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6 Days To Go: Manifesto Review – NRM

The NRM Manifesto is a mammoth document weighing in at 294 pages and it was the very first one that I got hold of. It is premised on 5 focus areas:

  • Creating Jobs and Wealth
  • Delivering Education and Health
  • Ensuring Justice and Equity
  • Protecting Life and Property
  • Achieving Economic and Political Integration

Each of the areas is then explained in great detail including lots of history lessons from the colonial era through the pre-NRM Uganda to the present day. Those history lessons are especially prevalent in the first part of the document (Creating Jobs and Wealth) with lots of space devoted to the economic development of the country from its protectorate days. As a matter of fact, I will confess I quite enjoyed reading these tidbits. They are the kind of history that is neither taught in school nor easy to come by in school libraries. At least, that was the case for me during my primary and O-Level school days and I’m not sure if that has changed much since. The period from World War 1 to the 1950s is one that I now recall as a glaring omission from history lessons then. The NRM manifesto helpfully provides a few insights about that era such as the requirements for one to participate in wholesale trade, the motivation for the Owen Falls Dam and the subsequent establishment of the Uganda Electricity Board. It also delves quite a bit into the state of the economy from Independence to 1986.

As expected, the manifesto also does a lot of chest-thumping. The economic achievements listed in 1.6.1 are presented as hard figures and look very impressive indeed. On the other hand, the social-political achievements in 1.6.2 contain a few items that made me blink and read them again. For example, (e): Average years of schooling increased from 2.5 in FY1986/87 to 6.1 in FY2016/17. Unless I understood this wrongly, it means the average Ugandan spends less than the duration of primary school in school. I wonder if this metric was skewed by including active pre-school and primary school learners. If not, it is a very strange thing to claim as an achievement. Some of the other indicators in that list show that there is still much to do and they provide an interesting contrast to the extremely rosy picture that the economic achievements paint. This is why the next sub-section is aptly titled “Unfinished Business” with an itemised list of 14 issues. Curiously, the two things that I think are absolutely critical are lumped together as the 13th item on the list -“Quality of healthcare and education services” which makes me wonder whether the NRM really sees them as top priority.

The content and action points described in the rest of the document are extremely detailed and buttressed by convincing facts and figures. It is impossible for me to summarise them given the wide scope of issues and the nature of their presentation as summarized bullet points themselves. “Creating Jobs and Wealth” covers practically every single thing possible to grow the economy – from general industrialization & production stimulation strategies (import substitution, zonal hubs, industrial parks, agricultural mechanization, the parish model, private sector strengthening, OWC), specific industries (leather tanning, pharmaceuticals etc) to infrastructure development, oil and gas and finally STEM (STEI?) and tourism. Even this is not an exhaustive list of the issues covered! This section covers approximately 207 pages out of the 294, a veritable 70%. It is clear that a lot of effort and brain power went into this particular part of the manifesto (and we now know, following its launch, some of the clever people that had a hand in drafting it). Interestingly, there are certain current statistics in the document that I had previously sought and failed to find (specifically on the education sector) and so I was happy to land on them there. Maybe, the NRM should be charged with producing a manifesto every year!

One very positive thing that I must commend the manifesto team for is the inclusion of various but detailed accountability segments within the document as exemplified by the list of completed new roads, rehabilitated ones and ongoing projects. I have often expressed my frustration over the slow pace of these projects as have many others but reading the list had me nodding my head. Many people might say it is a no-brainer to include such achievements but the truth is that the correlation between promises/pledges in one election cycle and achievements based on those promises in the next cycle hasn’t always been this high.

As usual, the elephant in the room remains the capital city and the list above shows that not many completed road projects were within the Kampala metropolitan area. It also shows quite clearly that the level of road infrastructure development going on there is completely out of sync with both the population levels and economic activity there and is unlikely to meet the needs of the citizens. The list of Greater Kampala roads to be rehabilitated (pg. 146 – 148) is so long that it is hard to see how the traditionally snail-slow KCCA will complete even 20% of them over the next 5 years. On the other hand, pledges such as development of the GKMA light rail and further traditional rail development remain promises on paper, unlikely to be fulfilled this term as they were in the last. One could also justifiably argue that 1,162km of new roads in 5 years is not commensurate with the magnitude of resources allocated to the sector.

The manifesto also mentions ICT as an important cog in both economic growth as well as governance. As a person whose livelihood is mostly derived from this sector, I was eager to see what the NRM has to say about it and the 5 pages it dedicated to it are well written and to the point. The blueprints for what needs to be done (from a government perspective) to continue growing the industry and harnessing it’s transformative power are well articulated although most of the growth there is driven by the private sector. Ditto for the creation and growth of value therein. I know quite a bit about what’s been going on in the sector in real terms and, despite a few hiccups in places, it has really been a bright spot in the economy. It will be interesting to see how the sector evolves over the next 5 years regardless of who wins the election.

