Small changes

Cooperatives provide a convenient lens through which to examine the political present and future of Uganda, if not the greater region.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

The political rise of Bobi Wine (who officially filed to contest Uganda’s 2021 presidential elections) and his People Power movement in Uganda suggests the country is either in the midst or on the brink of a paradigmatic rupture in its political continuum. Among many other examples, Wine’s unjustified arrest in late October immediately following his filing for candidacy to run against the 35-year incumbent president, Yoweri Museveni, reveals a regime growing increasingly worried about its opponent’s reach and appeal.

Due in part to the regime’s various actions against him, Wine’s chances seem to have dwindled considerably. Despite this, it remains utterly futile to offer predictions for the greater outcome of Uganda’s 2021 elections. However, within the broader context of neoliberal hegemony, and especially given their redistributive potential, co-operatives provide a convenient lens through which to examine, if not its future, the political present of Uganda.

Prior to February 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of registered cooperative societies in Ugandan exceeded 21,000 with more than five million members, according to a report by the International Cooperative Alliance. For a country with a population of 45 million, this is a staggering figure. However, co-operatives and their members have been, and continue to be, largely disregarded as an organized voting base both with regards to ruling party policy and opposition party proposals.

The story of Uganda’s cooperative movement is as long as it is complicated. Beginning in 1913, co-operatives initially formed as a challenge to European and Asian economic interests in the cotton and coffee industries, growing after the 1946 Cooperative Societies Ordinance that legalized them. Following independence in 1962, the administration of President Milton Obote favored co-operatives for the country’s development, creating the Bukalasa Cooperative College in 1963 and the Co-operatives Development Bank the following year.

The number of registered coops grew significantly during Obote’s first tenure, eventually securing a 100 percent monopoly on ginning cotton and an overall production value of 325 million shillings. However, co-operatives suffered greatly with the instability of the following decade under President Idi Amin, during which cotton production alone fell 93 percent.

Following Uganda’s implementation of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Program, the 1990s saw a multi-pronged assault on the country’s cooperative movement. The Cooperative Development was liquidated, government-run coops were dissolved, and insolvency intensified, partly due to unpaid war debts as well as evaporating government assistance. According to political economist Jorg Wiegratz, Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), effectively budget cuts mandated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), reduced access to government support in the areas of finance, technology, and infrastructure, and though state control remained significant, its preferences had reversed to favor transnational corporations to the detriment of co-operatives and their previously better terms of trade.

Without the guarantee of government investment and assistance, co-operatives fail to capitalize on their advantages, such as their unique ability to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with their smallholders. With more than 75 percent of the Ugandan population engaged in small-scale agriculture, the impact on the co-operative movement and the equity it produces cannot be understated. Wiegratz, however, goes further in his research, not only acknowledging this characteristic of co-operatives but arguing that they provide a vehicle for political resistance to the state’s neoliberal policy agenda.

Co-operatives today are primarily the product of a donor-driven, “reformist ‘social enterprise’ approach” that focuses more on issues of self-help and inclusive development that, if successful, is only minimally redistributive; for this reason, the movement’s revival has been described as largely apolitical. Often taking the form of small, private business, the vast majority of co-operatives can neither hope to threaten the market share of transnational corporations nor challenge the advancing structural inequalities of neoliberalism more generally. The majority of the co-operatives that have been registered since the 1990s are small savings and credit banks completely equipped to offer meaningful support to other co-operative ventures in different sectors. The qualitatively limited re-proliferation of Uganda’s co-operatives since the 2000s is far from being the revival it has been proclaimed to be.

Given the Ugandan government’s commitment to creating an attractive environment for foreign direct investment, it would be a mistake to qualify its modest acquiescence to donor-sponsored coop development as anything but supplemental to the overarching neoliberal economic policy. The administration of President Yoweri Museveni’s adversarial posture toward co-operatives that grow beyond the tolerated measure of size and success has been documented by Wiegratz, as well as by Karen Wedig.

