Celebration or Realisation? Uganda at Fifty

In a new series by www.developmentEducation.ie, Jamie Hitchen explores daily life and politics from Kampala, Uganda.

Uganda Elections 2011
Photo: Uganda 2011 elections by gaborbasch, Flickr

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Ugandan independence from British colonial rule. Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement (NRM), in power since 1986, will be celebrating the day’s events at the official event, to be held in the district of Kololo in the capital Kampala.

Sixteen Heads of State, from African countries will be in attendance, as will the Duke of Kent, representing Queen Elizabeth who granted Uganda its independence in 1962.

The NRM, in power for over half of the independence era, has been accused by the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) under the leadership of Kiiza Besigye of being the reason why Uganda is ‘still bleeding fifty years after independence’.  In fact, in the week leading up to October 9, the opposition has embarked on a series of protests, dubbed ‘Walk to Freedom’, to vent frustrations with the incompetence of the incumbent regime in an effort to capture the spirit and values independence promised to deliver.  This is despite a government decree banning public rallies until after the independence celebrations in order to prevent any threat to national security.

Defiance has been met with tear gas. This is the scent that permeates the air of Kampala on what seems like a daily basis.

Beyond the official celebrations
The ‘official’ celebratory atmosphere that the government is trying to generate is not so easily found amongst ordinary Ugandans who remain deeply frustrated with the incumbent regime and its inability to relate to the needs of the people it supposedly represents.  The 2011 election saw the re-election of Museveni to serve another five year term; taking his total years in charge to 30.  He has since declared his desire to run again in 2016.

In this context it is easy to see why for many Ugandans the significance of the fifty year anniversary is diminished.

There is a general sense that while it is a significant date, the self-congratulatory nature of the celebrations; the exclusive and elitist gesturing shown by government officials coupled with the current political situation has meant that its importance is being overstated.  Instead, Ugandans that I have spoken to would much rather if efforts were taken to tackle the systemic corruption, elitist nature of politics and rapidly rising cost of living.  Even minor improvements on these issues alone would deserve recognition and maybe even celebration.

In recent weeks I have been meeting many Ugandans to hear how they would be celebrating fifty years of freedom from colonialism.  Most people have taken the opportunity to vent their displeasure at the current day to day situations in which they exist.

The colonial era and independence are less pressing issues for many Ugandans who are more concerned with the current and future situation of their country, and particularly their own day to day existence.  Mzei Muna, a taxi driver, with whom I spoke at length, was eager to discuss the now well documented increase in living costs that have affected Kampala in recent months.  Increased fuel prices, and the knock on effect this has on other basic goods (sugar, rice, matoke), has eaten into the profits of those on the margins and with no concurrent rise in salaries people are becoming increasingly agitated about providing for their families.  This was a concern reflected by communities in both rural and urban areas.  He remarked that whilst he would spend the national holiday with his family they would not be celebrating lavishly simply because they couldn’t afford to.

This view was echoed by Kate, a domestic worker in Kampala:

‘We are still suffering.  I cannot pay for my children’s school fees, and when I go to the hospital there is no medicine without money.  They (the government) don’t pay teachers, doctors and nurses enough and everything is getting more expensive.’

Yet the rising cost of living is not the only issue that is a daily feature of the Ugandan political landscape.  Widespread and systematic corruption amongst the elite, often those involved in the political sphere (for example, economic privilege given to campaign donors; job and contracts awarded based on favouritism for family ties; regular use of informal bribing payments in order to get basic bureaucratic processes sped up, and on many occasions done at all!), is a feature endured with good humour by many Ugandans.  But the reality is no laughing matter.

Corruption – a way of life
The 2011 Transparency International Report ranked Uganda 143rd out of 183 countries globally as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This relates to political corruption and perceptions of corruption, including bribes paid locally for services that people are already entitled to; to avoid a problem with the authorities; or in order to speed services up that are being delivered. Some stats from the report, gathered in the Global Corruption Barometer, sheds light on Uganda’s record:

  • The institution perceived to be the most affected by corruption is the police. This is  followed by the judiciary and then public officials & civil servants
  • 87% of respondents reported paying a bribe in 2010 to at least one of 9 service providers
  • 67% of people who feel that from 2007-2010 the level of corruption has increased

Instances such as the building of the Karuma Dam merely highlight the institutional corruption that is rampant in Uganda.  Seventeen years down the road since the government announced plans to build the dam the project is mired in setbacks, kickbacks and blame shifting with costs expected to escalate to $2.2 billion – double the original projected costs. Cissy Kagaba, Executive Director Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU) is not impressed:

“Actions by the Ministry of Energy officials portray the levels of impunity in our country where officials deliberately and arrogantly flout set policies and procedures, and get away with it. This clearly shows that issues relating to accountability are not about the number of laws that are enacted, but political commitment to respect and abide by those laws however few they may be. The quote “The more corrupt the state, the more laws – Publius Cornelius Tacitus often comes to pass in the Ugandan context.

