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At what cost Mr. Museveni?

Uganda, described by Winston Churchill as the “Pearl of Africa”, is a nice example of a state which is seen by the Western world as an ally in the region, but headed by a president who only cares about his personal survival. Unfortunately for the country and the region the alter of sacrifice consists of democracy, rule of law, sustainable development, ecological conversation and respect for human rights.

It is a pity that a country as Uganda is only known by the general public for brutal personalities like Idi Amin and Joseph Kony. The hospitality of the Ugandans, the beauty and diversity of its nature and the amazing climate is generally unknown. In 1986 the current president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) took over power and restored stability in the southwest and centre of the country. It was the start of more than two decades of uninterrupted economical growth and vast macro-economic recovery and growth.

Macro-economical success story in the region:

Between 1987 and 2011 Uganda’s GDP grew 6,8% annually, its GDP per capita increased from $169 in 1991 to $ 797 in 2011, its export of goods and services with 14% – from $ 334 million to $ 4 billion – and the volume of foreign investment went up from $ 1 million in 1991 to $ 797 million in 2011 (1). In a region affected by devastating civil wars (Burundi, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda) and economic turmoil, the pearl began to shine up again. Today it is clear that some Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are likely to be met (e.g. 50% reduction of extreme poverty and improved access to water and sanitation). The formula for this macro-economical success story is a combination of liberalization and privatization policies and strong support of the donor community.

By following the Westerns’ liberalization and privatisation agenda, Uganda could count on the vast influx of donor dollars coming from the Netherlands, United Kingdom (UK), European Union (EU), United States of America (USA) and Scandinavian countries. Museveni’s Uganda became a donor darling. In return for implementing Western development programmes, Museveni not only received large sums of development aid, but as well as political and military back-up in dirty issues, e.g. the military operations in Northern Uganda, Southern Sudan and the DRC. By supporting AMISOM and engaging Uganda in the War on Terror by fighting Al-Shabaab, the Western world was only more pleased. In return it turned its face when the opposition in Uganda was intimidated and human rights were violated.

Similarly Museveni was cherished by the international community in his efforts to democratize the country. The non-party movement system instituted a constitution in 1995 and in 2005 a constitutional referendum made place for multiparty system. However, in the same year multiparty politics was instituted, Museveni lifted up the constitutional two-term limit for presidency and ran for a third term in the presidential elections of 2006. This decision can be seen as a marking point as it became clear that Museveni’s agenda is not the reduction of poverty, development or democratization of the country, but the implementation of an agenda of a pragmatist ex rebel leader who wants to remain in power at all costs.

The flip side of liberalisation and privatization and Museveni’s survival agenda.

Notwithstanding the impressive macro-economic results of Museveni’s regime the liberalisation and privatization policies did not benefit the rural poor and northern and eastern regions. In fact, it has never been the intention to develop those regions, as Museveni’s main concern in 1986 was to establish a political support base in southern and central Uganda. Not surprisingly, those regions benefited most of the state’s economical policy, whereas the Karamojong in the east and the Acholi in north were completely neglected and suffered from the LRA, drought and general marginalization.

In addition to the eastern and northern regions, there was another group who did not benefit from the liberalization and privatization policies. With a fall in crop prices relative to prices of goods and services, the rise of non-agricultural wages, the reduction of access to credit in rural areas – liberalisation in the financial sector caused the closure of bank branches in rural areas and bank institutions started to regard agriculture as a risky activity-, and the lack of public investment in health, infrastructure and education in rural areas, in combination with the opening of Uganda’s economy and therefore making it more vulnerable for what economics call external shocks (e.g. sudden downfall of the international coffee price or rise of the international fuel price), small-holder subsistence farmers were completely excluded from the benefits of liberalization and privatization. The problem with Uganda’s liberalization and privatization policies was that the government saw agriculture as a business and not as a public good. In a country where agriculture contributes to 35% of the GDP, about 80% of the total of export comes from agriculture, 80% of the population lives in rural areas and 85% of the workforce is engaged in the agricultural sector; agricultural prices are the main driver of income growth and poverty reduction (2). In other words, agricultural growth is the most crucial factor for reducing rural poverty. To reduce poverty in rural areas, the government of Uganda must change its policy and invest in rural transportation, networks, electrification, storage facilities, fertilizers, extension facilities (education, health, access to water, sanitation and land), transfer of technology and knowledge.

