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Mr. President, stop politicizing decision making!

Ramathan Ggoobi

Mr. President, stop politicizing decision making!

This week, I read two news items that left me convinced that Uganda

This week, I read in the media that NEMA (the National Environment Management Authority) had moved to implement the ban on the use of polythene bags (buveera) that had been imposed in the 2009/10 national budget.

No sooner had NEMA’s statement got around the country than the Prime Minister, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, issued a statement suspending the ban. In the statement the PM cited an agreement which the government had reached with some of the stakeholders in buveera; the Uganda Manufactures Association (UMA), the guys who produce the buveera, and Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), the vendors of those buveera.

A day later, I also read in the papers that President Museveni had promised to revoke taxes on private education institutions which his government had imposed last year.

Mr. President, I will not go into the merits of these and other related decisions that you have taken over time. The reason I picked my pen and paper this week, is to bring to your attention some of the findings of recent research on the way your government is impacting development related decision making.

Early this year, a team of economists from the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), and Makerere University Business School (MUBS), conducted a study intended to profile Uganda’s employment trends between 1990 and 2014.

I was part of this research which among other things revealed that Uganda has over democratized and politicized development decision making, making it difficult to create employment, transform the economy and sustain growth. The research recommended that politicians need to leave development planning and decision making to well trained technical people.

Self-righteousness

Mr. President, you have gone too far in politicizing decision making. Your actions, which are often informed more by politics than technical abilities, have left the country in chaos. You are making the lives of your colleagues in government, particularly the technocrats who are mandated to implement policies, very difficult. You have made planning and policy implementation nearly impossible.

You seem to suffer from self-righteousness. By definition self-righteousness refers to having or showing exaggerated awareness, especially an unfounded one, that one is totally correct or morally superior. I have read the history of NRA/NRM and it clearly shows that this has always been one of your bad habits that seem to have grown with your extended stay in power.    

Right from the bush, you imposed your ideas on others. Of course you were on some occasions right, but as it often turns out, your unilateral and arbitrary decisions sometimes cost your colleagues dearly. In government, they are costing the entire country, at times dearly.    

Literature is awash with ramifications of wrong decisions that NRM made when politics overrode economics and technical sense. For example, in 1986 when NRA/NRM took over the country, there was a debate on the choice of the economic system to be used by the new government. Many people were in favour of an open mixed market economy, lightly regulated to reduce its inherent market failures.  

One person, religiously subscribing to Marxist doctrine, favoured and forcefully agitated for a closed economic model, arguing that since the country was just emerging from a civil war and thus hardly had anything to export, it wouldn’t make sense to open the economy up to international trade. That person was you, Mr. President! “What are we having to sell abroad? Are we opening up to simply import without exporting?” you asked, and needless to remind you that you won the day. The economy was closed to international trade, only allowing a very small proportion of exports through barter trade.

A few months after implementing your “visionary decision” the country realised how it was a big mistake to listen to the decision informed more by commonsense than economics. Closing the economy, and the subsequent revaluation (of the ‘buying power of the shilling’), fueled the macroeconomic instability and worsened external viability.

You had also convinced everyone that there was need to control prices of essential items such as salt, sugar, soap, paraffin etc. so that they were made affordable to the wanainchi. Right away the people at Ministry of Finance implemented your “visionary idea”. Again a few months down the road the price controls resulted into the intensification of macroeconomic imbalances. They created high demand for goods and services yet suppliers were discouraged from producing or supplying more. This resulted in rampant shortages, black markets (emergence of Kikuubo boys), hoarding of products (magendo), and all the bad effects that had been experienced in 1970s when Amin implemented similar policies.

These mistakes taught “the new leaders from the bush” some hard lessons and by 1987 it had become evident that a new thinking was needed. This led to the birth of the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) of May 1987.

The ERP helped to bring sanity back in the economy. But that lasted until the emergence of bisanja politics (politics intended to mobilize support and votes at all cost) in mid 2000s. With the advent of bisanja politics, we went back to the pre-reform mistakes. Decisions are once again arbitrary, unilateral and by and large a one man’s show.

Once again politics is the only determining factor in decision making. Everything is being looked at in terms of the number of votes that are likely to be mobilized if a particular decision is taken or reversed.

Government has failed to raise enough tax revenue because taxes were superfluously politicized. Several taxes were abolished as a political move to get votes. This left local governments limping. For example, my district of Butambala collected 52 million shilling in 2013/14. Imagine a full district having only Shs. 52 million as revenue. No wonder we don’t have roads, we cannot provide people with water and other basic social services.

Mr. President, you are making this country nearly ungovernable. People no longer listen to anyone else except you. You seem to enjoy it that way since it puts you in a position where you can use patronage to win support for your continued stay in power. But at what cost? What kind of State would you want to leave behind?

You need to be reminded that politically determined policies have economic consequences that can and do change the political equilibrium that generated those policies. You need to know that to avoid powerful interest groups such as KACITA, UMA, Boda-bodas, women groups etc. from compromising decision making, you should avoid unilateral decisions and embrace multilateral (or group) decision making.

There is what political economists call “window of policy opportunity” — that policy should not completely be determined by vested interests or some political calculations. Political dominance of a narrow interest group or segment of society will have deleterious effects on the entire society. You cannot implement policies if the policy maker is exposed to interest groups.  

Under NRM, Uganda has cultivated for herself a name, albeit a bad one. We are known to develop impressive policies which don’t get implemented. There is a common view in the region that Uganda invents and other countries in the region take the ideas and implement them.

The past governments, right from the colonial government, post-independence government of Milton Obote and even Amin, had their weaknesses but used to implement policies. Back then, if government said everyone should have a pit latrine or garden of cereals, one either had it or slept in jail. There was no shortage of political will to push through policies. Today, there is no incentive to enforce policies or even simple rules.   

When Prof. Apollo Nsibambi was still Prime Minister, the above question was asked: why is Uganda good at developing impressive policies which don’t get implemented? He created a Department for Policy Implementation and Coordination under the Office of Prime Minister. He put the department under the political leadership of the Minister for General Duties, and there is even a Commissioner for Policy Implementation and Coordination. Little did the good Professor know that the problem was not lack of political leadership. The problem was, and still is, the Head of State whose only preoccupation is winning elections at the expense of the effectiveness of the State.        

Being a Professor of Political Science, I thought Nsibambi knew that in neo-patrimonial systems, such as ours, politics and particularly political interventions from the top always play a role at any phase of implementation. Of course I think he knows, only that Africa being the home of Ostriches, their masters often copy their mannerism by hiding their heads in the sand. May I end by tapping their exposed bottoms? Wake up Ugandans, we have over politicized and over democratized decision making.         

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Ramathan Ggoobi

Ramathan Ggoobi is Policy Analyst, and Researcher. He lecturers economics at Makerere University Business School (MUBS) and has co-authored several studies on Uganda's economy. For the past ten years, he has published a weekly column 'Are You Listening Mr. President' in The Sunrise Newspaper, Uganda's Leading Weekly

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