How economic success has tended to create more political trouble for Museveni than comfort
Very many Ugandans are angry, very angry. They feel the country has lost direction. They argue that our politics is corrupted, our democracy in retreat, and elections are rigged. They say the economy is not growing, poverty is increasing, inequality is widening, and state capacity to deliver public goods and services has been grossly eroded. Yet the opposite is the case on almost all these issues. Uganda is more democratic today than ever before and elections are increasingly freer and fairer. The country is making massive and unprecedented investments in infrastructure that will give it future productivity gains. Yet when you cite evidence of all these, critics retort that the numbers are cooked.
It is not only people who in the opposition that are angry. Many people high in the government – ministers, ruling party MPs, top civil servants, leading business persons, prelates, intellectuals and even members of the First Family including President Yoweri Museveni and the First Lady, Janet Museveni, make these criticisms. For example, in her autobiography, `My Life’s Journey’, Mrs. Museveni, criticises rampant corruption, inefficiency, and incompetence in the government.
In meetings I have attended with the President and government officials, Museveni always expresses frustration with the public sector’s inability to perform its functions. Even in some of his public speeches he sounds more like an opposition politician than an incumbent president. Therefore, disillusionment with the status quo is a widely shared sentiment across Uganda’s political spectrum. Recently, a top public official told me that I have lost my journalistic quality of being critical and keeping government on its toes. He said that these days I sound like a government spokesperson.
Indeed, I have been involved in battles with many people in large part because I previously used to hold these doomsday feelings and articulate them myself. Over the years, I have increasingly moved away from relying largely on my feelings to comment on public affairs towards greater reliance on statistical data, empirical evidence, historical reflection and comparative studies to understand Uganda and explain it to my readers, viewers, and listeners. For that, many people accuse me of having been bribed by Museveni. I am still waiting for my cheque!
But let me digress a bit to some kind of mini autobiography. I am inherently suspicious of majoritarian views and, therefore, I am always inclined to be more skeptical about what is the most popular and widely accepted version of things. I have rarely found myself on the side of the majority on any issue – whether it is corruption being an impediment to growth or foreign direct investment being a solution to our development predicament or the greatness of Barack Obama or the need for foreign aid to cure poverty.
This skepticism of the popular demands must have consolidated in me as a child when I read the story of Jesus Christ. In the Bible he is presented as a virtuous person, seeking to save the world. Then I would read and reread the chants of the majority shouting: “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.” When I was ten, I read about the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, who suffered a similar fate as Jesus. Plato presents him in virtuous terms – as the noblest and best human being that ever lived. Socrates always questioned common assumptions and certainties, a factor that irritated many Athenians and led that city’s democratic assembly to sentence him to death. This turned my dislike for majority positions into scorn.
Now let me revert to the subject of popular anger in Uganda; although it is understandable, it is not grounded in reality. One needs to read Samuel Huntington’s classic, `Political Order in Changing Societies’, to understand the dynamics behind Uganda’s political temperature today. Before Huntington, conventional wisdom in political science circles had always held that the poorer people are, the more they are likely to be politically disgruntled. Therefore, policy makers believed that governments should promote economic growth in order to achieve better economic security for citizens, which would lead to stability.
Using statistical evidence, Huntington turned this argument on its head. He argued that as the economy grows, it tends to produce many new social forces that seek to become more politically active (political participation) in ways that impact on government. According to Huntington, economic growth leads first to heightened inequality (an argument originally made by the Nobel laureate in economics, Simon Kuznets). Yet economic growth also stimulates social mobility for many people, which leads to heightened expectations that cannot be met at an early stage.
Heightened inequality in the context of overgrown yet “unrealisable” expectations causes social frustrations. This leads many people to seek political participation. Yet for Huntington, weakly institutionalised polities are easily overwhelmed by these new groups which enter politics (participate) on their own terms. This gives rise to praetorianism in which “the wealthy bribe, the students riot, the workers strike, mobs demonstrate and the military stage coups.”
I recently visited my former school, Mbarara High, and found many cars parked outside the administration block. When I walked into the staff room, I asked teachers which event was being held at the school. They said none and asked me why? I said there are many cars outside; so who are these visitors? They told me all those are teachers’ cars. In fact one teacher joked saying: “if you don’t own a car you cannot teach here”. Now I was at Mbarara High from 1989 to 1991 and not a single teacher, not even the headmaster, owned a car. The richest teachers used to ride bicycles.
There is a lot of evidence to show that Uganda enjoyed unprecedented economic growth and that this is widely shared. In fact Uganda has one of the best Gini Coeffecients in Africa at 0.395. The Gini measures income distribution where zero is perfect equality and one is perfect inequality. The only democracy in Africa with a better Gini than Uganda is Malawi. Uganda has a better Gini than Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Benin, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, etc.
It seems to me that Uganda is suffering from the Huntington problem where rapid growth has produced many new social forces with overblown expectations that far exceed the ability of the economy to satisfy them. Ugandans are angry, not because Museveni has failed but because he has been very successful. Therefore, if the anger against him causes Museveni to be defeated in an election, it would not be a tragedy of excess but a tragedy of contradiction.