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The big man keeps power, but not much glory

April 14, 2011 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

Here are three short pieces on Uganda’s February 2011 elections, published (with some edits) in, respectively, The Christian Science Monitor, The East African , and The Daily Monitor.

Uganda’s democratic deficit (The Christian Science Monitor, March 3)

Yoweri Museveni’s decisive victory in Uganda’s elections, which will extend his 25-year rule by a further five years, puts paid to any thought that winds of change from North Africa would blow south across the Sahara. It looks instead as if the veteran leader, who came to power at the head of a rebel army, is settling in for a Life Presidency in the old, African style.

Why did Ugandans re-elect a notoriously corrupt and in some ways autocratic government that, despite steep revenue growth, has performed poorly in delivering basic services and infrastructure?

One reason is that the fractious and divided opposition ran a lacklustre campaign that sought to exploit anti-Museveni sentiment rather than offering any positive vision of Uganda’s future. This impressed the electorate so little that fully 41 per cent didn’t bother to vote at all, while 68 per cent of those who did vote chose the devil they knew best.

That choice was not surprising. Steady economic growth has been highly uneven, benefitting an expanding urban elite much more than the rural population, who remain the overwhelming majority. But enough wealth has trickled down to reduce absolute poverty in most areas, and there is little rural demand for civil liberties (such as the right to be gay, which interests the opposition as little as it interests the ruling party.) Rural Uganda was not seething with discontent.

It is also broadly true that Museveni bought the electorate. His rule has increasingly relied upon networks of personal patronage, starting with his senior military officers, 27 cabinet members and 44 other ministers of state. Over the last decade patronage networks have reached downwards through the multiplication of local government districts, which have doubled in number (from 56 to 112). Ostensibly this is decentralisation to bring services closer to the people. In practice, it has added layers of government staff indebted to the ruling National Resistance Movement.

A cruder form of patronage is vote buying. Opposition parties were not above greasing palms, but no match for Museveni, who raided state coffers for bribe money. Countless Ugandans received brown envelopes stuffed with cash.

This leaves the opposition complaining of daylight robbery. Yet the poll itself, although messy, was transparent enough—with each polling station publicly counting and declaring votes—to rule out fraud on a scale large enough materially to affect the result. If Ugandans were bought, they allowed themselves to be.

Another factor in Museveni’s favour was that the north of the country is finally at peace. Remnants of the Lords Resistance Army rebels have been chased into neighbouring countries, if not finally extinguished; reconstruction programmes in the north are under way, bankrolled by international donors; cross-border trade with Sudan is booming. This bought Museveni support in the north, where he polled well despite ample, local grounds for historical resentment.

Northerners are not alone in prizing stability. Mindful that there has never been a peaceful transfer of power in post-independence Uganda, many voters across the country doubtless figured that stability would best be preserved by leaving the big man in power.

Whilst all this boded well for Museveni, it is not necessarily good for Uganda. The longer a party stays in power, the more the lines between party and state blur, and the more traumatic eventual change may be.

Meanwhile, power based on patronage is hard to sustain and encourages corruption and opportunism, both clearly visible in the vicious contest, late last year, to select NRM parliamentary candidates.

This is not an ideal atmosphere in which to have oil revenues coming onstream. Museveni has promised that Uganda’s oil finds will enable the country to reach “middle income” status by 2016—but resource wealth may just as easily further stimulate corruption and infighting.

If Museveni negotiates these difficulties and spreads enough benefits to remain popular, he may, come 2016, want to stay on even longer—or, as some Ugandans fear, pass the ruling party baton to his son, Colonel Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who commands elite special forces guarding the oilfields.

Although relieved that violence has not erupted, the European and American donors who still supply one third of Uganda’s government revenues and who have spent millions of aid dollars on “deepening democracy” will be lukewarm about this result. Museveni has been pro-market and, through his deployment of troops in Somalia, a strategic ally. But donors—who Museveni himself calls “pesky”—have winced at his autocratic tendencies and the homophobic evangelising that he and his wife, Janet, have encouraged. Now Western donors will, or should, feel some discomfort at the political longevity of a man who they have helped to empower.

