Uganda: How About a New Script?
Friday, 20 June 2008
Why it matters when Uganda’s president Yoweri K. Museveni trots out the same old speech to open the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) business forum on 16 and 17 June 2008 – cows, coffee multinationals and donations to the UK included.
It is entirely possible that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni put aside the script prepared by his speech writers when opening the two-day business forum ahead of the 35th Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Kampala on 16 June 2008. As a consequence, delegates heard little that had specific reference to trade and investment with OIC member countries. However, anyone who is familiar with the president’s speeches will have found that the speech contained nothing new – it had all the standard elements of

  • Meddling foreigners responsible for energy crisis – tick
  • Building the Bujagali hydropower plant with own money – tick
  • Nestlé coffee story – tick
  • Uganda’s longstanding ‘donations of jobs and money to the UK’ – tick
  • Faux-naïve language - the World Economic Forum in Davos made an appearance as ‘that meeting in that cold place’ – tick
  • Cattle – tick.

Perhaps amusing for newcomers, perhaps a refreshing style 15 years ago, but jarring for anyone who has been watching and listening for a couple of years.

Yoweri Museveni is not just a president, but a president who holds that he is the only leader who has a ‘vision’ for Uganda. A president who, after more than two decades in power, continues to occupy such a dominant role that he regularly overrides many of Uganda’s institutions, e.g. to divert an ongoing public tender to a non-tendering (and, as it turned out, financially feeble) candidate of his choice, or to donate a prime piece of property in central Kampala to one of the richest men in the world, surely not the neediest recipient for such generosity. 

It is the overwhelming dominance of Uganda’s presidency and Museveni’s highly personalised rule that make both the repetitiveness and the shallow approach to complex economic problems so frustrating. If the audience were looking for some differentiated understanding of economic policy and management, they would not find it in this speech. That Uganda needs to invest in value addition is not in doubt. However, bottom line is that Nestlé owe Uganda nothing, and it is inaccurate to imply that the difference between the coffee price paid in Uganda and the final retail price is merely pocketed by greedy multinationals - there is an entire chain of value addition, including transport, processing, packaging, branding, marketing, distribution and so on. The cost of coffee beans is just a fragment of what determines the cost of a cup of Starbucks. Nobody stops Uganda to look around for coffee processing investors, and it would probably help Uganda’s business case if it had proper roads, no power cuts, and improved transport facilities in and out of the landlocked country apart from a railway line that had been run down.

A country that routinely had nearly half of its budget financed by donors is hardly in a position to complain about meddling foreigners – if you don’t want the meddling, don’t take the freebie cash, period. Museveni may complain about foreigners being responsible for the energy crisis, but when it became apparent that the cracks in the Owen Falls Bridge had reached critical dimensions recently, the finance minister scratched his head and argued that the country had no money to fix the bridge – not any bridge, but a bridge on Uganda’s single most important land transport route. What to do? Find a gullible donor and get them to fix it? This is exactly what happened – reportedly the Japanese have kindly agreed to step in.

What Uganda needs is an informed debate on how best Uganda can pursue value addition, industrialisation, job creation and productivity increases so that the country can consider alternatives with their respective implications. What Uganda does not need is one man only dictating economic policy, a man who regularly slaps down and disparages critics rather than answering to their questions, arguments and suggestions. Therefore, rather than writing it off as a minor irritant, yet another round of the Nestlé-refusing-to-set-up-shop-in-Uganda story is the intellectual bankruptcy underlying these simplistic arguments.

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