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How Economic Growth can contribute to Peace in Uganda

August 24, 2016

Much remains to be done to invest in peace and prosperity in Uganda. Provided the will is there, plenty can be done to build stability and peace, as an integral part of building economic growth. The need for new oil infrastructure is one opportunity to do so.

(A version of this article also appears on International Alert’s website. )

Conflict is born of unresolved differences, and violent conflict is when these get out of hand. This happens when the mechanisms for managing and resolving differences and conflicts are overwhelmed. Ugandans experienced this almost continuously from Independence in 1962, until 2006 when the Lord’s Resistance Army left Uganda to inflict its mayhem, pain and sorrow elsewhere in central Africa.

Since then the government, NGOs, religious and cultural leaders, international agencies and others have implemented many peace and reconciliation programmes, especially focused on northern Uganda, the last part of the country to be pacified. These have included reintegration projects for ex-rebels and their ex-captives, amnesties, inter- and intra-community dialogues and ceremonies, trauma healing, post-conflict investment in human capital and infrastructure development, local government capacity-building, and helping thousands of war-displaced people return home. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal of peacebuilding to do.

But ten years on, people have had enough of peacebuilding. Civil war has not returned. Neither the government nor its international partners are keen to keep harping back to the difficult past. Reminding people of the violence and unrest Ugandans have lived through does little to inspire confidence in potential investors, and the focus is now much more on ‘development’ than on post-conflict reconciliation and recovery. Dealing with the past requires examining the underlying causes of conflict, and because Uganda’s wars were strongly linked to communal disagreements and mistrust, which have not necessarily been resolved or overcome, many feel that now is not the time to bring these formally to the surface, for fear they create new tensions which are so powerful they may overwhelm the capacity to address them. Fair enough, perhaps. Anything for a quiet life.

Underlying conflicts persist

And yet, many conflicts persist, even if they are not expressed through widespread violence. Land is scarce in many parts, especially the south-west, and land-poor families have been migrating to other parts of Uganda for years. And yet land is hardly less scarce in many of the districts in which they have settled, and their arrival has often upset delicately balanced land-use and local political systems, such as for the co-management by farmers and pastoralists. Result: mistrust and local conflicts, sometimes violent – local stresses are overwhelming the capacity to manage them.

Meanwhile the famous north-south division persists as a political and conflict trope, as it has for decades, alongside other identity-based tensions. Result: an uneasy coexistence. This is not at present overcoming Uganda’s conflict management systems and mechanisms as it has so often in the past. But these underlying tensions are not being addressed, and could become inflamed again in the right circumstances, for example if exacerbated by problems over access to land or other resources.

Uganda’s population is overwhelmingly young – 78% under the age of 30 – with a high rate of unemployment. Young people are increasingly dissatisfied with their lot and what they see as poor prospects for their future, and many don’t feel their issues are being heard, much less addressed, by the government; yet despite voting for opposition candidates in increasing numbers, are frustrated by the lack of change. Nor are the traditional mechanisms for mediating between the interests and needs of young and old working as they used to, to maintain order and stability in many communities. Result: increasing levels of frustration, tension and unrest in cities, often attracting violent – seemingly disproportionate – responses from the security forces which merely serve to increase the tension.

President Museveni’s Movement Party has remained in office continuously since it won power in 1986 following a civil war, and appears to be using increasingly aggressive tactics and the resources of the state to retain control, undermining people’s faith in democracy in a country which has never yet seen a change in national leadership through elections, and therefore where it is easy for people to believe power is being consolidated beyond their ability to have any influence by democratic means. Result: increasing alienation from and dissatisfaction with Ugandan democracy as a method of having one’s voice heard, and thus the risk some people may seek other approaches to do so.

Meanwhile, unhealed trauma from the years of war in Uganda continue to undermine too many individuals’, families’ and communities’ attempts to make progress in their lives. Result: dysfunctional relationships, a sense of lingering grievance, and a mistrust of the status quo.

Peacebuilding remains a priority

These are just some of the conflicts and stresses present in Uganda, and likely to persist, potentially contributing to instability. And further stresses will surely be added in coming years. The long process of developing Uganda’s oil resources appears to be getting closer to the production phase. A refinery is to be built in Hoima, along with an international airport close by, a huge network of roads and other ancillary infrastructure, and a pipeline to the Indian Ocean through Tanzania. The process has been slow enough so far, but it’s common to hear in Kampala’s bars that the president is determined that the oil will start to flow as soon as possible during his current term (due to end in 2021).  Once oil does flow – and further deposits are expected to found as exploration continues – vast new wealth will enter the economy – no-one knows for sure how much, but some are saying that oil revenues will boost annual GDP growth rates to 10% within a few years, and could propel Uganda to Middle Income status by 2040. The economy is therefore heading for disruptive change – in a context where corruption is widely accepted to be rife at every level, with bribes, kick-backs and other acts of fraud from the petty to the grand scale. So, Ugandans will experience massive change and disruption – putting yet more stress on inadequate governance systems –  even as some of the changes many Ugandans wish and expect to see are not happening. Tensions could spill out of control.

