The Independent (Kampala)

31 January 2013

Uganda: Need for Alternative Vision

Why the opposition needs to transcend their biases about Museveni if they are to ever have a chance to defeat him

In early 2010, my friend Prof. Jeremy Weinstein from Stanford University (then working at the White House) sent me results of an opinion poll on citizen attitudes to government he had commissioned in 126 constituencies in Uganda in 2009. I was intrigued to find that President Yoweri Museveni's job approval rating was very high - 76 percent. Given my deeply held conviction that NRM's performance especially in the delivery of public goods and services has been poor, my initial suspicion was that there was something wrong with the poll.

This is a normal human sentiment. Most of us when confronted with information that disproves our convictions, we look for arguments to discredit it. The opposite is called "confirmation bias" - the tendency to buy into information that confirms our pre-existing bias. Although I hold strong convictions, I am also a disciple of Socrates, the greatest philosopher in history. Socrates said that philosophy begins when one learns to doubt, especially to doubt one's strongly held beliefs, dogmas and axioms.

So I became keen to look at other opinion surveys especially the 2010 and 2011 by Afrobarometer. I noticed that mainstream views in Kampala's talking shops about public goods and services are at variance with those of the ordinary citizens. For example, while the majority of responds said that the quality of public goods and services in their area was "very poor" or "fairly poor", (58 percent for roads and 51 percent of health), they also assessed the situation as "getting better/much better" (75 percent for roads, 77 percent for health). Responses were even more positive about UPE which I think is atrocious - with 65 percent saying it is "very good" and "fairly good."

I became eclectic - while arguing that the majority of Ugandans say services are improving, I felt that people had voted Museveni in spite of (and also because of) very bad services. A reader replied on our website with a long explanation saying he had worked in the rural areas of all the four regions of the country. He then argued that from the vantage point of many ordinary citizens he had interacted with, Museveni and NRM have been successful first in improving rural incomes and therefore tastes but also in improving the quality of public goods and services.

I began reflecting about my village of Kanyandahi. When I was a young man in the late 1980s, people in Kanyandahi used to drink the local brew, tonto, as their alcoholic beverage. Bottled beer was a luxury that even the "rich" could hardly afford - that is if it was available. Today, tonto is rapidly disappearing from bars as many villagers have taken to Senator and Eagles lagers. This change in consumption is a reflection of increased incomes, which has led to improved taste in consumer preferences in rural areas. This contradicts the narrative of growing poverty and deprivation in rural areas.

At a national level, this is reflected in the growth of beer companies. While in 1987 the combined output of beer by NBL and UBL was 7.8 million litres per year, by 2000 this output had grown to 80.8m litres per year. Today, the combined consumption of beer produced by NBL and UBL is 360 million litres per year. This means that in 1987, Ugandans were drinking 43,000 bottles of beer per day. In 2000, this number had grown to 450,000 bottles and today they are drinking two million bottles per day.

These statistics cut across every area of consumption, itself the best indicator of growing incomes especially among the poor - cooking oil, soap, kerosene, sugar, soft drinks, airtime, iron sheets etc. Mukwano cooking oil, largely consumed by the poorer segments of our society, has increased its revenues from Shs 67 billion in 2000 to Shs 500 billion in 2012. It now also has a competitor, Bidco, whose revenues from edible oil is Shs 500 billion. Ugandans cannot be consuming these increasingly large volumes of industrial products when they are growing poorer.

On public goods and services, the 21km road from Kanyandahi to Fort Portal was impassable. So we would walk the entire distance or ride on a bicycle. On a lucky day one could hike a lift from an occasional lorry or tractor that had dared go to the village. Farmers in Kanyandahi were finding difficulty getting their produce to the market in Fort Portal, leave alone Kampala. Youths would make bicycles out of wood and use them to laboriously ferry bananas and other produce to Fort Portal town.

Today, there are several omnibuses plying the route competing for passengers. Pick-up trucks and lorries no longer carry passengers but cargo. The road is not so good these days but it is a much better version of the ragged one that had stifled trade in the 1980s. Farmers need not carry their produce to the market. Lorries crisscross the villages daily looking for maize, bananas, beans, ground nuts, Irish and sweet potatoes to take to Fort Portal and Kampala. Sometimes some farmers are paid before they harvest their produce i.e. now they trade in the "futures market". To add salt and spice to this developmental soup, the youths who used to ride wooden bicycles are now riding boda bodas. The transition to motorcycles is of transformational value.

Our local trading center, Rwaihamba, was made up of mud and wattle houses, with rammed earth floor. Only three buildings had sand plastered walls and cement floors; our family owned one and former deputy Chief Justice Seth Manyindo, another. No one in the trading center owned a car, the "rich" had manual bicycles. What had been built as shops had long ceased to stock essential commodities, a few were bars selling tonto and kaseese. Locals bought things like kerosene, soap, salt and clothes only twice a week during market days - Monday and Thursday.

Today, nearly 90 percent of the buildings in Rwaihamba trading center are made of permanent materials. Shops that used to be empty are now stocked from the floor to the roof with all sorts of industrial products - some of which were extremely scarce luxuries in 1988. Even in Kanyandahi, bars sell beer and bottled juice. Electricity has been taken to the village through the rural electricity program.

