Wednesday July 30 2014

More than 20 years ago, Museveni was right…but the world brushed him off

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Last week, I met an expired admirer of President Yoweri Museveni, who used to work with the World Bank in Washington and quit in disillusionment.
He told me of a story from a time when, as he put it, “Museveni was still Museveni and not this strange person he has turned into today”, that he said demonstrates the cynicism of the bank, and how “visionary” his man at the time was.
His story is that at the start of the 1990s, when Museveni was still being feted in world capitals and by international finance organisations because of his reformist credentials, he travelled to Washington.
He met World Bank big wigs to discuss Uganda’s economy. At that time, infrastructure was not yet the World Bank’s and everyone’s buzzword, but Museveni told the bank’s chiefs that he thought the way forward was for the bank to lend Uganda money to invest in infrastructure.
Some of the bank officials quietly giggled, probably thinking the hot African sun had beaten Museveni’s bald head a little too much and he was not thinking clearly. He was the first African leader who had been to the Bank and pushed the infrastructure argument.
They didn’t agree with him, arguing that roads were really not helpful in a situation where millions of Ugandan children were out of school. The bank had the more emotional argument, and Museveni seemed like one of those leaders who think people can eat roads.
Museveni quickly realised the conversation needed to be more people-centred, so he explained it rather simply. He said he knew his people very well. They loved education so much, and don’t need to be persuaded to pay for it. The only problem is that most of them were poor.
However, if Uganda could invest in infrastructure and enable people to do more business and grow rich, then parents would pay their children’s school fees and they would get an education.
However, there is something else he knew about his people, Museveni said: However rich they became, there is one thing they were not going to do—“pay to build roads”.
He told me; “Whichever way one looked at it, Museveni won that argument”. However, the World Bank had the chequebook. And, as you know, we owners of chequebooks are autocrats who decide how much money we sign off on it.
There are several revelations about this story. This was before the campaigns and subsequent election of 1996. Until then, Museveni had governed without a direct voter mandate, and relying wholly on the “legitimacy and justness” of the bush war that brought him to power.
It suggests that Museveni was probably never philosophically sold on the idea of free primary education. While he believed in the value of education, he thought at that point that it would be best delivered by the free market or, at best, a mixed model like Rwanda’s where parents contribute something small to keep them interested in how schools run. It is more stable, and might have prevented the shambles that the Universal Primary Education (UPE) system has become today.
Perhaps this is further evidence that Museveni offered UPE as a kind of social bribery to voters in the 1996 campaigns, his first electoral test as president.
But one would otherwise need not be further interested in this story if it ended there. It doesn’t.
There is a depressing story about why the World Bank was obsessed with “education above everything else in Africa” at that point, but that is for another day. About 10 years after that Museveni meeting in Washington, everywhere in Africa where UPE was implemented, the early signs of trouble were showing through.
Apart from quality issues, the jobs were simply not being created at levels that would absorb all the new young people coming into the market after UPE. Those who were going on to secondary school were in turn swelling enrolment there, and there was a big rush by investors to open up private universities.
In later years, in Egypt and Tunisia, the highest percentage of youthful unemployed was the young cohort with second degrees. Ethiopia that gambled big on technology education only ended up with the region’s largest number of unemployed engineers.
Why were jobs not being created fast enough? Because the cost of business was simply too high for investors. People too were not consuming enough because prices were high. Companies were not making the levels of profits that would enable them expand partly because there were too many inefficiencies in the system. What was the cause of all these problems? Poor infrastructure!
Now the bank was converted, and singing the infrastructure and lecturing Museveni about it, when 10 years earlier they had, as Ugandans might say, “thrown him out”. I am occasionally a reasonable and fair man, I have been told, so on this day I feel for Kaguta on this one.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa ( Twitter: cobbo3.