Uganda is in the global news for the wrong reasons. A stampede starting in the Arua by-election last Wednesday has extended to Kampala and other urban centres over the arrest of Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, 36, and several other politicians.
Arua Municipality MP-elect Kassiano Wadri, 65, is also in jail. Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake, 27, is hospitalised in serious condition at Rubaga Hospital.
MP Kyagulanyi is charged with terrorism-related offences relating to possession of illegal firearms, and has been brought before the General Court Martial. Wadri and a group of eight others are facing treason charges in Gulu. Protests have broken out in Kampala and Mityana township where a stray bullet killed one person last weekend.
The footage showing the beating or worse the clobbering of a Reuters journalist James Akena, and running gun battles in Kampala are a cause for alarm. Journalists have been at the receiving end of violence meted out by the State in growing numbers in the last five years.
But the real underlying cause is economic discontent, which the President may or may have failed to discern, which is fomenting forces for change.
NRM’s superior record in recent by-elections winning a lion’s share of by-elections in the country or a much better than expected performance in the LCI elections, has not been the good fortune cookie for the government.
Infact, the Opposition’s solitary victories in 2018 in Jinja West, Bugiri Municipality and Arua Municipality where NRM shed three seats seem to have left NRM emotionally wounded.
The economy started to run amok after the 2016 elections where record expenditure by the incumbent necessitated a mopping-up of excess liquidity in the economy and introduction of informal exchange controls to regulate foreign currency demand.
After 55 years of independence, 70 per cent of Uganda’s economic activity is concentrated in the 20 miles radius from Constitutiona Square.
Most large businesses upcountry worth note are still the colonial type, plantation agriculture, large State subsidised enterprises receiving costly tax subsidies. Uganda, a landlocked country, relies heavily on import-based taxes to moderate the pressure on the exchange rate, which fluctuates due to negative balance of payments position.
In 2018, the Budget has delivered woes to Uganda’s commercial class. The President calls his former friends Kacita saboteurs yet they are shouldering the burden of a steep import tariff regime where imports provide most direct and indirect employment in the informal sector.
The commercial class is labouring under a host of other negative taxes like the tax on Mobile Money transactions, which has shrunk just one segment of the communications sector by 50 per cent.
This discontent has found a fragile business environment where business closures dominate and exceed new business opening. UIA recently noted a sharp drop in foreign investment registration in Uganda, but stated that it is part of a wider global trend.
The flight of dollar has hurt most emerging market economies, the situation in Uganda is replicated in Tanzania, and to a lesser extent Kenya.
The state remains the largest employer and patronage a major tool to manage bottled discontent. In this respect, the government has resisted pressure to cut back on the huge cost of public administration and the wage bill. Uganda has very little social expenditure meaning there is no cushion to mitigate rising unemployment.
In the rural areas, the fall in major commodity prices caught government flat footed, and so did the latent anger from the introduction of various income taxes on farm produce, sun-dried robusta (kibooko) grown by most peasant farmers, fishermen and other small but visible groups.
The little people (traders, farmers, boda-boda riders pressed by higher petroleum prices) all have an axe to grind. The collapse of commodity prices will leave many of these ordinary folks bankrupt. In Ethiopia, a major PR success story, demonstrations continue behind the scenes everyday mostly over food shortages. In Uganda, the laundry list of complaints is different but will achieve the same negative effect.
Mr Ssemogerere is an attorney-at-Law
and an advocate. firstname.lastname@example.org