And in a year that will see another 17 elections in Africa, the Ugandan case offers a reality check. Patronage, gerrymandering, vote-buying and dynastic tendencies are likely to remain features of sub-Saharan politics until populations become more urbanised, educated, and determined to hold their governments to account.

Has foreign aid prolonged Museveni’s shelf-life?
(The East African, February 28)

In his 1992 book, The Black Man’s Burden, the eminent British historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, hailed Uganda as a point of light for the whole African continent. In the first years of Yoweri Museveni’s rule, wrote Davidson, “Fear retreated. The possibility of civil government instead of executive abuse began to emerge.” There were “genuine moves towards the democratization of executive power.”

As late as 2001, the British NGO, Oxfam, was still finding things to praise. “There has been an impressive transformation of Uganda’s commercial, economic and social infrastructure” a Country Profile reported, going on to note “the rehabilitation of the country’s public services, epitomised by the creation of an increasingly visible and credible local government.”

Hindsight shows how wishful those assessments were, as Museveni’s rule slid into an all-too-familiar pattern of clientelism, corruption and, despite rising government revenues, poor delivery of basic services and infrastructure. His victory in February 18th elections, if not fraudulent, was certainly sleazy, marred by abuse of state funds. The local and mayoral elections of February 23 were even worse. Abundant evidence of administrative incompetence and bribery of election officials provoked violent clashes, and the Kampala elections had to be postponed indefinitely. It was an ugly parody of the decentralised African democracy that had once fired foreign imaginations.

The international aid donors who still supply around one third of the government’s budget are doubtless relieved that things did not turn out worse. They are able to point out that the presidential contest was an improvement on 2006, and that Museveni’s re-election probably roughly reflected “the will of the people.” Yet his brand of sleazy populism should make donors re-visit the thorny problem of how to aid the development of a nation without necessarily empowering and entrenching its ruler.

Uganda was the first country in the world to benefit from debt relief under the IMF and World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries scheme. During the 1990s, after initial resistance from Museveni, the government embarked on donor-backed structural adjustment programmes and has since won consistent donor praise for “strong macroeconomic management” and pro-market policies that are credited with creating steady and sustained economic growth.

That growth—although unevenly distributed, benefitting urban elites far more than the rural masses—has sufficed to see a gradual decline in rural poverty. This has given Museveni an enduring, rural support base.

From the late 1990s, various donors turned to general “budget support.” This means giving money directly to governments, conditional not upon exactly how that money is used but, rather, on improved performance against health and poverty indicators. This new aid “modality” is said to be more efficient than funding numerous projects. It is said to increase “local ownership” of development planning, and to build government’s capacity for delivering. Donors remain confident that it works.

Yet the easing of budgetary pressures also makes it easier for governments to indulge in peccadilloes such as buying presidential jets, arming riot police to the teeth, and raiding state coffers to buy votes.

Some continuing “project” aid tends in the same direction. A British technical assistance project has reportedly achieved considerable success in increasing the flow of taxes to the Uganda Revenue Authority. Fair enough: taxes are essential to “capable” government. But what if the extra cash is abused by the head of state?

Another form of project aid is assistance for post-war reconstruction in northern Uganda. This has a compelling humanitarian justification, and donors have been generous, genuinely keen to see stability and hope brought to the region. Yet substantial inflows of aid almost certainly helped Museveni harvest a hugely improved vote in the north.

Meanwhile, European donors have supported a multi-million “deepening democracy” programme, while the US has put millions into fostering “democratic linkages.” These projects aimed to “strengthen” the Electoral Commission, the role of parliament and civil society, and to provide civic education for voters and candidates. But at this juncture Ugandan democracy doesn’t look very deep, leaving donors with the dubious argument that, without their input, it would be even worse.

Museveni’s relationship with donors is now far from cosy. He refers to them as “pesky” and is especially fond of ticking off the British. Former UK Africa minister, Chris Mullin, complains in his diaries, published in 2009, of having to suffer Museveni’s “grandstanding.”

