The economy and society in the 1990s
What you need to know:
Optimism. A feeling of optimism and revival of the economy begins to spread among Ugandans with the opening up of the foreign currency market, the birth of FM radio stations and the telecom industry.
The opening up of the foreign currency market in June 1990 started unloosening many of the constraints to commerce that had existed in Uganda since independence.
A new tax body, the Uganda Revenue Authority, with Ghanaian Edward Labi-Siaw as its first Commissioner-General, was formed in 1991 to more aggressively collect revenue for the national treasury.
By this time, the NRM government had long since abandoned its initial Marxist economic policies that stressed a mixed private-state economy and was steadily opening the economy up to private investment.
The shortages of sugar, salt, cooking oil and medicine of the 1986-1990 period had ended.
In April 1991, a special supplementary feature focusing on Uganda was published by the U.S news magazine Newsweek. The supplement reflected a growing international perception that Uganda was now past the immediate ravages of civil war and was fully on the way to reconstruction and growth.
In 1992, the long-standing national policy on state monopoly of the broadcast airwaves was scrapped. The first private television station, CableSat TV, a brainchild of a businessman called Peter Katiti, went on air, broadcasting from a studio at the Standard Chartered Bank building along Speke Road in Kampala.
The following year, December 1993, the first ever private radio station in Uganda, Radio Sanyu, went on air. It was founded by Thomas I. Katto, a Kampala businessman who first made his break in the 1970s when President Idi Amin awarded him the tender to supply Mulago Hospital doctors with their white coats.
Two weeks later, a second station, Capital Radio, also started broadcasting. It was founded by the New Vision Editor-in-Chief William Pike and the Ghanaian-born Kampala businessman and computer dealer, Patrick Quarcoo.
Arrival of FM radio stations
Younger Ugandans who for the last five years had been forced to endure the national radio station, Radio Uganda, which was in a period of steep decline in the early 1990s, were ecstatic about the arrival of the new FM radio stations which played the latest western pop songs and Congolese music most of the day and night.
With the arrival of Radio Sanyu and Capital Radio came a major revival in Uganda’s advertising. The two stations’ leading DJs such as Peter Sematimba, DJ Berry, Alex Ndawula, Gloria Kamba, RS Elvis and Rasta Rob MC became huge national stars.
A new talk show on Capital Radio in 1994 called the Capital Gang featuring Winnie Byanyima, Charles Onyango-Obbo and Frank Katusuiime and moderated by one of Capital’s directors Patrick Quarcoo, introduced what would later become a staple for radio in Uganda --- national affairs talk shows discussing mainly the political developments in the country.
A feeling of optimism and life as exciting in Uganda in the mid 1990s was reinforced by radio, new nightclubs like Club Silk in Industrial Area and Bamboo Village in Muyenga, the increasingly innovative radio adverts and the emphasis by national newspapers much more on entertainment and human interest features than the politics and government news of the late 1980s.
British Airways which as BOAC had suspended operations to Uganda in the early 1970s, resumed flights to Uganda in 1992. The Persian Gulf airlines Gulf Air and Emirates Airlines started flights to Entebbe International Airport in 1989 and 1993 respectively. Zambia Airways also opened routes into Entebbe in 1990.
The first mobile phone company, Celtel, started its operations in 1995 and Uganda got its first national Internet service provider, Infomail, also in 1995.
Later, when the South African phone company MTN opened its doors in October 1998, with greatly reduced calling tariffs, there was such an onrush of new subscribers that this moment in 1998 was one of the truly significant developments in Ugandan history. For the first time ever, telephone services were available in many corners of the country.
In 1994, it was reported that Uganda had registered an annual growth rate of eight percent for the 1993-1994 period. The last time Uganda had felt this optimistic and confident in itself was in the 1960s and early 1980s.
However, even with this sense of upward mobility and rapid economic growth, there were still many problems to confront and some who brought up these issues did not win many friends in the government, even though they tapped into a large segment of an increasingly frustrated Uganda.
The birth of Monitor
In July 1992, a number of editors of the Weekly Topic newspaper resigned from the paper citing editorial interference by the paper’s Publishers Jaberi Bidandi-Ssali, Kintu Musoke and Ali Kirunda Kivejinja and started a new weekly paper called The Monitor.
The Monitor --- whose original idea was conceived by James Serugo and Kevin Ogen Aliro --- went on to comprise their other colleagues Charles Onyango-Obbo, David Ouma Balikoowa, Wafula Oguttu, Richard Tebere and the Editor of the corruption watchdog, the Uganda Confidential newsletter, Teddy Seezi Cheeye (which Cheeye founded in December 1990).
It adopted an editorial policy of questioning government policies and defending freedom of debate and expression. The paper in 1992 devoted much space and commentary on the economic distress facing the average Ugandan, even as the economy seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds.
Many of the paper’s first batch of reporters, notably Lillian Nsubuga and Onapito Ekomoloit, did extensive reporting on the privatisation of the economy, the flaws in the process and in 1992, a major economic and social upheaval brought on by the large-scale retrenchment of soldiers and civil servants.
Effects of economic reforms
The reduction of the civil service starting in 1992 was supposed to create a leaner and more efficient government, save on waste in vehicles and salaries and help sustain the economy’s growth.
What happened was that thousands of civil servants, who had devoted their lives since the 1960s to public service, suddenly found themselves with no homes to go to, no pensions to speak about and with subsidies rapidly being removed and most economic activities now requiring cash, destitution.
This retrenchment of the civil service, the sale of the government pool houses all over the country and civil servants starting to pay rent on the open market, marked the beginning of a sudden and steep increase in the greatest scourge of them all: corruption.
Ugandan society was becoming more and more unequal and stressful to live in.
And as life in Kampala and the urban centres in the southern half of the country were seeing overall improvement, a human catastrophe in the northern half of the country was just getting underway, as this series will later explain.
In the next part, we shall look at Uganda’s foreign policy in the 1990s: the tensions with Sudan, Zairë and the biggest story of all, the 1990 RPF invasion of Rwanda and the 1994 Rwandan genocide.