And in the meantime, both the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces – two rebel groups with their roots and origins in Uganda – remain active in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) respectively, with no apparent plan to bring either rebellion to a peaceful end. This reflects that conflicts in the region are often uncontained by porous national borders: Uganda is affected by conflict and instability in DRC and South Sudan and the consequent proliferation of light weapons (a recent report  claims Uganda has over 400,000 unregistered guns).

So those people and institutions for whom the era of peacebuilding is now over should perhaps think again. The alarming return to armed violence in Mozambique in recent years – after the peace process was widely considered to have been successful – is one among many reminders of the need to take nothing for granted. But there is no reason why violent conflict should be allowed to return in Uganda, provided Ugandans and their international partners continue to invest in increasing resilience to the kinds of stresses which can engender violence.

This means it’s important to make sure that public and political discourse explicitly recognises the need to invest in peacebuilding – so mistrust and dissatisfaction are not pushed into darker recesses where they can fester. More public discussion and debate – locally and nationally – about how to achieve the vision of a stable, peaceful and prosperous Uganda benefiting all, would therefore be welcome.

Building peace by other means

Nevertheless, I recognise that many prefer to focus on prosperity – and fortunately, they too can make a difference for peace. As International Alert pointed out in the report Peace through Prosperity last year, there are many ways to do so, provided business and other economic initiatives factor peace and stability objectives into their plans, alongside economic goals. The oil sector provides many opportunities for this. As Alert argued in the seminal report about oil in Uganda in 2009, it is critical the oil sector is developed as transparently as possible, under excellent political leadership, and that the opportunities which oil provides to manage and resolve Uganda’s various existing conflicts are seized. What might this look like over the next few years?

Infrastructure for peace and democracy

All decisions about new infrastructure have the potential to inflame or help resolve conflicts. The recent decision to opt for the southern pipeline route, over a northern alternative, has predictably fed pre-existing accusations that Northern Uganda  is somehow losing out on infrastructure investment – nourishing the North-South conflict trope. So it’s important to explain in as much detail as possible why the decision was taken, providing as much background data as possible to allow critics to review, debate and understand the rationale. This, surely, is also an opportunity to reinforce the notion that oil is part of the patrimony of the Ugandan nation, no matter where it is found – hence 94% of oil royalties accrue to the central state, with only 6% remaining in the producing areas – and ensure that all parts of the country benefit from improved infrastructure, whether or not linked it is directly to oil.

Since all decisions about new infrastructure will benefit some and disadvantage others, it is vital that enough time and effort is invested in local discussion and transparent decision-making, reflecting as far as possible the views and interests of those affected (and explaining why some of those interests can’t be met). All infrastructure decisions have implications for land, in an environment where primary production prevails, and access to and ownership of land is thus of prime political and economic moment. Imagine what might happen if recent migrants or land purchasers from outside an area turned out to be the main beneficiaries of compensation pay-outs when land was needed for a pipeline or a new road…  But alternatively, how beneficial it could be to local inter-community relations if all communities were brought into the discussions about potential routes, and the infrastructure designers opted for a route which served all communities more or less equally, as well as providing the access needed for the oil industry. Even if this meant taking a longer route, costing more, it would contribute not only economically but also to building trust and local peace – peacebuilding through infrastructure development…

If cynicism about democratic governance is an issue for stability and peace, as I suggested earlier, this too can be addressed as part of infrastructure development. Democracy is not just about holding elections every few years. It also implies that all citizens are considered equally, and have a right to be consulted over matters which affect them. The disruption to people’s lives where new infrastructure is planned provides an opportunity for the government to put this principle into practice, and give people (in often remote areas) a chance to participate in and contribute to Uganda’s development while also having their interests and views taken into account, and thus internalise the idea that governance can work for them: for people of all ages, women as well as men, and people from different language groups. So an investment in genuinely participatory planning processes can not only help guide infrastructure development for economic reasons, and thus be a sensible way to proceed anyway, but also improve people’s sense of citizenship and their relationship with and trust in the state – an essential public good, and good for peace. 

And finally – for this article, though the list of opportunities for building peace through infrastructure could be far longer if space allowed – the next phase of oil sector development is a wonderful opportunity to start putting to bed the widespread and growing view that public funds benefit the few, not the many. Large scale corruption has either worsened or become more visible in recent years. Either way, the apparent prevalence of cronyism in access to economic opportunity such as in the award of contracts, along with more blatant theft and fraud of public funds, is creating a groundswell of dissatisfaction and grievance. Whether this is a sense of genuine moral outrage, or simply envy that only ‘others’ are benefiting, it is creating a sense of widely shared grievance that can feed instability. And so it is of critical importance that extra measures are taken to limit the scale of corruption linked to oil-related infrastructure – and that any suspicions are properly investigated and where necessary brought to justice.

 Much remains to be done to invest in peace and prosperity in Uganda. Provided the will is there, much can be done to build stability and peace, as an integral part of building economic growth.

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