Lessons from Uganda’s 50 years of independence

Lessons from Uganda’s 50 years of independence
Uganda Celebrates 50 years since independence

Independence for a nation unprepared

Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira | The colonial territories of Africa at the time of the first wave of independence in the late 1950s desired to become self-governing and take their place among the nations of the world.

The sentiment was understandable, the desire valid. However, the lessons of history have now become clear.

The main lesson, as seen in the Biblical story of the prodigal son, is that a deep desire to become independent does not necessarily mean the same thing as being ready to be independent.

The best way to gauge how unprepared Uganda was at the time of independence 50 years ago is to start by looking at its level of incompetence and poor public administration today and then imagine how much worse it was when it had far fewer educated people in 1962.

Let’s take a simple example.

Today, Uganda has over 30 universities, located in all the major regions of the country. Several thousand students graduate from these universities each and every year.

And yet with all these graduates and with hundreds more now in possession of Masters’ degrees, there is still so much waste in government ministries, a lack of cohesive planning and so many grammatical and spelling errors in Uganda’s mainstream newspapers and magazines.

If this is a country that still has poor customer care, poor service delivery, and poor standards of performance and yet it is run by a large number of university graduates, what made the country imagine it was ready for independence when in 1956, just six years before independence, the whole of East Africa had only one university and that was Makerere University?

Clearly, then, the early political agitators like Augustine Kamya, Milton Obote and Ignatius Musaazi did not really understand what a modern nation-state meant. They agitated out of a sense of pride and defiance but with very little grasp of what was required.

Independence, if that is what it can be called, was therefore received by a nation that was wholly unprepared.

Once it was attained on October 9, 1962, the same lack of preparedness and lack of understanding of the complex systems and institutions that run a modern state, this group of early patriots who are now our honoured national heroes, could only have started off on a wrong footing.

When the British created the protectorate of Uganda, they showed a clear understanding of what a modern nation was about. Every step of the way was logical and each institution created had a purpose that was clearly spelled out.

In 1897, the first school in Uganda, Mengo Primary School, was founded. Its role was to give the very basic education to Ugandans. Also in 1897, the first secondary school, Mengo Secondary School, was founded.

Its purpose was to receive and educate those who had completed primary school at Mengo and who could then go on to a more advanced education.

There was no immediate rush to create a university until the colonial administration got primary and secondary education right. There was no need for a university when there were still so few primary and secondary schools.

From Mengo was created Namilyango College (1902), Gayaza High School (1905), Kings’ College Budo, St. Mary’s College Kisubi and Mt. St. Mary’s College Namagunga (1906).

Only much later, in 1922, was the ground broken for the creation of a university college, at Makerere in Kampala.

When one reads the British colonial plans for the creation of Makerere and the reasons given, what is striking is the step-by-step logic to all that. Every policy move is well-explained, well-reasoned and it clearly shows where in the general national picture of development each new institution it fits.

So the first lesson of these 50 years is of how unprepared Uganda was to get independence in 1962 and the second is in the absolute need for a clear, well laid-out plan for national development, free of contradictions.

Uganda, for one, had several research institutes and livestock experimental stations in Mbarara, Soroti, Entebbe, Kawanda and Namulonge. These had been created by the colonial government and the incoming leaders and civil servants after 1962 did not seem to understand how vital research was.

These research and experimental stations were reduced to being places of routine work and their staff vehicles used to transport officers and their families, but very little real research went on.

The third lesson is in how naïve the early African independence leaders were in as far as understanding the international situation was concerned.

The 1950s and 1960s were the height of the gigantic ideological, political, intelligence and military struggle between the free market West and the Communist East that is known as the Cold War.

Any regular listening to world news on radio and any reading of the newspapers and magazines of the day would have made this clear to the African political class in the 1950s and 1960s.

The African political class would also have known from their primary and secondary school geography that the African continent, even though underdeveloped, had large deposits of some of the most important minerals and natural resources for industrial development, including the manufacturing of advanced military weapons systems.

There was copper in Uganda and Zambia, gold in Angola, South Africa, Ghana, Congo, Mali, cobalt in Uganda, platinum in South Africa, diamonds in Botswana and petroleum in Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Angola and Gabon, among other precious minerals.

Knowing this and the intense Cold War standoff and competition for mineral resources and militarily strategic seaports and harbours, the new African political class should have expected that the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective allies would soon take their struggle to Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

However, despite all this information and international trends, most African states gaining independence in the late 1950s right until the 1970s rather than keep a low profile actually went out to take sides in this conflict that was essentially none of their business.

Radicals like Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah took position in the East Bloc camp and more conservative leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, Mobutu Sese Seko, Felix Houphouët-Boigny and Leopold Sedar Senghor allied with the West.

Not surprisingly, it was only a matter of time before British-, French- and U.S.—backed military coups started to break out all over black Africa, including Uganda in 1971.

This political instability caused by western interference in and manipulation of Africa was to rob the continent of 30 years through civil wars, coups, attempted coups and assassinations.

All these eventualities Uganda’s leaders and others in Africa do not appear to have foreseen and therefore acted somewhat recklessly in trying to stand up to a West or East bloc that they had little power and resources to confront.

African nations that had never manufactured a single gun had the temerity to stand defiantly against nuclear-armed western and eastern powers.

Even away from the political naivety and unpreparedness for self-government, even if there was no Cold War in terms of administration the new nations of Africa were wholly incompetent to run a modern state.

One of the greatest failings of Uganda was the failure to develop a mechanism for spotting and developing its talent in almost every field (except political). The fields of science and research, as in the rest of black Africa, were neglected for the last 50 years.

So many would-be singers, athletes, scientists, artists, administrators, educators, civil servants, doctors, farmers, planners and others saw their talents go to waste. Many in frustration left the country for “green pastures” abroad.

Uganda just failed to create a system to keep records and document its history. There is no way, even in the 21sth Century, for most of the country to know if there is a talented Ugandan out in its midst.

A clear example of this came in Uganda winning its first Olympic gold medal in 40 years in the athlete Stephen Kiprotich at the London Olympic Games of 2012.

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Most Ugandans did not know about him. There were no facilities and national motivation for him to train in Uganda and he had to train in Kenya. After his victory, the country belatedly and in surprise embraced him as a hero.

Until this most surprising of Olympic victories, 50 years after independence Uganda had still not developed a mechanism to identify talent in all fields.

Government bureaucracies remained slow and inefficient. Even in the new and growing private sector, the same inefficiencies seen in government ministries were just as common.

The largely disastrous 50 years of Uganda’s independence and Africa’s demonstrate how important forethought and planning are to the development of a country.

Many who assume that these bottlenecks of 50 years will be resolved in the next 50 would do well to heed the lesson of Haiti.

Haiti was the first black republic in the world, winning independence in 1804, but 208 years later Haiti is no different from most Black African countries, thus disproving the assumption that time necessarily corrects national errors.