Sunday March 9 2014

Science and technology are also good for conning President Museveni

By Alan Tacca

There is something that Uganda’s powerful thieves share with other crooks. The successful ones are very good observers of human behaviour.
Before noticing much about the lady taking the seat next to you in a taxi, the dark-goggled hawker outside the window has surveyed that she is in the gaudy necklace and ear-ring brigade, but her black leathery handbag and subtle facial touches make her a likely candidate for a cut-price genuine gold necklace he grabbed from a tourist on Kampala Road.

Gently, without a hint of fear, haste or aggression, the man lays the delicate chain with its diamond pendant on her lap. Softly, he talks; softly, she bargains, until she folds the chain in her palm and hands over the money.
For quite a while now, President Museveni has been obsessed with this thing popularly referred to as “science and technology”, the magic cure for Uganda’s industrial backwardness and rampant unemployment.

To get there, his (NRM) regime has tinkered with science teachers’ salaries and allowances, which did not work. He has made hundreds of appeals and references to highlight the subject in his speeches. He has committed (or pledged) billions of shillings to the cause. He has invited – begged – high technology companies to look at Uganda. And this week we hear the government is to recruit another 6,000 science teachers.

As a religion, science and technology is certainly a great improvement on Mama Fina and all those victory and miracle centres. The problem is that Gen Museveni thinks about the science and technology people very much as he thinks about politicians. He thinks of “convincing” or “facilitating” them to be on his side. Once they are on his side, he believes they should deliver the goods a technological society delivers.

He also seems to believe that when you produce science graduates, the economy automatically grows jobs for them; or society automatically develops needs, the fulfillment of which enables graduates to use their technical knowledge to create actual usable goods. The President often makes the switch from the classroom or from concepts and possibilities to the production of real goods all too easy, as if technology just by its force makes socio-economic obstacles to development disappear.

I have a hunch that white-collar conmen and the foxes around the President have closely laid strategies and mastered the tactics to take full advantage of his weakness before he finally gives up on his vision.
This week, at the Geneva Motor show, many of the major car makers have included electric cars (mostly hybrids) in their exhibitions. BMW are showing a small all-electric car. Yet, in spite of BMW’s existing infrastructure and in-house expertise, the company is reported to have spent billions (yes, billions) of dollars on the development of this car.
I was instantly reminded of the electric powered iron frog put together by Makerere University’s Engineering and Technology students and lecturers about two years ago.

It should have been obvious that this was nothing more than a student/lecturer practical exercise, as forgettable as 99.9999 per cent of such exercises come. However, I saw otherwise serious people fooling the President and the country’s taxpayers that this car would soon be rolling off a production line!
Before the fantasy could evaporate properly, they introduced another one. This time it was an electric bus. Then a mobile phone. We are invited to believe that Makerere’s technology people (perhaps together “investors”) are going to mass-produce all these things! Meanwhile, of course, remember the research funds.

I was astonished that of the President’s 100-plus paid advisers, none was kind enough to (or dared?) caution him to go slow down this potentially embarrassing path. It were as if they reaped a sadistic kick when the President “bamutomeza” (acts conned).
Last Sunday’s leading story in this paper, that people around the President had exploited his enthusiasm over a “ghost” computer factory to acquire and sell off a huge chunk of land in the Namanve industrial park, simply confirms that high technology is a wonderful window through which to con the President and rob the country.

Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator