Sugar vs. reason in Uganda: Democracy unplugged | by Patrick Hoenig

by Oct 24, 2011Africa

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won the presidential elections in February 2011 by a landslide, cementing his two-and-a-half-decade-long hold on power.[1] Just when he could have sailed into his fifth term as Ugandan president on a comfortable mandate, Museveni plunged his country head-on into a political crisis that analysts find hard to explain. In the face of stiff opposition from all political quarters, even members of his own party, the president, in August 2011, decided that 7,100 hectares of Mabira Central Forest Reserve be degazetted, cleared and given to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda for cultivation of sugarcane. The Mabira forest case brings home an important lesson: Camouflaging autocratic decision-making with the trappings of a democratic state may trigger the very crisis of legitimacy that the model of electoral democracy sets out to address.
Political theory, a discipline dominated by western academic institutions, has come a long way from portraying elections in a multi-party system as the mainstay of democracy. Engaging with the argument that elections constitute the lynchpin of democratic governance, Frederick Jjuuko, a law professor from Makerere University, in a telephone interview conducted with the author in 2011, pointed out that in Africa western notions of political fair-play did not necessarily translate into participatory decision-making at the grassroots-level. The question of accountability of state power would not get resolved, he ventured, unless and until the issue of legitimacy of the state was addressed. Of course, the elephant in the room is ‘tribalism’ or what Onyango-Obbo (2010) calls ‘the sweet and sour pork of African life’. Today it seems possible to look at the bright side of ethnic and cultural diversity, to understand, in the words of Onyango-Obbo, that it makes you ‘accept “otherness” as normal, and you learn to discount the hostility of other tribes toward your own’. But for the generation of freedom fighters moulded in the spirit of pan-Africanism it took time to realise that ethnicity, as Le Vine (2008:165) put it, ‘remains an unavoidable fact of political life’.
Related to, and yet separate from, the issue of ethnicity is the nexus between power and incumbency. In a 2009 telephone interview with the author of this article, Justice Mulenga, judge of the East African Court of Human Rights, noted that there seemed to be a case for arguing that ‘those with the power to make things happen give priority to self-interest’. Mulenga said he did not think this was an ‘African phenomenon’, but in Africa it was ‘more pronounced because of our level of development’. He stressed that it was not unreasonable to hope for bad practices to be rectified and the state of affairs to be ‘ameliorated through institutional advancement’. As things stand now, however, ‘the desire to remain in power makes [for a situation where] any opposition raising its head is crushed. And that’s how human rights are violated irrespective of [constitutional pledges]’. The argument here is that in ethnically polarised societies the casting of a ballot at election time may just not be enough to ensure participatory decision-making, the hallmark of democratic governance. In the following, it will be examined how this point is borne out by the Mabira forest case.
In his campaign for the 2011 elections, President Museveni focused on jobs, growth and industrialisation, all three he claims, post-elections, will be created by giving Mabira land to the sugar industry. The electorate, in what seems to be an overwhelming majority, has not been willing to buy into that logic. Museveni’s decision on the Mabira forest sparked a controversy so fierce that commentators have privately started asking whether the president is driven by the political will to deliver on electoral promises or has other interests in mind. Stopping short of questioning the motives behind the president’s initiative, Golooba-Mutebi (2011) writes that the Mabira forest issue has spawned talk of Museveni’s ‘detachment from reality and his growing unwillingness to listen to reason’. Criticism is being expressed on a variety of grounds.
