31 January 2013

Uganda: What Is There to Celebrate in NRMs 27 Years?


On Wednesday, the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) marked 27 years in power with the usual pomp and pageantry in Kasese town complete with medals.

President Museveni's speech, laced with figures of his economic accomplishments, was, however, at odds with the squalor, poverty and hardships confronting the citizens today. His recital of the military formations and the commanders that led the assault on Kampala probably sounded as music to his ears and those of some of his surviving ageing guerrillas; but to many Ugandans who have come to believe that this, perhaps, was the beginning of the worst chapter in Uganda's history, the recital came off as a painful taunt.

Be that as it may, the day passed off nearly unnoticed in the rest of the country, save for the unexpected mid-week holiday. Still, many Ugandans - consciously or unconsciously did privately give a fleeting thought to the last 27 years of Museveni's rule. For the "children of the revolution" and their network of hangers-on, it was another year of manna. For the toiling civil servants, especially teachers, nurses, doctors and clerks, it was another gruelling year in which they gave so much and received so little.

For the traders, business men and women, it was another year in which their businesses barely survived - what with high inflation, high foreign exchange rates, high taxation, and high electricity tariffs, name it! For the majority of citizens, farmers, workers, etc, it was another year of hard economic times amidst corruption, lack of medicines, poor education, high cost of living, etc.

As for the politicians across the political spectrum, it was another year of impotent noise and good pay, as their voters wailed over poverty. For some on the opposition side, it was also another year of struggle against the NRM behemoth and its "armed wing", the police!

For me, it was two photographs posted on Facebook by Reuters photo-journalist James Akena that disturbed my solitary soul on NRM day. The photos, one in Gulu of a lone passenger train wagon surrounded by bush at the former Gulu Railway station, and the other in Kasese showing abandoned train wheels surrounded by tall grasses at the former Kasese Railway station with curious children in the background let off a trail of thoughts.

In Museveni's long speech, in which he painted his successes and challenges, the Uganda railway did not find space either in his thoughts or on his piece of written speech. So, rather than get enthralled by his list of achievements like the economy expanding 14 times from Shs 3.5 trillion to Shs 50 trillion, GDP per capita from $264 in 1986 to $580, etc, my mind raced to the things of strategic value that we have lost since 1986 starting with the Uganda Railways that was running robustly even during Amin's and Obote's regimes that Museveni likes to benchmark himself on.

I thought about Uganda Airlines that was cannibalized, his in-law and minister Sam Kutesa taking away a huge chunk through ENHAS ground handling and leaving Ugandans at the mercy of Kenya Airways and other international airlines. I thought about the cooperatives - bank, societies, transport, ginneries, etc - that cushioned farmers and provided them with stable markets for their produce.

Now the farmers have been left at the hands of middle-men whose interest is profit maximization, not helping farmers. This has discouraged many peasants from growing cash crops and, in turn, diminished their income opportunities. I thought about Uganda Development bank (UDB), Uganda Development Corporation (UDC), Uganda Commercial bank (UCB), and the Cooperative bank - institutions that provided a framework for industrial, commercial and agricultural development.

All are literally dead and in place we have a network of purely profit-oriented financial institutions that do not care what happens to their clients provided they recover their every cent!

And in the absence of UDC that guided industrial development with integration in mind, we now have an undirected industrial landscape with factories producing basic household goods like toilet tissue and no factories producing the things that will take us forward like automotive agro-machinery, food processing machinery, etc.

I thought about lint and textiles processing, which ended with the collapse of Nytil, Lira Spinning Mill and the network of cotton ginneries. Instead the country has been reduced to a huge tailoring plant importing complete linen and textile from Asia, sewing it together and purporting it is made in Uganda!

You could think of so many other things that have been lost!

So, while there has certainly been some progress in the last 27 years, some of it nothing to do with NRM, we have lost a lot of strategic ground by diminishing the public sector in favour of an unregulated and unguided private sector. But what is more, the 27 years have, through omission or commission, bred monstrous corruption that now threatens to eat up everybody.

If Museveni and NRM left power today, I think, it would take more than 27 years to repair the damage.

The author is a political and social critic. He is a former editor of Sunday Monitor and The Independent.

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