Uganda is, in many respects, a remarkable success story. From a country wracked by a succession of avaricious leaders and a civil war, it has been regarded – since 1986 – as a bastion of stability, relative prosperity and a key partner in the promotion of regional and global security. (Although this effect is mostly confined to the prosperous south with the north still suffering the legacy of a vicious insurgency which pitched the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force murderously against each other and the population and which lasted well into the twenty first century.) Uganda is relatively easy to partner; and offers an educated and capable population which is industrious and (relatively) productive. But its apparent successes should not be taken for granted; and there are potential storm clouds on the country’s horizon. The extent to which the international community sees what it wants to see in Uganda and papers over the rest should not be underestimated. Is Uganda at a tipping point or about to lift off?

President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986, governing initially through his so-called non-political “Movement” – a rule which has brought relative peace and stability to many but which has, however, done little to address the underlying tensions to be found in Ugandan society, not least those caused and exploited by the colonial administration. A self-styled “good thing”, Museveni’s pitch to his critics and opponents is that the country is not yet ready for a lighter touch administration. He holds out the prospect of chaos as the backdrop to any discussion about succession or transition to another form of regime.

Since 1986 the population has grown from about 15 million people to approximately 38 million, with a population of in excess of 100 million forecast for 2050. At the same time, the country has developed a distinct youth bulge with 57% of the population below the age of 18 years; and another 21% of the population aged between 18 and 30 years. (1.8 million babies are born each year, with 58% of them being unplanned. 24.5% of all births are to teenage mothers.) Economic growth averages 3% annually, but only about 15% of the population currently works in the formal sector. (Although 73% of the population work – formally and informally – in agriculture, the sector only generates about 23% of the economy.) And inequality is rising fast with the bottom ten percent of the population sharing 2.5% of the economy and the top ten percent sharing 35%.

To compound the problem of population growth, Uganda has a progressive policy towards refugees who currently number in excess of 1 million people, mostly fleeing the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and South Sudan. The country welcomes refugees; allows them to work; offers them land and services such as education and health; and seeks to settle them within existing communities rather than in camps. In the first months of 2017, refugees have arrived in Uganda at an average rate of 2,000 people per day. The anticipated cost of servicing the needs of this population (and the communities within which they are settled) is approximately USD 1 billion in 2017, although current donor commitments total no more than 22% of this figure. The effort is overseen by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) which deploys the resources it has to hand in a ratio of 70:30, refugees to local community. In this respect, the international community is subsidising the cost of service delivery to the local population; and any shortfall will have a local effect as well as an effect on the refugee population.

Since 1986, Uganda has sought and welcomed international partnerships of almost all kinds. It has been a receptive destination for foreign direct investment; and has become a dependable partner in regional integration and security as well as a key ally in the promotion of global security. As time has gone by, Museveni has morphed from useful pragmatist to sage elder statesman in a range of fora including the Great Lakes, Somalia and South Sudan. He has been forward leaning – perhaps in light of his country’s landlocked status – on issues of regional integration in eastern Africa including through the East African Community (EAC). But his perception of Uganda’s national interest has been an – understandable – common theme in his regional and global diplomacy.

Considered a strength for years, Uganda’s relatively rigid political structure has become increasingly synonymous with the personality of the President. Almost all key decisions are taken by him; and his world view (and, increasingly, politicised analysis) informs all major choices. At some point in the past – perhaps only really discernible with hind sight – Museveni’s leadership switched from the enlightened and necessarily despotic to the exclusive. Although this effect has been growing over time, it perhaps became clear following the lifting of Presidential term limits and the introduction of multi-partyism in a 2005 revision of the Constitution following a referendum. He has done little to foster an inclusive political culture; and the question of his succession remains open, likely to be decided upon by him alone. Instead around him has gathered a small group of family and close allies whose daily activity looks to be as much self-interested as anything else. The political opposition is weak and ineffective – not just because they have been kept so by the political culture, but because they are likely no better intentioned than the governing elite. State House has become a kind of parallel government, with officials and politicians elsewhere left having to second guess policy. The practical, if not planned, result of this is a hierarchy of local government and officials who hesitate to take initiatives for fear of being out of line, leaving the bulk of the population excluded from influence over their future; and poorly served by the present.

