What will Museveni report to Uganda on October 9, 2012?

On October 9, 2012, Uganda will observe 50 years of independence. The president is expected to report what has happened to Uganda and her citizens since October 9, 1962. To do that he needs to recap what independent Uganda inherited from British colonial administration. He should outline why Ugandans demanded independence and how it has been used to realize our dreams. In doing so, he is expected to look at the processes but most significantly at real outcomes in terms of quality of human life and status of our environment. In short, are we better off democratically, economically, socially and ecologically than we were fifty years ago?

On October 9, 1962, John Kakonge (RIP) then Secretary General of UPC that formed the first government issued a statement under the title “Uganda Regains Freedom”. He observed, inter alia, that Uganda inherited an impoverished nation, based on traditional agriculture and very low living conditions characterized by inadequate education and health care facilities, very high mortality rate, low school attendance and many other challenges. He left out the good things that the colonial administration did.

He underscored that Independent Uganda would strive to rejuvenate economically, socially and culturally. He warned that UPC’s duty was not to feed Ugandans on political philosophy and economic theories but to provide real goods and services to meet their aspirations or else “they will look for other leaders who would promise to answer their needs in a quicker way. … We have to run where other people walked, if we have to catch up with our counterparts leading in the sphere of human progress”. Kakonge concluded by stating that “We have regained our freedom. We have to sustain it and use this freedom to bring about greatest happiness to the greatest number [of Ugandans]”.

Have we used our freedom to achieve democracy?

Let us look at elections since 1961 as a measure of democratic freedom since October 9, 1962. The pre-independence March 1961 elections that gave the Democratic Party (DP) the mandate to govern were boycotted in Buganda and therefore unrepresentative. The exercise was repeated in April 1962 but Buganda refused to have direct elections to the National Assembly (parliament), thus denying the people the right to directly elect their representatives and making DP lose its overall majority largely because of Protestant manipulation during the constitutional negotiations in London that resulted in Protestant UPC and KY coalition against Catholic DP.

The December 1980 elections which had been projected to be won by DP went to UPC, leaving a bitter DP in the cold once again. The defeated parties and disgruntled groups came together under chairman Lule (RIP) and vice chairman Museveni and waged a destructive five year guerrilla war. To pre-empt NRA/NRM victory, the Acholis in the national army staged a coup, removed Obote and UPC II and assumed power in July 1985 hoping to form a coalition with NRM. Despite the December 1985 Nairobi Accord, NRM chose to capture power and govern without the Okellos, another disappointment that contributed to a long and devastating war in Northern and Eastern Uganda. The Okellos believed they were betrayed by Museveni and NRM.

Elections of 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011 have all been marked by problems in voter registration, intimidation from the ruling NRM party, absence of an independent electoral commission, rigging and other malpractices that have seriously undermined the usefulness of elections and the governments arising from them. Thus, since 1961 Uganda has suffered serious democratic deficits and associated violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Have we used our freedom to transform Uganda’s economy?

One of the complaints against colonial rule is that Uganda’s economy was reduced to dependence on traditional agriculture and control of a small sector of commerce and industry by indigenous people. Independence would therefore bring about economic transformation through commercial agriculture, industrial development and export of manufactured products with Ugandans taking a larger share than at independence.

By 1986 very little transformation had occurred. NRM vowed to create an independent, integrated and self-sustaining economy. It is now 26 years since NRM came to power. However, Uganda’s economy is still anchored on traditional agriculture, is de-industrializing, has diversified into more raw material exports and the commercial, industrial and service sectors are largely foreign dominated thanks to the privatization of public enterprises and liberalization of the economy. Foreign investors with capital and technology and human skills occupy most of the commanding and strategic heights of Uganda economy and are engaged largely in labor-saving activities with a concentration in and around the nation’s capital of Kampala which generate some 70 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) with a population of under 2 million in a country with 34 million people, leaving 32 million to generate a mere 30 percent of GNI. Trickle down mechanism which was expected to distribute equitably the benefits of economic growth didn’t work.

Have we used our freedom to achieve social development?

