We need to understand the crisis in Greece more clearly, as the only difference in how it differs from our own in Uganda, is in terms of how we have reacted to it.
For nearly five years, the population there has been protesting against the conditions attached to the international loans they received as assistance in their economic recovery.
Under those terms, massive cuts to government spending on education, public health, environmental protection, public housing and social amenities, as well as a massive programme of selling off public assets, are compulsory.
If that sounds familiar to Ugandans, it is also where the similarity ends.
The Greeks have now gone further and elected a new government committed to rejecting and reversing all those policies.
This step has now put the Mediterranean country with a population just one-third of Uganda’s (but with a debt ratio of 175 per cent of GDP) on a direct collision course with the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union federal government in Brussels, as they insist that Greece must maintain the cost-cutting so as to manage to repay the 172 billion Euros ($155b) lent to it, on schedule.
The ongoing argument is as bitter as its outcome is uncertain: Germany –whose banks put up much of the loan money- is taking a hard line, while Greece’s new leaders insist that the terms are inhuman, counterproductive, and nothing short of a national humiliation.
Ugandans, of course, have lived under a similar plan designed by the same authors, which first landed on us calling itself the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), for nearly 30 years now. In fact, the programme –or its results- has been in place for so long, that many today take it as normal.
The reaction in Greece shows that this is in fact not a normal way to live. And apart from them, other such reactions are brewing.
Sinn Fein, the radical Irish nationalist party, is joining with citizens in physically blocking the authorities from installing water meters in poor neighbourhoods as part of its wider anti-austerity campaign (measuring peoples’ water is not considered civilised in countries where access to fresh water is recognised as a human right).
In Spain, a movement very similar in popularity to the one now in power in Greece, is also promising to abandon austerity should it take power after their elections at the end of this year.
How come Ugandans did not also oppose these measures? There are two answers. The short one is that actually, they did.
Just like in Greece, Spain and Ireland, there were those who decided to demonstrate against the SAP, and also speak out in public, but the results were very different.
Readers old enough will remember the February 1990 police shootings at Makerere University students demonstrating against SAP-imposed cuts in stationery and travel allowances, leaving two dead and others wounded.
For the long answer, older readers may also remember that political parties were not allowed to convene, recruit members, hold demonstrations or even display party colours and symbols between 1986 and 2005.
As for the media, readers may also wish to recall the statement by the President at a press conference on February 18, 1987: “If the media continue to malign the good name of the NRA, I shall have them locked up under the Detention Laws.”
Under these circumstances, it was clear that making public one’s opinion of the government (and also of how the security forces handled such opinion), as well as trying to formulate policy alternatives by convening as a party, was very hazardous. A final solution, in the form of the type of general election we have just seen in Greece, was also therefore completely out of the question.
This created the central dilemma of much of Uganda’s political Opposition, which haunts them up to today. Many leading voices and parties cannot directly oppose the austerity policies, as they were enthusiastic participants in the same government during this most critical period, and as such also tend to be burdened by a very weak understanding as to why it is a bad policy, (hence their focus on “human rights” and “corruption” instead).
As for the one that could have understood: the then recently ousted Uganda Peoples Congress – which, through voices like Professor Rubaihayo, better grasped the issues, and which had been resisting the beginnings of IMF austerity whilst in power – it was still licking its wounds while nursing ambitions of a quick return to power via military means.
So instead of devoting more energy to this matter, many leading personalities from its former government (like Aggrey Awori, Otema Allimadi, Peter Otai and others) seemed preoccupied with the details of setting up armed movements.
By the time “multipartyism” was made legal again, all the key austerity components had been so firmly put in place, and the population rendered so ignorant that 2006 Democratic Party presidential candidate, the former Minister of Co-operatives, Mr Sebaana Kizito, was openly laughed at by the crowd during a campaign rally when he declared his intention to (re)nationalise the coffee trade.
After all, who had ever heard of such a thing?
One thing becomes very clear from all of this: for austerity programmes to work, democracy must die.
Dictatorship is reason why the implementation of austerity has been very effective in Uganda, and why President Museveni has therefore been the darling of Western governments and policy-makers for the better part of three decades.
In the matter of economic policy, African opinions do not matter, and we are even helpfully provided with a dictatorial government to help remind us of that fact, in case we forget.
This is the real meaning behind the Spanish Prime Minister’s 2012 infamous sms guidance to his Finance Minister who was flying off to negotiate Spain’s own loan conditions: “Spain is not Uganda”.