First, the environmental impact of cutting down a quarter of Mabira forest, an area more than 20 times the size of Central Park in Manhattan, is certain to be significant. In the last decade, Africa has seen a growing movement for the preservation of its green lungs. Late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai (2009:257) wrote that ‘participatory tree-planting programs that serve as carbon offsets for industrial-country emissions are an important mechanism to support responsible global warming mitigation efforts in developing countries’. Apart from adversely affecting biodiversity in Uganda, the deforestation of parts of Mabira reserve will strike a blow to an ecosystem already under stress. The Mabira forest in central Uganda constitutes an important catchment area for lakes Victoria and Kyoga. Lake Victoria, the biggest in the Great Lakes region, has seen a steady decline in water levels over the years, increasing the concentration of toxic substances and jeopardising the survival of its fishing industry. The National Association of Professional Environmentalists (2011) argues that by allowing for part of Mabira forest to go, fresh water supplies will be further diminished. In addition, the government will surrender an estimated US$316 million in terms of UN certified carbon credits, according to media reports.
Second, the hard-headedness displayed by the Museveni government on an issue as sensitive as Africa’s chances of winning the race against the clock of climate change provokes comparisons with Uganda’s colonial past. Mueni wa Muiu (2010:1314) maintains that what gave colonial powers the ‘impunity that came to be the hallmark of the colonial state’ was a ‘sense of ownership over everything African’. The colonial powers, not the colonised people, decided who were to be the colony’s trading partners and ‘what crops were suitable for growing’. In pursuit of the colonial master plan, ‘cash crops were introduced without detailed studies on the impact or the environment and the water supply’ and ‘[f]orests were cleared without any consideration to environmental or religious importance’. Set against the historical backdrop of how decisions in the colonies were taken, repeating the mantra of development without consulting the people raises questions of history repeating itself. The decision of the government to hand over parts of Mabira to the Mehta Group for sugarcane cultivation has particularly angered the Baganda, many of whom feel that the political establishment has sold out to profit-driven neoliberal capitalism at the expense of traditional values represented by the Kabaka (who had opposed the government move on the grounds that the reserve was to be preserved as Buganda land). Supporters of the Kabaka claim that President Museveni’s determination to keep a lid on the Buganda question deepens a rift running through society and might easily result in ‘another meltdown’.
Third, the decision to give Mabira land away defies economic logic. The beneficiary of the land deal, the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd (SCOUL), presently jointly owned by the Ugandan state and a private investor, is the least productive of the three major sugar producers in Uganda and reportedly incurring substantial losses. The media is rife with speculation that once the land deal is complete, the government will part with its stake in SCOUL for a price, leaving in charge Mehta Group, a business conglomerate operating in four continents and holding assets in excess of US$400 million. Boasting a workforce of 15,000 worldwide, Mehta Group (2011) is adamant about its ‘humble origins’, stating on its website that its founder, after whom the company is named, ‘left his native land [India] at age 13 in a country vessel bound for Africa’ to engage in trade with the local tribes that was paid for in ‘Cowrie Shells’. Given the image Mehta is inadvertently portraying of itself, namely as a foreign-owned company dispossessing indigenous populations by trading in shells, it is no wonder that for environmental and social activists the Mabira forest matter is fast becoming a tale of neoimperial market forces wreaking havoc on the environment and the life-worlds of Ugandans.
Fourth, the Mabira business deal flies into the face of all notions of democratic governance. Governments all over the world have more and more come under scrutiny for the way they frame policies on land, air and water. It is increasingly understood that policy-making on the use of the commons requires a careful calibration of multiple concerns, environmental, developmental, social and political. For leftist anti-poverty campaigners Mabira therefore is an open-and-shut case. But even those willing to work within the four corners of the capitalist system find fault with the Ugandan government for its handling of the Mabira forest issue. Godber Tumushabe, executive director of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, a think-tank based in Kampala, takes exception on public policy grounds, arguing that it is ‘unfair to Ugandans for our President to be acting like the public relations officer of a corporation’ (Habati, 2011). Legally, he claims, the Mabira forest is a resource that the government holds in trust for the people of Uganda. However, no consultative process was observed in reaching a decision on degazetting Mabira. What muddies the waters further is that the business deal with Mehta Group is far from transparent. Information on how the Ugandan exchequer stands to benefit from the proposed transaction is nowhere to be found.
