Another neoliberal Spring

Now that we have had time to process it: Uganda's January 2021 elections were a key step in the country's long transformation towards a fully fledged neoliberal society.

Photo: Random Institute.

Uganda’s January 2021 elections were a showdown of domestic and international politics, global political economy, and international development, all at once. They also marked another step in the long transformation of the country towards a fully fledged neoliberal society.

The two competing main narratives of the election campaign were not new. President Yoweri Museveni was portrayed either as a dictator or as a visionary; the country was either on the road to prosperity and with a secure future for all, or instead was a country in deep crisis and back to “square one” politically. These bifurcated discourses and the state violence that underpins them are long-standing features of the making and operation of neoliberal Uganda. The idiosyncrasies of these two competing discourses were already manifest before the beginning of the 2021 election campaign—a mix of economic depression, systemic corruption, widening inequalities, and endemic poverty hand-in-hand with growing state repression of mushrooming, diverse, and localized social struggles.

Two events were significant in the years leading up to the election: First, the detention and torture in August 2018 of the popular “ghetto” musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine—the NUP (National Unity Platform) presidential candidate, the main opponent to the US-backed military rule of Museveni, and, for significant numbers of people, an embodiment of the aspirations and imaginaries of masses of young voters. Second, the imprisonment of Museveni’s vocal critic, feminist scholar, and activist Stella Nyanzi in the same year. They point to the increasingly authoritarian character of Museveni’s government which, finding itself in a serious crisis of legitimacy, responds with the inherited violence of the colonial state.

Challenged by the explosion of popular mobilizations and protests, and inundated by public controversies (such as around allegations of high profile corruption), the state framed existing political formations as a threat to national security and the country’s road to progress, allowing it to shift the terrain from struggles for social justice, emancipation, and the construction of political alternatives, to  questions of patriotism, national security and political stability.

Notably, the use of political violence in 2020/21 is not solely linked to the political turbulence caused by the election campaign. Indeed, it does not signal the failure, but rather the successful implementation of the model of authoritarian neoliberalism: using state power and coercion to establish functioning markets and defend/advance the core political-economic interests and preferred social order of the ruling actors. Without it, the very existence of the government would be jeopardized. Its constant deployment is meant to secure the maintenance and reproduction of the larger social block in power. It is the same violence the government unleashed against recalcitrant rural populations resisting state-orchestrated land enclosures and other contentious, state-led, donor-funded development projects. Human, civic, and other political rights in today’s Uganda are being sacrificed on the altar of the neoliberal model.

Day-to-day politics—election mode or not—is about the use of power. The question is what does the election violence in contemporary Uganda tell us about power and political economy, and about the relationship between capitalism and democracy in the country? It is here where most human rights-based analyses fall short.

To follow the dynamics in election-mode Uganda means to observe and come to terms with the character and impact of this neoliberal restructuring, and with the actual operations of this proto-type market society. It also means to critically think about the decades-long discursive hegemony of Uganda as a success story, which has produced a dominant set of data and self-celebratory interpretations. These conceptual hunches help to situate presidential elections in the broader context of the post-1986 political, economic, ecological and socio-cultural changes which transformed Ugandan society, polity and economy in unprecedented ways.

Against this wider background, we offer a set of analytical points emerging from a collective analysis written by more than 20 scholars from across disciplines. They are key features of the neoliberalization of Uganda over the last three decades (see the conclusion here for an extended version of the summary below).

Neoliberalization is a multidimensional process which emanates from multiple poles of power, discourse, interest, and wealth. As such, it is not simply exogenous to, or imposed on Uganda. Rather it is articulated with—and metabolized within—society and politics at many interconnected levels. In Uganda’s case, the process was a joint exercise of power by way of an alliance of resourceful foreign and domestic actors. The triad of state-capital-donors rolled out its agenda of reform in various ways over a significantly vulnerable population. It cemented structural, institutionalized, and bureaucratized forms of discipline in the state and the economy.

Economic growth has become the center of gravity, a key indicator of political success at the expense of social justice, emancipation, equality, political, and civic freedoms, and human rights. The maximizing of private profits is the dominant principle that informs policy making.

Uganda is a striking example of authoritarian neoliberalism. Sector restructuring through privatization and liberalization was often executed in an uncompromising way, with ample use of authoritarianism and state violence and with little concern for the harmful social and ecological repercussions. International financial institutions (IFIs) along with the international development sector enabled the build-up of a powerful and oppressive security apparatus and are implicated, directly and indirectly, in the growth of corruption, authoritarianism and militarization, and in a more explicit turn towards crony/rentier capitalism. Violence has been an intrinsic component of the neoliberal project, rather than its antithesis. As in other neoliberal societies, the escalation of violence has taken multidimensional forms—military, disciplinary, economic, political, cultural, and verbal. State policies (especially those that hit the poor) have unleashed systemic violence and corresponding widespread social harm. The militarization of whole villages and districts to curb dissent and protest—for instance, against large-scale land acquisitions and related displacing dynamics—has been a constant feature of post-1986 Uganda. The emerging agribusiness, oil, and mining sectors are driving this agenda further.

