If you want to get a little insight into some of President Yoweri Museveni’s plans for 2016, and how he plans to shape the conversation about his legacy, the Tororo-Mbale road is a good place to start.
But there is more to that road; it also offers us a glimpse into Uganda and Kenya’s competition for the South Sudan market. At some point, these realities merge.
For many years, the Tororo-Mbale road – and indeed the Mbale-Soroti road- looked like the surface of Mars. Despite the long outcry, the government, which has the monopoly on road building, did nothing about it.
In the last year, however, there has been a lot of activity. It is the most ambitious remake of the Tororo-Mbale road, and the work being done on the drainage is of the type I have seen on few other roads in Uganda. The scale of both the road works is such that they can only be completed in early or mid-2015.
And that is precisely the point. It will allow Museveni to “open” the remade road toward the end of 2015, as one of his 2016 campaign activities. He will argue that the road took so wrong to do right from the colonialists who first built it, to the first Milton Obote government, they did it wrong. They didn’t understand how to do roads. The road was narrow. It had no drainage. Now all those problems have been corrected, and a road suitable to a “new age of development been built by me,” Museveni will say.
I imagine there will be cheers from the crowd: “Oyee, oyee, Mzee, bakwongere. Five more years.” I put this theory to various friends and relatives who travelled to various parts of the country over the holiday season, and they all told me they saw a road or some infrastructure project (including the oil refinery thing in Bunyoro) that, as one of them put, “will be ripe for launch ahead of the 2016” election.
You see, Museveni’s election game has gone through two distinct phases so far. From 1996 through to 2006, his election did three things: It used destructive propaganda against opponents; it stole votes; and it beat down voters and rivals. In 2011, however, it changed and made a total turnabout. There were no whips or bullets. It broke the bank and massively bought the vote.
The 2011, Museveni was the kind of campaigner the Opposition was not ready for, and proved quite popular with voters who had rejected him in the past, for example in the north. The 2016 Museveni is therefore going to be throwing roads, a refinery, and regional trade at voters. And they could convert into as many, if not more, votes for him as in 2011.
I understood this when I spoke to a young businessman in Tororo. He told me that quite a few chaps in the once wretched town are now making good money from South Sudanese who come to Malaba to collect their imported goods. They are splashing money in the town. And the Tororo-Mbale road, then onward to Soroti and Lira, is part of a network that is being built to snag South Sudanese business that the Kenyans are also racing to take. At this point, in terms of the big money the Kenyans are ahead.
The State of East Africa 2013 (SoEAR2013) by the Society for International Development that came out toward the end of last year revealed something unusual about Uganda’s relationship with South Sudan. Kenya is no longer Uganda’s leading export destination in the region. South Sudan is.
Overall, mobile phones, which Uganda doesn’t manufacture, or even pack, have become the country’s second largest export! It seems South Sudan is the largest consumer of “Uganda mobile phones”.
How did this happen? It is a result of two things. First, the mobile phones are coming in in large numbers, through the global Somali networks that also supply the most freewheeling market in Africa – the Somali-dominated Eastleigh business suburb in Nairobi. In Uganda’s case, the goods come in through a complex supply network woven together by Somali businessmen and entrepreneurs in the Uganda contingent in the Somalia peacekeeping mission (Amisom).
Secondly, the Uganda government partly through policy, and by deciding to turn a blind eye to the corruption that allows “smuggling” networks to thrive, has actually created the most open trade market in the region (that is now also supplying Kenya and Tanzania with goods at the price traders would get them if they went and bought them in Dubai).
For Museveni though, this has created new groups (and voters) with vested interests in his rule (which embarrassingly is entering its third decade) some of which didn’t exist in the last election. Cynical politics at its best. And good luck to his opponents.
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