Sunday December 30 2012

Uganda in 2012: A broken, medieval, retarded society

The Bududa landslides that hit the area in June, left many families, including this lady in tears after loved ones were buried alive.

The Bududa landslides that hit the area in June, left many families, including this lady in tears after loved ones were buried alive. FILE PHOTO 

By Timothy Kalyegira

By this year, Uganda had reached the lowest point it has ever got to in peace time in its 50 years since independence in 1962. In previous times, such as the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, some of the breakdown in Uganda could be attributed to a military coup, looting in the wake of the coup, the 1979 Uganda-Tanzania war, the civil wars that raged in Buganda in the 1981-1986 period and the conflict in northern Uganda from 1986 to 2006.

In 2012, nothing seemed to work anymore, from public hospitals to schools, government ministries and the political system, and yet the country was at peace. A broken, medieval society, is what Uganda had become by 2012. The Tooro royal wedding of Christopher Thomas and Princess Ruth Komuntale was an eagerly anticipated event, given much newspaper coverage and sold quite well. The actual church service itself, though, felt a little sad and awkward.

Held at the main Anglican Church in Kabarole District, the wedding gave the impression that there is not much of a royal family, royal historians or royal experts in protocol or a royal choir. The once-proud Tooro royal kingdom seemed much diminished that day.

The 50th independence anniversary celebrations felt even sadder. Everything came across as a hurriedly assembled effort, lacking historical perspective and richness of a kind that, say, a European country would put together.

An indifferent, lacklustre Kampala street carnival was organised by Kampala Capital City Authority. The main national event at Kololo displayed a handful of Air force fighter-bomber jets and helicopters, not enough to form a standard air squadron.

No difference?
As usual, there was an inability to draw a distinction between what is ruling party and what is national.
All of the main newspapers and television stations published or broadcast special “UG@50” or “Uganda at 50” series, attempting to capture the 50 years since 1962 in video, photographs and feature stories.

The packaging was clearly put together with advertisers in mind but the lack of intellectual rigour, grasp and historical memory among Uganda’s media, political and academic class soon became apparent. The 1990s idea of hiring young writers and journalists in the media had resulted in Ugandans, barely 30 years old, writing about or commenting on events for which they have scant knowledge.

But older Ugandans who were witness to the events of October 1962, in their media interviews and recollections, did not show much difference in depth of analysis or vividness of description as 25-year-old Ugandans.

The choice of subject matter and angle for the Uganda at 50 series across the nation’s media showed, especially, how little Ugandans read, think, research and how little even the best-educated among us are able to aggregate our knowledge and national memories into one historic, panoramic whole.

When Prisons officer Stephen Kiprotich won the gold medal in the most historic Olympic event, the Marathon, at the Olympic games in London, it raised the nation’s spirits and was one of the very few truly incontestable uplifting national events of 2012 and even across a 50-year milestone of events would still be one of the top two in sport, Uganda’s inadequacy showed itself.

From the President to Cabinet ministers, to sports officials, business corporations and tourism agencies, there was an excited rush to honour and celebrate Kiprotich’s victory in London, and once again, it came across as awkward.

Suddenly a sports convertible appeared to drive him to State House, Entebbe, where a government, as Kiprotich himself was quick and consistent at reminding us, had barely done anything for sports and his victory owed more to his training at high altitude in western Kenya and through his own determination far from the mad and maddening crowd than from any government help. The organisational and intellectual poverty of Uganda was once again on display.

Spain is not Uganda
The much-discussed text message by the Spanish Prime Minister that “Spain is not Uganda” was one of the year’s truisms. Since 1962, a small indigenous middle class has been slowly emerging which defines itself in terms of the way it dresses, drives and drinks, rather than the way it thinks and the inventive and intellectual output of its mind and factories.

The pattern of development and growth taken by Uganda since 1962 is one of growth by material addition, not growth by mental and intellectual probing and experimentation, a society of more cell phones than books sold, 100 times more Facebook users than book buyers.

Most African countries in 2012 are in material terms where Europe was in the 1890s but intellectually are where Europe was in the 1300s. That image of material modernity but intellectual Middle Ages is what Uganda was as it marked its first 50 years as an independent nation-state.

Many Ugandan families, starting in Baganda in the 1930s, have attained a modicum of middle class material success --- land, houses, bank accounts, equity in public corporations, children studying abroad, cars, furniture and electrical appliances.

We have built personal houses, bought large four-wheel cars, attained graduate university education, own a range of iGadgets and have travelled the world, but what Uganda and its sister African countries still solely lack is a rock-solid intellectual tradition.

What no single Ugandan family has yet attained, both before and since independence, is the definition of Middle Class in the European, Israeli, American sense, framed around intellectual and innovative distinction.

Ours is an acquisitive rather than an innovative culture. We acquire land, houses, cars, sofa sets, but we do not study the human genome or excavate lost Nilotic or Hamitic settlements. We are an immediate, material, practical, simple people who lack the prodigious intellectual output that is archetypically Europe.

Even when we one day sort out our politics, curb corruption, invest our oil resources well, Uganda shall develop more along the lines of the Persian Gulf states like Oman and Qatar than the pattern of Switzerland or Italy: feudal societies with world-class skyscrapers and global broadcasters like Al-Jazeera.
What the Spanish Prime Minister meant, then, was that William Shakespeare or Leonardo da Vinci can suffer a financial setback and become bankrupt. But a Shakespeare or da Vinci is still not the same man as a shoe shine or marketing manager of a Kampala corporation.

One of the saddest personalities of Uganda at 50 in 2012 was its head of state. Yoweri Museveni was the reflection of that Medieval leader governing a Medieval society, arriving at Kololo Airstrip in a $1 million armoured Mercedes, driving past a crowd of Ugandans who barely had breakfast that morning and no longer able to recognise the African Big Man caricature he has now become.

The very caricature he himself denounced that January day in 1986 when he took his oath of office.