After a blistering rant against the West during a trip to Russia reminiscent of the cold war, President Yoweri Museveni delivered an equally virulent diatribe against what he called foreign interests in the Ugandan oil and gas sector. In Russia he is reported to have explored what has long been seen an oil for arms arrangement- negotiations that occurred after the ruling NRM pushed through legislation that gives the Executive direct authority over the oil sector. Back home while addressing parliament about his fight with Mps over the now infamous “clause 9” he accused civil society of being agents of “imperialism” [my translation] or rather working to further the interests of foreign invariably western governments. There are a couple of points worth delving to here President Museveni-s speech to Parliament on Oil
Firstly Uganda, and Mr. Museveni’s reaction aside, there is an unofficial cold war going on that unlike the previous [official] one that ended just as the NRM took power in 1986 is less about ideology and more about resources. This is what the debate on China in Africa is all about. Indeed Mr. Museveni (as I have reported before) has long sought to position Uganda’s natural resources within a cold war matrix. Long before the biggest deal in the sector, a farm down of assets by UK listed Tullow, his advisors intimated to me that the final instructions from him were to balance the influence of foreign powers by populating the sector with a mixture of western and eastern firms. In the end China’s CNOOC lined up with France’s Total and Tullow itself. In parliament he revealed that the choice of CNOOC was political and intended as a measure of independence [ from bullish western governments] His reference to “foreign funding” for civil society also bears commenting on in particular the large conference on the oil bills that was held at Speke Resort Munyonyo which by all accounts was an excessive expenditure out of the governance bourse of the Democracy Governance Facility – a cash basket by donors for governance issues. Seen in anyway putting up so many Mps at a resort may have been desperate but the fact that it happened on donor funds could have been interpreted as signaling the interests of the funders. I recall when this happened having a conversation with my colleague Charles Mwanguhya – where the Ugandan voter was considering the NRM was also holding a large caucus [ Mps receive a considerable stipend to attend these] on the same issue just days later. Oil governance is a new area ( because the oil sector is new of course and because governance has become critical in the wake of corruption scandals) is controversial because of the nature of the industry.
The oil sector has always been foreign policy sensitive but in Uganda its important within the context of two transitions both of which are interlinked: one is a decidedly economic one, from donor assistance to without, and a political one from Mr. Museveni to the eventual political heirs that will emerge. As such the talk of imperialism and independence is intermixed with language that may be confusing but taps into the Marxist foundations of the NRM’s own thinking (of an independent economy as a form of resistance from domination) but also as a statement of the limits of donor influence on Uganda’s non-Marxist but infant institutions of political competition- like the ones that engaged in a fully fledged battle over clause 9. This other struggle is not about donors, national security or foreign relations but about the political struggles of Mr. Museveni personally ( he has been in charge for 27 years) and what will happen afterwards
Secondly, the bullish talk obviates something that has a real constituency in Uganda: corruption, which has two readings in the thinking at the center of power in Uganda. Inside power; corruption is simply the appropriation of resources through unofficial channels that is not dedicated to maintaining the political aims and strategies of the government. In this way as published elsewhere corruption is sometimes “the way the system works” especially if its in pursuit of sanctioned political aims (included in this column is the widely discussed purchase of jet fighters by drawing down the national reserves or the controversial decision by cabinet to bolster its position with donors by repaying from the consolidated fund what was stolen by civil servants). There is the other corruption, which in general is the non-political garden variety theft. Today in Uganda precisely because the other corruption is viewed as disruptive to politics there is a genuine attempt to clean it up by the authorities a subject we can return to. As for the donors aid cuts as an instrument of influence including influence over emerging natural resources are becoming something of a blunt instrument. However because of general public fatigue over graft and anger about the record of the NRM government on services their position on the matter has a vibrant public constituency. While one can point to foreign bogeymen intent on destabilizing the state – the real challenge of the NRM is in showing its willingness to feed the crowd baying for the blood of public servants including political higher-ups about theft of public funds. In this the attacks on civil society [over oil] who have been leading the charge on corruption will be less successful with the Ugandan public.
What after all has this to do with appalling services at the hospitals or the lack of jobs? None of it is related to future oil revenues but more closely related to the theft of donor funds today. Ultimately the positioning of the oil sector at fulcrum of foreign policy, the economy (especially the role of aid in this) will interrogate the future of political governance in Uganda and especially what it means for “transitioning” of such power.
Some questions from Russia would be what the return of cold-war style posture means? For example the “militarization” of future oil in security style deals will probably create competing interests within the state between social services and national security and their attendant constituencies in the governance issue. More of this later. Over to you for now.