Last and not least, Museveni is said to have unnecessarily embarked on a collision course with his critics, squandering all space for compromise. The Buganda kingdom and the Mukono Anglican Diocese offered alternative land to be given to Mehta. In response, Museveni added fuel to the fire: ‘Tell anybody out there that I am ready for war on sugar’, the president is quoted as stating in a meeting with representatives of the Kampala City Traders Association, adding: ‘I am not ready to listen to anybody who is saying that I save Mabira’ (Bareebe, 2011). The talk of war has observers baffled. It is not forgotten that the government’s first attempt to give away Mabira land resulted in what has come to be known as the ‘Mabira riots’, resulting in the death of several protesters. That was in 2007 and the government had just won general elections the previous year.
Observers who follow the saga unfolding around Mabira from close quarters claim that there is more to Museveni’s declaration of ‘war on sugar’ than meets the eye. Museveni himself is reported in the media as stating that all the chairman of Mehta cares about is the land and ‘he does not mind what Ugandans think’ (Bareebe, 2011). Accusing the Mehta Group of indifference to public concerns over the impact of the Mabira sugar plant extension, while brushing aside all criticism as irrelevant, is not only cynical but also politically hazardous. It is no secret how the Ugandan public was once before led to believe that Ugandans of Asian descent were the source of their misery. Following his military take-over in 1971, Idi Amin launched an expropriation and expulsion campaign against ‘Ugandan Asians’ on the grounds that they were ‘sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption’ (Manby, 2009: 54 and 96). It is hard to believe that Museveni is unaware of the implications his loose talk might have for social peace in the country. Stoking anger over Indian-owned big business might be part of a strategy designed to conceal how little accountable Museveni has become, in the eyes of many observers, to the institutions of parliamentary democracy.
The sensitivity of the Mabira forest issue is accentuated by yet another factor that few believe will have escaped the attention of policy-makers in State House. The Mabira forest is situated in the kingdom of Buganda and considered part of the land taken away from it when it was gazetted as a ‘protected area’ by the British colonial administration in 1932. Museveni’s capture of power in 1986 is largely seen as the result of his alliance with the Buganda movement, which supported his armed struggle originating in the Luwero triangle, Baganda land. Due to disagreements over the question of ‘federo’, at the heart of which lies the restoration of dignity and autonomy to Buganda, and the administration and ownership of land in Buganda, the relations between President Museveni and Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II have long been strained. That was before the Kabaka was prevented from visiting Kayunga district, located in his kingdom, leading to the ‘Buganda riots’ in 2009, and the destruction, in mysterious circumstances, of the Kasubi tombs, the burial ground of the Kabaka dynasty and a UNESCO world heritage site, in March 2010. Today it is hard to find anyone willing to comment openly on the nature of the relationship between the president and the Kabaka of Buganda. However, in private conversation, observers close to the Buganda movement suggest that Museveni might be using the Mabira forest issue to show the Kabaka his place.
The ousting from power of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar El Gaddafi in Libya has found plenty of echo in sub-Saharan Africa. Gaddafi, in particular, was considered a strategic asset for the Ugandan president and a fellow contestant in the arena of political longevity. However, the differences between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are many and it would be simplistic to construe Gaddafi’s exit as a prelude to Museveni’s departure. Emboldened by the 2011 election results, Museveni is said to be tempted to clamp down on the political opposition with renewed vigour. Tellingly, the massive police crackdown on the ‘walk-to-work’ campaign, which the political opposition had organised in Kampala to protest against rising living expenses, coincided with the democratic uprising in a variety of capitals in North Africa and West Asia. It is not lost on observers that State House rhetoric no longer distinguishes between ‘lawful and unlawful dissent’ on constitutional grounds, but ‘loyal and disloyal opposition’, as measured by the government.
