How to make sense of things that do not appear to make sense in Uganda

Mr Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

  • A generation of young activists has emerged and is finding increasingly clever ways to use social media...

Every Christmas holiday, for many years, some cows would be herded through the jungle of northern Uganda and quietly handed over to a waiting group of rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army. We were at war with the LRA but these gifts and other favours were known and approved by high-ranking officials in the military and political command. What some might consider a criminal and perhaps even treasonable waste of taxpayer money was a back channel to facilitate negotiations with top rebel commanders to defect. Many did with valuable intelligence, allowing others to be killed or captured, ultimately degrading the LRA’s morale as well as fighting and political capabilities.

Although the LRA war ended in 2005, the political elite in northern Uganda remained hostile or lukewarm to the NRA/M through the 2011 and 2016 elections. It was not until the fruits of the bargain between the government and the political elite in northern Uganda became ripe through political appointments and patronage programmes, that the north finally delivered an electoral result in favour of the NRA/M in 2021. The LRA was a military expression of the political sentiments of exclusion, discrimination and neglect among the northern Uganda political elite and their followers.

The material circumstances of an ordinary Ugandan in northern Uganda have not necessarily significantly improved compared to the rest of the country – in some cases, they have remained stagnant or dipped. But the northern political and military elite have negotiated a seat at the table from which they can negotiate for food to be passed around.

This new position at the table must be seen to be believed. Being pushed off the road by a noisy convoy of a newish Cabinet minister from northern Uganda might be bad for your pride but it is great performative politics back home.

 It, and other visible trappings of office, such as massive upcountry palaces signal to voters how close their turn to eat is.  This isn’t about the political elite in northern Uganda. It is about the political, economic, social and military elite in Uganda generally, and the bargains that they have had to strike in exchange for individual advancement while allowing the NRA/M government to stay in power. Buganda was there before and a small republican faction remains; the West has been largely ever-present; and there is a smattering of key elites from the East and West Nile.

It is also not just about politicians. Religious leaders, musicians, traditional leaders, media barons and business executives all face the choice of grumbling from inside the large tent or staying outside in the rain. Few have the raincoats of financial independence or the staying power of gumboots to stay out too long. A generation of young activists has emerged and is finding increasingly clever ways to use social media to shine a spotlight on contradictions and failures in government and its different agencies. Without institutional bureaucracies, and in the bite-sized nature of these platforms, some of the exposes are inexact or are rendered without background and context. But they are also a useful way around institutionalised censorship and some of the elite bargains that might hamstring oversight bodies, including civil society and the media.

To be more effective, however, these campaigns need to combine the moral indignation some of the findings evoke, with clear and thoughtful pressure points to either close loopholes, or galvanise a wave of citizen agency that can force macro-political changes. Moralising is good for shaming; analysing is better for changing.  An ongoing expose of parliamentary shenanigans is instructive. Individual actions make intriguing reading but what matters is the macro-level elite bargain in which Parliament has been allowed significant financial and operational autonomy as long as it does not block the Executive’s legislative agenda or appointments.  

Where this autonomy is confused for independence, Parliament (during the debate on the age limit), and the Judiciary before it, (during the Black Mamba raid) are quickly reminded, through the deployment of boots on the ground, where real power lies.
A politician from a restive region is appointed to Cabinet to placate his people, not design policy. If such placating requires the occasional or even repeated sticking of the finger into the public pie, that will be forgiven if they redistribute to followers and rally them to vote for the status quo.

 Iron sheets, anyone? MPs, including those in Opposition, play in the same cauldron of self-interested politics. With a six-in-10 chance of not being voted back into the House, and a one-in-two chance of losing their plum committee or commission position during a five-year term, the incentives for chance maximisation are extremely tempting.

These bargains only fray when schoolboy errors and greed kick in. An official who appoints unqualified people from his constituency to a position is likely to get off more lightly than one who appoints a qualified child or sibling! The biggest problem facing Uganda now is that the formal and informal institutional arrangements through which political, economic and social resources have been distributed over the last few decades – but especially in the last two – are collapsing under the weight of incompetence.

The lack of discipline, inadequate regeneration and other internal contradictions have undermined the rule of law and created a political culture of impunity and unpredictability that are bad for national unity and social order.

On the other hand, low execution competence has led to economic underperformance that has left millions behind, exacerbated inequality, and made the state, once again, the main source of legal and illegal opportunity. This has increased the number of people vying for a seat at the table, and removed limits to what they will do to get or stay there.
Many of the things that do not appear to make sense to electors in Uganda do so to the selectors who pull the levers. Those who have mastered the art of shaping opinion on social media should arm themselves with some analytical tools from the world of political science.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki