The Promota Magazine

Uganda at 50 Looking back and looking ahead

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Ugandans from all different walks of life and backgrounds are gearing up to celebrate a half Century of political independence from colonialism. Artist and Social Entrepreneur, Sanaa Gateja, has devoted almost all the resources at his Kwetu Africa studio, just outside the capital Kampala, to paintings and designs for the forth coming celebrations. Businesses are flying national colours, and the country’s media is reliving the country’s past. “It is all supposed to start in October, but, we have already started”,  enthuses Gateja.

As well as a time for celebration, any anniversary is, or at least ought to be a time for reflection. Reflection on mistakes made, lessons learned, how these lessons can be applied for a better present, and more promising future. It would be churlish not to celebrate, and commemorate the heroes of African independence. However, were their achievements to win independence for Africa, or to start the process to do so? Many, notably, the Nigerian academic and thinker, Chinweizu, argue that it was the latter.
In his book of essays, “Decolonising the African Mind”, as others have done, Chinweizu uses Shakespeare’s play, the Tempest, as an allegory for colonialism. Prospero, the main protagonist rules over an Island on which he has alighted, tossed there by a tempest at sea. As he prepares to leave the island he bequeaths it to Ariel, a being happy to do his bidding for favours granted, and promised.  Prospero does so in rejection of another  inhabitant of the island, the rebellious Caliban, who refuses to accept Prospero’s authority over the Island.

Chinweizu argues that Africa has been and is largely ruled by Ariels, and there can be no true independence, until either the Ariels decolonise their minds, or the Calibans gain the upper hand. He cites neo – colonialism as the manifestation of this state of affairs. It is a convincing argument. It is hard to argue that post colonial leaders in Africa have ruled, and with a few honourable exceptions, continue to rule in line with the wishes of the former colonial masters. Colonialism never went away; it just shed its old skin, and re-emerged as shiny neo- colonialism.

For many, if not most African states, there is often no such thing as an internal policy. What passes for internal policies, are no more than Western policies on Africa; whether it is the disaster that was Structural Adjustment Programmes, or the excesses of globalisation, whatever the West dishes out, Africa swallows. Seen from this perspective, the celebrations should be about a journey begun, but, still far from the desired destination.

The late Julius Nyerere’s remarks, that the West has reached the moon, while Africans are still trying to get to the next village, still ring true today. They will continue to ring true, until the realisation that African states were set up to be more geared to serve Western interests, than their own. It is no wonder that getting to the next village is yet to be fully achieved. In any well functioning nation, various parts of the country are linked to each other by transportation and communications networks; arteries through which flow the lifeblood of any state. That is, except on the African continent. In these countries, with few exceptions, all networks, lead from the interior out, to sea ports, and airports, so that goods, almost always raw materials, can be transported from Africa to the West. For the most part, it is still easier to communicate between the West (and now increasingly the East) and Africa, than between one African country, and another. Julius Nyerere might have added that it is easier to take Africa’s resources out of each African country, than transport them within it.

What then of Uganda, what pictures will play in the minds of Ugandans, when they contemplate the last fifty years? There are few among those old enough to remember, who will not be grateful to escape from visions of a nightmare past, to a better present.
For many, the glass is half empty, when it might be seen to be at least half full. It is almost forty years since the country was rid of Milton Obote, and Idi Amin. It is often forgotten that more Ugandans were murdered during Obote’s second regime, than were murdered by Idi Amin and his henchmen. Today, most Ugandans are Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s children,having  grown up in a country governed by a leader, who although a fully paid up member of the pragmatic club, is none the less no Ariel.
These Ugandans feel no gratitude for salvation from a nightmare that haunts their parents’ remembrances. They have different dreams, with demands and expectations greater than those of their parents.

Older Ugandans were too busy trying to survive under Amin and Obote, to trouble themselves about these higher needs. Younger Ugandans, the majority, have no such concerns; not the dread of ending up floating face down in Lake Victoria, or being beaten to within an inch of their lives, because their gaze was too insolent by half. These Ugandans are concerned about how the oil revenues will be divided, how they will vote in the next election, and whether to vote for, or, against retention of ancient kingdoms. They know little of the worst of times, as lived by their parents, and have little appreciation of their far better times.

The dispassionate observer has to acknowledge that since the advent of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the country has been politically transformed, for the better. The NRM brought back the rule of law, the media is among the freest in Africa, and the National Assembly regularly flexes its muscles in the face of the presidency, regularly forcing it to back down.

These are extraordinary advances, when one considers how far the country has come. There is of course much discontent, with recent demonstrations resulting in injury and deaths. The arrest of presidential candidate Kizza Besigye is held up by critics of the government, as a sign of despotic rule, while the removal of presidential term limits is seen as greed for power. Certainly, there is a case to answer. Changing the constitution to allow the incumbent a third term, sets an unfortunate precedent. And no one who saw pictures of members of the security forces, smashing windows on Besigye’s car, with pistol butts and dragging him out, could fail to be shocked by their impunity. Little evidence  of the rule of law at play then.

Yet, there is much to celebrate in Uganda’s politics. Ugandans demonstrating may be too angry to consider that being out on demonstrations is in itself a political advance. They will not have stopped to realise that they were now free to exercise a hard won right to demonstrate. A right fought for by the very man against whom they demonstrated.

