Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira | Are we really better off than we were a half century ago? And are we truly independent? Not really.
In looking back at the 48 years of independence that Uganda marks this October, a most interesting question would be: If a referendum were called today and millions of Ugandans asked to vote on who they would rather have rule them, the former colonial power the British or native-born Ugandans, whom would they prefer?
At the time of independence in October 1962, Uganda was a fairly stable, solid state, which is why comparisons are often made between Uganda’s economy as it was 48 years ago with those of Malaysia and South Korea.
With hospitals fully functional, schools of a relatively high standard, the civil service efficient and independent of political interference, the average Ugandan was in a strong, promising position.
The only problem was that this native African Ugandan felt belittled by British rule. Many complained that their fathers and grandfathers were condescendingly referred to by their British masters as “boy”.
There were parts of Kampala like Kololo and upper Nakasero where most African Ugandans did not set foot.
It was in this climate of social subjugation that the new crop of educated Ugandans, who might have studied in or travelled to Europe, started to agitate for independence. The assumption was that the basic infrastructure and political and legal systems were in place and efficient and what was left was the restoration of dignity to the black Ugandan.
Independence came on October 9, 1962 at a ceremony at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala. Apollo Milton Obote became the country’s first Prime Minister.
The first three years, from 1962 to 1965, were the most peaceful and least contentious. In the history books little is written about these three years. The lack of historical material on this period attests to the stability of the immediate post-independence years.
To most Ugandans, the troubles started in 1966 and since then, the atmosphere of bitterness and feeling of disenfranchisement and political instability has never left the country.
The largest ethnic entity, the influential Buganda Kingdom, started on a collision path with the central government in 1966, climaxing in a military attack on the palace of the Kabaka (or king) of Buganda in May 1966 by government troops.
Since 1966, the only year that has been free of contention in Ugandan history has been 1968. Like 1962, 1963, and 1965, a year with no news was a year of good news. All of Ugandan history since 1966 remains bitterly disputed.
However, the economy remained strong, stable and all state institutions still worked well. The 1971 military coup that brought the army commander Major-General Idi Amin to power was widely welcomed in Buganda and from Buganda Amin got the first solid support that would translate into political legitimacy.
After only a few months in power, reports started to emerge that this new government was liquidating political supporters and soldiers and policemen in the recently ousted Obote government.
Later, it was reported that Amin was massacring tens and then hundreds of thousands of Ugandans on a scale unheard of before anywhere in Africa.
Subsequent historical research has started to question the facts and claims about these deaths during the Amin years, but this does not alter the fact that the Ugandan state since 1966 has been viewed by a wide section of the population as being chiefly criminal toward its own people, irrespective of which government happened to be in power.
In 1972, after thousands of non-citizen Asians and hundreds of Europeans were expelled by the Amin government, the economy started to take a downward turn, made much worse by the sabotage by anti-Amin exile groups and the withdraw of aid and financial credit by the major western monetary bodies.
Thus, for most of the post-independence period, the average Ugandan has lived under a state of fear in his or her own country and then also struggled amid difficult economic times.
After many years of economic difficulty, the period after 1992 saw what looked like major economic recovery that went on right until the late 1990s then come suddenly to a halt.
For the first time, starting in 1991, the national economy was fully privatized and this process went on unabated right into 2010.
There had been a widely accepted view that the economic crisis in post-colonial Africa had been brought about by poor central planning and state management of the economy and if this was ended and the economy put in private hands and subjected to the free-wheeling forces of competition and market demand, this would bring out the best in the nation.
By 2010, it had become abundantly clear that privatization and a market economy was not necessarily the remedy for Uganda’s economic problems. Free-market policies and private control of the economy had given the country the appearance of a great variety of goods and services, the illusion of competition improving services and products and generally of freedom of choice as being beneficial to the nation.
Few people, though, had foreseen that a liberal, market economy might work in Europe and North America, but could be ruinous to the undeveloped African economy. Corruption has grown by leaps and bounds since 1990, far overshadowing even the worst there ever was between 1962 and 1990.
Where it is ordinarily assumed that competition breeds quality and refinement, in Uganda competition has resulted in bribery, tax evasion and a breakdown in the ethical standards of the nation.
Half of the past 48 years of an independent Uganda have been under the rule of the National Resistance Movement. The planners in the West who suggested or even imposed economic reform on Uganda in 1987, who had assumed that a liberalized economy would bring with it an equally open and liberal political era might now be surprised that, if anything, it has entrenched a one-party, one-man rule on Uganda.
Above all, 48 years after independence, Uganda still looks like a caricature of state, as do most African countries. If anything, the country has moved more and more into territory that Marxists might term “neo-colonialism”.
If all western aid were to suddenly be frozen today, within two months Uganda would come to a standstill. Even where the western economic influence has reduced, into that gap have stepped Japan and China in the East.
Since the Amin government imported a fleet of Honda Accord, Honda Civic and Datsun 120Y cars for government civil servants in 1977, Japanese cars have dominated the Ugandan road and today account for nine in ten vehicles in Uganda.
Today too, a flood of Chinese goods starting about 2002 has wiped out any prospect that Ugandan light manufacturing will ever again be a factor in the economy. The East African Common market that came into force on July 1, 2010, if anything, will create only a consolidated open field for China to effortlessly take over the East African region.
At the cultural and social level, there is still confusion about what Uganda stands for. On one hand, there is a defiantly expressed sense of nationhood while on the other, most people’s tribes are still the primary personal and political identity.
The institutions of state, from the judiciary to the army, police, intelligence services, civil service and executive branch, still do not appear to know or act on the difference between a sitting government and the permanent entity called the state.
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The English Premier League has now become the biggest national sporting past time and perhaps biggest past time of any kind in Uganda.
One of the best ways and times to observe this cultural confusion is around Christmas or at weddings. Christmas cards depicting snow and reindeer are still the most widely sold in Kampala in December, the hottest month of the year in Uganda.
At weddings, the urbanized middle class is still not sure what image is should project. The cake and dress is typically western, but every effort is made to retain the traditional African rituals. The annual Uganda North American Association convention held in the United States is one of the top-ticket events of the year, reflecting the prestige that association with the West still carries.
President Yoweri Museveni, more than 24 years in power, despite all the flow of Western aid to Uganda since he came to power in a revolutionary coup, was still unable to see the irony in flying himself and his children to Germany for basic medical treatment.
Nor too does he see the irony in mounting a British-made Landrover at Kololo Airstrip, inspecting a guard of honour to British martial music, and then stepping up to the rostrum and warning the West not to dictate to Uganda how it should govern itself.
Idi Amin and Milton Obote, even with their fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric, maintained Britons as either personal secretaries or advisors in the President’s Office.
This, then, is the state of affairs 48 years after independence: a country whose agenda is still firmly set by the West, made in the West’s image, and just another sphere of influence of the western powers.
Uganda, like most African states, is still caught up in a basic identity crisis: neither fully African nor fully western; still directly dependent on the West and yet at the same time defiant about asserting its own identity.
Uganda is the PC monitor, while the West is the server.