In the Daily Monitor of October 28, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) is quoted to have found out that the inequality gap among Ugandans has continued to widen. That there is inequality between regions as the northern and eastern lag far behind the central and the west. That the rural population where the majority live lags far behind the urban. That Uganda has the highest inequality levels in East Africa. And that the rich are becoming richer and the poor poorer. This is a case of having poverty amidst plenty.
Whereas official statistics indicate that Uganda is registering development, the development will eventually fall tragically due to this inequality. History has never been on the side of the “rich-poor” country. The prediction of the tragic end of the rich-poor country or empire is well supported by historical evidence and there is no reason to believe that this may not happen to Uganda.
One of the first civilisations to have risen and disastrously fallen due to institutionalised inequality is the ancient Egyptian civilisation. It is well documented in the Bible how the Egyptian political system mistreated its people and used slave-labour. This civilisation was of black people who were later to be overshadowed by the Europeans and later Arabs who have now appropriated the Black African civilisation of the ancient times.
The Ancient Greek civilisation rose and fell also on account of institutionalised inequality characterised by slavery and marginalisation of women. The well documented frequent rise and fall of the Jewish nation of Israel in the Biblical times as documented by the prophets was also due to inequality. Of course, the prophets presented it as rebellion against God and thereafter divine intervention as punishment which led to their fall. Interpreted historically, the decline of Israel at the hands of its neighbours was due to a system of inequality that bred material, moral and spiritual decay of the nation.
As it was in Egypt and Israel, so it was in the well known Indian, Chinese and Japanese ancient civilisations. As time went by, these great civilisations sunk into decay as their leaders monopolised power which they transformed into institutionalised material monopoly by a few elites. In India, inequality was rationalised and institutionalised under the caste system where some people were born into poverty and were condemned to die in poverty.
The Great Roman Civilisation fell on account institutionalised inequality characterised by slavery, serfdom and feudalism all of which were explained as God’s divine arrangement for mankind as rationalised by Christianity in those days. The Church in the middle ages fell into decay on account of inequality. It continued to tolerate injustice in the Church until the protestant Reformation awakened it. That is when after this rude shock, it started forbidding priests from marrying so as to prevent the emergence of a hereditary priestly line that monopolised both material and spiritual power.
The Arab countries of the Middle East are a typical examples of the rich-poor. They still lag behind in human development because they continue to tolerate injustice, not least the marginalisation of women. The South American countries that became independent more than 200 years ago are still poor because they have for long tolerated inequality. They have recently woken up and are addressing this vice and have actually started on the path to development. The former Soviet Union which guised its inequality under the veil of socialism collapsed under its own inequality weight.
When some of these civilisations realised the danger of tolerating injustice, they returned to the path of civilisation and development. The Japanese addressed inequality about 100 years ago and emerged to overshadow Europeans and the Chinese, and the Indians who realised it about 50 years ago, have tried to address it and are now on the path to prosperity.
The Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden decided to abolish the inequality system of feudalism and avoided crude capitalism and today have the leading Human Development and Human Happiness indicators in the world under their welfare models of development. The US which has continued to maintain crude capitalism and is resisting Obama’s reforms for welfare policies is heading for disaster.
What are the history lessons for Uganda? If the inequality gap in Uganda continues to rise and those in power continue to explain it away as being a result of the poor being lazy, not knowing how to “kulembeka” (read steal from the public), we are heading for a tragic end. First, inequality breeds conflicts and instead of expending our productive energies into development, we shall expend it into conflict management.
Secondly, inequality is the mother of crime such as robberies, murders and prostitution. No amount of imprisonment or prayers will stop this impending disaster unless inequality is addressed. That is why there is almost no crime in Scandinavian countries while it is highest in South Africa where inequality is very high. Thirdly, inequality denies Uganda internal market for our products. When wealth is concentrated in a few hands, it denies the country the potential purchasing power of the majority poor who would be buying our locally produced goods and services.
One way to address the inequality gap would be for the government to put in place a policy to use state spending fairly. For example, to make sure that government budget spending is well distributed. How the state gives out state tenders and contracts matters. Who gets tenders to supply ministries of works, defence, education, health, etc. where most of our budget goes matters.
Secondly, why not tax some big land owners in this country? What about coming up with a policy to force all telecommunication companies to at least float 30 per cent of shares to the citizens. Why doesn’t the State have joint venture shares in the road construction industry where most of our budget goes so that some money spent in this sector remains in the country? Otherwise, most of our resources are being siphoned out of the country through these companies.
These and some other policies can make us avoid the tragedy that befell other countries and empires that tolerated injustice and inequality. I have not heard any presidential candidate addressing himself/herself to the issue of inequality!
Mr Ndebesa is a lecturer at Makerere University