Recently, I was in conversation with an official of one of Kampala’s leading FM radio stations. We were discussing one of my pet and longest-running topics, the difference between the European and the African.
He mentioned with nostalgia in the late 1990s when the South African phone company MTN had just entered the Ugandan market.
The Marketing Manager of MTN Uganda, Erik van Veen, a gregarious, energetic man, was constantly in the news media. Parties, sporting events, awards ceremonies.
Obviously every newspaper and radio station in town wanted a piece of MTN’s advertising budget, at that time its blue-and-yellow corporate colours were becoming the most instantly recognisable colours in Kampala and later around the country.
This radio official narrated what it meant to deal with van Veen. A marketing or management team would visit the MTN head office, present a proposal to van Veen and try and persuade him to adopt it and have MTN advertise with that radio station.
According to this official, van Veen would immediately take to the idea, listen carefully, show enthusiasm, suggest changes to it, ask questions about if it could be better done, and so on.
The radio team would feel that somebody was listening keenly and seemed to immediately understand their point.
After van Veen left and gradually Ugandans came to take up senior management positions in MTN, according to this radio official turned analyst, they started to feel the huge difference.
The new Ugandan managers, like most Ugandan CEOs, General Managers, Marketing Managers and others who carry the title of either manager or director, executive, boss and CEO, were a far cry from van Veen.
Typically, they were hesitant about everything. They lacked the personal confidence and expansive attitude that van Veen had. Even a proposal that was so glaringly obvious in its advantage to MTN, to the radio station and of interest to the Ugandan public would be met with “You see”, “However…”, “Unfortunately, we…”, “But…”
I fully understood and agreed with this radio official. That is the Uganda that has frustrated me all my life since I left university.
I don’t know how many proposals and ideas I have put to marketing managers and CEOs of some of Uganda’s leading companies over the years.
The first reaction is always one of unease, like people not used to taking decisions, people not used to thinking outside the box (or thinking at all).
To every new idea one presents, the Ugandan manager instinctively looks for a reason to explain why it won’t work or why it is a good idea, “but…”. There is always a “but”.
As I mentioned last week, I am an ardent viewer of television news and documentaries, especially Bloomberg TV, the BBC and the documentary channels like National Geographic and Discovery channel.
Then I tune in to our Kampala television stations.
The stark contrast between the Western, White mind and the African, including the well-travelled, well-educated, well-paid African.
Oh, the poverty of the Ugandan mind, of intellectual output, the sketchiness of the knowledge the hosts and co-hosts!
The pity of it all.
President Museveni recently, as he has many times, referred to the former President Idi Amin as an idiot (“idiocy”, Museveni termed it).
I lived through most of the Amin years and I can say (and have said many times) that Amin was a far better public administrator than Museveni, although of course Museveni is much the greater intellect.
As many readers know, I have investigated the Amin story and have defended and will continue to defend him over the claims about the human rights record of his regime and the false claims that he ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of Ugandans.
But where I bitterly disagree with Amin is, ironically, where most Ugandans and other Africans praise him the most – the expulsion of the non-citizen Asians in 1972.
The positive, spoken and written about over the last 40 years, has been that the 1972 expulsion of the Asians created room for indigenous Ugandan businesses to start, until today we have a Black middle class business community.
I am sympathetic to those who hold this view of the historical impact of that 1972 expulsion.
Amin and his cabinet decided on this decision in good faith, considering the feeling of being second class citizens and the impression most Black Ugandans had at the time that the Asians were dominating the economy.
The greatest damage to Uganda, in my opinion, was not the expulsion of the Asians.
To me the greatest damage to Uganda after 1972, because of the growing strains between the West and the military government, was the steady departure from Uganda of the British, Canadian and American expatriate community. Not the expulsion of the Asians but the departure of the Whites.
The loss of the White community in Uganda, especially in education, was the worst damage that ever happened to Uganda. The Whites were the true royals of Uganda, the true middle class, as they still are globally, anyway.
They had the diligence, the open-mindedness, the sense of duty and dedication to this foreign country Uganda, the creativity, the attention to the fine things in life that, tragically, no African society I know of has.
I have met, interacted with or listened to or read Ugandans who have attended some of the world’s most prestigious universities, or who have lived in America for 40 years, 30 years, or who have the best education from the best schools.
My estimate is that the “A-Class” African, in terms of intellect and mental depth, corresponds to the C-Level White European and most of us, probably would rank in the D-Level of Western society.
My colleague Andrew Mwenda, who for many years used to angrily attack me for suggesting White mental superiority over Black, has since late last year repeatedly told me he now agrees with me.
Amin’s good intentions were not based on pragmatic wisdom.
The indigenous Ugandan business and white-collar “middle class” that took root in Uganda today, that everyone seems to praise, is the one I regret the most.