In an ideal Country, the solution would have been a total overhaul of the Ministry of Energy.”

Whilst this is not happening purely in a national vacuum, the diversion of international aid into the pockets of the elite is unquestionably an issue. In looking at Uganda at 50 I have chosen to focus on more national issues.

I have been struck, in my short time in the country, by how corruption cannot be escaped when discussing political interventions in the country.  A popular youth breakfast radio, Sanyu Breakfast, last week sought to hold a debate about a report which put forward the idea of a small tax being levied on every phone call or litre of petrol, (something to the tune of 1Ugs – a minimal amount) which would be collected to be used in HIV and Aids prevention schemes.

As a policy itself there are merits and flaws to such an idea: it could free up funding in the healthcare budget for tackling other issues and hold long term benefits for society as a whole in reducing the infection rate.  However the debate centred little around the relative merits to support it or not, nor of the policy itself and what it spells out. The only thing worth discussing was the issue of accountability:

‘Who would be keeping tabs on this money?’

‘This is another government scheme to make money’

‘It will never be used for the purpose being outlined’

This absence of trust between those in power and those who they are supposed to represent them is clearly visible, even at breakfast time. It serves to re-emphasise the gap between the upper echelons of society and to communities at the grassroots.

The absence of political voice in the day to day occurrences is one that is a growing frustration especially amongst the youth of Uganda.

The idea that many members of the governments’ inner circle are out of touch and involved only in politics to serve their own ends is exposed by a look at the current 28 person cabinet.  With the average age of the Cabinet’s ministers at 62 and 20 of them being at the retirement age of 60 (including the President) suggest that they are relics of a different era; unsuited to advancing the state of Uganda as it reaches 50.  Whilst places such as Kampala reflect a rapidly changing urban African environment, its government remains stagnant and insular, focused more on self-preservation than societal enhancement. Age, it seems, is not just a number:

The Museveni government is regularly criticised for being sloppy, attributed by observers to sloth and lack of imagination within a Cabinet dominated by people, some of whom were already ministers and public figures in Idi Amin’s government when the new MP’s late father was still in primary school.

Building Public Trust in an Independent Republic
So as Uganda marks fifty years of independence, it is still struggling to bring accountability to its institutions so that they reflect and can be shaped by the desires of its 35 million citizens.

Until this is achieved many Ugandans feel as though they have little to celebrate and that full independence has not yet been fully realised.  Yet there is a sense that the spirit of independence remains alive and that the struggle for Ugandan democracy is a process gathering momentum.

This is more than just hope for change. A movement for holding public authorities accountable is gathering strength and popularity, even on breakfast talk shows. In that democratic spirit, it seems best to leave the last word on the subject to citizens of Uganda:

“What I like about Uganda today is the relative peace and stability that we are enjoying.  The question is how long it will last, especially if we do not pursue the political lines that sustain stability and peace, such as carrying out fair elections?” – Monday Kabiito, Masaka

“I question whether we are truly independent considering the fact that we are still enormously funded by our colonialists” – Stella Ssali, Kampala

‘There is stability in the country, people are constructing big houses and there is free education for the children of Uganda” – Faith Biyinzika, Jinja


Explore more…

An alternative view: Editorial from The East African, 6th October 2012

  • In its 44th year as an independent state, Uganda became the first East African country to discover commercially viable reserves of oil and gas.
  • In 1995, Uganda wrote Africa’s most progressive constitution, with provisions that accord equal status to men and women. These remain the envy of most of the world’s developed polities.
  • Leadership and openness in the fight against HIV/Aids early on, won Uganda the respect of experts, peers and senior statesmen, to say nothing of global recognition.
  • In Somalia, where the world’s superpowers have feared to venture, Uganda has intervened with no prospect of material gain, motivated only by the desire to serve the interests of the international community.
  • The country is strategically placed to sell its products in more than 10 markets around the region that have been created during in recent years. Europe and Asia are the other attractive markets.
  • Uganda can grow its GDP nearly eightfold from the present $20 billion to $155 billion
  • The next 50 years start now, because today, Uganda has the capacity to add value to everything it produces — oil, coffee, cotton, bananas, maize, fruits and minerals.