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Neoliberalism, as a set of economic policies, is in full bloom in Uganda. The moment of the arrival in power of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime, which at the end of January 2024 celebrated its 38th year in power, was the occasion for this to happen. Its impact on the livelihood and social fabric of the country has been marked and attracted many creative responses and coping mechanisms. There were some findings at a mid-January Makerere University conference I attended, where some of these realities were explored.

Papers were presented by researchers who had done a wide variety of work on observing and sometimes analysing what life has become for Ugandans, some four decades after the process of privatising and liberalising everything, had first been introduced here. An important early takeaway was the reminder that the genesis of this new economic direction did not start in Uganda under the current National Resistance Movement government but earlier, during the time of the 1980-1985 Uganda Peoples Congress party under the presidency of Milton Obote. More on that later. Milton Obote was the person who came to power at Uganda’s independence in 1962. He served as executive Prime Minister until 1966, when he emerged victorious in his tussle with the country’s then-president and took complete power after a bloody coup d’état. 

I noticed three things during the conference. The first was how there is still a strong spirit among Ugandan and non-Ugandan intellectuals to defend and rescue human dignity. This was especially marked among the younger presenters. It was most encouraging. The consensus was that economic growth notwithstanding, the policies have generated poverty and social instability.  The second was how, notwithstanding, we seemed as a group to have been conditioned to lower our expectations. It was as if the current global neoliberal economic regime is now taken as a fixed “norm”, and little to nothing can be envisioned of a life outside of its parameters.

The third was, therefore, an open-ended conclusion. Was the purpose of the research to illuminate or to guide? Should such a convening, therefore, have a pre-determined target, or should it form one on the basis of all the findings? We did not decide whether neoliberalism should be accepted as it has been so far, reformed, or strongly opposed. I was left wondering about the extent to which the provenance of the key participants might have influenced this.

First of all, this was Makerere University. The premiere of the colonially-established universities in Eastern Africa, and still the prime absorber of the best and brightest minds of the Ugandan and other countries’ mission school education system which, historically, then formed part of the professional-managerial class. This presents two situations. On the one hand, it tends towards being a bastion of conformist thinking for any given epoch; on the other, there can be found a built-in resistance to contrary ideas and alternative realities that they have not thought up themselves since the average student has hitherto been deemed the sharpest throughout the earlier days of their education.

Secondly, having said that there was also a new orthodoxy coming in. The arrival of the new regime came with many new (and donor-funded) ideas, which laid the foundations for new social and public policy in parallel to the new economic order. And so also began a new phase of conformism. This could take the form of whole new entities like the School of Women and Gender Studies, being established in 1991. Elsewhere, more emphasis began to be placed on hitherto marginal subjects like Commercial Law, and political science became very concerned with new developmental concepts

Even the nature of studying was to change as a lot of education became liberalised, with even Makerere taking in essentially private students. These are some of the issues described by Prof. Mahmoud Mamdani in Scholars in the Marketplace. I mention him in particular because, along with scholars from the Schools of Law, Gender and Politics, Ugandan conference participants also came from the Makerere Institute for Social Research (MISR), which had been stewarded by Mamdani for 12 years until 2022 and refashioned to reflect his own thinking on education.

The significance of this will be addressed later. Suffice it to say for now that as with this new epistemological regime and the new rigours of the marketplace to which they may later enter, a certain kind of paralysis seemed to have been present in terms of the aforementioned possibility of conclusions. To the standard African nationalism of old, neoliberalism’s proposals were pure heresy. Whatever their disagreements among themselves, post-independence African nationalists basically settled on one model for economic growth: a state-managed economy dominated by large parastatals, institutions which were virtually the sacred cows of the development agenda.

The economic arguments

Neoliberalism is a push-back against thinking that through the work of 1930s economists such as Maynard Keynes, was emerging as a dominant policy in capitalist countries as a way of containing revolts among ordinary people. Social Democracy called for an element of public spending to prevent poverty becoming a crisis.

In principle, capitalists always disliked such measures, but mainstream capitalism had come to accept that some level of social-welfarism was going to be necessary for the sake of social cohesion and stability, as these were the basis of sustained industrial activity. The United States had the New Deal in the early 1930s, which re-set American public policy for decades. The United Kingdom had a whole cluster of laws and policies that, since the 1940s, transformed housing, education, mass transit, and health into public goods.

