A few weeks ago, a Western diplomat invited a couple of us to lunch to discuss the major challenge facing our nation and what the West â€œshould doâ€ (I would have preferred â€œshould not doâ€) about it. As I listened to Ugandan colleagues speak, I got worried. They denounced our lack of good leadership and poured scorn on the quality of our government. Here I agreed with them entirely. Then they moved beyond this to a more generalised attack on Ugandan society as being ignorant, lazy, complacent, cowardly, and more. This failure to separate the failures of the Yoweri Museveni regime from the wider Ugandan society concerned me deeply.
Apparently, many people turn their legitimate anger against the corruption, nepotism and incompetence of the Museveni government into anger against Ugandan society. It is here that Museveni has registered his greatest success â€“ to make us lose faith in ourselves and even question our ability to shape our destiny. A cynical elite is what Museveni needs because it cannot be a vehicle for progressive change.
So I intervened in the debate arguing with passion that Ugandans are not stupid and lazy and our society is not dysfunctional. Our nation is full of innovative and vibrant people who are creating immense opportunities for themselves and their fellow citizens to work and trade and earn ever more incomes. I meet them every day when I am shopping, dining in a restaurant, visiting an office, selling advertisement, banking a cheque, negotiating land prices â€“ everywhere.
Of course this is not to say Ugandans are without weaknesses. Our agrarian structure has given us a poor work ethic and its attitudes and habits stand in the way of the necessary capitalist behaviour that facilitates market exchange. Rather, my argument is that seeming liabilities can be turned into great assets and that while the cards we are given by history are important, how we learn to play them is more important. Although our present obstacles appear to be structurally obdurate, there is room to change our environment. The challenge is to identify change agents.
During the late 1980s, Museveni and NRM carried out vital economic reforms. They withdrew government from most economic activity, thus paving way for the private sector and markets to allocate resources in a more efficient way. They liberalised the economy, privatised public enterprises (with a lot of graft of course), deregulated prices, disbanded state monopolies and controlled inflation. This unleashed our private entrepreneurial energy and creativity that has been the driving force of our economic success.
You do not need to be a Museveni supporter to recognise the positive results of these reforms. The economy has sustained average growth rates of 9% for over 20 years, a rare achievement by an economy in Sub-saharan Africa. This growth has brought prosperity to many and reduced the number of people living in poverty from 56% in 1992 to 31% in 2006. Of course there are those in the 31% who have grown poorer, many who have not improved and there are also questions of equity in our growth. But these negatives do not erase the said achievements.
Indeed, a lot of the dysfunctions we see are a result of our economic success rather than failure. For example, traffic jams are caused by more people getting richer and therefore buying cars faster than government is expanding the size of roads. And because we drive more cars today, our roads suffer faster wear and tear than if we were using bicycles â€“ although poor quality construction due to corruption plays an important role. We have constant load-shading of electricity because more and more firms and households are getting unto the grid and using more machines.
Therefore, the major failure of the Museveni administration has been inability to build state institutions to provide public goods and services to citizens â€“ effectively and efficiently. That is why roads are a sea of potholes, hospitals are death chambers, schools (if they are not burning or collapsing) are producing half-baked graduates. Yet there are still a few islands of probity, efficiency and competence in our public sector, which is a sea of corruption, incompetence and nepotism.
Therefore, the failures of the Museveni government should not be mistaken to represent dysfunction in the wider Ugandan society, although they contribute to it. For example, the private sector is filling many of these gaps with better schools, hospitals and supplying electricity. Neighbours from Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya are flocking to our schools. Museveni may have control over part of our lives but he does not control all our lives.
Monitor Publications Limited began in a basement 16 years ago with hardly any capital. Now, it has a gross turnover of over US$ 10m. MTN launched in Uganda only 10 years ago with limited capital. Now it is valued at over US$ 1billion; its profits last year were over US$ 100m while it paid taxes worth over US$ 120m. My friend Lucky has moved from being a taxi driver to owning a fleet of 52 Kilita buses.
These successes are not accidents. They have been produced by the ingenuity of the people of this country working singly on jointly with foreign investors. Of course an enabling macroeconomic policy environment put in place by the government has been critical too. But most of our achievements have been realised in spite of bad government.
Having made this case, I was shocked (but certainly not surprised) when some in the group accused me of having â€œsold out.â€ There is a section of the Ugandan political class that wants to deny any credit to Museveni. Some even take this argument further and seek to deny the progress Uganda has registered under his leadership â€“ even if it was achieved in spite, rather than because of him.
The problem with this group, however, is that when someone disagrees with their assessment of Uganda, they do not respond to the substantive arguments made. Instead they seek to attack oneâ€™s moral character - like in my case, accusing me of having â€œsold out.â€ This tactic of avoiding the substantive debate and shifting to attack the personality of the individual making an argument undermines the platform for honest debate of public issues in Uganda.
Continues next week