The discovery of oil in Uganda brightens an otherwise sombre picture, with inflation remaining an acute threat to food security. Coming into its own on the energy security front, Uganda may be seeing a fresh attempt by its political leadership to assert itself on the economic plane and, as a corollary, an unravelling of the consensus on democratic ideals. A growing strand of analysis in Africa claims that western democracies have a tendency to use ‘aid, bribes, sanctions or open invasions’ in order ‘to push the democratic agenda on countries where other forms of leadership exist’ (Serunkuma, 2010). In aid-dependent Africa and the oil rich nations in the Middle East, so goes the argument, leaderships demand literally nothing from the public at large and so they are not pressed to give anything in return. It was time to ask whether for that particular bracket of countries ‘the rule of the few’ was actually not better suited than democracy, ‘the rule of the crowd’. Echoing Dambisa Moyo’s controversial call for a ‘decisive benevolent dictator’, Serunkuma goes on to explain that ‘benevolence is a marker of patriotism’, showing the ability of a leader to ‘rally the general populace behind a common object’.
There is no gainsaying the possibility that Museveni may come around to embrace the rhetoric of economic development, at the expense of building institutions. Notwithstanding the strides East Africa has been making in recent years with respect to integrating its economies (or some say as a result of it), a slide of democratic standards is feared by many in the region. If indeed the public demands nothing of its leadership, Uganda may even have its modest democratic gains reversed. Concern over securitisation, de-politicisation and ritualisation of democratic procedures is already routinely expressed in conversation about the state of affairs in Uganda. Olive Kobusingye (2010:193) states that ‘Uganda remains a country committed to perpetual electioneering’.[2] Irrespective of the outcome of the Mabira forest row, whether business interests or reason prevails, whether a new round of violence can be averted or not, the fact that Museveni has used tremendous political capital to bulldoze an array of dissenting voices, not on policy grounds, but by way of declaring a personal ‘war on sugar’ brings home the fallacies of a concept of electoral democracy that focuses on compliance with electoral procedures rather than the basic rules of the democratic game.
* Dr Patrick Hoenig is visiting professor at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has been in East Africa and the Great Lakes region regularly since 2004.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
[1] Museveni polled 68 per cent of the vote, while long-term political rival Kizza Besigye came in as a distant second with a mere 26 per cent of the vote. Acknowledging defeat, Besigye has publicy announced that he will run only one more time as presidential candidate, in 2016. No such intentions have been declared by Museveni.
[2] It should be noted that Olive Kobusingye is the sister of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, a fact, however, that does not in itself detract from the quality of her analysis.
Bareebe, Gerald (2011) ‘[Museveni]: ‘I am ready for war on sugar’’, Daily Monitor, 19 August
Golooba-Mutebi, Frederick (2011) ‘Here Comes Mabira II, and it looks like all Uganda is lined up against Museveni’, The East African, 22-28 August
Habati, Mubatsi Asinja (2011) ‘Museveni shouldn’t be Mehta spokesman’, interview with Godber Tumushabe, The Independent, 26 August-1 September
Kobusingye, O. (2010) The Correct Line? Uganda Under Museveni, London, AuthorHouse
Le Vine, V. (2008) ‘Nation-building and informal politics’, International Social Science Journal, vol. 192, pp. 155-67
Maathai, W. (2009) The Challenge for Africa: A New Vision, London, William Heinemann
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Muiu, M. (2010) ‘Colonial and Postcolonial State and Development in Africa’, Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 4, pp. 1311-38
National Association of Professional Environmentalists (2011) ‘Mabira Petition to President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda’,, accessed 10 September 2011
Onyango-Obbo, Charles (2010) ‘Tribalism is the sweet and sour pork of African life’, The East African, 12-18 July
Serunkuma, Yusuf (2010) ‘Is it time to support liberal autocracies?’, The Independent, 2-8 July
Jjuuko, Frederick, Law Faculty, Makerere University, telephone interview, August 2011
Mulenga, Joseph, Judge, East African Court of Human Rights, telephone interview, June 2009
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