Uganda is experiencing a social crisis. Religious sermons over the festive season condemned the pervasiveness of child sacrifice, corruption, domestic violence and crime, indicating the depth of this crisis. What is contested are its causes. But to resolve this crisis we must first understand the forces that have precipitated it.
To understand the forces that have unleashed this crisis, I focus on two events, which have shaped Uganda’s contemporary political and economic culture. One, the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1990 - what Mahmood Mamdani called at that time the most controversial member of the NRM broad base; and two, the constitutional amendments of 2003 that instigated Uganda’s current political predicament.
SAPs had a political and an economic dimension. Their political dimension democratised the state apparatus and transformed accountability relationships from an outward to a local orientation. They deepened democracy. This is how health unit management committees were established, parent’s teachers associations strengthened and local authority democratised.
SAP’s economic reforms privatised the economy.
Deregulation and liberalisation was the legal framework for free movement of foreign private capital. They opened the economy to foreign competition. But what transpired is a far cry from what economic theory predicted. Social inequality intensified. Instead of manufacturing, speculation and merchant capitalism, informalisation and socio-economic insecurity grew. Urban squalor is one obvious manifestation of this crisis.
SAPs also privatised education and healthcare and dismantled cooperatives unions through which agricultural inputs were supplied. This led to a rise in the cost of living and erosion of agricultural production.
The consequence of these policies is what Bernstein has called a “fragmented labour regime”. Bernstein is referring to conditions of living in which labour is increasingly engaged in informal activities that have low and unpredictable wages and is insecure. One sees these conditions in growth of boda bodas, newspaper vendors, car washers, prostitution and roadside kiosks.
Hence SAPs liberalised the political space and enhanced the potential of citizens to challenge retrogressive economic policies. But the President could not stomach policy reversals, as his very legitimacy would be questioned. It is in this context that I situate the constitutional reforms of 2003, especially the removal of term limits.
The ruling regime pursued two strategies to entrench its rule. One, they resorted to political bribery and patronage. This is what is re-bloating the public sector and commercialising politics.
Two, they resorted to making grandiose promises; that government would provide all people’s socio-economic needs. This is how free healthcare was promised and health unit management dismantled; free primary education implemented and parents/teachers associations weakened. Ultimately, they undermined local institutions of democracy.
Hence, as SAPs intensified economic predicament, the constitutional reforms and the politics that they unleashed undermined the potential of political institutions to resolve it. The result is a paralysis in governance and economics. Citizens yearn to take charge of their destiny while the ruling elite resist it, primarily because it threatens their hold onto power.
It is in this context that citizens cannot use legitimate political engagement to resolve their economic hardships. The result is unabated marginalisation and desperation, which instigate a decadent culture: corruption, witchcraft, child sacrifice, rape, speculation, prostitution, reckless murder and theft. For the social ills to be dissolved, we must resolve socio-economic insecurity; for economic insecurity to be resolved, we must restore democracy. The social, the economic and the political are tightly bound.