation. Third, it has invested heavily in education from primary to post graduate level. Finally, it has been highly penetrated by mobile phone and internet usage. Fifty percent of Tunisians aged 20-45 have finished university – and 92 percent have gone through school.
It is the above achievements that nourished the social forces that brought Ben Ali down. How? The rate of economic growth was outpaced by the rate of output of graduates from tertiary institutions. About 46 percent of graduates with masters’ degrees cannot find jobs. Unemployment among its youth is 30 percent. A highly educated youth with access to internet and mobile phones but without jobs is a time-bomb.
As Tunisians celebrated the downfall of Ben Ali, Daily Monitor of January 19 reported that Uganda is producing 400,000 graduates from tertiary institutions every year. Only 20,000 are getting jobs in the public sector. Even counting the private and informal sectors, Uganda is unlikely to be creating more than 150,000 jobs every year. Over the next five years, this country may have more than a million unemployed graduates.
These unemployed graduates are not going to sit around and passively watch the kinds of institutionalised corruption, incompetence and nepotism that we see in Uganda. They will begin to question the existing political order. Note that a major factor driving expansion of education opportunities in Uganda has been President Yoweri Museveni’s electoral promises. This means that what he needs to win elections in the short term – UPE and USE – is creating conditions like those of Ben Ali.
Therefore, the Museveni administration is nourishing the social forces that have the potential to bring it down. Economic growth has led to an education explosion and rapid urbanisation. Add liberalisation of the economy which is spreading new communication technologies to the far reaches of the country. The mobile phone has penetrated every village; our country has over 200 private FM radio stations, 20 private television stations and 2.5 million people use the internet.
These developments are putting increasing strains on our body politic. As people get more educated and urbanised, they get more access to mass media. This expands their horizons. Yet the rate of economic growth is outpaced by growth in aspirations. The mismatch between expectations and opportunities breeds social frustration – hence the growth of militancy. The structural and technological foundations for democratic politics are therefore being laid; and the struggle for participation is only going to intensify.
Museveni used to argue that as people become more educated and urbanised, they become less conscious of their tribal and religious identity (horizontal consciousness); they become more conscious of their class identity (vertical consciousness). Museveni was following Karl Marx; and he may have been right, but only in the very long term. In the short to medium term, urbanisation and education seem to accentuate consciousness of the tribe, religion, clan, region etc.
As people get more educated and urbanised, they tend to organise around multiple identities. Marx captured only one – economic. Post independence Africa has shown the power of ethnicity as an organising and mobilising tool. The rapid growth of districts in Uganda is a by-product of Museveni’s fire brigade approach to this problem. He is creating opportunities for ethnic elites in districts as a way to de-congest economic demands in Kampala. The new districts may be fiscally expensive but they are politically stabilising. The president is buying off elites before they become militant unemployed protestors on the streets.
We are going to see more militant forms of opposition to this administration many of which will take the form of ethnicity. We are also going to see more street protests than Mabira and Kayunga. The growing economy will furnish the NRM with resources to buy more tear gas and water cannons and train the police in better ways to suppress riots. However, although the police will succeed in crashing individual strikes, it will be unable to curb the growth of militancy in Ugandan cities.
For now, militancy is largely restricted to the unemployed youth. But Uganda is developing a large working class and student community both of which are growing their own group consciousness. Soon, they will develop organisational means to press forth their demands. The Museveni administration is in bed with big businesses. But if worker and student strikes paralyse business and bog down work, entrepreneurs may change their minds too. Museveni is unlucky because the biggest pressures on his leadership are multiplying when he is aging.
These developments only show that Uganda’s political terrain is changing to new ways that are rendering Kizza Besigye, just like Museveni, a relic of the past. The era of armed struggle is giving way to the era of street protest. Born of the former, Besigye seems ill-equipped to lead the new struggle. Both he and Museveni believe that the military gives an incumbent decisive advantage. But as Tunisia (and Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Philippines, Peru, Indonesia, South Korea, Chile etc before it) has shown, no army can defeat a people’s revolution when its time has come.
Therefore, if Besigye intends to adapt and lead successful street protests, he has to recognise that Museveni can only fall because he has transformed Uganda, not because he has kept it backward. But he will also need to realise that the era of one charismatic leader, heading a well organised and disciplined organisation is dying. Street protests are a chaotic and decentralised affair with power spread across many individuals and groups. Besigye will have to accept to be one among many leaders.
These changes are not limited to Uganda. They are taking place across most of Africa: Economies are growing; populations urbanising; youths becoming more educated; mobile phones are spreading; radios and televisions are enlightening the masses, Facebook and Twitter are networking them, citizens are becoming more militant and our politics is struggling to adapt to these changes. We have not seen much yet. Tunisia is only the beginning.