Uganda: How We Became a Nation of Red Lips, Sad Eyes and Boat 'Hiccups'

Kampala City (file photo)
7 December 2018

Our economy hit rock bottom in the second half of the eight long years of president Idi Amin's rule (January 1971 to April 1979). That was the time Amin pursued unpredictable trade and foreign policies.

Earlier in 1972, he had expelled Asians, heralding the start of economic collapse. How Ugandans got by is a story that only those of us who were there can tell. How we became a nation of red lips, sad eyes and boat "hiccups" is also a story that only those of us who were there can give a first-hand account.

I was a rookie reporter with The People newspaper in the early 1980s when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), resumed lending to Uganda with a charmingly deceptive basket of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs)

These were conditional loans aimed at addressing the economic problems in poor countries such as ours in three major ways: Eliminating trade and investment regulations, promoting exports, and cutting government spending.

As reporters, we regularly quoted government officials rehashing this line of reasoning: "If you are sick and the doctor prescribes bitter medicine, you must take the prescribed remedy."

By taking the "bitter medicine" conditionally, the Obote II government ceded control of the economy to the World Bank/IMF.

Unfortunately, the SAPs never worked. Instead, they deepened poverty in our country and even threatened food security that had enabled us to survive during Amin's era.

That's the dire situation NRM inherited in 1986. Initially, the new leaders were left-leaning. But it was only a matter of time before NRM's attempt at finding local solutions to local problems was broken by an even more charmingly deceptive basket of policies from the World Bank/IMF.

In 1989, John Williamson, an American economist with the Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, proposed 10 policies to help indebted poor countries in Latin America to repay their loans.

These policies were: Fiscal discipline, redirection of public expenditure priorities, tax reform, interest rate liberalisation, liberalisation of foreign direct investment inflows, privatisation, deregulation, and securing of property rights.

Swiftly, the World Bank, IMF and the US Treasury Department latched on to these policies and imposed them on poor countries under the "Washington Consensus" label. I was in America in 1990 when this happened.

Dogged by nagging questions of legitimacy, but keen on economic reforms, the NRM in 1991 took to liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation and the other neo-liberal mantras the way a duck takes to water.

That is how the government started abdicating its core role of steering the ship of our economy; the "private sector-led, export-oriented" economic model was adopted.

Now, what really are we exporting? Cheap labour and raw commodities because of our incapacity for value addition. And what are we importing? Comparatively more expensive finished products.

Clearly, the World Bank/IMF-imposed policies have made us stuck in the cobwebs of life. Furthermore, they have made us addicted to external loans/grants. They have also turned us into a truly captive market for Western-style capitalism, now ironically coming mostly from China.

Resultantly, our public education system is wanting. Each year, our institutions of higher education churn out hundreds of thousands of graduates the market has no use for. It hurts to see young unemployed people with red lips caused by drinking adulterated sachet waragi.

Equally, our public healthcare system is in serious trouble. Nobody knows how many women have breast cancer. Nobody knows how many men have prostate cancer. Nobody knows how many children are obese. Our hopelessness is seen in our sad eyes.

And, yes, our public transportation system is a disaster. Public service vehicles plying our roads and waterways are potential death traps largely due to failure by the government to play its regulatory role. A boat developing "hiccups" means dozens of our people die.

Gen Jeje Odongo, the Internal Affairs minister, once said if you put grasshoppers in a bottle, they will attack each other. The World Bank/IMF policies have put us all in a bottle. Let us carry on with the serious business of attacking one another.

Dr Akwap is the acting deputy vice chancellor for academic affairs at Kumi University.

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