Critics push back blame to the President
President Yoweri Museveni’s first State of the Nation address delivered this week was a mixed bag of praises, > achievements but also lamentations particularly about the lingering curse of corruption and the government’s failure to fulfill its pledges.
The address was also heavy on the country’s continuing inability to produce goods competitively for the local as well as the regional market which has made Uganda too dependent on imports from other countries.
First, President Museveni shocked the nation with his blunt criticism of civil servants and, his ministers whom he said have started begging foreigners for favours.
Museveni appeared angry and at times desperate about the state of corruption in the country. For the nth time, the President reiterated his unyielding vow to fight corruption especially within his government, but once again came short on action against the thieves.
Museveni said: “I have quite a bit of information about leaders who ask for bribes from foreigners and locals who invest here….It is a shame for a minister or a government official to ask for favours from especially foreigners. ‘I have failed to finish my hotel or house,’ ‘I have failed to pay school fees for my child etc,”.
Museveni’s talk on corruption has become a tired cliché, according to many commentators, mostly because no concrete steps ever get taken to bring the corrupt to book. While the president heralded the UNRA commission of inquiry that reported a total loss of Ushs4trillion in its final report, which he said has cost Uganda over 4000kms of tarmac, most people doubt the President’s willingness to fight arguably the biggest threat to Uganda’s progress.
The most recent revelations that the minister of works John Byabagambi was trying to influence the selection of a Chinese contractor to build the Kibuye – Busega road at an exaggerated cost of Ushs85bn for each kilometre of tarmac for the 9km stretch, has left more questions than answers.
Cissy Kagaba, the Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda said when asked to comment about the President’s vow on corruption that Museveni cannot be trusted on mere rhetoric.
“Like in all previous State of the Nation addresses, there is nothing new this time round. The president has made the same vow of fighting corruption and has only changed words. The irony this time is that he even tells us that he knows the corrupt but is not willing to take action.” Kagaba adds: “When he decided to come out and make this statement, it means that he knows the ministers and other corrupt officials but rather than take action, he has chosen to simply talk about it.”
Kagaba insists that President Museveni will only be taken seriously if he moves from sheer rhetoric to action. “It is going to be the same song unless we see heads of the corrupt people around him roll.”
Kagaba also ridiculed the President’s vow to fight money in elections. “It is so ironical that the president promised to fight money in electioneering when just a few days ago he admitted to giving Members of Parliament money shortly before they cast their votes for the Deputy Speaker of Parliament.”
For Kagaba, the president’s words have lost meaning in the ears of most Ugandans but also that his speeches no longer inspire hope or even a sense of patriotism .
Pledge to buy local!
The president’s directive to all government departments to start buying local goods produced by Ugandans as a way to bring an end to the hemorrhage of resources lost in imports, has attracted mixed reactions from the public.
The Executive Director of Uganda Manufacturers Association (UMA) Ssebaggala Kigozi was all praises for the president’s ‘historic’ statement.
He told The Sunrise: “This is the best statement I have ever heard from the president. The only way we can motivate our local manufacturers is if the government assures us of a market. All other countries in the regional have done the same. In Kenya, Ethiopia, the government decided they would not buy anything abroad unless its not produced locally.”
But other commentators have called for cautious optimism than excitement especially largely because of the government’s poor record in implementing such pledges but also because of the absence of a well detailed plan and concerted discussion with stakeholders to effect the directive.
Ramathan Ggoobi, an economist and lecturer at Makerere University Business School (MUBS), dismissed President Museveni’s directive as a piece of lamentation about his government’s failure to transform Uganda’s economy.
“Buy Uganda cannot work because Museveni hasn’t empowered his own entrepreneurs well enough. Countries that have succeeded in developing their own industries have done so after building capacity of small investors,” argues Ggoobi.
President Museveni vainly thought, according to Ggoobi, that a person in Katwe or a maize miller in Kyanamukaaka could stand on their own and be able to compete with the Chinese or Koreans. Now that they have failed, the President is instead resorting to extreme measures such as protectionism.
Ggoobi blames Uganda’s outstanding failure to put together a competitive exporting industry to excessive liberalisation of the economy as well as fear for risk by economists in the ministry of finance and Bank of Uganda.
“Our problem is that when we were told to open the door to foreign economic participation, we instead plucked the door out and threw it away. We over-liberalised the economy so much so that who ever wants comes and goes at will,” Ggoobi argues however that closing the door is not the solution either.
“Protectionism failed everywhere in the world. Such a policy will be detrimental even to the local manufacturers because it brings about reluctance among local producers to care about quality, and standards,” Ggoobi adds: “Even China with its very big population, and advanced technology, realised that they could not compete with other countries.
What Uganda needs, according to Ggoobi, is to re-introduce some economic controls while at the same time aggressively supporting local manufacturers to raise their game through capacity building, and linking them the producers, to buyers as well as helping them to adhere to globally acceptable standards so that they can compete in the regional as well as international markets.
Ggoobi points out further that President Museveni’s weakness remains his unwillingness to take alternative views on management of the economy.
“We have repeated this many times that we cannot afford to waste our meagre resources on things such as manufacturing solar buses where we have no competitive or comparative advantage.
Our comparative advantage remains in Agriculture. We should invest our resources and energies on increasing agricultural output and adding value to them so that they can find market in countries such as Europe, Middle East and Asia.”
“President Museveni would be the first person to know that when you are everywhere, you end up no where,” says Ggoobi.
But Ssebaggala argues that Ugandan manufacturers do not need free money but rather affordable loans.
“If the government can assure us of a ready market, the next thing we need is affordable credit from banks. The government should capitalize Uganda Development Bank (UDB) to enable it extend affordable credit to manufacturers. There is no way we can compete with manufacturers in Kenya and other regional countries who are able to access credit at as low as 7 percent interest rates,”says Ssebaggala.
President Museveni’s strong faith in the economics of free market fundamentalism backed by Bank of Uganda and Ministry of Finance officials, as well as the government’s poor record on pledges offers little hope for a change in strategy.