Wednesday January 11 2017

War, peace, and food: Uganda tries, fails to out-run its shadow

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I am going off totally on the deep end and wild speculation here, so you don’t have to come along.

Thirty years ago, two interesting things happened in Uganda. Spirit medium Alice Lakwena, having started her war in late 1986, was defeated in November of 1987.

In the Teso region, former minister of Defence Peter Otai and his comrades, started the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) rebellion.

Both wars produced shocking savagery and violence, and started a series of events, including two years later, the Mukura massacre in Kumi in which 70 people were locked in a train wagon and basically boiled to death. More precisely, they suffocated when a fire was lit by the wagon in which they had been crammed.

What interests us today are the unintended consequences of these two events.

There was large displacement of people in Teso, and nearly all the cattle in the once cow-happy region were lost. Many were eaten by combatants on both sides, and quite a few were ferried to stock the farms of victors and opportunistic business people in other parts of the country.

Today, there is a hysterical outcry over corruption, but you can’t fully comprehend it without also looking at our history, dating back to the time of military ruler Idi Amin, through the war that ousted him, the Luweero war against Yoweri Museveni’s NRA rebels during the Milton Obote II period, and the subsequent wars in the north and northeast of the NRM era.

These conflicts created war booty. Generals and soldiers looted, and there was a window that allowed it to happen, because they were the spoils of battle. During the Luweero war, some of the sights were dramatic. You would see military UNLA trucks driving through Kampala loaded with mattresses, mabati taken off houses, goats, and occasionally frightened women perched on top of the booty. Among other factors, this watered the seedlings of corruption, creating a permissive culture that treats public and private goods as capture for victors (political and military) and combatants (civilian and military).

However, as has been noted before, the war in Teso left land unused as people fled, in much the same way it had happened in Luweero during the bush war.

Ditto in the north during the long years of conflict there. My suspicion is that these wars take too many farmers off the land, creating greater demand for the food grown by the farmers in peaceful areas.

A lot of the displaced people, many of them previously subsistence farmers, move to urban and peri-urban areas for safety, and have to buy food. For the people in the IDP camps, they get rations from humanitarian agencies, which in turn buy quite a bit of the food from suppliers around the country.

Because demand and prices are high, farmers make a lot more money without doing anything smart on their land. They become richer, but also become bad farmers in the process, corrupted by good fortune.

But then the wars end. There was a small agricultural boom in Teso after the war, with rested fertile land and without cattle, they grew things like potatoes. They flooded the country. Luweero and other previously war-torn areas also saw similar benefits.

With well-fallowed land, the farmers could get high yields and bring produce to market at competitive prices, as happened in Teso, without any innovation.
Now, we have a “problem”. The money earned in the easy times wasn’t ploughed back into farms. It was squandered in alcohol and polygamy, so many farmers didn’t accumulate capital.

Climate change has hit, and many farmers didn’t learn any lessons in hardiness or become innovators from the tough times – because they were either off their land, or were on it making a lot of money from their gardens just by throwing seeds through the window.

And now war, that created the market distortions that some people profited from, has ended. The IDP camps are gone. The displaced people have gone back to their villages.

There are now more farmers on the land. The market shifted in favour of food merchants. Though farming methods haven’t improved, the sheer larger numbers of peasants tilling the land in peacetime brought more food to market.

Farmers became discouraged from investing in new things, but this time because margins were small.

But drought has now caught up with everything, and few know how to respond, or have the knowledge and savings to do so, even if they wanted to.

Some serious research is needed here, which is why this is anecdotal and speculative.

But the food crisis that is creeping on the country suggests that for a country long plagued by war like Uganda, peace is eventually as expensive as conflict – if that makes any sense at all.

Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3