Unfortunately, health and education are not a priority for Museveni’s regime, at least not in acts. In 2011 Museveni spent millions of dollars in his re-election campaign –the magazine Time speaks of 350 million dollar (3)-, which was based on intimidating the opposition and buying up votes all over the country. The foreign exchange reserves were depleted by the purchase of six Russian fighter jets for the cost of $ 740 million and the Ministry of Health saw part of their funds diverted to other sectors. The result was that Uganda suffered a downturn with inflation reaching triple digits and a significant rise of fuel and commodity prices. Small-scaled farmers could not sell their crops due to increased transport costs and increased cost of living, and the resulting loss of income forced families to drop their children from school. Being a pragmatist, the president stated in an interview with the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor that the rise of basic commodity prices benefited the farmers, well knowing that it were the middle men and wholesalers who captured the profits (4). In addition, the government is selling or leasing great pieces of land to foreign investors for projects as exploration and exploitation of oil, palm oil, sugar cane and timber plantations. Local rural communities pay the price because they lose their solely source of income, land, and local food supply decreases, causing an increase of import and rising commodity prices. In the educational sector, the dynamics are neither positive. Recently the Dutch embassy withdraw direct budget support to the Ministry of Education and Sports over corruption and poor performances in the sector. Although Uganda’s Universal Primary Education policy led to high enrolling figures, the performance of the pupils is dramatically low. Only 25% of the graduated children have the skills that enable them to move to the labour market (5). The main causes of this problem are lack of resources to ensure quality education, corruption and poor supervision by the state. One of the main challenges is the absenteeism of teachers due to the low teacher salary and lack of recruitment and professional training.

By buying the elections of 2011 and stating publicly that Ugandans have the choice between him as president or war, purchasing fighter jets with money from the Central Bank of Uganda and without approval of the Parliament, violently smothering the demonstrations that emerged in the aftermath of the elections and the increasing cost of living, protecting top officials in the government involved in corruption scandals (e.g. Amama Mbabazi, Prime Minister, and Sam Kutesa, Ministry of Foreign Affairs), refusing to talk with the opposition and personally handling the contracts in the oil and gas sector, 2011 can be seen as the year in which the general public awoke and saw the real face of Museveni. A man who does not tolerate interference and strong institutions and conducts politics in a very arrogant, personal and authoritarian way.

The “resource curse” and anti-democratic legislation:

In 2006 Uganda confirmed the existence of commercially viable oil deposits – estimated at least two million barrels – in the Albertine Graben. This announcement and the fact that the exploration of new areas went on, has been met initially with great anticipation by the public, fussed up by governmental messages, for the benefits it could bring to Uganda’s development and turned oil and gas into the key issue. Again here, 2011 can be seen as a marking point. As the year went on civil society became increasingly anxious about the secrecy in which the whole process was dealt. When rapports gave some information about the oil deals and their negatively outcome for Uganda in political, social, cultural, economical and environmental terms (6), the Parliament took initiative and decided to put on a moratorium in the oil and gas sector, prohibiting Museveni of closing oil deals without making first work of legislative and regulating framework.

