Ugandan-born international journalist Yasin Kakande is concerned that the current coronavirus pandemic may be being exploited by Uganda’s government to syphon funds and wrest further control from its beleaguered citizens. He writes exclusively for The Voice about his fears.
RECENTLY, I asked a couple of friends on WhatsApp about how they would title a movie where Yoweri K. Museveni, the president of Uganda for more than 35 years, received an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan worth $491.5 million to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. One called it a “COVID-19 heist”.
Money Heist, a Netflix series, is among the most popular shows being watched in Uganda during a strict lockdown with curfew rules thoroughly and unconditionally enforced. ‘Heist’ is the most appropriate word to characterize the millions of dollars that the Ugandan president regards as his personal prize purse.
Ugandans, who know all too well their government’s animosity toward any shred of public accountability and transparency, are anxious and unsettled even more than usual during the pandemic. Ugandans readily comprehend the guidelines attached to an IMF loan but they also are being kept from the details of how the government has promised the international lender it will use the monies during the pandemic. Reasonably, Ugandans believe that such a loan would mean expanding the existing hospital beds capacity in their country and building hospitals in areas of the country where nearby access to urgent medical care is limited. Also, would the monies go toward acquiring masks, ventilators, and PPE?
Ugandans want to believe that the IMF considered these requests as conditions for making the loans, and that if their government is not being forthright about the intended uses of the money then they hope that IMF officials would rectify the matter and clarify publicly what the loan was specifically made to do. Then, local citizens can trace the accountability to see if, indeed, medical facilities are being expanded to handle the potential caseload as well as making more trained healthcare professionals available.
One of the worst side effects of the pandemic in Uganda is lack of critical information. The government certainly is not addressing the issue. On May 19, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, the convener of the Women’s Protest Working Group, was arrested, along with numerous protestors who were detained after a leading a protest in Kampala to end the “hunger pandemic”. The group has petitioned the government to revise the containment measures being enforced. The petition indicates that while no deaths have yet been registered in the country due to the pandemic, “high handed enforcement” has claimed more than 890 women and their infants “who either died in labor after failing to access transport to health facilities”, or after being shot by security forces for ‘violating’ these measures. The petition cites hunger and anger are sweeping the country, “causing frightening levels of domestic violence and suicide, whereby women are the major victims”.
The anger is not new. Ugandans regularly hear news of loans being made to their government, only to discover that they are the ones burdened with repaying the funds through increased taxation while never hearing of how the loans were used for the intended purposes of improving services or infrastructure in their country. Many believe that the money often goes directly into the pockets of the big shots in government.
Every year, the Ugandan government introduces new forms of taxation, squeezing even larger sums from Ugandans who are starved chronically in terms of the economic means. This year, the government announced a new property tax that will burden owners of homes and similar small properties. These taxes are enacted to pay back loans such as the one just made by the IMF.
There also are other burdens affecting Ugandans. For example, in Africa, the IMF demands that governments relinquish control over key economic institutions in their countries to the private sector. Unfortunately, the private sector has become the proxy for the former colonially-owned corporate enterprises to continue their old ways. In Uganda, this means handing over the country’s economy to large western corporations and to cronies loyal to Museveni. During the Museveni era, the country lost publicly-owned entities including Uganda-owned airlines and financial institutions such as Uganda Commercial Banks to the private sector and foreign investors. The Uganda Electricity Board was dismantled and replaced by foreign investors under the corporate name of ‘Umeme’. Lint Marketing Board, Nyanza Textile Industries (Nytil), Uganda Grain Milling and Mulco Textiles—which once employed thousands of Ugandans—were all sold and mismanaged by private buyers who either were foreigners or family members and close friends of the Ugandan president.
These arrangements that Museveni has made with international money lenders have made him a darling of the West, earning him status as a reformer. However, for Ugandans, the regime has been devastating, as the country’s wealth has been transferred outside of the borders and has left Ugandans little to pursue in real economic opportunities. Today’s Ugandans have absolutely no chance of economic independence, which is why they migrate to every other country from Europe to the Middle East and to the U.S. They take up occupations such as housekeepers and home health aides even though many are well educated with some holding advanced college degrees. As someone with a postgraduate degree who has moved, the only shot I have to a job now in the U.S. is to be a home health aide.
The IMF must enact stricter accountability measures in dealing with African dictators such as Museveni who do not derive the mandate to rule their countries from their people but rather from western funding sources including corporations as well as the IMF and the World Bank. So long as there are outstanding agreements with these organizations, the elections and public opinion of the African citizens in respective countries do not matter. The continent is plagued by politicians who have long overstayed their effectiveness as governing autocrats who increasingly resort to violence and suppression, especially in apolitical crises such as the current pandemic.
If there was a normally functioning government in Uganda, the country’s citizens would welcome the news of the IMF loan during such a crisis. However, Ugandans know all too well the pain that the most recent IMF loans will cause. Only in the eyes of the West is Museveni still viewed as a legitimate head of state. That gesture of legitimacy matters to the octogenarian autocrat as Uganda prepares for its next elections.
Already, with news of the most recent IMF loan, Museveni has suggested in a TV interview that he might postpone the 2021 elections. To the Ugandans’ dismay, this means that the IMF will not press the issue and blindly accept the government’s assurances that the loan proceeds were disbursed for the public health interests of the citizens.
International journalist, migrant activist and TED Fellow Yasin Kakande is the author of Why We Are Coming, which explores the historical and contemporary reasons why African migrants leave their own countries for Western nations. It is available now on Amazon in paperback and eBook formats, priced £15.43 and £4.64 respectively. For more information, visit www.yasinkakande.com.
You can read an exclusive extract from Why We Are Coming, about how President Museveni’s rise to power in Uganda was backed by Western nations, here.