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Forty years of neoliberalism, forty years of pain

Last week, the ‘Uganda’s Neoliberalism at 40’ conference took place at Makerere University.

Put together by comrades, Rose Nakayi, Sarah Ssali (both from Makerere University), Jörg Wiegratz (University of Leeds), and my teacher, Guiliano Martiniello presently at the International University of Rabat in Morocco, the conference attracted a wide variety of papers and comments from scholars and activists from across the world —with a focus on Uganda.

The profiles of the presenters and participants were telling enough of the direction of this conference: renowned anti-exploitation, anti-capitalism scholar-activists, and self-described socialist-communists.

The keynote that was delivered by Prof. Yash Tandon, a socialist who was full of stories of grand encounters and nostalgia – with Milton Obote, Julius Nyerere, and one with Vladmir Putin during his time as KBG agent in Berlin. Legendary activist, Kalundi Serumaga was there; unionist Prof. Jean John Barya, and activist Agartha Atuhaire who delivered the closing comment.

That credentialled scholars from Makerere, the UK, and Napoli seamlessly and respectfully mingled with on-ground activists was a sight to behold. Other outstanding folks included, activist Jane Nalunga, Arthur Owor, Godwin Toko, academics, Elisa Greco, Zuzanna Udhe, and scholar and culturalist, Dr Laury Ocen (who is currently a clan elder among the Lango).

And for the gawkers, activist and former politician, current UNAIDS boss, Winnie Byanyima, was in the audience, and described herself as old communist-socialist of the Julius Nyerere type. Her son, Anselm Kizza-Besigye delivered a brilliant paper on the “ethnoprenuership” (his term) on oil with Bagungu as the case study.

Byanyima challenged her son to try and step out of the scholarly closet and be an activist. I was there. Tasked to read all those brilliant papers and make some comment on all of them. It was an honour.

The papers, crafted from the vantage point of neoliberalism, touched sectors and subjects including fish industry, civil society organisations, oil, sugar cane growing and trading, labour exportation/externalisation to the Middle East, housing crises, the 2021 election, mental health, and several others.

These papers, despite being drafts, were a great deal of learning.


In the course of reading these papers, one quickly realises that Uganda is trapped in a double catastrophe: on the one hand, it is capitalism — with all its commodity fetishism and anthropogenic ruins — and on the other, neoliberalism as an ‘imposition’ of a set of policies meant to benefit “former” colonisers.

As we know it, capitalism is dated to have begun in the English countryside in the 1600s. That could mean, exploiting labour and the environment and mild forms of ‘commodity fetishism’ was here before 1980s. (Not that it was all good). But the IMF and WB enforcement of structural adjustment programmes — privatisation, financialization and devaluation — did not only come from an ugly place; it added another layer of complication.

Or a series of layers. As Jason Hickel has demonstrated in his recent book, The Divide, these policies came from the diabolic jealousness that the independence of African countries had deprived Euro-America of cheap raw materials. Comparatively, one can actually argue that capitalism in itself would not be the problem for the African continent if the continent were exploiting her resources and getting maximum benefits.

Consider the exploitation of own natural resources in Russia, Iran or Qatar. It could be communism and capitalism combined. Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek recently argued that China and Russia — some of the biggest and most stables economies in the world — have actually combined both: “they work like capitalists, and enjoy like communists.”

Of course they have oligarchs, and Sheikhs, but the public is sufficiently provided. Africa’s problem, then, becomes singularly describable as neoliberalism.


In fact, one of my little disappointments during this conference was that most papers — not all of them — didn’t call neoliberalism exactly what it is: ‘new colonialism.’

That Africa has been dealing with 40 years of raw power, and violence from Euro-America disguised as myriad technicalities — and oftentimes, openly as coups. Kalundi Serumaga stressed this point of violence many times.

Consider the “technical language” of new colonialism – the big debates: Developmentalism; democracy and human rights; conservation and preservation; free trade, et cetera. All these have myriad institutions pushing them onto the African continent, yet these are the things through which colonialism reproduces itself.

There is nothing more cynical and dangerous on the African continent as western funded groups and discourses pushing things such as developmentalism, democracy, human rights, international law, environment conservation, et cetera. As Palestine has continued to demonstrate in record time, these terms have always been instruments of power.


As the epicentre of neoliberalism — where it is still rabidly promoted — one ought to narrate the forty years of imposition of things, especially privatisation, (which meant removing government from investing and or running key aspects of a country’s existence (from public education, public transport, cooperatives, hospitality sector, coffee trade, telecoms, banks, industries, ranches, tourism projects, electricity distribution) and handing them over to individual businesspersons.

In Uganda, all these ended up in the hands of foreign monopolists. Other were simply left to collapse. Consider that before 1980s, government was the entrepreneur, started companies called parastatals, and generated income from exploiting its natural and human resources.

These profits would be put to the development of other sectors of the economy including offering subsidies to others such as public health and education. Because of the size of these businesses, with no local businessmen to buy them, but with IMF and WB holding government at gunpoint, governments were forced to lose their revenue, and also their importance in the lives of their subjects.

If the country was a body, some of its parts have been organ-harvested, some are cancerous, and others are dead. The neo-liberalised state in Africa is a walking zombie.

Through these ruins, many things come into context: Consider the collapse of the farmers bank, Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB), and the deliberate closure of indigenous banks in Uganda. With a banking regime dominated by foreign-owned banks, this is outright violent banking colonialism.

Banking colonialism explains mental health crises among young adults in Kalerwe market, whose businesses cannot benefit from any loan schemes. It explains the surge in labour/slave exportation to the Middle East (before we even discuss the gendered nature), because there is literary no money in the economy.

So are the results of the government collapse of cooperatives (East Mengo, Busoga, Ankole). Because the sugar, coffee, diary or tea farmers are left to the mercy of thieves from the big cities, it has resulted in a rise in rural poverty, thus rural-urban migration, and thus the pressure on housing in Kampala.

The irony of all this is that while we discussed the scourge of neoliberalism in Uganda, Kampala was hosting something called, the Non-Aligned Movement.


The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University


+2 #1 sadrach 2024-01-24 17:48
Based on this article, the neoliberalism grip on African countries is now too tight ... letting go is clearly impossible.

Those invisible hands indirectly control our leaders in all decisions affecting national interests.

It will require lots of work to change the status quo.
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0 #2 Akot 2024-01-27 15:37

Thanks, but,

Only UNITY of a people give chance to change & the people will then have to ensure they are well governed!

Tribally divided ruled, Ugandans have given Museveni the power he needs & only them can stop him by saying NO to the tribalistic system & UNITING to ensure he's out!

Powerless tribally divided ruled means Ugandans hold on to Museveni & they bolster him with fake elections, to shut out the outside world!

Rwandese Museveni is really lucky!
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0 #3 Lakwena 2024-01-29 10:25
It is good to hear that: unlike his older, Delinquent and Brut family nemesis counterpart, Gen Kainerugaba Muhoozi; Anselm Kizza-Besigye has not only physically matured, but rubbing brain and shoulders with prominent Intellectuals.

What I last and clearly remember about Anselm Kizza-Besigye, was after his father Dr. Kiiza Besigye was arrested and charged with: rape, treason, mis-treason, and all sorts of imaginary evils and crimes.

The Media report was that the 5-year old Anselm, was doing push-ups and flexing his muscles, for a fight; to free his father from the iron-grip of our "Unconstitutional Problem of Africa", Gen Tibuhaburwa.

In other words, Anselm should thank God for his good and clean parentage and up-bringing.
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