The ‘New’ Neoliberal Uganda

Challenging the success narrative that masks the disruptive social impact of neoliberal transformation under General Yoweri Museveni in Uganda.

Photo: Brian Harris, via Flickr CC.

For the last three decades, Uganda has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Globally praised as an “African success story” and heavily backed by international financial institutions, development agencies and bilateral donors, the country has become an exemplar of economic and political reform for those who espouse a neoliberal model of development. The neoliberal policies and the resulting restructuring of the country have been accompanied by narratives of progress, prosperity and modernization, and justified in the name of development. But this self-celebratory narrative, which is critiqued by many in Uganda, masks the disruptive social impact of these reforms, and silences the complex and persistent crises resulting from neoliberal transformation.

Those who want to better understand the dynamics of contemporary Uganda thus face a bifurcated scenario: two different narratives persist at global and local levels that seem, taken together, hard to reconcile. One is of a Uganda emerging from years-long civil war in the late 1980s, and then within a few years becoming an international success story. This “Uganda as a success” narrative praises the post-1986 policy reforms that have stimulated economic growth, with sustained GDP growth and foreign direct investment (FDI) attraction matched by steady progress in poverty reduction and gender empowerment.

Central to this narrative is the leadership of a president who is a progressive modernizer, acting with the interest of the nation at heart. In short, Uganda has never been better. Such accounts parade all manner of positive achievements in social, political and economic spheres. Very powerful actors promote this narrative, year in, year out: from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and various international and bilateral donors of the country, to influential international and domestic scholars and analysts, not to mention the Ugandan government and establishment. The same actors have produced a plethora of official statistics and econometric studies that supposedly provide evidence of this stated steady progress. A prime example of this celebratory narrative about the new Uganda is the Kampala speech of the IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, in January 2017, “Becoming the Champion: Uganda’s Development Challenge.”

Lagarde states: “This gathering provides an opportunity to congratulate Uganda for its impressive economic achievements… I do not normally begin my speeches with statistics, but today will be an exception. That is because the numbers tell us a great deal.” After reciting the country’s official figures concerning GDP growth and poverty reduction, she concludes: “This is an African success story.” Another exemplar is a recent speech by the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Uganda, Rosa Malango, who boasted thus: “Uganda is widely recognized for producing a wide range of excellent policies on social, economic and development issues.”

Lagarde made her visit just months after the highly controversial 2016 political elections that were accompanied by repression against sections of the opposition and critics of the government, as well as accusations of substantial and outright vote rigging. The outcomes of the 2016 elections further deepened the government’s legitimacy crisis. This leads us to discuss the second narrative about contemporary Uganda: here, there is talk of a patrimonial mode of rule supported by the president’s ruling group. This formation uses state power to advance private economic interests and functions through a far-reaching business and political network, which includes the president’s extended family, political allegiances and foreign investors. To denounce the self-seeking attitude prevalent in the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Ugandan street politics dubs it the “National Robbery Movement.”

The state has come to be associated with increasing political repression, a decline in public services and generalized economic insecurity. Public debates refer to mafias, and a mafia/vampire state, a country occupied, controlled and exploited by a tiny clique of powerful domestic actors and their foreign allies. There is reference to issues such as recurring food shortages and chronic indebtedness, and a social crisis characterized by increased inequality, widespread violence and increased criminality, high levels of suicide (especially among the youth), poverty-driven deaths, preventable illnesses and generalized destitution. This second narrative of “Uganda in crisis” is articulated by the people on the street, sections of the political opposition, the media, NGOs, the religious community and a range of critical national commentators. One can listen to it on TV news and debates, in churches and mosques and read about it in media articles and on social media platforms, or in academic research and NGO reports about state violence and repression, corruption and land disputes.

