Why annoyed Ugandans don’t get angry

Author: Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Now 36 years later we are almost back to square one. Elections are disputed. You have people imprisoned and tortured. 

It is very intriguing for many that Ugandans apparently have such infinite reserves of patience compared to many other countries on the African continent.

In Sudan, the price of bread goes up by a few Sudanese Pounds angering people who pour onto the streets in fits and days of rage. The long rule of a previously feared strongman collapses and lands him in jail. The story is replicated in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt etc. In the West African states of Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, agitated populations have given confidence to armies to come out of the barracks and overthrow strongmen.

In Uganda when prices of fuel or transport fares rise exponentially, it causes an increase in prices of foodstuffs and most consumer goods. People will be enraged for a few days, shrug their shoulders then it becomes the acceptable new normal.

So many Opposition politicians in the NRM era have from time to time predicted that the people are at a breaking point and about to rise up. It all ends with minor protests that are dealt with decisively by the heavy hand of security agents.

Uganda is in a unique position 36 years after NRM came to power ironically through an uprising of ordinary people who were mobilized against a sitting government on the pretext that it had rigged an election.

The story starts there. The NRA war between 1981 and 1986 was financed mainly by the effort of ordinary people. They provided the manpower, cover, and most importantly food from their gardens to sustain the combatants. They had the solid foundation of a rural economy based on agriculture that thrived. It was linked with parastatals like Coffee, Lint and Produce Marketing Boards, which provided a ready market for produce.

These have all since been privatised. The collapse of cooperatives left individual farmers to their own devices and exploitative middlemen. Some took out loans and ended up losing their land. Others sold land to pay for the tuition of their children and their own sustenance. They are now too pre-occupied with daily struggles to listen to tales of risking an uncertain fight against a well armed government for ‘a better future.’

What has replaced that economy is one that is dominated by foreign aid and foreign investors. All over the developing world, governments that have a good relationship with these two are generally assured of some sort of security of tenure.

In fact, in many of the countries on the African continent where people have risen up, the story is incomplete without the hand of global powers who would like to remove leaders who insist on independence and replace them with stooges. The stooges will be pampered and protected. The intervention of the French to shore up governments in its former colonies in West Africa is an overt example.

In other countries, Opposition figures will be facilitated financially, threatened with sanctions and the prosecution at the International Criminal Court if they don’t, for instance, accept rigged election results. This is to stop them from shaking the table on which the drinks of their leader of choice are served.

So the donor, who lends and makes money off their loans, ensures a stable government to protect their deposit. They will intervene in provision of social services like health, education, transport and clean water to pacify potential anger. The same applies to the investor who will help finance the government to keep it in place for the smooth running of their business and besides all being foreign cannot dream of rebelling against their host. The government in turn grants them endless favors that helps them crowd out the locals.

Now as the major employers they will ensure that trouble causers against the government in their companies are cowed.

The ones not employed by foreign capitalists have flooded the informal sector. Here they find solace in cutting corners to make ends meet and shoulder themselves against the force of bad governance. Instead of getting angry because of the lack of social service, one does not pay all their dues to the government and uses this ‘saving’ to take care of themselves.

This informal sector is a bane for social organisations that put pressure on governments. People cannot be mobilised under trade unions like it happens in countries where there have been successful uprisings especially in urban areas because they are not legally defined. Lone rangers cannot be easily brought together with unity of purpose as the main goal. They are easily infiltrated, manipulated, politicised and divided.

You can see the chaos in the various taxi, boda boda and market management organisations. The lack of cohesion renders them useless as a force to be mobilised against bad governance.

This lack of oneness of purpose runs through almost all organisations that historically have been a thorn in the side of governments. The farmers, the teachers, the doctors, the artisans, the fishermen, the religious groupings and the university students have all been skewed or patronised and placed on a payroll as Saccos.

The donation of money and material things like cars for bishops castrates them into subservience. Only a fool bites the hand the feeds them.

Then we have the all important issue of trust. When the NRM landed in Kampala in January 1986 and announced the fundamental change, many people took them seriously. They were given not just the benefit of doubt but a wholesale gamble because of where Uganda had been since Independence. There was a general consensus that we had to cut our losses and start afresh. Uganda was like the Biblical hungry man to whom even bitter things taste sweet. So we accepted banning of political parties. The currency reforms. The brutal prosecution of the war in Northern Uganda etc.

Now 36 years later we are almost back to square one. Elections are disputed. You have people imprisoned and tortured. There are complaints about impropriety and distribution of national resources; the very things that led to a deadly five-year war.

It will be hard to convince anyone that a politician, any politician, is up to any societal good beyond self aggrandizement.

This cynicism will for many years to come help the NRM celebrate many more liberations days like they did last week.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues
Twitter: @nsengoba