The parts of the manifesto that spell out the government’s intentions in the areas of Science, Technology and Innovation (STEI and not the more widely known/used STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)and Tourism are comparatively short but, as a result, are much easier to digest. The section on Education, Healthcare and Water is a little longer but, unlike the abstract economic figures in previous sections, it is probably the most relatable to many readers given that they will have first-hand experience of both the education and health systems as well as the state of utility services such as water. To a lesser extent, many will find the subsequent section on Justice and Equity relatable too given that it covers highly “visible” issues such as law & order, public sector management, fighting corruption, special interest groups and land issues. One’s view on the ideals and pledges presented on those pages will no doubt depend on their perception of how government has handled these issues over the three and a half decades it has been in power and especially over the last few years. For example, consider the following introductory statement:

Few people need reminders of Uganda’s dark past in which rogue state operatives systematically undermined the supremacy of the law. The justice system suffered from poorly resourced institutions, competing for resources and operating in silos. The laws were selectively applied where it served to benefit those with political power and economic muscle

NRM Manifesto 2021 – 2026, Page 246

I know many people will see huge gobs of irony dripping from every word while others will nod their heads in agreement. Such is the polarisation prevalent in our country today.

The manifesto concludes with “Protecting Life and Property” as well as “Achieving Economic and Political Integration” (10 and 8 pages respectively). Both of them are pretty much standard NRM fare, the kind you’ve definitely heard from the President if you’ve ever listened to a few of his speeches. The latter particularly contains a lot of what so-called haters would call “pie-in-the-sky” wishful thinking: lots of what-if scenarios for African economic and political integration. As a one-time startup founder, the figures about production and potential markets remind me of the many forecasting spreadsheets I spent time working on that turned out to be completely removed from reality. Reality is cold and brutal and has absolutely no regard for well-laid imaginary plans. Or feelings. History buffs who would have enjoyed the bits of history at the start of the document will be delighted to find sprinklings of the same for Europe and the Americas in this section as well as contemporary economic indicators for current economic giants.

Conclusion

At 294 pages, the NRM manifesto is by far the lengthiest and most comprehensive of them all. When I started reading it, I actually wondered whether the writers and the party expected many of the electorate to read even little bits of it. Indeed, I wondered how many senior members of the party had gone through it (it would be interesting to get them into a room for a quiz on it to see how they would fare). On the other hand, I must concede that despite its sheer size, it doesn’t initially look like it contains a lot of unnecessary fat . Rather, the team went all out to capture nearly every single issue/area they deemed important. They actually glossed over some items – if the same approach they used for the first part was applied to the later ones, I have no doubt it would be a full 500 pages. Obviously, being the ruling party meant they could afford the kind of team required to do the research and compilation but it is impressive that they did so anyway. There are some golden nuggets within its pages that made me pause for thought e.g. learning that Roofings consumes 40MW of power (50 such factories would completely consume every single bit of power we’re currently generating). Or the fact that cocoa earns us $78M in exports from just 35,000 tonnes as opposed to $95M from 278,000 tonnes of maize. In addition, it is relatively well laid out in aesthetic terms although it doesn’t match the FDC and ANT in this regard.

But after reading the other parties’ documents, it is obvious that this one is indeed bloated and a bit of trimming would have made it a lot more readable. Publishing an abridged version (50 or so pages) would have probably attracted more readers. My conclusion after going through the others was that the NRM writers weren’t necessarily interested in people reading the whole thing and were probably driven by quantity over quality…

Apart from the bloat, there is one other big problem with the manifesto though and that is the fact that the party presenting it has been in power for 35 years. Therefore, it is impossible to read it in complete isolation; without thinking about the fact that this very party making grand promises is the same party that has presided over a moribund and unproductive civil service, an unprecedented explosion of the number of administrative units (districts etc), the ballooning of parliament and cabinet, the poor quality free education schemes, poor health facilities and eye-brow raising budget priorities that always end up requiring equally eye-brow raising supplementaries. This is the same party whose administration has seen all sort of infrastructure projects shoot way beyond reasonable cost/time overruns and has failed to deliver the kind of education and health systems we need in the 21st century (which is now 20% done). You simply cannot divorce yourself from reflecting on past unkept promises while reading this document. Was it not in this past term that the President announced, to near universal applause, a reorganisation, consolidation of parastatals (and scrapping of some)? Where did that end up? Some bits of the document actually make you reflect on whether the government is actually up to task of achieving the lofty goals they set. For example, who in this country did not know what the OWC “discovered” (described below):

On the side of expenditure, OWC recently helped us examine the way our civil servants were budgeting and spending resources. There was a divergence between NRM’s strategic intention and the way they allocated resources in the national budget. Most of the party’s good plans (like industrial parks, microfinance for the youth, scientists and innovators) are often underfunded while a huge sum of money is being spent on consumptive and unproductive expenses such as travel abroad, allowances, consultancies, workshops, welfare, as well as entertainment and hire of venues. For example, in the FY2019/20 budget, a hefty Ush3.9 trillion had been allocated towards these items. Most of this money was being spent on sustaining agencies and not production.

Or, when you read about plans to build an International Convention Centre (intriguingly named after Mahatma Gandhi), how do you stop your mind from wandering to the various CHOGM shenanigans and, more recently, Lubowa Hospital and wondering whether it will actually be a purely government owned/executed project or a PPP?

Luckily enough, the manifesto team have been very candid in this regard as reflected in their conclusion:

Since 1996, NRM has written very good manifestos that convinced Ugandans to keep it in power. We have, however, had a weakness in implementing party manifestos, one being weak supervision and monitoring of public servants.

The question thereafter is simple: Can a leopard, in old age at that, change its spots?

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