Will Museveni Survive Mabira or Will Mabira Survive Museveni

There is a lot of talk that Museveni's strong stand in wanting to give away Mabira is not connected to sugar production.

By Gerald Rulekere
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First published: September 29, 2011

Whether you look at it as a political or economic issue, President Yoweri Museveni’s insistence on giving away part of Mabira forest to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda (SCOUL) to boost sugar production is a decision that continues to surprise and irk his enemies and allies alike.

Despite strong opposition to his proposal from Uganda’s opposition and even many members of his ruling National Resistance Movement government, Museveni has insisted that the forest (which he says is degraded) should be given to SCOUL. While the President continues to insist that he needs scientific evidence that giving away part of Mabira forest will result in dire environmental consequences before he changes his mind, there is a lot of talk that Museveni’s strong stand in wanting to give away Mabira is not connected to sugar production.

It is not the first time Museveni has tried to give away that very part of Mabira, considered to be one of the most environmentally valuable forests in Uganda and Africa in general. He tried in 2007 with disastrous consequences where the anti Mabira give away demonstrations in Kampala alone resulted in the death of more than two people and destruction of property. As Museveni should know better than anyone else, the mood in the country right now, is even more against the give away of the forest.

April 2007: Racial Violence, Deaths Rock Kampala As Rioter Protest Mabira Forest Giveaway
April 2007: Racial Violence, Deaths Rock Kampala As Rioter Protest Mabira Forest Giveaway.  Read more >>

Why Museveni’s stand on Mabira is so surprising?

There are many people discontented about the economic hard times that the country is going through that striking over Mabira is almost a given if a decision is passed to this effect. There have already been protests by opposition activities, teachers, drivers and taxi operators, traders, lecturers and students of Makerere; while many more groups are threatening to go on strike. Museveni is aware of the delicate volatile situation but the man will not change his stand on Mabira give away.

Museveni has on several occasions rejected offers for alternative land to increase sugar cane production, leaving many wondering what it is the president wants with Mabira. The leaders in newly created Bungokho district in July offered to provide land to SCOUL to grow sugarcane there and establish a factory, but Museveni rejected the offer, saying if the land is available, it will be given to another investor. Museveni continuously reasons with Mehta that the investor needs to get land within 30kms of his current factory.

Why Mehta’s SCOUL?

Yet many people have long been concerned on why this focus on Mehta and his SCOUL. Neither the only or biggest sugar producer, SCOUL’s placement at the center of solving Uganda’s sugar shortage is not making sense to many Ugandans, with some alluding to some factors being behind the decision that are more than meet the eye. The Madvhani owned Kakira Sugar Works produces over 50% of Uganda’s sugar, while Kinyara Sugar Works and SCOUL each produce an average of 25% of the sugar in Uganda. All companies heavily export sugar and there is concern on whether sugar shortage is a result of limited production capacity or unlimited possibility by sugar producers to export sugar to better paying neighbors especially South Sudan.

The biggest surprise however was the way Museveni backed up his position saying “Mehta has said he (Mehta) does not mind what the public thinks against giving him the forest”. This made many people wonder whether Museveni, the strong almost single handed supreme leader of the NRM that has dominated Uganda’s politics since his military take-over in 1986 is taking orders from Mehta. Many people have been asking themselves why Museveni should mind more about what Mehta thinks and not what the majority of Ugandans think. Mehta also continues to insist that only part of Mabira will allow him to increase sugar production (never mind the company not offering any production capacity guarantees).

It seems this kind of situation is behind the talk doing rounds in Kampala that Museveni and his NRM owes something to Mehta that makes the businessman be able to put the President under pressure to do what he (Mehta) wants, not withstanding the negative repercussions as in this case. In fact, one man claiming to be a security operative told UGPulse that it is suspected Museveni promised to give Mehta part of Mabira forest for the support Mehta has provided to Museveni and NRM since the start of the guerilla way back in 1981.

“The businessman has been patient, waiting for the promised land to be given to him and it has reached that time when the president feels he should deliver on that promise,” the man said, refusing to divulge his names. Efforts to get a comment from Mehta Group about this were futile as calls were not returned as promised.

Unconvincing and lonely Museveni

While Museveni has insisted his interest in this matter is to ensure more sugar production, and ultimately serve the needs of Uganda, the man who recently won the elections with more than 68% of the votes cast (according to official results declared by the Electoral Commission) has not managed to convince many people (if any at all) that it is necessary to give away part of Mabira forest.

When Museveni called the NRM Parliamentary Caucus over the matter, most of the MPs vehemently opposed the president on giving away the forest, urging their leader to consider other alternatives.

"I will not support its giveaway because there is alternative land being offered on leasehold by the Church of Uganda and the Buganda Land Board," said Ezra Kwizera (NRM), the deputy chairperson of the Natural Resources Committee.

Other MPs led by Kampala Central MP, Muhammed Nsereko (NRM), Theodore Sekikubo (NRM Rwemiyaga), Dr. Chris Baromunsi (NRM Kinkizi West) and a host of other legislatures said the President has been misguided and is bent on something clearly opposed by the majority of Ugandans. The Mps have threatened to organize rallies and protests against the give away of Mabira.