On October 9, 1962, Kakonge complained that independent Uganda inherited mass poverty, illiteracy, disease and low life expectancy. He promised to bring about the greatest happiness to the greatest number of Ugandans within a reasonably short time or UPC would be thrown out of power.

It’s now fifty years since we regained freedom. Mass poverty is over fifty percent; unemployment of youth is over 80 percent; maternal mortality has risen from 527 in 1995 to 920 per 100,000 live births in 2005 and 70 percent of urban population live in sprawling slums wearing second hand largely cold weather clothes unsuitable for a tropical weather regime.

Between 1995 and 2000, for example, infant mortality which is a measure of the health of the economy and society increased from 81 to 88 deaths per 1000 live births. Under-five mortality during the same period rose from 147 to 152 deaths per 1000 live births. High incidence of poverty combined with high rates of maternal under-nutrition and mortality have contributed to an increase in infant mortality. Performance in education has been unsatisfactory in terms of quality and relevance to the labor market, leading to high youth unemployment.

Have we used our freedom to conserve Uganda environment?

At independence Uganda inherited large swathes of wetlands, woodlands including Miombo, grasslands and forests. Mountain tops and steep slopes were planted with trees to stop soil erosion and water runoff. Terracing and contour farming was encouraged and reduced soil erosion in hilly areas like Kigezi. Thick vegetative cover that trapped water pools helped in formation of convectional rainfall, water percolation into the ground and raising water tables. It also regulated local climates.

Since Amin’s regime, the environment has been ruthlessly exploited. Vegetation has been cleared to make room for ranches and cultivation and urban spread; trees have been felled for domestic use and timber exports; fisheries have been exploited to near extinction to earn foreign currency and wetlands have virtually disappeared in urban and rural areas adversely affecting thermal and hydrological regimes and causing emergence of desertification conditions.

In towns lack of planning has created serious challenges including sprawling slums especially in Kampala. Construction in water drainage channels has led to frequent flooding and breeding grounds for mosquitoes and increase in the incidence of malaria. Air pollution has also increased due to vehicle fumes and bad smells from uncollected decomposed garbage and unsanitary slaughter houses.

Is there something good to remember before independence?

Colonial administration left behind things to remember and be proud of. There was law and order and discipline and community solidarity. Although schools and health clinics were few and far between, they were well staffed and supplied and delivered quality services. Ugandans took their work seriously and students and patients appreciated their services. School and health inspectors ensured that high standards were maintained. Church teachers and mothers’ unions helped raise high spiritual and home economics standards.

A clean competitive and achievement spirit was planted and nurtured in all areas of human endeavor. Churches competed in registering new converts and raising money. Schools competed to produce the best in academic, sports and singing performances. All students in primary and secondary schools wore uniforms. Students looked forward to parades on public events, neatly dressed and led by their bands and accompanied by their teachers immaculately dressed.

The British administration constructed Makerere University (Harvard of Sub-Saharan Africa) and Mulago teaching and national referral hospital; Jinja dam that generated clean energy and Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) and an emerging industrial base to transform Uganda’s economy, create jobs and raise the overall standard of living.

A tour of Uganda from north to south and from east to west gave hope that things were looking up. People were relatively happy and helped one another in conditions of reciprocity. Ugandans had relatively balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner. They went to their places of worship dressed well. Ugandans looked forward to Christmas Day to show off their new clothes, to feast and dance and be merry before the start of a New Year. I was there towards the end of colonial rule and witnessed all these things.

What happened to all these wonderful things? What did independence bring that has changed our lives for the better? Winston Churchill wrote about Uganda at the start of colonial rule that “The scenery is different, the vegetation is different, the climate is different, and, most of all, the people are different from anything elsewhere to be seen in the whole range of Africa”. Other commentators referred positively to Ugandans as the Chinese or the Japanese of Africa.

Hopefully, on October 9, 2012, President Museveni will tell the nation and the world what happened since he has been in power half the time since Uganda regained freedom, with indication of how NRM government plans to arrest and reverse direction for the better as we embark on the next fifty years as an independent nation and people.