But there is dissent, dissatisfaction and organisation running beneath the surface of an otherwise placid society. To a degree this is tolerated although the authorities act decisively when they fear that presages anything more than posturing. Young people, with little prospect of a conventional job, have taken to community organisation and the increasingly available (yet still expensive) internet to express their alternative vision for Uganda’s future. They rarely campaign overtly or on traditional political issues. But they use the convening power of information technology to organise relief work and to fundraise for people in need. This apparently harmless activity is perhaps made threatening by the sheer numbers of people involved, and has consequently attracted negative criticism from the President. Previously the preserve of (relatively wealthy) smart phone owners, Facebook is now accessible on a normal mobile phone using SMS technology. Official data suggests that less than 5% of the population routinely access the internet. But activists claim that they are able to reach nearly 40% of Uganda’s people directly and indirectly. Neither figure is likely to be correct, with the truth lying somewhere in between; and increasing competition in the mobile sector is driving data prices (and the cost of phones) down. But the issue is not so much the numbers as the effect of a narrow political culture which has driven almost all forms of political expression into the shadows of the internet.

Discoveries of potentially exploitable oil reserves have cemented the country’s reputation for prosperity, although the oil is yet to flow and it is far from clear how much of the anticipated revenue – US$2-3 billion annually for 25 years – will actually translate into cash in the bank for government or people. In the plans and visions of government, much of the anticipated oil revenue is already allocated to ambitious plans to become a middle-income country by 2030. But there is a hint of complacency behind the planning because officials cite the country’s future wealth as the source of today’s recurrent expenditure. Short term, commercial loans are bridging the gap although it is not clear where (or when) the far side lies. And the simering tensions over land rights brought to the surface by the perception of future wealth remain almost entirely unaddressed. Meanwhile, the demands on the economy and the body politic grow on a daily basis with no apparent plan B for either.

Economically, demographically and socially, the country is heading for a perfect storm of pressures which will require steady leadership, enlightened policy and strong, diverse economic growth.

As Uganda enters the second decade of the twenty-first century (and Museveni the fourth decade of his rule), prices are rising, and corruption is a daily feature of everyone’s lives. The narrow foundations of the formal economy do not embrace the vast majority of people in the urban areas and exclude almost completely people in the rural areas. Oil revenue is not coming on-stream as government had hoped; and the political leadership looks stale and out of touch with the (fast growing) next generation. Perhaps rightly, Museveni believes that he is the person best placed to run the country – but he employs a directive and exclusive approach which does not foster political diversity or alternatives. Fearing the chaos that might follow his departure from office, the President is thought to be keen to revise the Constitution again in time to avoid falling foul of the provision which sets an upper age limit on Uganda’s Presidents. He needs to do this by 2021 if he is to stay in office. At the present time, it is hard to tell if this is a Canute-like reluctance to face the changing reality of Uganda, or a genuine concern to navigate the country through changing times. But as pressures grow within the country, and across the small political class, there is a likely shift in perception to come. Will the President’s rule adapt successfully to a changing economy and its associated governance demands? Or will he and his clique hold out stubbornly? And what will be the effect of this on Uganda’s international alliances and partnerships? Will Uganda go from being (nearly) everyone’s solution to being (nearly) everyone’s problem?

The question of Uganda’s future identity is key in determining the country’s future path. As 2021 looms, the President has said publicly that a national debate will inform any Constitutional review. The extent to which any such debate is fully participatory and both represents and informs the views and interests of others remains moot. But there is no doubt that Ugandans have views. They just lack forums within which to debate their interests in a mutually respectful manner; and to have them heard and interrogated by others. In the absence of suitable “space” for debate, and as Uganda moves into a (more) digital age, there is a danger that the discourse will take place on social media, and that it will pass mostly unheeded by those in power. In an environment where much of Uganda’s social media space remains relatively immature, almost tabloid – and un-counterbalanced by more serious analysis – in nature, the promotion of both real world and virtual debating skills and space would be a real contribution to a Ugandan future conditioned by ordinary people in dialogue with their representatives and leaders.

Against a backdrop of an immutable political culture which overlooks or marginalises ordinary people, there is also a need for the international community to navigate local governance issues carefully. Many donors in Uganda appear to have concluded that so-called “transformational change” is not possible in the current political context. Unable to anticipate change through high level engagement, these donors are now contemplating a more grass-roots approach. The vast majority of decisions which have a direct impact on ordinary people are taken at lower levels of government, often in or near the communities which they serve. The staid political culture of Uganda can lead local decision makers to be risk averse, avoiding initiatives which might not receive political approval from the levels of government above them. This drives two broad forms of potential tension: within communities between people and officials; and between communities and outsiders such as refugees. Mitigating these tensions through the promotion of better, negotiated local partnerships to prioritise, manage and oversee the resources available will be a key consideration for the future in Uganda.