Securing a viable social order in Uganda

Moses Khisa

What you need to know:

We must wake up to the tragedy that keeps mounting and will explode on us all. The rulers should especially be wary.

The subject of how to achieve social order is quite arcane, in fact deeply academic. Writing about it here reflects my own academic interest and intellectual engagement. Yet this is arguably the most enduring social problem in modern human history. It’s not merely an academic debate, it’s fundamentally practical. Here is why.

Social order is attained when there are clear rules and systems for resolving disputes, disagreements and conflicts in society. The rules and systems have to be acceptable to a plurality of society. They must be internalised as part of everyday praxis and behaviour.

An ideal social order means society has reached a point where resorting to armed conflict or using extra-legal measures is not part of mainstream practice.

A social order represents both economic engagements and political arrangements. It combines how to go about economic intercourse and engage in political activity. This all happens when a set of norms, rules and laws embody a minimum consensus, shared by both elite actors and the masses, in the main. Not everyone, of course.

A social order is the basis for long-term peace and prosperity, for coexistence and social harmony. Today, around the world, there are countries that have attained what we can call durable and viable social orders. Their systems of government and economic activity are based on minimally accepted and shared rules, laws and standards, the violation of which leads to sanction and punishment.

Attaining a durable and viable social order is a long, protracted and painful process. In many societies, it took centuries to get there.  Once an equilibrium of order and stability is attained, the ravages of war and the immeasurable damage wrought by violence are avoided. With social order, it is then possible for human ingenuity to flourish, for people to innovate and produce, for society to prosper and flourish.

Scandinavian countries are arguably the best examples of societies that have successfully established long-standing systems of political engagement and economic management, which have ensured health, happiness and harmony.  This crucial aspect of the human condition and destiny, of establishing a viable social order, remains elusive in a great many African countries. Uganda is one of them.  At the heart of attaining and maintaining social order is building a shared national identity and constructing an effective state. On the one hand, it is about a community with a set of shared sociocultural attributes and, on the other, it is a system for managing public affairs. The first is a nation, the second a state run by a government.

These two are coterminous, but they are not one and the same. They have different logics and foundations. One is essentially people, the other is an institutional apparatus. But they go together, and reproduce each other. Unless there is a viable nation and an efficient state, you can’t have social order.

Uganda is not a nation. The state is in shambles, lacking autonomy from parasitic interests and incapable of protecting the public good from individual activities and excesses. A wetland is taken over and Nema does nothing.

The national project got off to a promising albeit difficult start at independence in 1962. It quickly stumbled in 1966. We have never recovered.

The current rulers came with a bang in 1986. Imbibed with radicalism and idealism, they sought to rewrite the rules of engagement and redefine the Uganda project. They promised a unified and harmonious Uganda.

But more than three decades later, they have delivered a fragmented and fragile country. Rather than a robust and accountable state system, we have decay and dysfunction, impunity and lawlessness. Stand on any road in Kampala and watch.

As a columnist writing every week, as I have done for more than eight years now, there is always the risk of coming across as hyperbolic. Worse, you get to a point of ad nauseam. But Uganda today is in bad shape. I have said this countless times. To repeat it is hopefully to awaken the urgency of Ugandans and action of the rulers.

We have a powder keg staring at us. Anything is possible. Uganda project needs to be reimagined as a collective endeavour. But realising the society we desire and deserve is a tough task. We have to be rugged.

We must wake up to the tragedy that keeps mounting and will explode on us all. The rulers should especially be wary. The allures of power can be blinding, but the course of history is so random it has no respect for being powerful or powerless.

It is in the best interest of those wielding state power to ensure a negotiated path forward for a stable and sustainable Uganda. How we can make this happen is what I shall return to…


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