Zig-zagging the country on the campaign trail, chairing cabinet meetings, addressing international conferences on development and security – all this three decades after winning power in a guerrilla war… President Yoweri Museveni’s political energy is undimmed.
He broke off from a cabinet meeting at State House to talk to The Africa Report about how African governments should manage digital technology and have no choice but to process the continent’s resources locally.
He added a critique of the identity politics which he says have held back many countries in the region, before dismissing his political opponents as lacking relevant ideologies.
This is a rare interview with one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, who is facing what may be the greatest political test of his career with the coming national elections in 2021.
TAR: You have introduced the ‘olugambo’ tax – targeting social media. How do you justify it?
It is working. The telephone companies have been under-declaring but we are now able to know the magnitude of their under-declaration. Our tax policy is very clear: we don’t tax production when you are making inputs into production for industry, for agriculture. But when it’s consumption, that’s where we tax.
You don’t plan to tax Google search engines for example?
Not if it is providing knowledge and education. Olugambo is just gossip so why shouldn’t you contribute a little bit? The population of Africa are paying for that Olugambo, it’s not free. They pay the telephone companies. When you send data or voice over a telephone piece, you pay.
Now that means that our purchasing power is going to service that Olugambo. Fine, we don’t want to stop Olugambo but you if you have money to spend on Olugambo, make a contribution to the development of your country, that’s all we are saying.
Are you also taxing mobile banking, mobile money?
Yes that one we taxed a little because you are dealing with economies which are mainly pre-capitalist. If you look at the figures of Uganda for 1914 to 2014, only 32% of the homesteads were in the money economy, 68% we are outside — the subsistence economy, they only produce for eating. They are therefore on the periphery of money economy. They come in once in a while to send money. That’s why we said, okay, if you’re sending money through this system, make a contribution.
You have said that striking oil would transform Uganda’s economy. Do you still believe that?
The oil sector is important, although it’s a finite resource. Agriculture and tourism will be there forever, as long as we don’t destroy the environment. The products of the human brain will be there forever, as long as it’s trained.
The money from oil is for limited time but we shall use it in such a way that it creates a durable capacity – by training our children, by supporting science education in the universities.
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You talk about ideological impediments to economic development. Can you elaborate?
When you have politics where you emphasise identity, you emphasise tribes and religion, it can cause so much damage – as you’ve seen in a country like the Sudan. […] In the 1960s, we rejected this politics of identity and we said what is correct are interests.
In my tribe, I am a cattle keeper. But members of my tribe do not buy milk from me. They don’t buy meat from me because they have meat and milk. They have what I have.
So when I highlight politics of identity I am an enemy of my tribe, first and foremost. Because if the other tribe – the cultivators, the non-cattle people who buy my milk, who buy my beef –, if they didn’t buy from us, our tribe would be the first to suffer.
So why would they form a party based on my identity group, which doesn’t solve our needs? […] Where does prosperity of my group come from? It does not come from my tribe, it comes from the other people who buy my milk, buy my beef.
That’s one of the bottlenecks that paralyzed Africa and can destroy countries as you see what happened in the Sudan. The South of Sudan had to break away because of that issue.
Yet at one stage, you reached an accommodation with Omer el Beshir’s regime in Khartoum?
We had peace but after a lot of damage. As you saw, the economy in Sudan was in a very bad situation. What was the original cause of the economic damage? The South going its way, taking the oil. If that had not happened, maybe there would have been other problems. But at least the economy would not have been as bad as it came to be.
Initially, the Southerners were not asking about separation, they were talking about a secular democratic Sudan … a Sudan whose central government is neutral as far as identity is concerned. But they [Omer el-Beshir’s regime] wouldn’t agree, they were insisting that Sudan is Arabic when the majority of the people are not Arabs even in the north.
This ideological disorientation is like addiction, people who get addicted to cocaine. See how much damage it’s doing to the Middle East? Shia, Sunni, what’s all this? I am a cattle-keeper, my identity is in my home. We have a cattle culture and so on.
But outside I don’t have to impose my identity on anybody. Outside my home, what is crucial is interests, who can support my interests. That’s what I would call rational politics.
Do you think Sudan can make a transition to democracy?
I don’t know. What I can say is that it’s not just civilian versus military, it is ideological. It doesn’t matter whether the doctor is a soldier or a civilian, if he does a misdiagnosis of society, the patient will not be cured. It is not a technocratic question, it is philosophy, it is ideology.
The problem of the Sudan did not start with [former president] Bashir, the civil war started in 1956, soon after independence.
And those were not only soldiers, some of the people like Hassan Al-Turabi [founder of the Islamist movement in Sudan] were not soldiers…
How concerned are you about the risk of Africa taking on more debt?
Well I don’t think the debt is the problem because we have been losing money by exporting raw materials. That’s a big loss. For example, in 1969 Uganda produced 480,000 bales of cotton – a bale is about 185 kilograms. If all that cotton had been converted into a textile industry, how much money would we have earned?
So Africa is losing, whether we borrow or we don’t borrow. So I think if one borrows but creates a better base for business, you see what will develop.
That’s how China has developed to become the second biggest economy in the world because that communist government developed infrastructure, abundant electricity, low transport costs. Look at the cost of transporting a ton of something from Beijing to Shanghai and compare it with transporting a container from Kampala to Mombasa which is the same distance.
By lowering the costs of doing business in China, also the low cost of labour, that’s how all the industries shifted to China. So even if we borrow we will be much better than where we are now … dealing with these bottlenecks.
On the campaign trail, you have been talking about a political war. How do you justify this?
You see in Europe and in America people are running countries. Here in Africa we are building countries. So here it’s a struggle, a struggle of direction. Do we do this or that? And they are all very serious issues. Some people think that when I lead, people are doing me a favour. In fact, it’s a sacrifice because you are pioneering so many things.
If the diagnosis is right, you succeed; if it’s wrong. you fail because you are pioneering, you are building systems, you are charting directions. On the issue of integration, we are the ones who insisted on it. […] Uganda is not enough to support the prosperity of the Ugandans – for that you need East Africa, you need Africa to support prosperity.
What’s wrong with the opposition parties, in your view?
They have no ideology. They are just opportunists. Our old opponents were the Democratic Party and Uganda People’s Congress. I was a member of both of them in the 1960s – these are the ones we disagreed with because their line was the politics of identity. […] The opposition is trying to inherit the base of those sectarian groups […] but we have been defeating those sectarian groups democratically.
When we [Museveni’s National Resistance Movement] went for the constituent assembly, we defeated them. In 1996, we got 75% [of the vote]; in 2001 we got 70%; then 2006 we came down to 59%; in 2011 we went to 70%.
During the last elections we were at 62% or maybe 65% including the spoilt votes because many of our supporters don’t know how to write properly.
So that battle between us and the old groups is the basic struggle, although there are some new ideas about social issues, which is good, the lack of jobs. But these are being used by those people [opposition parties] opportunistically. People are no longer so much interested in identity. The opposition is trying to latch onto social issues.
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