Democracy vs Stability

If you, like me, are a casual observer of Ugandan politics, you would have seen over the past few months the ugly head of authoritarianism reared in an otherwise stable and thriving political system. House arrests, street protests, masked vigilantes, media blackouts. That’s right. It was election season. Ah yes, the captivating event that comes along every 4-6 years and sees nations clamber in turmoil over choosing a victor, despite the outcome usually being all but certain.

In this case, our luckless opposition figure was Kizza Besiege (FDC), a retired army hero and previous contender for the heavyweight title of the Ugandan presidency. In the other corner, our reigning champ, Yoweri Museveni (NRM), whose undefeated streak of 30 years is rivaled only by such leaders as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar Gullah of Djibouti, or Paul Biya of Cameroon. The sheer length of his administration — institution, rather — prompted Ugandans to take to Twitter behind the #WhenMuseveniBecamePresident hashtag and post photos of their parents in college or themselves in diapers.

Despite what Samuel Huntington and other development thinkers would have you believe, it seems that democratic transition is not yet on the horizon for much of Africa. The continent is being wracked by an epidemic of the “Third term” virus. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, Chad’s Idriss Debé (actually a 4th term), DRC’s Laurent Kabila, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame are all now campaigning for constitutional reforms to allow a third term and most seem to be well on their way to securing another few years in office, at the least.

Seems that stability and economic growth does not necessarily mean democracy, especially when the Clintons are using the full force of the US State Department and their ‘philanthropic’ organization to keep Kagame in power despite human rights violations and curtailed civil liberties. But hey, check out that GDP growth. Rwanda, a la Singapore and 1970s Chile, is soon to join the growing list of nations that seem to skirt liberal governance for strong economic growth and contradict established development theory which continues to pretend that the United States/ Western Europe and its imperial tendencies — IMF, World Bank, Paris Club — are charitable and apolitical organizations.

In any case, Kizza Besigye is, depending on when you’re reading this, either under house arrest or in prison proper, his list of charges as long as they are vague. The instability his weekly rallies and parallel mock presidential swearing-in have created have the NRM furious, investors pulling their money, and most importantly for us, Indians shaking in their boots. To them, Besigye’s rhetoric and popular support presents a threat to the comfortable and preferential status quo that Museveni carved out for Indians after taking power over from Idi Amin in 1986 (Milton Obote’s second stint as president is actually sandwiched between the two regimes but is largely relegated to the footnotes of history).

Following Idi Amin’s Asian expulsion in 1972, the country fell into economic despair — play by play replays of Jewish expulsion from Spain or the Portuguese expulsion from Angola — only to be saved by Yoweri Museveni, who saw the integral role these foreign traders played in the East African economy. Though Indians are a great bogeyman in electoral politics and do represent something of a threat to organic African sovereignty, they are nevertheless central to the stability of the region. To coax these Indians back, he re-appropriated Indian property taken by Amin’s regime back to their rightful owners, cut tax breaks for foreign money, and instituted a host of other economic policies to entice Indians back to the nation that had once burned them.

My landlady, as luck would have it, was one of the first Indians to return to Uganda in 1986. “There was nothing of what you see on the streets today. It was all shacks and dirt roads,” she tells. She had been married in India and was brought to Mombasa, Kenya, first by her husband who had been an up and coming real estate mogul. There, she enjoyed relative liberty but when they came to Uganda a few years later, she was confined to the walls of her flat in Old Kampala. Tensions still ran high on the streets with Museveni’s young regime and the still simmering fear of Indian economic prowess that Amin had sown in his subjects.

It took another 6-7 years of stability and progress for the Museveni regime to be entrenched enough and maintain its dialogue with the English Indian community for more to return. Now, there are about 20,000 in Kampala alone and the silhouettes of Indian temples define the skyline downtown. Indian names are emblazoned in every crack and crevice of the city, from the tops of shopping malls and office buildings to the stamps on matchboxes and plastic chairs. The time is ripe to capitalize on Indian success once again and Besigye has been the man to do it, forcing my landlady back into hiding whenever his demonstrations come through town.

Foreign traders as a powerful force is nothing new to modern Africa. In West Africa, Lebanese traders have long held the pursestrings to despotic regimes, financing the diamond mines and private security that weak state leaders require to hold their grasp on power. Foreign traders are actually quite a boon for heads of fragile nations. They present a class of people economically powerful but politically impotent because their ethnic background prevents them from becoming citizens and therefore, holding political office.

It benefits these heads of state to transfer much of the governments burden of servicing to this independent class because it lessens the risk of someone within the bureaucracy hijacking the system and turning it against the leader and also means there is a much smaller group of people to satisfy through patronage, meaning more in the pocket for our leader. In addition, foreign traders are removed from the ethnic politics that define much of African systems and can therefore stand alone through regime changes, coups, and ousters, so long as they are not the targets of an incoming administration.

And that’s what Indians in South Sudan present the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling political force of the nation since it coalesced under Dr. John Garang de Mabior as an insurgent group against Khartoum in 1983. At least, that’s what I hope. It’s been tough to really get at that question of what do these traders actually mean for the conflict and political systems of these nations?

I’ve met a few men here who have done and continue to do business illicitly (more on that at a later date) with South Sudan, and they have all gone off listing their grievances of dealing in South Sudan, the government and people alike. They’ve described to me how they find their network and the ins and outs of running a commodity trade. But they, being businessmen, find it difficult to pitch their economic goals against a broader political backdrop.

So that task falls to me.

More coming soon.

Rajiv Golla is a T’17 Alum.

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