It was inevitable that the NRM would run out of breath, so energetic was their beginning. The ‘project’ is far from complete, and parts of it have stagnated. For all that, much that has been achieved which ought to be irreversible. There is a silver lining on even the darkest cloud. Take the amendment of the constitution to allow multiple presidential terms; it can be nothing but reprehensible, however, the manner in which it was done, is testament to the country’s maturing politics.

Or the disputed elections: Besigye did what many African challengers do when they lose an election; he rejected the result. Usually this can mean violence that is little short of civil war. Instead, as he was perfectly entitled to do, Besigye took his complaint to the Supreme Court. There he received some satisfaction, the justices agreed that there had been irregularities, but, ruled that these would not have changed the overall result. This was a far reaching precedent: an independent judiciary had the power to decide who would be the head of state. In the end, by a majority, and not a unanimous decision, they ruled in favour of the incumbent, but, not before rapping him on he knuckles, which he accepted with as good grace as he could muster.

This may be of little comfort to Kizza Besigye, but, something for Ugandans to celebrate. This is how their political disputes are now resolved. And galling for Besigye, he has to thank his opponent for this development, which is a far reaching advance.
At 50, the question for Ugandans is whether they are keeping up with a maturing political system. They no longer need to resort to stone throwing street battles, they can now resolve many of the questions facing their country, through debates, whether in the media, or Parliament, or both. At 50, they have the chance to consolidate freedoms that have been hard won.
There is much to criticise in their government, in their governing party, but, there is even more to praise, and to criticise constructively. Love or loathe him, Museveni has delivered his nation to itself, his people unto themselves. If he had achieved only this, and nothing else, he would still deserve to be at the centre of the nation’s heart.

At 50, Uganda now has the freedom to take stock, and ask the best way of building on what has been achieved, and ignore the demagogues who would call for the tearing down of everything. Younger Ugandans ought to look to their history, and put their demands in perspective. And the nation would only gain, if the man, who has brought all this about, would also contemplate his own report card. President Museveni was famously fond of asking, “What would Museveni of Yesterday say to me today?”
What better time to ask this than when his nation is celebrating 50 years of independence? Would Museveni of twenty years ago, be impatient with the corruption, the cynicism now apparently driving out the early political idealism, and its determined struggle against Chinweizu’s Ariels?  “When you hear that Africa has stagnated fifty years after independence it is not a problem of resources, it is a problem of lack of vision”. These are the words of President Museveni. He can’t be accused of lacking vision, but, would the

Museveni of twenty years ago, demand refreshment of that vision?
Uganda is a rich country. It was so even before the discovery of oil. It has the human resources to be a truly independent middle income nation, at least, if these resources are developed and properly harnessed. Much has been made of the economic collapse after the expulsion of the Asians. A number of things can be said about Amin’s expulsion of Asians, ranging from inhuman, to myopic. However, it is a fallacy to suggest, as is now the orthodoxy, that Uganda’s economic collapse was due to  the absence of Asians. Of course the Asians made an invaluable contribution to the life of the nation, not only economically, but, as doctors, teachers, engineers, and in other walks of life. However, they were a relatively small population, compared to the native Ugandans. What brought the country to its knees was the persecution, and wholesale murder of Ugandans themselves. Predictably, Amin targeted the most educated, able Ugandans first, then the most entrepreneurial. Educational institutions were seen as suspect, as were lecturers, teachers, nurses, doctors and so on. The country was mothballed for a generation.

Now Uganda is largely free, its energies released, to criticise, and to reform. Will the scourge of corruption lead to the so called curse of oil? Or will Ugandans use the new freedom to demand that the government look at countries such as Norway, which has used its oil resources most judiciously and e emulate them? Or will they simply continue to indulge in castigating the man, whose leadership, and sacrifice, whatever his shortcomings, has delivered them from their worst nightmare, and, created a political system which allows them to criticise him. At 50, perhaps they will be mature enough to choose the latter course.

And perhaps Museveni of yesteryear might remind the older and wiser Museveni that his nation would be better served, if its future did not depend on only one man; ‘unlucky the land that has no heroes, unlucky the land that has need of them’. Famously, Museveni and his twenty seven comrades heroically begun a war for the liberation of Uganda. Now, Uganda is lucky enough not to need such heroism. However, Ugandans need to remember how they came to dismiss the need for heroism.

At 50, one should know how to say thank you. Museveni fought for their freedom to oppose him, the challenge for them is to oppose within that freedom, that framework, constructively.
Kizza Besigye’s experience notwithstanding, that is the challenge for Uganda. Where are the alternative policies? Where are the new ideas, beyond the demand for power for power’s sake? Like the heroes of Africa’s liberation, the NRM started a process, it is not complete. It is for Uganda to take it to fruition. And there is much for them to do. The country remains vulnerable to regional cleavages. The colonial powers deliberately created divisions to help them to rule, these divisions lie dormant, and need to be confronted and bridged.

The colonial powers created the myth that “Africa’s problem is tribalism”. Africa’s richness is its diversity, and its strength is the honouring of that diversity. It took only a few decades of the NRM’s policy of inclusiveness to give the lie to the orthodoxy that the recognition of national unity must be mutually exclusive from the recognition of the nation’s diversity. Can Uganda continue what NRM begun and build on these policies of inclusiveness? Where the colonial powers used the country’s diversity to divide, can Ugandans now harness this diversity for national pride? This is the challenge, and at 50, they must pray for the maturity to be equal to these challenges, happy Anniversary, Uganda.

Vincent Gasana
Vincent Gasana is a broadcast journalist and programme maker.

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