Whereas Museveni could easily ignore and crush the demonstrations of the opposition, he has more problems in dealing with the Parliament. Its decision to install a moratorium and to start an impeachment procedure against the president, demonstrate that Museveni is confronted with an increasingly assertive Parliament. The legislative power demands more and more accountability and it is not longer afraid to rebuff the president. Unfortunately, this parliamentarian demand for more transparency and accountability is mainly incident-based and not structural and analytical. Furthermore, one should not make the mistake to see the Parliamentarian Members as activists who fight for democracy and the general interest to the dead. The past ascertains that they are easily co-opted by the government and have no problem in assigning themselves a salary increase and additional benefits. The same applies to the growing opposition against Museveni within the NRM. Although it is undoubtedly a positive tendency to see that the NRM is no longer a monolith and that its young members publicly criticize the government and president, party discipline is easily restored by granting benefits and posts.

Considering that Museveni perceives himself as the one who liberated Uganda from bloody dictators – conveniently ignoring that he started the bush war which cost the lives of 300,000 Ugandans and never considered a genuine peace agreement with the LRA until today-, this gives him the sole right to rule Uganda and nobody should even dare to question that. As soon he came to power, he started to build up an extended patronage network around him in which there is only place for individuals and not for strong institutions. His remedy on growing protest from civil society, Parliament and internal opposition was predictable: restricting the operational space for civil society, restoring internal party discipline, strengthening the military and distracting the public and the international donor community. In the Parliament a series of bills has been passed or is being prepared –Law on Public Order, amendment of the NGO Registration Act, Anti-Terrorism Act, Penal Code Act- that restrict the operational freedom of NGOs, the rights of citizens and press freedom. By bringing up the Gay Bill he distracted the international donor community. Western donors reacted furiously. The UK cut direct aid to the government and the White House threatened to review its support to Uganda. Museveni quickly intervened by halting the bill and went on with his anti-democratic agenda. Although in the donor community there are voices that complain and threaten to cut aid over the lack of action against mismanagement of public means, they never form a strong, unified front vis-à-vis the government when it comes to corruption as they do with regards to rights of homosexuals. Nevertheless they fund 25% of the governmental budget; donors are reluctant to cut direct budget support (except for the Dutch government who ended its budget support in 2011, unhappy with the major corruption scandals and the overspending Ugandan government), afraid of losing influence and to take the blame that the country’s poor will be hit the hardest by such a decision. The World Bank estimates that Uganda loses about $ 200 million annually only to procurement malpractices. More resources are lost to ghost teachers, soldiers, civil servants, police officers, medical staff, etc. On the government payroll.

The main issue today in Uganda is that the citizens unanimous condemn corruption and demand transparency and accountability of civil servants, legislative representatives and governmental officials at every level of the state. It will not be the donors who bring democracy, sustainable development or rule of law –in the most optimal formula they can only play a facilitating role-, neither the foreign investors nor the oil companies. Therefore, Ugandans have to build up a critical attitude, replacing short-term personal gain by long-term thinking in the general interest and disregard any threat coming from the government. Academics, NGOs and civil society organisations should collaborate and come to a joint strategy, focusing on the importance of transparency, accountability, internal democracy and the need to expand their actions beyond the conference halls of Kampala’s finest hotels and to link up in a determinate way with Uganda’s citizens in the rural areas. The message for the donor community is simple. Show the same determination and firmness in your relation with the government when it comes to corruption, public mismanagement and authoritarian policies as you did in the Gay Bill affair.


1. Figures from the World Bank:

2. SSEWANYAYA, N.S., BATEGEKA, L., Chronic poverty and economic growth in Uganda: the role of markets, Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Makerere University, Kampala, 2008, 59 pages.

3. GATSIOUNIS, I., Deadly crackdown on Uganda’s walk-to-work protest, internet, Time, 2011-04-23, (

4. MWESIGYE, S., Besigye actions are treason – Museveni, internet, The Observer, 2011-04-18, (

5. KALINAKI, K. D., Ugandans not doing enough in demanding accountability – Dutch ambassador, internet, Daily Monitor, 2012-07-16 (

6. Uganda’s contracts – a bad deal made worse, internet, PLATFORM, ( .

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