Thanks to global distribution and pay TV, even those of us who weren’t in Uganda followed President Yoweri Museveni’s address to the nation on Sunday.
It was not easy, given as the President soldiered on for all of four long hours. However, given as it looks like something is about to give in Uganda, it was worth the slog to get a sense of where the President’s head is.
There are dozen juicy political commentaries one could do on Museveni’s speech, but I will look at the boring bit about China, which ultimately had a surprising – and telling - turn.
When Museveni brought up China, I thought he was going to make a case that Uganda, or at least Africa, was pretty much on the same path as China in rapid economic development, and thus give the restless and highly unemployed youth who are no longer in love with him, hope that there is a better future coming.
But instead, the President used it to make a political point, that the West was wrong in projecting China as a doomed communist country, and therefore, is wrong in projecting Uganda as something close to a failed State today.
In fact as early 2013, Stratfor, a respected American geopolitical intelligence and forecasting firm in some circles, looked ahead to the time when China is a first world economy and is no longer doing dirty manufacturing.
It came up with a list of what it called the “Post-China 16”. There were four African countries on that list: Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda. Those who follow these things will know there have been some revisions to that scenario, including the possibility that China might still be doing low-end manufacturing for a while longer, and that Ethiopia is probably the only certain candidate from the old list, and new players like Senegal have emerged as contenders.
The President said: “In 1963, China had a GDP of $50.7 billion, while the UK had a GDP of $85.4 billion, France $85.6 billion, Germany $44.5 billion and the USA, a GDP of $637.5 billion… The Western media…continually demonised the Chinese and the communists… Today, China is the second richest country in the world and it will overtake the USA by the year 2025 in GDP size.”
However, it would also have been of great value for Museveni to compare China and Uganda. In 1963, Uganda’s GDP was $516.32 so China’s economy was 98 times bigger than Uganda’s.
Last year, China’s GDP was about $12.1 trillion, and Uganda’s was $25.89 billion – 467 times bigger. Tangentially, some of the President’s remarks helped to explain why the gap between China and us didn’t remain constant, or even close.
Some of the things that account for China’s achievement today – shaking up feudal institutions, reorganising peasant production, reducing the hold of superstition and religion on the pursuit of science and rational thinking, internationalism – were all laid down under Mao Zedong’s (brutal) rule.
Even if you are anti-Communist, Mao’s story is still incredible. He ruled for 27 years (from 1949 until his death in 1976), shorter than the 32 years Museveni has been president. However, the man who launched China on the path to its present wealth, was Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping was never a formal head of state, but a supreme chief, whose main focus was carrying out free-market reforms, opening China to foreign investment, and economic and diplomatic links with the rest of the world beyond the old “socialist” Cold War world it inhabited.
So, Museveni is wrong. China’s ruling party holds power as a Communist Party, yes, but what has made it rich is capitalism. China wouldn’t be the world’s second largest economy if it had remained a closed Maoist communist economy. The West was right.
But Deng also did something that is now absent in Uganda. From the Mao experience, he and his comrades concluded that presidency for life and concentrating power in the hands of one man, were bad for a country.
He pushed through a two-term limit, and opened door for the dynamic policy environment that comes with leadership change. Deng was paramount chief for just 11 years, from 1978 to 1989 when he was retired. By then, the magic had been worked.
In 2013, Xi Xinping came to power. With China’s momentum to global economic and military super powerdom unstoppable. Early this year, Xi did a Museveni. He scrapped term limits. Will China flounder? We wait.
On Sunday, Museveni was Big Chief. There was no creative economic reform or investment in tomorrow that he announced. Xi, by contrast seeks for China to dominate the global artificial intelligence (AI) industry by 2030. He is putting $150 billion on the table.
And, yes, also in China they execute the corrupt. They do not think that it is enough to give people State House toll-free numbers to report corruption.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3