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Bringing the economy into our activism, public conversation

Have you ever wondered why news broadcasts (be they radio or television) have news items about the economy among the last segments of a newscast — alongside sports and humour?

That we made Shs 3.5 trillion from coffee in 2023 is never the lead story opening a news broadcast with extensive analyses on who is who in the industry, and where this money is going and plans for next year, et cetera. That banks made an average Shs 150 billion is never the opening story of a new cast despite pointing to a huge irony in our stupid economy. Why?

Why does business news appear in the middle of a newspaper and politics appears daily as the lead story? Even magazines — yes, magazines, not newspapers — entirely dedicated to business or the economy are less attractive even to supposedly elite segments of our society? Something is clearly wrong with this order of things considering the position that money holds in our daily lives.

I am possibly returning to an old conversation. The Baganda have said, “adingana amawolu, yagajjamu omukutto.”

That while yesterday’s leftovers aren’t delicious and may not be satiating, the one who often returns to them earns satiety. I am endlessly bothered that we rarely focus big money in our public conversation.  Even when money/economy finally appears, we focus on the theft of it.

Not the generation of it. Not that corruption should be discussed any less, but that we need to take notice of the urgent need to generate analyses and popular culture that foregrounds the economy.

At the risk of being accused of creating a false dichotomy between the economy and mainstream politics, my position is that there is a disproportionate amount of attention, time and dedication given to politics (human rights, opposition, democracy, corruption), that activists and politicians spend entire lifetimes discussing the “political dimensions” of our governance and the financials are but footnotes.

It is not a dichotomy as such but rather a re-ordering of things: let the economy come on top. Ever wondered why we have more human rights and freedom activists in Kampala than activists focused on the economy and resource exploitation: Lake Victoria, coffee, sugar cane growing, commercial banks, telecoms, electricity generation and distribution, protection of small-scale businesses from foreign competition, cooperatives.

Yet, all analyses show that in rectifying our economic bases as outlined above lies our absolute liberation – not necessarily in getting democracy right.

Consider, for example, that when discussing the economy in items such as oil, our attention is sharper only when it becomes a human rights issue (violent land dispossession), or an environmental issue.

Counsel Eron Kiiza or Male Mabirizi, just for example, will never demand — through protracted activism and lawyering — to see the final print of the contract signed with Cnooc or TotalEnergies. Even when these details somehow become visible, we never have Twitter Spaces, radio and political talk shows dedicated to discussing this subject matter.

Does politics determine everything?

I have to acknowledge I am also only just coming around on this one: For a long time, I belonged to the classic school of thought arguing that politics determines everything. That a fish starts to rot from the head, and that focusing our energies to rectifying political leadership, everything else will fall in line. 

Presently, my view has become more nuanced, not entirely opposed to this classic school of thought. It is my position that activism and opposition politics can determine the ‘talking points’ for political negotiations.

Often governments have tended to be reactive to items tabled by activists and ordinary people. To this end, sadly, we have only tabled, fronted, championed those matters of an abstract nature: The ‘shrinking democratic space,’ ‘the next election,’ and how to ‘deal with corruption.’

We have discussed ‘federalism’ ‘tribalism,’ or ‘militarization in Uganda.’ Again, not that these issues matter any less. But that we spend entire lifetimes and political careers discussing these abstract notions, which are often urgent to a tiny section of the country, should be mindboggling.

Consider for example that 11 million peasant Ugandans are involved in coffee farming. We never discuss their condition — and the amount of money lost through this every year to European middlemen.  Thankfully, comrade Robert Kabushenga has brought his celebrity clout onto this industry but only after he, too, joined coffee farming.

How did our main cash cow fall in the hands of foreigners at a tune of 70 per cent? Is free market economics a sufficient response?

Consider that at one point, gold beat coffee as a forex earner for Uganda. Did we have any Twitter Spaces, radio and television talk shows devoted to discussing our golden windfall? Who are our middlemen? How come we have no gold in our vaults?

I am not sure about the percentage of Ugandans who have an opinion to share like myself — and thus would want freedom of speech jealously protected. But I know about 33 million Ugandans use mobile phones, and a huge percentage transacts using mobile money, and would wish telecom companies didn’t ‘legally’ rob them.

Many Ugandans would love to borrow from banks and would benefit if we spent a part of our activism campaigning against the extortionist interest rates, and the inexplicable closure of all indigenous banks.

The point I am labouring is this: we have been coded to spend our entire lifetimes talking governance, human rights, democracy, opposition politics and other abstract notions. They have given us the language (coinages, references, acronyms, definitions) and popular culture (slogans, jingles) for those notions.

We thus need to tactfully extract ourselves from this loop and bring the ‘more tangible’ items of the economy and big monies to the political table — to our activism and public conversation. (Of course, without losing sight of the others).


The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University


+2 #1 sadrach 2024-06-12 13:16
All the above suggestions are possible and make lots of sense ONLY when other factors that favour such vital perceptions to be discussed/written about/dealt with etc are in place.

Otherwise, having all media outlets state controlled,discussions in parliament scripted, regime having to let their masters abroad make all decisions for the country etc we shall always be back at square one!
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+4 #2 Lysol 2024-06-15 19:25
Some parts of Uganda which are left behind economically, like Northern/ Northeastern Uganda, should demand for autonomy in order to develop themselves and catch up with rest of the country.

Otherwise they will always lag behind the rest of the country.
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0 #3 Akot 2024-06-16 19:45
sadrach, thanks!

I takes real governing of a real country to be served & this won't be in the Uganda that is Rwandese Museveni's family usiness!

Museveni got what he dreamed of & only Ugandans, in UNITY as ONE PEOPLE for Common Cause, will show him way out, then put in the kind of government they want!
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0 #4 Akot 2024-06-16 20:11

You have made it clear that Uganda is Rwandese Museveni's family business & left out, ignored "Northern/ Northeastern Uganda" have to demand for autonomy from him, in order to develop and catch up with the rest of the country!

Why not call "Northern/ Northeastern Uganda to break away & form another country & develop FREELY?

Rwandese Museveni is the luckiest coloniser the world has ever seen!
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0 #5 Willy not Silly 2024-06-18 10:04
Bad politics and business/economy in Uganda are like twin-brothers who cannot be separated. The economic situation is bad because it is managed by bad politicians, to say the least.

Take the example of gold. Which company or individual in Uganda exports gold? We are told they don't pay any taxes and don't want to be known partly because the bulk of their gold comes from DR Congo.

Concerning the coffee business, we are told that Robert Kabushenga is very good at talking but doesn't know how to cut financial deals with "Museveni, Pinette & Company Limited", who have a very big interest in this sector.
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0 #6 sula 2024-06-18 10:38
Yusuf < I don't understand you..

so which statistics will you use to discuss the economy.
Secondly do we have an economy in Uganda. with the our debt reigning over 50% of GDP ; there is nothing to discuss !
In short Uganda is not a going concern.
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