Villagers now watch Manchester United beat Arsenal or Chelsea in the English Premier League on satellite television as they speak on cell phones, send text messages to friends while drinking Pilsner or Eagle lager. Outside the youth park tens of their motor-bikes, the businessmen park their cars as tourists pass in four-by-fours on their way to one of the several hotel resorts that are cropping up in the sub-county. So we are seeing the incipient or embryonic signs of the transition of our economy from one dominated by agriculture to one based on services.

These transformational developments have modernised the lifestyles of many rural folks but equally increased their anxiety. For example, some youths may have mortgaged their land to micro-finance institutions to buy boda bodas, cell-phones etc. Given the high cost of interest on loans coupled with the escalating cost of fuel, transport costs are going up and servicing loans is becoming difficult.

It is possible that some youth may be losing their land to micro-finance institutions and other lenders like loan-sharks. In 1988, no one in my village cared about these issues. Today, the price of fuel and the cost of borrowing are increasingly becoming important factors in the village economy and hence its politics.

Such challenges are new and need fresh ideas and alternatives. It is important to recognise that the new challenges result from Museveni's poor management of his achievements, not his failures. Even in Kampala, Museveni/NRM have presided over growing prosperity among the middle-class that has built nice homes or rent beautiful apartments and they have bought very many cars. Yet the roads have not been expanded and upgraded hence chronic traffic jams. However, this is not a failure of underachievement but a failure of contradiction.

By 1989, we would board a bus in Fort Portal for Kampala and depart at 5am. The sun would rise in the east and settle in the west when we are still on the bus. We would arrive in Kampala at 11pm and rush to the phone to call home and announce a miracle - we had arrived on the same day. During rainy seasons, we would spend four days on the road from Fort Portal to Kampala. Today, it takes only four hours on the bus to cover this distance - in fact the fourth hour to drive from Nateete to Kampala due to heavy traffic. The implications of this on trade and therefore prosperity are enormous.

In 1993 when I was going to university, our biggest concern was not passing exams - many of us were assured of the necessary principle passes to enter university. However, there were only 2,500 vacancies in Uganda's three universities at the time. And when we left university in 1996, most people looked to the state for jobs because there was only a small private sector to accommodate them. Today, university in-take per year has grown by more than 1,000 percent as universities admit over 25,000 students per year. We can debate the quality of university education now. But the problem of access has been significantly resolved.

All quantitative studies show that there has been considerable increase in access to public services - roads, hospitals, universities and other schools. Distances to hospitals and schools have been significantly reduced. There is also improvement in the quality of public services. There has been rapid growth in private education and healthcare services. Today, out of 5600 secondary schools in the country, government owns only 1,600. The other 4,000 is owned by the private sector. In 2011, nearly 70 percent of students who sat A level exams did so from private schools. The growth in private primary and secondary schools and universities has created a lot of wealth for their owners but equally employed many Ugandans who now earn reasonable incomes.

In many ways therefore, Museveni has been a transformative president. This transformation has changed the structure of Ugandan society and with it, people's aspirations and needs. The resultant new social groups increasingly possess new aspirations and demands. Yet the opposition, us in the mass media, others in civil society and academia have remained campaigning and arguing as if Uganda (or the Ugandan) of 1990 is the same person today.

In fact, most of the intellectual class of Uganda that dominates public debate has been unable to capture the political significance of these changes on the Ugandan political process. This has alienated the opposition from the mainstream, keeping enthusiasm only among a fringe but loud group of Museveni critics.

A new message therefore is necessary that seeks to transcend these achievements in order to achieve better heights. The most important electoral audience is no longer the man with jiggers in Kamuli or the hungry in Kanungu. The vast majority of voters are increasingly educated, exposed with access to television, mobile phones and use facebook. They are increasingly aspirational and are demanding ever more from the government. But their demands find little organised expression in the platform of the opposition and the views of many of us in academia, mass media and civil society. We articulate a language alien to them.

To be able to construct an alternative message that can speak to a changed Ugandan, we will need to first understand the changes that Museveni/NRM have brought to this country. The doomsday scenarios the opposition and pundits recycle in mass media about service delivery are not shared by the vast majority of Ugandan voters as the three Afrobarometer surveys showed in the run-up to the 2011 elections. But this shift in thinking has been difficult because few political elites in Uganda are willing to question their assumptions and biases.

Perhaps the greatest expression of self-confidence is to admit your mistake, acknowledge a rival's strength and change one's mind in the face of new facts. Apelles of Cos, wrote Pliny the Elder, surpassed all other painters who either preceded or followed him. Apelles lived in Rhodes in 4th Century BC Greece. Pliny the Elder speculates that he must have been supreme since he could afford the rare extravagance of praising his own rivals - like his comments on the work of another great artist, Protogenes. Few men (and women) have lived up to this test.

Instead, the mainstream faction of the political class in Uganda hostile to NRM is too cowardly to admit their opponent's strength. Thus, they have gone into every election having underestimated Museveni. They convince themselves that Museveni's only electoral advantage is violence and vote rigging. Thus, all their electoral strategies aim to fight him on these two fronts. They assume the majority of the voters share their doomsday state of public goods and services. As the aforementioned Afrobarometer surveys show, the voters have a different attitude.

Will Mugisha Muntu transcend this narrow vision that has stifled the growth of the opposition and position himself as a statesman who is confident in his own skin and therefore willing to acknowledge Museveni/NRM's achievement while pointing out where they have failed?

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