Even key allies like Museveni’s Senior Presidential Advisor on Media and Public Relations, John Nagenda have publicly criticized the president for insisting on giving away the forest, with Nagenda even accusing the president of not listening to sound advise, and increasingly becoming autocratic.

Some people are also concerned that the statements coming out of the president’s mouth defending his position. They have been unconvincing as they have been disappointing.

"I do not need any lessons on forests. I saved Mabira when we took power. Idi Amin had given it to the people. Unlike some of those who engage in arrogance over Mabira, I do not drink alcohol or go to bars. I always think about developing Uganda for the well-being of Ugandans," the President said recently while meeting teachers, where he accused those against the give away of Mabira of being arrogant.

In another incident, Museveni blamed the current sugar scarcity resulting in high sugar prices on the opposition, singling out Beatrice Anywar, the shadow Cabinet minister for energy for leading a successful protest against Mabira give away in 2007.

Anywar who heads the Save Mabira Crusade had led a group of people opposed to the Mabira give away to meet the president over the matter, although the two sides failed to change each other’s views on the matter.

"If the government had given alternative land in 2007, the sugarcane would be under harvest now. The president should stop the blame game and diverting people's attention from the current economic crisis, rising unemployment and poverty," Anywar said recently.

Is the Mabira saga a political game by Museveni?

In fact, there are some people praising the President for being an astute politician who is always thinking way ahead of the rest and landing political maneuvers when and wherever it matters most. Those of this view say that Museveni knows that there are many people concerned about high sugar prices and he has to come out with a big reason why the government will not be able to solve the sugar scarcity problem. “Museveni is not interested in giving away Mabira. He knows what people think and feel about this forest, but he wants to have an excuse in the future if there is insufficient supply of sugar,” says one Deo Kimami, a trader.

But others believe the president's rigid and rugged support to the Mabira give away was a well calculated political move to divert the attention of Ugandans from the effects of the economic hard times that had started causing strike after strike and protest after protest. “This is one of Museveni’s master strokes. He has succeeded in making many people concentrate on Mabira and forget the economic issues biting the common man,” says an NRM supporter who asked not to be named.

There are also those saying the President will finally give in to anti Mabira sentiments, and finally show all and sundry what a listening and responsive leader he is. In fact, other than the recent gesture of inviting the Save Mabira Crusade leaders to his country home to explain to him “their reasons for opposing his proposal of giving away the forest”, Museveni recently said the forest will only be given away if the Parliament agrees (and not by his decree only).  Although Museveni who has an overbearing hand on this majority NRM legislature, many NRM MPs have already opposed the move and it is expected he will please those in the NRM who are opposed to the Mabira give away, in addition to scoring against the opposition as being a listening president. Some people are also mentioning the fact that there has never been a cabinet meeting and resolution on this matter, and the fact that only Museveni and no other minister is marketing this proposal is reason enough to be a Museveni-only political master card.

How about the other land being given away?

But this might be reading too much into a situation, given that Museveni has also proposed to give away land to other sugar producers in Masindi (to Kinyara Sugar Works) and in Amuru (to Kakira Sugar Works). Museveni recently invited district leaders and agricultural officers across the country for a meeting at State House where he gave a three-month ultimatum to the relevant government ministries to give Isinmab prison land in Masindi to Kinyara Sugar Works.

The King of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom Omukama Solomon Gafabusa Iguru and leaders in the area were also quick to oppose this government proposal, arguing that the prison land (which Iguru claims was grabbed by the government from the kingdom) should instead be given out to sugarcane out-growers to increase their production and supply of cane for sugar production. The kingdom also urged the government to compel sugar factories to give fair conditions and payment to out-growers to encourage them to grow and supply more sugarcane. The shortage of sugar was partially attributed to a strike by workers and out-growers in Masindi based Kinyara Sugar works where some sugar plantation were burned down after unmet demands for better pay.

Museveni is also pushing for Madhvani owned Kakira Sugar Works to be given land in Amuru district to construct a sugar factory and establish sugarcane plantations there. The local people have been up in arms against the proposal, although in this case Kakira Sugar Works is expected to pay compensation to the affected residents.

So surely, this land giving for improved sugar production is beyond the Mabira give away debate. Or is it? So for many people, a question still lingers on why President Museveni is insisting on giving away part of Mabria forest. For now, most Ugandans are increasingly debating (with concern) whether Mabira forest will survive Museveni-the-man who vehemently and relentlessly wants to give part of the forest away, or if Museveni goes ahead and gives out Mabira, he will survive the give away of arguably Ugandans’ dearest forest.

By Gerald Rulekere
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First published: September 29, 2011
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Gerald Rulekere is a Journalist and member of Ultimate Media Consult. He has written and published extensively on business and gender issues and been writing for Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd for the last two years. A professional and graduate journalist, Rulekere is always looking for an opportunity to better his writing especially for international media.