What was called the Chicago School of Economics also emerged in the 1950s among academics (also called “monetarists”) like Milton Friedman, who began theorising ways to defeat Social Democratic measures and return to a preference for the “free market” merchant capitalism days. The difference is that what the world has today is no longer a free market (nor can it be one) in which entrepreneurs enter and leave according to their skills and fortunes and where local and global trade is defended against monopolism. That was the 1860s era when Western navies protected trade routes, and parties like the Liberal Party – whose name was not coincidental – emerged in global powers like Great Britain. It was the era of merchant capitalism. Neo-liberalism today is a pretence to that, using its arguments to disguise the dominance of a few big banks and corporations. The economy remains dominated by groups of ever-merging corporations and their financiers. In case of problems, they still fall back on public funds to rescue them. In short, the capitalists actually simply privatise state benefits to themselves but deny welfare to the masses. This is the real meaning of the “neo” affix. It goes against the very essence of the original capitalist ideology of “pure” capitalism based on survival of the fittest.

Theory is only theory until it gets power behind it. The first step was when neoliberals acquired influence in Western academia, the media and sections of mainstream political parties by setting up think tanks and the like. Their line of attack was through politically exploiting the growing crisis of Social Democracy. This was relatively easy, as Western Social Democracy (be it British “Labourism” or the legacy of the American New Deal) was always a halfway house mediating between capital and labour. Over time, it became too expensive for capitalism to sustain itself, especially with the gradual loss of its colonies. So the choices faced were to abolish capitalism and become a fully socialist state or abolish Social Democracy and, well, have neoliberalism.

The second step taken by the neoliberalists was when the traditional conservative parties, headed by those factions and advocating the second option, then acquired state power. But the first experiment was not in an imperial power: it was in Chile with the 1973 coup against the socialist government of Salvador Allende organised by British and American intelligence agencies led by the budding war criminal Henry Kissinger. The military government that came in proceeded on a brisk policy of privatising state-owned corporations, opening the economy to “investors” (“liberalisation”). Those opposed or in the way, civil society, critical media, trades unions and leftists in general were simply crushed in the process.

The second and the third were the British governments of Margaret Thatcher (1979) and the American government of Ronald Reagan (1980); I emphasise the individual because, as said, these policies represented a new strand of thinking even within their own already pro-capitalist parties and led to a lot of internal debate and feuding. In short, they represented an extreme faction within their own parties, which had managed to capture the formal leadership of the party. Neoliberalism, therefore, started with coups, some of which became violent as part of the process. Both Thatcher and Reagan were initially elected by a minority of voters.

Once political power is achieved, then the work of the wholesale dismantling of whatever public goods and protections the neoliberal capitalists feel are a “hindrance to enterprise” begins. This changed Western politics in those countries, bringing the corruption the West had long foisted on the South into the open at home. For example, the Thatcher government organised the sell-off of public housing by rigging the results of a referendum held to decide on the matter.

Now firmly entrenched in state power, Western neoliberalism further formalised itself by taking over global trade bodies. This ideology became the “Washington Consensus” by about 1989: a package of ten conditions that had to be met in order to qualify for supposedly “international” aid. It is not clear to me whether the “consensus” referred to was between the international institutions and Washington as the US capital, or an agreement among the powerful in Washington alone. Here was certainly no “consensus” on the receiving side, and it has been dictators signing up to these terms.

Our backstory

Independence, for all its flaws, was an achievement for African politics. In Uganda, much as the original anti-colonial leadership was sidelined and the mass element stood down, its demands still had to be addressed. This became the framework of all post-independence politics. It was, in essence, a Social Democratic system for African conditions.

This brings us to Uganda today; we have the first and probably the most committed neoliberal regime in Africa, something that made President Museveni the absolute darling of the West. Regarding the aforementioned violence, history shows ours to have been the product of not one but two coups. The first was the December 1980 election crisis that saw Obote’s henchman declare him the winner. A lot of ink (and blood) was since expended in the business of analysing all the political events that followed. Relatively less time and energy has been devoted to examining the economic direction of Milton Obote’s (1980-1985) UPC government.

Just as imperialism at home sought to find a way to erode the Social Democratic policies, it also always wanted to do so to the gains created ultimately by the real and original anti-colonial 1920-1949 movement (as opposed to the Obote-led reformists who followed in the later colonial period) which gave us trades unions, the right to elect lower reps, agricultural co-operative unions, affordable credit, currency autonomy, and trade protection. As said, this is because all these things formed barriers to greater exploitation. All post-independence governments upheld these to some extent, especially since they could game the West under Cold War conditions by flirting with the Soviet Union so as to make the West tread a bit more gently. In addition, Obote had a faction of his party that was still somewhat wedded to the Social Democratic system it had overseen – and autocratised- in the 1960s. This is possibly why, in the midst of these reforms, then President Obote saw it necessary to also serve for a while as his own finance minister.

The NRM in power faced far fewer handicaps, not least because the Cold War was basically over by then, so the triumphant West could be a lot bolder with the diktats coming via the World Bank/International Monetary Fund. This is why I describe the NRM version as being “in full-bloom”: because out of the ten standard requirements, the Milton Obote regime, in the midst of all its self-created problems, was only able to deliver on four. The NRM, for its part, has delivered possibly eleven out of the ten.

 ConditionObote 1981-1985Museveni 1986-
1Reduce national budget deficits Attempts made but resisted by party diehards who demanded public servant increases and a raise in the minimum wage.Public expenditure was reduced until cronyism and attendant irresponsible borrowing set in.
2Redirect spending from politically popular areas toward neglected fields with high economic returnsPublic expenditure remained a policy focus, for political reasons.More emphasis on creating infrastructure for mining and agribusiness enterprises and industrial parks.Hospitals and higher education made to “cost share” with the public.
3Reform the tax systemNot really implemented in a way that made any difference.A complete and thorough overhaul of tax policies and collection, including militarism anti-smuggling operations, put in place. They mainly target African businesses.There are also regular tax holidays for “investors”.Cronies regularly avoid taxes.
4Liberalise the financial sector with the goal of market-determined interest ratesNot much.Central Bank made independent of government, under a hugely revised Bank of Uganda Act.IMF, World Bank and Bank of England representatives placed on governing board.Ugandan and African-owned banks harassed out of the market.
5Adopt a competitive single exchange rate Currency was floated and therefore devalued up to possibly 41 times, but divided into two categories: one regulated, and the other not.Currency fully floated (and therefore massively devalued)
6Reduce trade restrictions No really possible in a highly regulated economic environment dominated by state-owned enterprises.Process of registering foreign businesses and simplifying land sales were put in place
7Abolish barriers to foreign direct investmentNot much investor interest, due to the civil war, and other statist policies.Three key policies:-a fully floated and convertible currency.-Removal of all restrictions on export of profits.-Commitment to prevent and otherwise compensate for any acts of nationalisation,Were put in place
8Privatise state-owned enterprisesOut of the question.Carried out with extreme vigour and comprehensiveness.
9Abolish policies that restrict competitionState regulation of the economic sphere remained largely in place.Done.Legally and informally.
10Provide secure, affordable property rightsExpropriated Properties Act in 1983, was first attempt to restore investor confidence, by cancelling Amin-era confiscation of Asian-held properties.The 1983 Act was widely built upon, and newer “investors” were also given greater legal protection.Conversely, ordinary peoples land often seized for investors.

When I say “eleven”, I mean in terms of the Museveni regime’s bonus point of enabling the installation of West-friendly regimes in nearly all of Uganda’s neighbours. An illustration of how complete the NRM capitulation is can be found in the fact that an IMF delegation from Washington arrived at Uganda’s international airport on the very same day the new Bank of Uganda Act was passed in parliament and proceeded straight to the Bank of Uganda headquarters for a meeting with the Bank governor. They were then allocated offices, which their successors occupy to this day.

Uganda’s Chile moment

The debate in Uganda today about the merits and demerits of the Amin era continues to unfold, sometimes taking unexpected turns. However, one clear effect was for the entire rest of the political class, coming from their very differing perspectives, to have all become fed up with him to the point of ending up in one coalition against him.

This Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) coalition sought to actively build on the legacy of the independence struggles in an orderly manner. It was formed in 1978 as a political solution to Tanzania’s determination to avoid finding itself controlling a politically divided country once the process of militarily removing Amin’s government was achieved following the 1978 invasion of northern Tanzania by Amin’s army. It was only a collection of Marxist individuals who had the capacity to create such a coalition since much of the rest of the exile political groupings were caught up in feuds and militarist competitions against one another. For this reason, the imperialists –  particularly Britain – actively sought to undermine the post-Amin government it formed from day one.

