Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira | That such a question can be asked at all suggests that Uganda is indeed broken. It means that a series of incidents, an accumulation of evidence, a culmination of anecdotes and perception have all gelled together to lead to the voicing of this question.
This is not about the odd break down of the national water supply or a new police report indicating that violent crime is on the rise. It is not just a newspaper headline or special report that might have argued that Uganda has gone to the dogs.
It is a question that seeks to explore a consistent reality all around, visible for the expert and casual onlooker to notice. It is the aggregate picture. It is the question asked in exasperation.
It is the story of nearly daily headlines of public money that has disappeared, of traffic jams that have become a total gridlock on the roads, of electricity that is off for most of the daylight hours, of bribes that are not just the common way of doing business, but the only convenient way.
The first question to ask in reply to the question posed by this cover story is when this state of decay started.
Election campaigns and poverty
In the April 6, 2008 edition of the Sunday Monitor newspaper, the President- General of the Democratic Party, John Sebana-Kizito reflected on what turn election campaigns have taken in Uganda in recent years:
“The rigging taking place now right from the campaigns and the use of money, even public [money] is unprecedented. In 1980 [during that year’s election campaign]…wherever we went we didn’t spend as much money. Maybe because the country was better off as far as finances were concerned. People were richer at that time than they are now. You arrived at a place and you [found] that they [had] already made preparations: public address system, chairs, and even some drinks. But now, if you are standing, you do everything…”
It is worth noting that the period that Ssebaana-Kizito was referring to was the year after the fall of Idi Amin’s government, a period usually regarded as the darkest in Ugandan history and a year after the destructive 1979 Uganda- Tanzania war.
In the 2010 election campaign, presidential and other candidates have been confronted everywhere they go by the sight of pitiful crowds, completely destitute and often appeased by the most basic of groceries – pieces of soap, party T-shirts and a Coca-Cola drink.
President Museveni has now made it almost an official state duty to hand out brown envelopes at his rallies and tours of the country in an almost inadvertent admission that this is the level of poverty to which his nation has been reduced during his 25-year rule.
Atrocities under various governments
With regard to human rights, it is broadly viewed – at least in the western world – that if there has been one unqualified area of success for Museveni, it has been to restore peace to a once unstable Uganda and to do away with the appalling human rights record of the Amin and Milton Obote governments.
Many in Uganda would agree with this view although it is by no means as unanimous as it once was. There have been a sufficient number of local news stories about state security safe houses, illegal detention and torture, independent reports by international human rights groups and academic researchers to render this a mixed picture.
The fact appears to be that what is said of the Amin and Obote regimes is just as true of the Museveni regime.
For example, not long after Museveni came to power in 1986, while he was still being heaped with praises for having rescued Uganda from the brink of total collapse and darkness, credible reports were noting that in fact little had changed under the new NRM government.
The BBC World Service reported, in its Focus on Africa programme on December 19, 1986, that Museveni’s army, the NRA, was setting fire to grain stores in northern and eastern Uganda and stealing cattle to deprive the rebels of food.
On February 7, 1987, the Anglican Bishop Benoni Ogwal-Abwang of the Church of Uganda stated on the BBC World Service that the NRA was treating the Acholi people worse than even Idi Amin had, a damning indictment considering the barbarism that Amin is often reported to have unleashed on the Acholi.
Laziness, a poor national work ethic
One of the most frustrating characteristics of Ugandans is not just the conduct of their governments and leaders, but the attitude of the ordinary people. They are sloppy, lazy, unreliable at work, and in need of a professional work ethic.
When the economy started to be privatized in 1990, it was assumed that competition between private companies and higher remuneration for employees would result in higher productivity and efficiency.
The frequently malfunctioning ATM machines at the various banks in Kampala, the slow pace of bureaucracy, the corruption, poor customer care, and the sheer overall incompetence that is the source of so much frustration clearly shows that the free market has not changed these ingrained tendencies.
However, lest all this is blamed on the NRM government, those familiar with Uganda over the course of time know that this is what the country has always been.
In the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, letters to the editors of newspapers regularly complained about the Post Office, the long wait one had to endure to get a phone line installed at the office or home and other such bottlenecks.
During the second Obote government from 1980 to 1985, civil servants developed the habit of leaving their jackets on the back of their office chairs and going out for ostensibly long lunch breaks, when in fact they were attending to private businesses as one way of earning additional income at a time of scarcity and misery in the country.
A month after the fall of Amin’s government, the new government newspaper, the Uganda Times, in an editorial on May 12, 1979, commented that “A typical hangover from the Amin era is that no one wants to get to work on time. These days there are two chief excuses. It was raining and there is no transport.”
Nobody who has lived in or visited Uganda for even one month in 2010 can fail to relate to this editorial from 31 years ago, describing as it does the typical Ugandan character, the lack of punctuality, the sloppiness at work when they do decide to work, the attitude that finds discipline a bother.