Donors worry about his autocratic tendencies, about endemic corruption, evidence of Ugandan army looting in the Congo and its methods of quelling the Lords Resistance Army rebellion. Western publics denounce the ruling party for allowing, even encouraging, homophobic evangelising.

Against this, donors take comfort from the facts that Uganda’s Constitutional Court has managed to preserve its independence, that economic growth remains steady, that poverty is declining, and that the Musevenis are apparently committed to gender equity (an issue close to the hearts of people in Scandinavia, where Yoweri and Janet once lived.)

Parallel to the aid story is the story of Uganda’s role as a Western ally, most notably through its deployment of troops in Somalia, in the war on terror. But this alliance, which has resulted in military training for an army overwhelmingly loyal to Museveni, is double-edged.

The story here is not that international donors have bought or manipulated Uganda. The crafty Museveni is nobody’s stooge, and the story is more that he has successfully manipulated the “international community.”

Opposition should learn from their mistakes
(The Daily Monitor, February 23)

It’s hard to lose elections, especially when you’ve been out-gunned by an incumbent who takes illegitimate advantage of his position, but Uganda’s opposition parties must get over their anger and face up to their own failures.

Let me repeat that world: failures. The election outcome is not adequately explained only by Yoweri Museveni’s undoubted craftiness, webs of patronage and abuse of state funds. It needs also to be understood in the light of the opposition’s failure to inspire voters with a credible alternative.

The fractious and divided opposition ran a lacklustre campaign that sought to exploit anti-Museveni sentiment rather than offering any positive vision of Uganda’s future. This was a grave, political error, the most damning evidence of which is that fully 41% of the registered electorate did not bother to cast their vote.

Many (although not all) white collar workers, managers, professionals, intellectuals, entrepreneurs of all kinds, and many in-migrating city-dwellers who are exposed to diverse information and experiences, are heartily sick of Museveni. This showed in the fact that Kampala, Uganda’s only real conurbation, where such people are concentrated, returned opposition MPs. (More, interestingly, from the Democratic Party than the supposed opposition frontrunner, the Inter Party Coalition)

But Kampala’s electorate is not the same as Uganda’s.

The country’s steady economic growth has been uneven, benefitting an expanding urban elite much more than the rural people who remain the overwhelming majority of the electorate. But enough wealth has trickled down to reduce absolute poverty in most areas, and prospects for the marginalised north have improved dramatically since 2006. This gave the incumbent a solid basis on which to build a campaign that emphasised stability, continuity and gradual progress to “middle income” status.

To overturn this would have required much more than reliance on historical grievances, claims that winds of change were blowing in from North Africa, and bluster about what would happen if Museveni cheated. Was such talk—or Dr. Besigye’s sense of personal entitlement, believing he was robbed last time round—going to put food on anyone’s table? No.

It is true that the ruling party raided state coffers for a spending spree that the opposition could not match. But vote-buying is a transaction that takes two. If the election was “bought,” voters were complicit in the purchase.

Did the opposition do anything to challenge this political culture? No. They handed out brown envelopes too: just not so many and not so fat. And if that’s the prevailing political culture it’s hardly surprising that people should go with the candidate who can hand out most.

The opposition parties must examine these failures and change their approach if they are to prevent Museveni from settling in as a Life President on the old, African model.

Firstly, although weak in parliament, they need to be effective as an opposition. This means engaging seriously in matters of public policy, reflecting their constituents’ concerns, scrutinising government closely and holding it to account. This is a vital role in any democracy, and it will be especially important at a time when oil revenues start to flow.

Secondly, they must work hard at the grass-roots level to communicate with the public—which means listening, as well as talking—and to promote political debate that is based around local and national issues, not just around visceral party loyalties.

Thirdly, putting these together, they need to spend time developing and costing coherent and credible policy alternatives to put before the electorate in 2016, in campaigns that focus on issues, not just on who gets to occupy State House.

All of that implies changing the political culture to one that respects the electorate more, rather than treating voters as poor dupes to be courted for a while every five years.

This is a tall order whose difficulties should not be underestimated. But the sooner the opposition stop blaming Museveni for their predicament and buckle down to the task, the sooner their fortunes are likely to change.