The coalition government was militarily overthrown in May 1980, to the relief of the imperialists and to the glee of even the various so-called “left” factions that had always been critical of it, who sided with one or other of the two armed factions that had jointly carried out the coup. Nobody should have really been surprised that the NRM quickly and wholeheartedly adopted neoliberalism once it came to power in its own right: Yoweri Museveni was number two in the military junta that overthrew the UNLF.

The 1980 December elections were the chance for imperialism to further implement its anti-Social Democratic intentions. It made a deal to help one party steal the elections and then help it hold onto power by providing it with extensive diplomatic support on the international scene. And the fact that they were using a now desperate “socialist” entity in the form of Milton Obote and his Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party to do so was just an extra blessing. It helped win the propaganda arguments, just as President Yoweri Museveni today will always fall back on his pan-Africanist and guerilla credentials to explain away policy contradictions. Such “leftist” coverts to an open imperialist program are particularly valuable in political terms: their about-face leaves the progressive body-politic confused and demoralised for a long while; their origins in, and familiarity with, the left circles allow for much more effective surveillance, co-option and even suppression of the Left, and their control of the state leaves left hardliners isolated.

In return, Uganda, under the UPC, adopted a four-year “Economic Recovery Plan” based on “advice” from Western economic institutions. In essence, this plan obliged the state to borrow “rehabilitation” money to fix the infrastructure and make the parastatals into loan-bound partnerships with foreign investors. So the overthrow of the UNLF coalition was our Chile movement, but the Ugandan capacity for resistance (however badly focused) made it become a five-year civil war.

The war eventually brought down the Obote-UPC government as well as the short-lived military junta that had overthrown it. But the west was able to regroup by promising power to one of the armed rebel groups on condition that it also embraced neoliberalism. Enter Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army. Therefore, it is better to say that Obote and Museveni were only enemies on the battlefield of the war. When it came to dismantling the basics of Ugandan Social Democracy, they were, in fact, on the same page.

The rest, is basically obvious, and history: poverty is a natural consequence of all capitalisms, and especially this one. Literature, from Victorian-era Britain, the Marcos-era in the Philippines – whose countrywomen formed the first mass wave of migrant labour in the Middle East – to Frantz Fanon all tell us the same story. I, therefore, had a problem with the near-empiricist nature of some of the presentations. Especially when they were being done by the non-Ugandans, I suggested perhaps in the future that they could use their positions to conduct similar studies on the poverty being created in their home countries and come to the present since neoliberalism is a global phenomenon.

This suggestion, as well as the writings of Dani Nabudere can put all of this in at once a Ugandan and global context, did not go over particularly well. But it was of interest to me to note once again that this most incisive and prolific analyst to come out of Uganda, but who wrote and analysed on a global level, was nowhere to be found in the lips and the notes of any of the presenters (except me). Nabudere tended to work “from the general to the specific” and from the philosophical to the practical. He was able to apply this to the eight or nine works that located the Ugandan economy within the global imperium, how this impacted Ugandan politics, and what could be done. On that last point, he was active against various Ugandan regimes and endured detention, exile, and war between 1966 and 1993.

Nabudere’s silencing begins with the downfall of the UNLF coalition, of which he was a major architect and member. Mamdani was the intellectual among the “Left” groupings, which sided with the various militarist factions. Having engaged extensively in debates with Nabudere while both were in exile at the University of Dar es Salaam, he was sure to be extremely familiar with Nabudere’s writings and perspectives. The fact that he and his then cohorts could not recognise an anti-imperialist initiative when they saw one says a lot about their analytical abilities. The fact that the issues are not brought for discussion at MISR even today raises questions of intellectual honesty.

I would argue that part of MISR paralysis, in particular, stems from the lack of exposure to a whole alternative and extensive counter-reading of Ugandan political science as Nabudere’s writings effectively do not feature on Makerere curriculum in any of the disciplines (Law, Philosophy, Economics, or Politics) he wrote in, and certainly not at MISR as reincarnated by a Nabudere contemporary. The story of the genesis of our neoliberal crisis and the full scope of our engagements with and analysis of it must not be hidden or forgotten. Nor should he be. Otherwise, what is the point of an academic conference or academics in general?

This article was first published by ROAPE.