Uganda 2016: Six Key Issues for the Next Government

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Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni arrives at Khartoum Airport for talks during an official visit to Sudan September 15, 2015. Uganda goes to the polls in February, with Museveni looking to extend his 30-year rule. Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

In February 2016, Ugandans will go to the polls in one of the most interesting elections in the country’s history.

For the first time since the reintroduction of multiparty politics, the presidential contest is a three-horse race. President Yoweri Museveni represents the continuity candidate, and reform is unlikely if he retains power. His former doctor and long-term political rival, Kizza Besigye, has pledged radical change and promised to improve living standards and promote democracy as part of a broadly populist campaign.

Both Museveni and Besigye have contested every presidential election since 2001. The new development in 2016 is that Ugandans now also have the option of voting for a viable candidate positioned between these two extremes. Amama Mbabazi, who split from the ruling party after falling out with Museveni, has emerged as the moderate reform option, critical of the president’s failings but offering more modest solutions.

Whichever candidate emerges victorious will face significant challenges that are likely to be exacerbated by the very nature of the electoral campaign. Elections are expensive in a number of different ways, and while the candidates will spend vast sums as they traverse the country, the cost of promises made and credibility squandered is potentially more significant. As a result, the next Ugandan government will need to deal not only with a difficult economic context, but the raised expectations that are so often the byproduct of intense political competition.

Six issues are likely to prove to be particularly important.

1. Job creation

Although growth remains steady at around 5 percent, Uganda’s economy was not in great shape as the campaigns began. The country did not share in the raw materials boom that propelled some African nations to new levels of prosperity in the 2000s, and the low price of oil means that although the country has discovered viable reserves, natural resources are unlikely to represent a pathway to prosperity any time soon. This is problematic, because modest growth rates are proving insufficient to meet the expectations of one of the world’s fastest growing populations.

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that presidential election campaigns have seen extravagant promises of job creation schemes from all three principal candidates, reliant on dramatic increases in government spending or new external investment. Short-term subsidized jobs—for example, in public works schemes—are relatively easy to create, but are unsustainable in the current fiscal environment. Long-term productive jobs are far harder to generate, but are the only way to meet popular demands.

2. Improve services

Although the Museveni government is often credited with reducing poverty and improving infrastructure, the quality of public services enjoyed by most Ugandans is undermined by the funding available. For example, Uganda has free primary education, but children often have no books or desks and teachers’ salaries sometimes go unpaid for months. Many existing hospitals and clinics lack the most basic medicines and equipment—so much so that the government physically prevented opposition candidates from entering any more hospitals (although it has subsequently pledged to reverse this move) because they were making such effective campaign propaganda from their failings.

An improvement in services would thus bring broader social and economic gains by helping Ugandan workers to be more productive. This could be achieved by redirecting some of the funds that are currently being used to strengthen the security forces—justified under the catch-all banner of national security—to improving the quality of hospitals and schools.

3. Reduce the debt

One factor that will constrain the next president’s ability to fund public services and create jobs is the rising national debt. Uganda currently owes over $6 billion and the debt to GDP ratio has grown every year since 2008. Moreover, if the 2011 election is anything to go by, the generous government spending in support of the incumbent will further widen the deficit, while inflationary pressures will erode real earnings of ordinary citizens.

The challenge for any president-elect will thus be how to address depleted state coffers and inflation resulting from excess electoral spending, at the same time as they address popular expectations raised by ambitious manifestos. Short of restraining government expenditure, reducing the national debt will require the next president to identify and realize new revenue streams. Strengthening the capacity of the Uganda Revenue Authority to close the gap between what it is owed and what it receives—which in areas such as VAT stands at 60 percent—would be one way to go about this. The experience of other countries, however, suggests that this is far harder to achieve in the absence of clear evidence that revenues are being reinvested to improve the quality of services.

4. Build trust

Whoever wins the polls will also have to manage a credibility deficit: Many people do not trust politicians, or civil servants. Every Ugandan has long experience of poor services and knows stories of corruption at every level—from the grasping traffic policemen at the side of the road to the minister who pockets the money that was meant to make the road wider. Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 30 years, sometimes presents himself as a powerless bystander, hoodwinked by scheming subordinates who cheat the people despite his best efforts to stop them. This has been a surprisingly successful ploy, and opinion polls put Museveni’s personal popularity far higher than trust in the ruling party or civil service—with trust in opposition parties lowest of all.

But this success has come at a cost: Lack of trust in the system undermines the possibility of a social contract and the sense of civic obligation. Uganda functions, and people get by day-to-day, but they do so within a moral economy that is heavily reliant on personal contacts, favors, gifts and bribes. Rebuilding trust in the government is an important first step to improving tax compliance, but will only happen if the next president is prepared to take responsibility for the performance of state officials and implement anti-corruption reforms.

5. Disband militias  

Although Uganda has been the target of terrorist attacks, in recent years the country’s security services have proved more effective than those of neighboring Kenya in preventing them. The way in which President Museveni has sought to manage domestic insecurity and political opposition, however, remains a serious cause for concern. For years, the government has relied on the occasional use of informal violence to intimidate opponents. The latest example has been the training of tens of thousands—perhaps even hundreds of thousands—of so-called crime preventers. With basic paramilitary training, crime preventers are supposed to help enforce the law, but many see them as a ruling party-aligned militia formed to intimidate opposition supporters. Such suspicions further deepen skepticism about the fairness, and ability, of the state itself, making it harder to build trust. If the government is to rebuild its reputation, informal violence must be curtailed, and the way in which the country is policed must be made more transparent.

6. Manage federalist demands

When Uganda came to independence in 1962, it had a more-or-less federal constitution, in which the Kingdom of Buganda enjoyed considerable autonomy. That autonomy was suppressed not long after independence, but the idea that traditional rulers could provide alternative political legitimacy has never completely gone away.

Since the 1990s, a number of chiefs and kings have been recognized, and even subsidized, by Museveni’s government—but only as cultural leaders. As the credibility of the Ugandan state has been eroded, some Ugandans have seen federo—which would involve devolution of significant political authority to some or all of these traditional leaders, and hence promises to bring power closer to the people—as a solution to poor governance. Besigye and the other main contender, Mbabazi, have both promised such devolution, hoping that it will win them support, especially in Buganda, but even supporters of federalism are skeptical that they would follow through on their promise if elected.

One of the main challenges for the next president will therefore be to manage federalist demands, conferring enough authority on chiefs and kings to ensure that different communities feel that their heritage has been respected, without inspiring a further set of unrealistic demands.

The prospects for reform

There are a number of obvious barriers to reform: a landlocked economy, a civil service that is stuck in its ways, stagnating government revenue and a weak communications network. Moreover, the options facing next year’s president-elect will be largely dependent on the margin of their victory, the peacefulness of any transfer of power, and the extent to which the election is perceived to be free and fair. As things stand, the only candidate with a chance of winning big appears to be Museveni; the only candidate with no appetite for change.

Dr. Nic Cheeseman (University of Oxford, @fromagehomme), Dr. Gabrielle Lynch (University of Warwick, @gabriellelynch6), and Professor Justin Willis (University of Durham) are part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded research project (ES/L002345/1) on the impact of elections in Uganda, Kenya and Ghana.