There are notable similarities and continuities between the neoliberal and colonial development projects, especially with regard to access and control of key natural resources and the accelerating extractive logic of capitalism. Uganda is undergoing a deep structural transformation into an extractive and authoritarian enclave where foreign interests are treating land, water, oil, forestry, and conservation areas as sinks for resource extraction.

Economic achievements (housing, road and education infrastructure, GDP growth, cheap mobile communication technologies, etc.) are uneven across classes, genders, ethnicities, and geographies, and are mobilized to strengthen national pride, making neoliberalism appear desired, especially (but not only) among the middle classes. Yet, a colonial matrix of dispossession and domination persists in the neoliberal period, reproducing neo-colonial structures of inequality and projects of subjugation through development projects, market violence, land theft, looting of natural resources, exploitation, and cultural assault.

Popular protests against the government have taken different forms and contributed to shaping important alliances among social constituents that created new political space by challenging the implementation of neoliberal development projects. Myriad social struggles are taking place around key areas of societal transformation. Social media has become a protest platform that the state constantly strives to restrict in order to control dissent and criticism of state action.

The neoliberal agenda has advanced inequalities and divisions between classes and exacerbated social injustice. Systemic elite bias and elite capture of development projects turned these into tools to advance and consolidate the power of dominant classes. Over the years, President Museveni’s rhetoric and vision for the country has been consistent and insistent on the role of foreign investors. Symptomatic of neoliberal Uganda is an acceleration of “jobless” economic growth, whereby much of the investment takes place in the extractive and financial sectors, with little or no linkages to local economies, with wealth captured by a plethora of actors with little societal redistribution, and with public debt at heightened levels.

Neoliberal policies have negatively impacted the most vulnerable segments of the population. The financial demands and pressures on these people to just survive and recover from ill-health for example are extraordinary. The multiple and interacting crises produced by neoliberal restructuring are often addressed by more neoliberal reform, which promotes little advancement. Neoliberal reason has become a habit of thought, a cognitive frame that shapes the way many people see themselves and others, and consequently the ways in which they act in that context.

Neoliberal discourses—from good governance to empowerment and accountability—provide a sanitizing spin to the brutal exercise of power and relentless restructuring that has locked in a capitalist social order based on increased inequality and permanent social crisis. This results in the depoliticizing of debates about development and change. Donor-led development narratives and ideologies systematically conceal the class interests behind thereforms. Narratives of free markets, empowerment, and competition among free individuals tend to conceal the substantial concentration of wealth, monopolistic tendencies, and resulting profit accumulation strategies inherent in the neoliberal economy.

The Ugandan situation is part and parcel of institutionalized neoliberal capitalism globally. There is no way out of these crises unless the key pillars of neoliberal order are questioned, and inroads towards a significant de-neoliberalization of the country are made. But where are the political actors who could push for such a change in Uganda?

Indeed, a little over a month after the elections, there was a sense of being back to pre-elections normality. A “business as usual” atmosphere prevailed, with routine discussions resuming on the next development programmes, business investments and elections, the national development plan, and so on. By early March, the UN Resident Coordinator stated that Uganda has “some of the most robust systems in place,” a vision that “is considered one of the best in the world,” and a development plan that the UN considers to be “one of the most transformative in the world.” The major TV channels offered live coverage of development workshops and conferences—in the usual hotels, with the usual organizers, sponsors and topics (e.g. social protection, empowerment, resilience, human rights). There were reports about development programs and new aid deals signed. The prisons filled with political opponents of the government; parliamentarians debating missing persons and state abductions; some political activists fleeing  to neighboring countries, and so on. By mid-April, the press reported that landmark oil deals were signed between Uganda, Tanzania, France’s Total, and China’s CNOOC; dozens of NUP party supporters were  released from months-long security detention, and that debates about the next speaker of parliament were at intense levels. In May: Prime Minister Rugunda declares that the implementation of the NRM manifesto 2016-21 is at 95%; government officials promise better accountability for ‘every shilling’ in the years ahead; the government hires a PR firm for an image polish abroad days after travel sanctions for some officials were declared by the US; NUP supporters remain in prison. In mid-May: Museveni starts the new term in office; the opposition stays away from the swearing in ceremony; and a new TV late night show kicks off in the evening of the same day.

In the coming years, the powers that be in Uganda will likely have another very serious go at the one thing that is so desirable for ruling classes: hegemony. As Museveni put it: “the elections are over…let us get down to work.” The political and business class and “development partners” can focus again, and perhaps more fully than ever, on expanding and managing capitalism and sort out the “remaining” issues: production and markets, and prosperity for all.

Uganda in 2021 remains a major exemplar of the dynamics and wonders of power in capitalist Africa. The bifurcated narrative that has prevailed in the last thirty years is there to stay, while the structural violence that characterizes primitive accumulation in the context of extractivism has become a staple of Ugandans’ daily lives. Across major sectors—mining, agriculture, forestry, oil and charcoal production—the Ugandan state supports violence through militarization of the sites of contestation, securing the preconditions for capital accumulation.

The three authors are co-editors of the book Uganda: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation (Zed 2018).

About the Author

Giuliano Martiniello is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Political Economy, Science Po Rabat, International University of Rabat.

Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate in Sociology, University of Johannesburg.

Elisa Greco is Associate Professor in International Political Economy and Development at the European School of Political and Social Sciences.

Further Reading