The management of the Bugisu Cooperative Union (BCU), a federation of co-operatives owned by coffee farmers and one of the oldest, continuously operative cooperative societies in Uganda, provides the perfect example of government interference with such anti-neoliberal institutions. In 2008, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) candidate for BCU’s chairmanship lost to Nandala Mafabi of the Forum for Democratic Change, Uganda’s largest opposition party. By 2011, the BCU, which had only a decade previously failed to pay producers, was already reporting net profits, prompting its seizure by the NRM government. The market price paid to producers dropped by 75 percent and billions in Ugandan shillings were misappropriated, leaving the BCU in massive debt. Whereas the National Agricultural Modernization Acts of the 2000s had merely, as Wiegratz states, bypassed co-operatives (in favor of medium-sized farms and large-scale agro-business), the corruption of the BCU’s “caretaker period” explicitly demonstrated the NRM’s opposition towards more ambitious cooperative societies.

It must be said that Bobi Wine, as a presidential candidate, has no realistic chance of winning the coming election. Numerous controversies and setbacks, from the total collapse of the opposition’s unity under a single candidate to the legal battle for the ownership of Wine’s new party, have hobbled an already up-hill campaign. And so, the fate of co-operatives, or any divergence from neoliberal economic policy for that matter, rests more reasonably with the more likely—though certainly still difficult to achieve—piecemeal realignment of parliament. It has yet to be seen whether Wine’s People Power movement—now flying the banner of the National Unity Platform—has had the effect of expanding or simply cutting into the opposition’s existing representation in parliament, as well as smaller, local offices. Regardless of their success with the former, three decades of despotic, authoritarian rule seems to have had a peculiar effect on the ideological discourse and diversity of Ugandan politics, an effect I personally observed during my research in Kampala in the summer of 2019.

Today, in Uganda, “ideology” is often used interchangeably with “strategy.” More than once, the political strategy of the FDC—known universally as one of defiance to the Museveni regime and one that led to a rift and splitting off of a group that became the Alliance for National Transformation—was described, to me, as “ideology.” It seems that the concept and operational characteristic of ideology has shrunk within the ideological vacuum created by an intractable dictatorship. Nabilah Sempala, Women’s MP for Kampala, put it best: “If you have a king…what’s the ideology?” Sempala may have been speaking about the NRM government, but her words are no less apt for those parties comprising the opposition, as others have made similar assessments.

“The contestation that is going on in the country is not a contestation based on ideology, of how the country should be managed,” Kizza Besigye, founder and four-time flagbearer for the FDC. “It’s not a contestation for leadership as such. It’s a more fundamental contestation for ownership of the country.”

Besigye’s words imply that an inability to realistically envision taking power—or perhaps a preoccupation with doing so—precludes imagining what to do with it. Besigye certainly has been criticized for presumably inferring just that; though the FDC has consistently released comprehensive party manifestos before every election; and though the manifesto of 2016 only mentions a nominal support for co-ops, stating vaguely that priority be given to “reviving and strengthening agricultural co-operatives” without saying how or in what form any support would be given.

If the FDC’s stated support for co-operatives is vague, then that of Wine’s NUP is nonexistent. As political organizations, NUP and People Power are utterly thin on policy, let alone that which has been committed to text. Even the recent release of the NUP’s election manifesto was nothing more than a short, rather vague speech by Wine, in which co-operatives go entirely unmentioned. Despite emerging as the only other political entity with the growing influence to rival that of the FDC, People Power remains observably non-ideological in its pursuit of power. Again, however, this seems an unfortunately reasonable outcome of Uganda’s unique political paradigm.

“You have a neoliberal economic order with a neoconservative political system coexisting,” said Moses Khisa, professor of political science at NC State and regular contributor to Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper. “The economy is … disarticulated from politics and political actors are not integrated in the economic system in ways that can represent economic interests.”

Wine, like other opposition candidates before him, has regularly criticized the corruption of the Museveni regime, arguing for the need for stronger institutions. Furthermore, in contrast to what Khisa claims, his personal experience growing up in one of Kampala’s ghettos suggests that he may at least be more concerned with poverty alleviation, and by extension, with prioritizing the co-operative revival. But this is far too little circumstantial evidence to go beyond the mere suggestion that even a substantial change in government would lead to anything more than continued neoliberalism, albeit with a prettier face.

For those disappointed in the dwindling prospects of big political change in Uganda in the coming year, it is more appropriate to focus, for now, on those small changes, not only with regard to implementing a more democratic political order, but also a more robust, complete revival of the co-operative movement. After all, that is how co-operatives themselves work.

Further Reading