The political headache Covid-19 could leave in its wake

Sunday March 29 2020

Restrictions. Traffic police at a roadblock in

Restrictions. Traffic police at a roadblock in Kampala yesterday. President Museveni has suspended public transport and restricted private cars to having only three people to try and contain the Covid-19 outbreak in Uganda. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA 

By Timothy Kalyegira

A severe economic crisis has started to hit Uganda and its effects will be felt most acutely starting in April.
There are many angles to this.

One of the many results of the coronavirus outbreak will be a steep rise in unemployment around the world.
The lockdown of Uganda’s urban centres and the resultant standstill will put to the test the viability of the State since 1986.

Uganda has no public healthcare system to speak of.
As a result of the shutdown of the public transport network, there will be much pain to vulnerable people, from the elderly to expectant mothers, accident victims and others with regular medical ailments.

It was reported that one million Canadians and 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, the highest figure ever recorded in the space of a week.

These figures give a rough guide to the situation elsewhere in the world.

The UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) on March 18, estimated that 25 million people could lose their jobs, although on March 26, the director of ILO warned that the figure could eventually rise much higher than 25 million.


Among these millions of newly unemployed will be the thousands of Ugandans who work in the Middle East, North America and Asia and remit money to their families and friends.

Furthermore, the Western countries that have indulged Uganda and other African countries with aid and grants are themselves facing a severe downturn.

It will be best to assume that cuts in aid will follow.
For one year, the local economy in Kisoro and at the border with Rwanda at Katuna has been at a standstill following Rwanda’s closure of the border.

Uganda’s other ready market, South Sudan, has also never fully recovered from the political tensions in Juba over the last two years.
Obviously with the global economy in recession, the markets for Uganda’s exports will see much less demand for them this year.

Tourism, a recently growing source of national revenue, will also see a major downturn, as tourists from the more affluent countries cut back on discretionary spending, as well as take a cautious wait-and-see stance before they can resume their globe-trotting.
Even in the best of times, most businesses in Uganda barely get by.

With a serious downturn such as coronavirus, the list of collapsing businesses will not only grow longer but will feature the larger companies such as hotels, radio and TV stations, restaurants and bus companies.
Many of these businesses are owned by politicians, from Cabinet ministers to Members of Parliament.

Stimulus packages
In the United States, China, Japan and Western Europe, large government stimulus packages are being put into place to revive the stricken economies.

In Uganda, it will also be the government to which businesses turn for relief.
What does all this mean for the politics of the 2021 General Election?

For a start, protest movements like People Power are going to gain many more converts without much effort simply from the tens of thousands of urban youth and vendor businesses that will be sent into distress.

The best way the NRM can handle or seek to gain from this could be to argue that at a time of unprecedented national danger, the President and the government put partisan pettiness aside and took drastic measures for the good of the population.

From public and social media reaction so far, the minister of Health, Dr Ruth Aceng, and other officials from the ministry, appear to have made a positive impression on the country in their handling of the crisis and updating of the public on new developments.

This intervention, however, will have to be followed by visible efforts to extend relief to the public in the form of bailouts, relaxing of certain taxes and, of course, a concerted effort to clamp down on corruption and waste of public resources.

A few days after the President’s first address to the nation, reports started coming out of Entebbe of certain persons paying bribes to officials to be let out of the quarantine.

On Thursday, March 26, the first day of the ban on public transport and business life, police, soldiers and Local Defence Unit personnel took the President’s order literally and were captured on video and in pictures resorting to force and beatings to empty Kampala’s Central Business District.

This was an inadvisable way to enforce the quarantine and will surely be exploited by the Opposition to argue that the government was heartless and insensitive.
Another result is that the 2020-2021 political campaign season has been shortened.

The shortening of the campaign season could in one sense benefit the NRM which already enjoys the benefit of incumbency and a countrywide reach, requiring less time for it to spread its message to the electorate.

In a different sense, it could help the Opposition which usually is short of campaign money and so reduces the period it needs to start on the road and on message.

Given its track record, the Museveni government will be more likely to favour supporters of the ruling NRM party when it comes to bailouts for this coronavirus crisis.

But also given this same track record, there will be temptation by the State to use the prospects of financial bailouts to tempt key Opposition activists and politicians to switch to the NRM.

If there was ever a golden opportunity for the Opposition to tip the public sentiment in its favour, it is now during this crisis.
But lacking countrywide organisation, the opportunity will probably pass the Opposition by.

Opposition presidential candidates and parties will also need to bear in mind that Ugandans tend to react passively even to what might seem like existential crises.

Even with the traumatic May 1966 conflict between the UPC government and the Buganda Kingdom, the abolition of the traditional kingdoms in 1967 and the declaration of a state of emergency in Buganda in 1969, life went on in the country.

No armed rebel group was formed in Buganda to fight the Obote government. It took a conflict within the government for the army to oust the government in 1971.
In September 2009 following the Buganda riots, CBS FM, the radio station owned by Mengo was taken off air for more than a year. It hurt many Baganda deeply, but once again this was taken passively.

With the traditional monarch of the Bakonzo, Charles Mumbere, still in detention for several years now, there has not been a protest or display of public unrest in Kasese District.

So, from that point of view, the population could be sent into even more desperation than it currently experiences but that will not necessarily translate into “Arab Spring” type political street action.

If there is a slight positive to come out of this crisis, especially if it goes on until about May, it could be that the public starts to buy more Ugandans-made products as the supply chain to China remains paralysed.

Uganda’s economy is 80 per cent agricultural and most of the rest is a patchwork of formal and informal.

A good number of the workforce is engaged in artisan crafts and works as vendors whose income is from daily sales.

One of the reasons the “walk-to-work” protest campaign by the Opposition in the weeks after the 2011 general election failed was because of this reality: Most Kampala and other town dwellers could not afford to take several days off to join the action.

That could help a few local manufacturers and processors gain slightly in sales volumes and market share.
All in all, Uganda is not a country driven by technical blueprints and long-term economic planning.

Long before the coronavirus, the HIV/Aids pandemic hit Uganda as nothing else in its history ever had and much more severely than the coronavirus will.
Despite the Aids nightmare, nothing fundamental shifted in Uganda’s collective, institutional thought process and forward planning.

If Aids did not lead to any far-reaching intellectual shirt, it is unlikely that there will be minds to sit down, draw lessons from the coronavirus crisis, and start charting a way forward that includes reform of the laws, opening up new channels in the economy and so on.
There will not be efforts to put Uganda more onto the online infrastructure or carry out a detailed reform of the public transport system.

There will be no new public hygiene routines put into place by the government.
The crisis will come and go and life will probably resume in the way and at the pace we are used to all these decades.

The casual public mood as far as the coronavirus is concerned suggests that most Ugandans still do not see in this new pandemic anything particularly scary or worth seriously responding to, unless forced to by the government.