Sunday January 26 2014

NRM regime: 28 years of primitive feudal rule, institutionalised corruption

By Timothy Kalyegira

In the strict sense of the word, there is no longer such a thing as the NRM. What we see passing off as the NRM is a collection of politicians, businessmen, army, intelligence and police officers, relatives and hustlers all using the name NRM to work to personal advantage.

Many “NRM” MPs and Cabinet ministers have used that name as a cover to secure licences to operate private radio stations, evade taxes, run for office, and secure jobs and scholarships for their children and other relatives. President Museveni himself does not believe in the NRM but like his ministers and other officials around him must have official cover to go about his private business.

Most of the president’s relatives get involved in the general election campaigns and work for the re-election task forces on behalf of Museveni as their relative and benefactor, not the NRM as a national political organisation in which they see themselves as a of part.

From time to time, this lack of personal conviction about what the NRM is can be seen when newspapers report that various NRM offices in Kampala and in the smaller towns have been closed because they failed to pay rent.

This is the way Uganda is being run. Occasionally, such as when the Uganda Cranes is playing a crucial Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match or the athlete Stephen Kiprotich wins Olympic and World championship marathon gold medals, the appearance of patriotism and nationalist fervour is seen.

However, on a day-to-day basis, Uganda as a concept does not figure much in most people’s minds.
They are busy attending to the practical business of trying to get by. Getting by in Uganda today largely means trying to figure out how to defraud the government, inflate tenders and contracts, get kickbacks from awarding tenders, granting media companies advertisements, dodge taxes, lie to their landlords and creditors and in total live out the Ugandan way of corruption, defaulting on everything.

The economy upcountry has been eroded, leaving Kampala as the only centre of any meaningful commercial activity. And in Kampala, the construction and growth of the last 28 years has been what the Bible terms pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Rather than expand or re-design the city, every 100 square metres of land in Kampala is now being built upon, encroached on, luxury hotels, office buildings and private homes forced onto the old infrastructure and neighbourhoods.
Kololo is now more commercial district than residential area, as is Nakasero and Bugolobi. A former residential house becomes a bar or computer training firm, and so cars park along the roadside, blocking public traffic.

Kampala has turned into a city without any plan and even important embassies like the American, Swiss and others essentially are located in slum areas.

There is not a single square kilometre in Kampala where everything works fully --- street lights, drainage, piped water, roads and garbage management. At least one or more of these has a problem. Many people who live in parts of Jinja, Mbarara, Fort Portal, Entebbe and Masaka towns, if they have corporate jobs or stable businesses actually live a much better quality of life than the vast majority of Kampala’s residents.

Politically, the last 28 years have seen Uganda regress to the old feudal ways of the pre-colonial era. The government is now located in State House, a clearing place for wheeler-dealers, political hangers-on and sycophants.
With everything falling apart, a sarcastic joke has taken root from the real cries of desperate Ugandans: “Tusaba Gavumenti…”, meaning “We call upon the government…” or “We request the government…” to do this or that for us or help us in our desperation.

A certain amount of freedom has taken root in Uganda since 1986 but as most of us are now discovering, not the kind of freedom that is beneficial to a nation.

On one hand, the President, Parliament, government, police and army can be criticised without too much fear of consequences most of the time, which is an unquestionable positive. But on the other, the section of Ugandan public life on which much depends --- the corporate community --- is one very few dare criticise. So we have an odd situation in which the head of state can be called names on radio and TV, but the marketing manager of a beer or telecoms company is above criticism because then the advertisement lifeblood of the media, the “fourth estate” and crucial watchdog on the public’s behalf, will be drained away.

Secondly, and most troubling, the laws of Uganda are strictly enforced mainly when an offender or suspect is thought to threaten the President’s hold on power through organising a serious opposition party, plotting a military coup or armed rebellion or exposing sensitive secrets of State House.

Short of that, anything goes. We can drive without seatbelts, drive both on the left and right sides of the road, forge academic certificates, build on wetlands, evade taxes, bribe magistrates, immigration and licencing officials, import and sell expired and sub-standard goods and life goes on. As a result of this, all standards have dropped. The cost of doing business is high, partly because of the bribes and the burden that comes with fraud.

That is why Ugandan companies cannot expand beyond Uganda into other environments that will not tolerate our level of bribery and cutting corners. The worst damage inflicted on Uganda by the NRM has been to destroy the sacredness and prestige of institutions. The public and our growing children now regard a minister or MP as no more dignified and honourable than a boda boda rider, a judge or magistrate much the same way as a money-changing conman.

The ability to and importance of working and thinking incrementally in terms of 1-2-3-4-5 step-by-step has been replaced by the impatience to have it all at once and immediately.

A 22-year-old just out of university feels “poor” if he does not own a fully-furnished house by the age of 24 and a personal house by 28. The idea of working for the long-term has ceased to feel like an honour and call of duty.
This is the NRM legacy, of primitive feudal rule, institutionalised corruption, of people with Masters’ degrees acting like common criminals, and a lack of dedication in everything we do, that will be with Uganda for decades to come.