Someone asked: “Why is it that the one thing President Museveni has appealed for most, when asking companies to support the Covid-19 fight, is vehicles – not facemasks, medicine, ventilators, and other health apparatus?”
I hadn’t been counting, nor had the alleged vehicle obsession struck me, so I didn’t have an answer.
I asked why he thought the President focused on vehicles so much. He said his suspicion was that the Big Man had a secret plan to “convert them into vehicles for his election campaign in 2021”. I didn’t know enough to disagree or agree with him, so we will just have to wait and see. The sentiment, however, indicated what seems to have turned into a deep cynicism about Kampala’s anti-coronavirus strategy.
Where he was correct, though, was in the underlying idea in his thinking that Covid-19 will affect how power is won and lost in the next election or political year, after correcting for the ever-present vote rigging, of course. Some early shifts have already come in the breakthrough in the long battles over Tullow’s sale of its remaining 33.33 per cent stake in Uganda oil to French giant Total E&P, and now the renewal of MTN’s operating licence.
With the economy still relatively healthy, the Uganda government had dug in over its large tax cut in the Tullow sale. However, when Covid-19 arrived and slammed the economy and tax collections went south, it decided to take half a loaf of bread than nothing, losing Shs256 billion.
Its hand also weakened in the often nasty and threat-filled fight with MTN over the renewal of its licence. MTN has paid Shs372 billion ($100m) for the renewal of its operating licence for a whopping 12 years.
A year ago, it looked like it would be extremely lucky to get 12 years, or to do so without listing shares on the stock exchange. Additionally, of course, things were helped along with the overdue dispatch of Uganda digital economy machete-wielding Taliban Godfrey Mutabazi as the executive director of the Uganda Communications Commission.
With the economy and stock market withering, it will be a long time before it makes sense to take MTN to the exchange.
And Covid-19 has ensured the $100 million licence fee, is now actually chump change for the telco giant. This is because the digital dependency brought on by the lockdowns, has sent the growth of telcos data and mobile money businesses shooting for the skies, some seeing increases of more than100 per cent.
They are swimming in so much money, if it was less stingy, MTN could probably have afforded to give that $100 million away as a Covid-19 donation to the national task force.
In any event, those are details. At the next election, Museveni can still make the nationalist argument that he didn’t “give away the oil free”, and might avoid talking about “his oil” like a mirage in the distance for a fourth election.
But his real advantage will come from the fact that Covid-19 will have impoverished the Ugandan middle class, leaving it at its most vulnerable since probably 1988-1995 when it was shaken to its bones by the (much-needed and necessary) economic reforms and liberalisation.
In periods like these, the power of the State swells.
A financially stressed elite stretches its neck even longer to suck from the breast of State patronage in exchange for its loyalty and support. It is good business for a corrupt State like Uganda’s, because prices are very low.
With so many hard up, where you might have used Shs100m in 2016 to buy or rent two middle class opinion leaders, in the current situation that will run into another 18 months at a minimum, you can rent 20 of them.
This at a time when the Opposition will be extremely weakened, with the urban classes, professionals, and businesses that fund them and are the bedrock of their support, all hard up. It could get so bad, that by February next year, the Opposition could find themselves trapped between attacking the government for bungling the Covid-19 response, and accusing Museveni of having created the virus.
Meanwhile, he will be out there, buying off a whole village with a bag of posho, and just one cash-stuffed envelope.
We need to rewind, though. It could also go the other way. The virus sweeps in another big wave, and a panicked lockdown is imposed. The corruption and dry coffers means millions can’t be fed, and the repressive security apparatus also collapses in the Covid-19 wreckage. The people break out, and run riot, and the country descends into chaos.
In the grounds of State House, the presidential helicopter, with its engine running, waits for the chief to come out hurriedly with his small briefcase for a last ride out.
Oh, seeing how the media business is reeling, this column might not be there either.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”