The word ghetto is popularly understood to mean a part of a city, often slum-like, where sections of the population — often the most impoverished live.
By Mary Karooro Okurut
In the past one year, President Yoweri Museveni has been making a sustained ‘offensive' into what in Kampala's modern parlance has become known as the ‘Ghetto' by supporting several entrepreneurial and semi-skilled labour groups with start-up capital and inviting some of the Ghetto community members into the political realm as political advisors.
The ‘offensive' — an otherwise emancipatory intervention designed to improve the fortunes of some of the most disadvantaged in our society has instead become fodder for political ping-pong, with many of the President's opponents interpreting it through the narrow lenses of political opportunism.
The word ghetto is popularly understood to mean a part of a city, often slum-like, where sections of the population — often the most impoverished live. But ghettos are not just geographical territories. The gist of the terminology connotes a state of living. The circumstances necessary for the ‘thriving' of ghettos — poverty, illiteracy/semi-illiteracy, insufficient access to basic social services, economic and political marginalisation, are not limited to peri-urban areas alone.
In predominantly peasant societies like ours, these conditions of perceived marginalisation tend to often be spread out across the entire countryside, creating vast swathes of ‘ghettos' even where urban centres do not exist.
These are the very same issues that motivated NRM's liberation struggle, and formed the original blue-print of its governance agenda once it emerged victorious in 1986. Indeed, the restoration of democracy to enable popular political participation, the building of an inclusive, integrated self-sustaining economy to enable equitable access to economic opportunities for all, and the fight against of all forms of corruption that eat away at the State's ability to provide social services were all high-ranking action points on the NRM 10-point programme.
Some, like popular democratic participation were already being practised in the NRM's liberated zones in the bush. Peasants, long neglected to their own ghettos with no consequential voice in matters of their own governance, were empowered to elect their local leaders in a bottom-up political structures christened Resistance Councils. They were also actively involved in executing the war effort by providing critical intelligence to the rebels, feeding them, and reporting errant ones to their commanders where they would be appropriately punished, in the earliest signs that the National Resistance Army unlike its predecessors, prized discipline among its ranks and was determined to build a force that was accountable to the citizens. It is this discipline and clarity of vision that endeared the NRM/A to the population, the majority of whom were more than eager to escape their ghettos of social, economic and political exclusion and gain a stake in their own governance. The Resistance Council structures would later be rolled out in the country and later institutionalised in the 1993 Local Government Statute which was at the time the most comprehensive administrative reform anywhere in the region.
The Local Government reform had been preceded by Uganda's equally elaborate constitution-making process. Started in 1989 and concluded in 1995, the process enlisted a total of 25547 separate submissions from citizens, institutions and local councils, an unprecedented scope of civic participation anywhere on the continent.
In terms of social outreach, the biggest beneficiaries of President Museveni's bold awareness campaign against HIV/AIDs in the early 90s that won him international acclaim were the poor and uneducated, who were either ignorant about the causes of the disease or unable to afford the scarce and expensive treatment at the time.
Through the resultant behavioural change, prevalence rates significantly declined and over time, patients started accessing life-saving treatment. Combined with other interventions in the health sector, average life expectancy now stands at 64 years from a miserable 45 years in 1990.
So were the beneficiaries of Universal Primary Education. In spite of the challenges, the now more than two-decade policy has been able to grow literacy levels in the country, from about 57% in 1997 when it was introduced to now an impressive 76%, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.
The President's latest outreach to the ghettos should, therefore, be understood through these lenses — a continuation of the NRM's historical efforts at political and socio-economic inclusion of all Ugandans. Alongside it, the President has been championing the gospel of wealth-creation and improving household incomes.
The urban poor have gained particular importance because as the economy has grown, so has urbanisation. According to UBOS, Uganda is urbanising at 5%, and at 5.6%, Kampala is one of the fastest urbanising cities in Africa. This wave of urbanisation is exerting too much pressure on the existing social services and requires new and appropriate responses.
It is this reality that the NRM is trying to respond to and the President needs every assistance he can get in that regard, be it from Buchaman, Full Figure or Catherine Kusasira.
The writer is the Minister in Charge of General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister