By Yanis Iqbal
Presidential elections in Uganda have concluded. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s 76-year-old leader who has been in power since 1986, won another five-year term. Museveni’s victory comes amid a thick pall of violence, intimidation and irregularities. A singer turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – better known to the public as Bobi Wine – was the main face of the opposition, actively campaigning to oust Museveni. Now under house arrest, he vehemently decried the election as “resoundingly rigged”.
Wine himself was arrested several times during the campaigning period. On voting day, there was a strong military presence in Kampala – Wine’s constituency – and the surrounding regions. A helicopter gunship circled above city, while armored personnel carriers known as “Nyokas” patrolled the streets. One soldier told the Mail and Guardian that Museveni was securing his future and that “helicopters are more effective and efficient” at doing so. Kagimu Mukasa Ishaak, a voter in his 80s, said, “In all my years of voting since 1962, I have never seen this much teargas in an election process.”
The use of repressive tactics against the opposition is not new. In February 2016, Museveni won re-election against veteran candidate Kizza Besigye, amid opposition, Commonwealth, US and European Union concern about fairness and transparency of the electoral process. The ultimate source of such repression can be traced to the particular institutional configurations found in Uganda, namely authoritarian neoliberalism – using state power and coercion to establish deregulated markets and advance the core politico-economic interests and preferred social arrangements of the ruling class.
The repressive resources of the Uganda are tapped into whenever there emerges the threat of any political actor articulating anti-neoliberal demands. Wine is a perfect case of how the neoliberal machinery of the state operates. In his campaign manifesto, Wine states:
“Our promise to the youth of Uganda, we shall ensure we find meaningful employment for you. We want to create at least 5 million jobs. We shall invest in technology and a massive scale of industrialization…A vote for NUP is an assurance that citizens will never be persecuted for disagreeing with the government. A vote for NUP is a vote for the protection of our natural resources as a country which Gen. Museveni now treats as his personal wealth. A vote for NUP is a vote for the closing of the income gap between the rich and the poor…Our promise to all Ugandans is that we shall safeguard their land. We shall put an end to the enormous scale of land grabbing. If it is done, justice must prevail…The National Unity Platform is committed to working with all Ugandans to improve their lives. We believe that immediately after taking over government, every Ugandan from Kaabong to Kisoro, from Yumbe to Busia will experience meaningful change in their way of life.”
Wine’s political agenda runs directly counter to what Museveni has to offer. Museveni’s regime is synonymous with increasing political repression, a decline in public services and generalized economic precarity. Public discourse refers to a mafia state, a country colonized, controlled and exploited by a tiny circle of powerful domestic actors and their foreign allies. Recurring food shortages, chronic indebtedness, rampant inequality, pervasive violence, criminality, high levels of suicide (especially among the youth), poverty-driven deaths, preventable illnesses and generalized destitution – these are the terms in common parlance.
In the last decade, exacerbating socio-economic conditions and state authoritarianism have been met by popular protests in both urban and rural areas. Street demonstrations and food riots occurred in major cities in 2011 in a context of skyrocketing global food prices. The Walk to Work campaign, launched by opposition leaders and activists, highlighted rising poverty and an exponential increase in the costs of living, including transport, fuel, food and social services.
Rural protests have included struggles over land and have seen small-scale rural producers fight against the state and large agri-business companies. The MDV (Millennium Village Development) project, under the banner of turning the poor into entrepreneurs, bolstered the pre-existing rural elite while pushing the predominantly landless workers into wage labor for the emerging local capitalist class, worsening existing inequalities.
The Poverty Eradication Programs (1997 – 2008) and the Plan for Modernization of Agriculture (2001 – 2009) supported agricultural zoning and large-scale agriculture. They increased the commercialization of agriculture and abolished the earlier systems of agricultural extension services and marketing boards, which focused on major export cash crops, and had reduced price volatility and provided inputs and credits to farmers.
The Origin of Woes
The origin of present-day woes is found in the period of 1990s. Economic reforms implemented during that time, spearheaded by the country’s membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO)in 1995, included currency reform, the liberalization of the foreign exchange markets and the export crops sectors (coffee, cotton), the gutting of marketing boards, dismantling of cooperatives and the deregulation of consumer and producer prices.
Pro-bourgeois laws on investments, taxes and profit expatriation were coupled by the privatization of most state-owned companies. The economic deregulation lifted the protective laws for weak economic actors such as peasants and workers. Para-state institutions such as the Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and the Privatization Unit were established to carry out these reforms.
New regulatory bodies oversaw activities in the liberalized power-generation and distribution, insurance, telecommunication, and broadcasting sectors. Tax and tariff systems were simplified, revenue collection restructured, enterprise subsidy systems subverted. Financial liberalization entailed the liberalization of interest rates and capital accounts. Some local banks closed, mostly under controversial circumstances; large foreign banks, such as Standard Bank and Barclays, started to dominate the sector.
By the mid-2010s, Uganda became an epitome of a thoroughly neoliberalized country: growth accompanied by high wealth concentration, poverty, economic insecurity and unemployment. Millions were food insecure; 11.8% of the population could not afford two meals; two-thirds were estimated to earn less than 2$/day, classed by government statistics as “poor” (19.7%, 1$/day) or “non-poor insecure” (43.3%, 1 – 2$/day); 88.3% of Ugandans (30.6 million) could live on less than 3$/day. Taking into account inflationary pressures (9% over the last five years), the working population’s immiseration has intensified as the purchasing power of the Ugandan shilling (UGX) has weakened.
In 2015, Uganda’s exports were $2.31 billion while imports were $5.52 billion – a deficit of $3.21 billion. The African country has also found it hard to penetrate foreign markets, instead relying on regional markets. While over 45% of Uganda’s exports were to the East African Community (EAC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), most imports were from overseas.
The five major destinations of Uganda’s exports were Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Rwanda and Southern Sudan. Conversely, the major sources of imports were India, China, Kenya, United Arab Emirates and Japan, yet Uganda could not easily export to these countries. The imbalance was particularly pronounced with the Asian countries where Uganda’s export value was only 11% of the total value of imports from the Asia region.
Trade imbalance has forced Uganda into a relation of imperialist dependency i.e. becoming a primary commodity exporter and net importer. A situation like this structurally binds Third World countries to an extremely stifling framework favoring the metropole. Moreover, it lays the ground for continued underdevelopment.
Lately, Uganda has started adopting an ever-more exploitative economic model: an acceleration of jobless economic growth, whereby much of the investment take place in extractive enclaves and financial sectors, with little or no linkages to local economies, and with wealth captured by a few individuals. This rentier model has already begun escalating class struggle.
Wine’s “People Power” movement has succeeded in igniting a wave of resistance since it foregrounds the long-concealed fissures of a predatory system. State-sanctioned repression will keep increasing as Museveni and his coterie of governmental elites hurry to find ways to contain and crush growing resistance against authoritarian neoliberalism.