Uganda’s 50 years of independence

Uganda's 50 years of independence
Security operatives patrolling the streets of Kampala. Courtesy Photo.

There is no better time in a country’s history than the day they gained independence and become a sovereign state. The East African countries were colonized by Britain and Belgium. Rwanda and Burundi gained their autonomy on 1st July 1962. Both colonies were Belgian controlled. Tanzania (9th December, 1961), Uganda (9th October, 1962) and Kenya (12th December, 1963) were British colonies or protectorates.

During the recent wave of 50th anniversary celebrations, do we really reminisce where we have come from,where we are at present and where we are heading to as a nation?

East Africa faces common problems that need to be discussed and addressed. So far it seems integrating thoughts in the East African Community (EAC) is easier in theory than in practice. The EAC was founded in 1967 and fell apart in the late 1970s due to political friction between the original members – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It was restarted in 2000 and got new members in Burundi and Rwanda in 2007.

Political tensions have been hampering our efforts to harmonize the stability of our countries. For instance, the civil unrest in Kenya after the hotly contested – and later violent – elections in 2007-2008 hampered the progress towards growth in the country. Shamefully we still have internally displaced persons (IDPs) in refugee camps up to date.

As Uganda turns 50 this month, we cannot forget when the incumbent veteran ex-rebel President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was re-elected and sworn in for a fourth term in 2011. Violence broke out later after weeks of protests. Besigye was injured when members of the Ugandan police dragged him from a vehicle and drenched him in pepper spray to prevent him taking part in so-called “walk to work” protests over rising food and fuel prices.

As economic and other challenges grew the media briefly boycotted government functions, lawyers protested at the High Court against undermining of the rule of law and judicial independence by the executive and investors/business people closed shops and malls out of fear their goods would be destroyed or stolen in the violent protests. Are these actions close to the democracy we have been preached about all through the years by our leaders?

Still in Uganda, the government was once criticized when it spent billions of shillings on fighter jets amidst food scarcity, a proposal made to donate a chunk of Mabira forest to the Mehtas for sugarcane growing, a $3 million budget for the presidential swearing in and a $300,000 presidential donation to a primary school in neighbor Rwanda, amidst claims of lack of money to improve teachers’ conditions.

This has not been in Uganda alone, recently Kenya faced an industrial action taken by teachers who called for better remuneration and working conditions. The government diverted funds meant to hire more teachers and ease classroom overcrowding at the Ministry of Defense, where spending is not publicly scrutinized.

Strikes lasted four weeks – longer than before, paralyzing the education curriculum just after August holidays when students resumed school. The lecturers and doctors later joined in taking the same action.

Truly we cannot deny the reality that citizens are suffering as our leaders are making it big. The periphery at which the rich and the poor is leveling at, definitely is a matter of disgrace to the larger population that is languishing in poverty living on barely less than a dollar a day while our gluttonous leaders spend more than $50 for breakfast alone in a five-star hotel.

East Africa countries in the region are predominantly associated with agricultural sector. In Burundi for instance, it accounts for just over 30 percent of GDP employing more than 90 percent of the population, exports primarily being coffee and tea. Uganda has substantial natural resources including fertile soil, regular rainfall, small deposits of copper, gold and just recently discovered oil. Kenya is also counted in countries with this important discovery. In agricultural sector, Uganda employs over 80 percent of the workforce, where coffee accounts for bulk export revenue.

Tanzania is one of the world’s poorest economies in terms of per capita income, however it averaged 7 percent GDP growth per year between 2000 and 2008 on strong gold production and tourism. Its agriculture accounts for more than one-quarter of its GDP, providing 85 percent of exports and employing about 80 percent of the work force.

Rwanda is regarded as a poor rural country with about 90 percent of the population engaged in (mainly subsistence) agriculture and some mineral and agro-processing. Tourism, minerals, coffee and tea are Rwanda’s main sources of foreign exchange. The best thing is that President Paul Kagame has invested in technology and better road networks that have boosted Rwanda’s economy.

The Kenyan highlands are one of the most successful agricultural production regions in Africa, but some parts – especially the North – suffer from recurring droughts and famines. Kenya is known as regional hub for trade and finance as it features East Africa’s best transportation linkages, communications infrastructure and trained personnel to undertake the workload of the country in particular and the region in general.

We need more to be done, especially in health sector, where doctors and medical officers are paid peanuts while the conditions in hospitals are pathetic. You wouldn’t like it when you visit Kenyatta National Hospital in Kenya and Mulago Hospital in Uganda and see neglected patients with poor hygienic environment and deplorable working conditions. We need to see our leaders treated in these hospitals, not abroad.

Infant and maternal mortality rates are high, malnutrition among kids below five years is rampant, prevalence of HIV/AIDS rates has escalated tremendously, ethnic/tribal divides are increasing, access to safe drinking water in rural areas is a nightmare, recurrent power outages is our experience, hygiene and minimal medical supply in health centers are paramount problems facing our countries for many years now. In such, the common man is heavily taxed but we don’t see the use of the money in uplifting the livelihood standards. Instead, taxpayers’ money is used in unimportant things that do not benefit the citizens in anyway.

The security is not up to snuff and it has been breached occasionally. We have seen uncountable attacks by the Al-Shabaab militias in our countries, despite the AMISOM soldiers trying to secure Somalia to liberate the country from the militants rule. And unemployment is just a time bomb waiting to explode in the next minute as people who can’t find jobs turn to Al-Shabaab. Cattle rustling and land grabbing are other major problems facing people in the urban and rural places in our countries.

There is nothing to applaud in the infrastructure. Traffic is worse as roads narrow to accommodate motorists and pedestrians. In Uganda I have seen heavy commercial vehicles allowed in the city center. This causes long jams. Bravo to the Ugandan government for introducing Pioneer Buses, which are very economical for the common man. Paying transport and getting to the destiny is affordable compared to the taxis where one pays double the amount for the same distance.

After all is said and done, the issues addressed should make any serious leader pause for thought and consider whether a change in political culture should be an individual or a national priority. May we live to see many days of such celebration.

Happy 50-years anniversary to Uganda.

By Michael Wandati