In many basic ways, therefore, it is clear that there are certain tendencies that run through Ugandan society and have done so for decades and this is irrespective of which government or system of government or political and military leaders that have run the country.
The next question is about Uganda today: what is it that marks it out as broken in ways that are either unique to today or much more aggravated than ever before?
It is gradually dawning on Ugandans and watchers of Uganda that the levels of corruption and outright looting of public funds and stripping of public physical assets seen today has never been seen before in Ugandan history.
Many have argued that endemic corruption has been a hallmark of the country since independence in 1962 and the only difference today is that a free media and civic society highlight this vice in ways that previous governments would have blocked from public view.
The reason that this argument does not carry any credibility is that two previous governments, those led by Obote and Amin and regarded as the most notorious, were opposed by many political groups and armed factions. The western media was especially hostile to Amin.
However, something is striking about the reporting by the international media and the literature and propaganda material published by the exiled
Ugandan politicians, academics and other opponents of Amin and Obote: the near absence of any mention of massive corruption in those governments.
Western embassies in Kampala during the 1970s and 1980s had extensive information-gathering capabilities. Exiled Ugandan groups had contacts and family members inside the country.
The exiled politicians had every incentive to tarnish the Obote and Amin regimes as dark as possible. Their literature circulated widely and uncensored in Europe, North America, Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania.
And yet even the most rabidly anti-Amin and anti-Obote propaganda material scarcely mentions corruption as a blemish on these two regimes. Human rights, a reign of terror, a brutal army, terrorizing of civilians dominate this progaganda material, but almost never mentions corruption.
Uganda hosted the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in 1975 under Amin. The summit came and went and not even Amin’s sworn enemies could find fault with the organization and the financial management of the summit.
By contrast, Uganda hosted the Commonwealth summit in 2007 under Museveni. Countries with an international reputation for mismanagement and corruption like Nigeria have hosted the Commonwealth summit.
But only Uganda, among all the hosts since the summits started in 1971, has earned the reputation of such massive swindling of money and such disorganization that three years later, the parliamentary investigation into embezzlement of funds intended for the summit is still going on.
The massive corruption that is being witnessed today is new and nearly unique to the NRM government.
Mismanagement of national assets
One of the most demoralizing aspects of the 25-year rule of the NRM has been the physical destruction of Uganda and disappearance of the state and state-owned assets from the lives of ordinary citizens.
It is a familiar story, repeated on radio talk shows, newspaper columns, and in private discussion: when the NRM government came to power, Uganda had a national airline, a national commercial bank, a national railway, a national post office, civil servants’ pool houses all over the country, a nationwide hotel chain, embassies in several parts of the world, and hospitals with medicine and beds and schools that had a modicum of quality education.
The assets and state-owned companies have all but disappeared and the government-owned schools, hospitals, libraries – almost anything that is still government-owned – have decayed or almost totally collapsed.
Not even the most ardent supporter of the NRM would dare claim that the roads in Kampala City are the model of 25 years of competence. Nor can it be said that a city that has close to no street lights is worth applauding.
Shortly after the death of the southern Sudanese leader Lt. General John Garang in a helicopter crash in 2005, the Weekly Observer newspaper, in a news feature on Uganda’s airforce and helicopter history reported that at the time the General Tito Okello junta was fleeing Uganda before the advancing NRA guerrillas in January 1986, the Okello regime left behind 40 airforce and other helicopters.
It would be next to a miracle if the Ugandan airforce today were to be found to possess even 10 helicopters. Much of what characterizes Uganda today, as already indicated, has existed through time and is not unlike the same incompetence, sloppiness, lack of ambition and order that can be seen in most other parts of Africa.
Altogether, the picture of Uganda today is one of a broken nation and one with still further to fall.
It will remain a mystery of Ugandan history that a government that had among its ranks some of the besteducated figures ever proved to be the most incompetent of them all and that semi-literates in the 1970s ran Uganda’s public works and systems better than what there is today.
What remains to be debated is how much the Uganda of today represents regime failure or how much the failure of the regime reflects traits that cut across Ugandan society, because even during its best days in the first half of the 1960s, Uganda was still a distinctly Third World African country, with all that defines this.
The situation Uganda finds itself in, therefore, is typical of much that is commonplace in Africa. To an extent, the introduction of free market systems in the Ugandan economy helped eliminate some of the obvious bottlenecks and societal tendencies.
The multinational corporations simply demanded more productivity at work than the old civil service and state-owned corporations once did. The Internet and the widespread use of mobile phones have relieved some of the extreme inefficiencies of Ugandan society. Government forms can be downloaded from websites and completed from anywhere, eliminating some of the previous bureaucracy.
Ingrained culture takes long periods of time to fade away and as such it is unrealistic to expect Ugandan society to suddenly develop the precision and efficiently of a South Korea or Finland soon.
However, the evidence is indisputable that in its endemic form it is either unique to the NRM government or at least reached new levels since 1986, suggesting that when a new government comes to power, with the NRM’s departure shall go this state of affairs.