Since 30 March, Uganda has been on lockdown. Daily life has come to a halt. Movement is restricted. Public gatherings are suspended. All but a small number of essential businesses are closed.
Every one of the country’s 44 million people has been affected by these restrictions, but – as ever – the most vulnerable have been hit the hardest. In Uganda, only a small minority are formally employed. Everyone else who earns a living works in the informal economy with no employer-provided benefits, few alternative livelihood options, and only the most meagre social safety net to fall back on.
Yet the government has offered little relief. Announcing the lockdown, President Yoweri Museveni promised no cash payments or comprehensive efforts to support the most vulnerable. He did, however, claim that the government will distribute food to those whose work has been interrupted and it identifies, rather vaguely, as living “hand to mouth”. This pledge came with a warning that “opportunistic and irresponsible politicians who try to distribute food” too will be arrested and charged with attempted murder.
How the lockdown continues politics as usual
The government of Uganda has presented its coronavirus response as a necessary set of measures to deal with the pandemic. A crisis is, apparently, not the time for politics. But those in the informal economy know that politics and policy always go hand in hand. Their added vulnerability is not the inevitable and unavoidable result of technocratic decision-making. It is the outcome of political decisions. The situation facing the poorest in Uganda today is not a departure from routine politics, but their continuation under exceptional circumstances.
Lockdown restrictions appear to be fuelling a wave of repression against street vendors and motorcycle taxi drivers. But this is far from new. Uganda’s government has often used manipulation, violence and draconian laws to govern the lives of the poor. In 2011, street vending was criminalised in Kampala in an apparent effort to promote development as the ruling party sought to justify its removal of the city’s democratically-elected government. For those who remain on the streets, evictions, arrests, fines, police harassment and the confiscation of goods have become common. Even enforcement is political, easing in the runup to elections as politicians look for votes and rising sharply once campaigns are over.
Traders in Kampala’s markets also have reasons to worry that the response to the pandemic will put their livelihoods under threat. This is particularly true for those who sell live and dead animals. Even before the arrival of the coronavirus, however, many vendors feared that rising rents and evictions – both of which are driven by political decisions about who controls markets and how valuable urban land should be used – would force them out of the city. The government has demolished several of Kampala’s informal markets – in which over 100,000 people make their living – to make way for ambitious development projects, often with opaque finances. Public health concerns have often been used as a pretext for displacement. There is little reason to believe that this will change.
Even President Museveni’s promise to distribute food fits neatly into existing patterns of the politics of informality. Every election cycle in Uganda, the ruling party distributes cash and other gifts according to communities’ perceived allegiances. This is particularly common in informal markets, which are highly contested electoral battlegrounds where the government regularly employs a combination of vote buying and coercion to draw support away from the popular opposition. One might reasonably expect the food deliveries that have been promised during the lockdown to take place along the same lines. The President’s threat to arrest politicians who seek “cheap popularity” by also distributing food – clearly directed at the opposition – suggests that the national elections scheduled for early next year loom large in shaping the government’s response to the crisis.
The curtailment of opposition activities would again not be new, but rather builds on previous restrictions on unwanted public gatherings, such as those provided by the 2013 Public Order Management Act. Daily life may have come to a halt. Politics has not.
The politics behind the informal economy
Those who look to the state to improve the lives of informal workers often commit a basic categorical error. When it comes to the informal economy, the government is rarely a benign or even neutral presence. In Uganda, and much of Africa, development is politics and politics is regime survival. In this, the livelihoods of the poor are a secondary concern. Informal workers suffer what they must and try to get by however they can. Coronavirus changes little about that.
Over 85% of all workers in Africa make their living in the informal economy. Its ubiquity across the continent has many causes: the abandonment of the postcolonial development state; industrial decline; structural adjustment; economic crisis; conflict; and, perhaps above all, the emergence of a common political economy defined by flawed institutions, corruption, cronyism, rent seeking and wealth extraction.
While governance and economic systems may vary country to country, or even city to city, highly unequal economic growth with little formal employment creation has become the norm. As the state is looted and any pretence of the most basic public service provision is abandoned, self-reliance is the only option for the poor.
Ignoring the politics behind this – and the fact things do not need to be this way – allows us to cling to various sanitised narratives: that with the right skills and incentives to comply with technocratic tax obligations, the local banana vendor can drive economic growth; that with the appropriate work ethic, the motorcycle taxi driver can earn enough money to pay for his children’s school fees and hospital bills; that with access to finance, the home-based manufacturing worker can pull herself and her family out of poverty.
But obligatory entrepreneurship is not an adequate substitute for employment. Insecure work cannot replace a basic social safety net in the fight against extreme poverty. The coronavirus pandemic has made this all too clear, but it should have taken a crisis to learn this lesson. Now that one is here, however, we must ensure that when it comes to an end, life for those in the informal economy does not simply return to normal.