Our recently published edited collection, titled: Uganda: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation (ZED 2018; see for free introduction here) intervenes in this crucial debate about the character and trajectory of change in contemporary Uganda, about what constitutes the New Uganda. It confronts the often sanitized and largely depoliticized accounts of the Museveni government and its proponents. It questions mainstream narratives of a highly successful (and socially beneficial) post-1986 transformation, and contrasts these with empirical evidence of a prolonged and multifaceted situation of crisis generated by a particular version of severe capitalist restructuring, or neoliberal reforms. This analytical approach has, to date, occupied little space in the context of neoliberal academia. We thereby also sought to challenge the decades-long ideational and discursive hegemony of powerful international and national reform designers, implementers and supporters. We critique and challenge what Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls, with reference to the European colonialism in Africa, “mental domination”—a domination that is so characteristic of neoliberal social order across the contemporary “free world”: “Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control.” As thinkers from Luxemburg to Orwell noted, contesting the truth of the ruling classes, pronouncing what is going on and offering alternatives to establishment accounts of reality (and thereby history), is a crucial political act.

As a collective of 25 scholars, we wanted to map, understand and explain the key features of both the making and operation of neoliberal-capitalist Uganda, against the political-economic and socio-cultural context of this particular society. A major question we wanted to address was: by whom, why, how and to what effect was Uganda transformed in all the different societal realms? Moreover: What does 30 years of neoliberal reform and transformation do to a particular society? What is the New Uganda, the new neoliberal-capitalist market society, all about? What are its characteristics? What does the data and analysis in the altogether 19 chapters enable us to see, argue and for now conclude about this march towards a more fully-fledged, specifically institutionalized capitalism, in this particular site of the global political economy?

When we began this work, as editors we felt that there was little scholarship available on Uganda that gave neoliberalism the analytical seriousness and treatment that an empirical phenomenon of this size and relevance deserves. Social sciences scholarship on Uganda, for reasons explained in the book, has to date not sufficiently analyzed the many characteristics of the all-encompassing process of change triggered by neoliberal reforms. And yet of course, Uganda is a special site for such an analytical undertaking: the country is a hotspot of capitalist restructuring, transformation, contradiction and crisis, past and present. And, it has a peculiar mix of capitalist political-economic specifics. It is a peripheral, donor-dependent country, subject to imperialist dynamics. Inequality and poverty are rampant, society is dominated by violence and conflict, to which militarism adds its weight.

Indeed, Uganda is a prime example of neoliberal restructuring in Africa where the neoliberal project does not seem to have been significantly challenged so far. The key processes and practices underpinning social transformations in the country are not unique to Uganda. Several African countries have in many ways undertaken similar paths of political, social, economic and cultural transformation. Yet the spectacular transformations that have occurred in the country in the last 30 years reveal the potential trajectories of transformation upon which other African countries could embark in the near future, or that are already underway there. The prevalence of extractive and enclave economies, the hegemony of a state-donors-capital block, and the expanding marketization of society, represent the common denominator for many African countries.

The version of neoliberalism observed in Uganda is in key aspects arguably more extreme, crass and unequal than some of the neoliberal societies elsewhere. Analytically crucial: the exclusion, inequality, violence, precarity and crises that large sections of the subaltern face are, the book shows, not caused by a malfunctioning market, or a deviated capitalist trajectory. Rather the opposite is true: it is precisely the functioning of neoliberal restructuring and institutions that causes widespread social, political, and economic crises. Mainstream narratives claiming that more private sector development will produce a future that is, as Museveni put it in a recent twitter tweet, “easy to handle,” are a fallacy. Current in-crisis countries, such as Mexico, once celebrated success stories of neoliberal restructuring, are telling cases of its regressive outcomes. Uganda, as other neoliberalized countries in Africa and elsewhere, could go down a similar path, breeding a future of permanent social crisis.

Now that the book is out, we actually feel that there is the necessity to expand such a handbook-length treatment of neoliberalism to other African countries to get a more adequate data overview and analytical grip of the phenomenon. In other words, the specific declination of contemporary capitalism, which is neoliberal capitalism, is actually understudied when it comes to African countries. Other frames dominate the social sciences, also because of the political economy of research funding in the country, for instance the role of donors from the capitalist North. Given the heft of the analysis that this collective of scholars has offered in our collection, we believe that a much more collective and focused, as well as continuously critical and innovative analysis is needed in future to cage, look at, touch and make sense of the “beast” (capitalist social reality) and to resist and counter hegemonic forces and their account of reality.

About the Author

Jörg Wiegratz is a lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at Leeds University an editor at the Review of African Political Economy.

Giuliano Martiniello is Assistant Professor of Rural Community Development in the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut.

Elisa Greco is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds.

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