Uganda@57: Change political leadership and culture

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Uganda@57: Change political leadership and culture

Independent Uganda turns 57 next week. As usual, I have been scouring the newspaper reports from the critical period of 1961-1963. A news report by the Chicago Daily News Service, filed from Nairobi on March 15, 1962 caught my eye.

Under the headline “Politics Is The Tail That Wags Economics in Uganda Territory,” the report presented a detailed account of the wobbly start and the development plans and financial needs of the nascent nation, ending with a most prescient paragraph: “The whole question of economic development may become hypothetical, however, unless the Minnesota-sized African State can control the centrifugal political forces which threaten to tear it apart.”

Uganda, endowed with excellent human and material resources, a robust public service and private sector, was a leader among the anticipated success stories of former colonies. Ceylon, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and other former British colonies sent people to Uganda to learn how we were doing things. The British had established a system of distinct separation of the four key components of a functional state – the political competitors, an independent public service (including the judiciary), the private sector and the general citizenry.

The public service, which acted as the country’s nerve centre, was professional, merit-based and neutral. They  engaged in the business of policy making and implementation. They acted as referees between the political players, the private sector and the citizens.

The population was introduced to the concept of freely choosing and firing political leaders through elections that were supervised by a gentleman by the name R.C. Peagram. Notwithstanding the alleged rigging of elections in some parts of the country, the first two governments of independent Uganda, one led by Benedicto Kiwanuka and the other by Milton Obote, were not only legal, they were legitimate.

Whereas Kiwanuka’s government (March 1-April 30, 1962) was too brief to have a measurable impact on the components of the State, Obote 1 (1962-1971) initially maintained the separation of roles and responsibilities.

Effective social and economic policies were maintained, and new ones were introduced, with a view to creating a favourable environment for both foreign and domestic investors. The central driver was the genuine desire to create prosperity for all, or what Mr. Obote, in his 1962 election stump speeches, had called “a massive revolt against poverty.” However, by the late 1960s, when President Obote started flirting with the socialist experiments that were in vogue, the erosion of the functioning state begun.

The Idi Amin presidency (1971-1979) accelerated the process, setting the stage for a massive revolt against progress, with enormous greed unleashed, privatization of the state and a headlong descent towards a Mafia State. Whereas the overthrow of Amin on April 11, 1979 offered hope that Uganda would return to the British Protectorate’s template for managing a modern state, the returning “liberators” quickly demonstrated that they had only come to continue from where the vultures had left.

The “fundamental change” that President Yoweri Museveni promised in 1986 was one of the high points of a desperate country’s hopes of rescue from its self-immolation. Instead, the young and dynamic members of the enlightened leadership had other ideas.

After 33 years in power, Museveni has swallowed up the political space and the public service, then merged them with the private sector to create a tool for personal rule. He has allowed and encouraged the ruling politicians to become major players in the private sector, setting up a system where conflicts of interest and corruption are central to Uganda’s governance.

This has stifled the private sector, a fact that is borne out by the World Bank’s 2019 report on Ease of Doing Business. Ranked number 127 out of 190 countries, Uganda’s scores on the measured areas are very disappointing.

Singapore, once an admirer of Uganda’s way of doing things, ranked second, only bettered by New Zealand, in the World Bank’s report. “The economies that rank highest in the ease of doing business are those that have consistently well-designed business regulation or whose regulatory environments have thrived thanks to comprehensive reform over the years,” the report says. “The top three economies this year—New Zealand, Singapore and Denmark—exemplify a business-friendly environment.”

It is no surprise, then, that compared to Uganda’s foreign investment annual inflow of US$1.337 billion in 2018, Singapore received US$77.64 billion in the same year. Compared to Uganda’s total foreign direct investment stock in 2018 of US$13.33 billion, Singapore’s figure was US$1.48 trillion.

It is tempting to ascribe the difference to the fact that Singapore has not suffered the effects of civil wars and the like. However, that argument only affirms the statement of the anonymous journalist who predicted the fate of Uganda’s economy  nearly 60 years ago. Politics matters. The character and the rulers’ agendas matter. Governance matters.

Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia, which were dead dependencies in the 1960s, were turned around by authoritarian leaders. Those men were genuine nationalists that believed in  their countries, in their people and in systems that enabled the public service and private sectors to flourish.

The problem with Uganda – and many countries in Africa - is the personalisation of the state by an autocrat that genuinely believes that “l'état c'est moi” (I am the state). So, we find the president negotiating deals with businessmen, deciding who gets what contract, land and all manner of things that should never come to his desk.

We find the state, the private sector, foreign capitalists, and even civil society, including religious organizations, beholden to the Ugandan ruler. The president’s family members are directly engaged in businesses. Ditto cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and other senior public servants and politicians that determine the very policies that affect their own business interests. It is a corrupt system, even if there was no overt theft of public funds by some of these public officials.

So decimated is the Ugandan State that the country’s 2019 Auditor General’s Report reads like a catalogue of dysfunctional multiple public bodies, including the National Planning Authority. The presidency, where all serious decisions are made, appears to simply ignore the work and recommendations of these bodies. The Auditor General's Reports are essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand why the much-celebrated progress under the NRM is a mirage.

All of which points to the single most important corrective measure that must be made to create an environment that is favourable to serious foreign and domestic investment, sustainable development and creation of real wealth for all. A drastic change of political leadership and culture must be the starting point for restoration of a functioning state.


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