Wednesday December 29 2010

Uganda’s corrupt and poor are caught in a deadly death dance

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I just spent a couple of days in the village. And I feel I was fortunate to get away from the big city and visit the countryside in the heat of the presidential campaign for the February 2011 Uganda general election.

I have been reading the campaign manifestos of the various candidates, and asking myself which one of them best speaks to the big issues facing the country. I got my answer on an extended trek I made on foot through the various villages on Christmas Day.

The experience told me that most of the candidates’ traditional approach to politics no longer offers meaningful answers to the urgent problems the poor of the country face.

As a radical young man travelling through some of these villages many, many years ago, I remember two things. First, there were more homes. Secondly, the gardens were more diverse--people had bananas, beans, potatoes, and every compound had a few goats tethered at the edge of the garden. Also, they used to have a lot of (now long-disappeared) sheep.

You see the same emasculated countryside life in the Buganda region, chunks of western Uganda, and vast expanses of northern Uganda. The primary explanation for this desolateness is that most of these lands can no longer support large populations, because they are tired and not productive.

The main culprit is environmental abuse that has resulted in loss of tree cover, extensive soil erosion and, most punitively, the disappearance. Today, swathes of wetlands have been invaded by farmers desperate to improve their lives, by diversifying into things like rice farming. If you want to see a very extreme version of this invasion of the wetlands for rice farming go to parts of Busoga but, most dramatically, Pallisa District.

The result is that water is disappearing, so even in areas that were not affected by war and livestock theft as in the north-east and north of Uganda, it is becoming impossible to support cattle. And, worse, humans. So people are selling and moving off. That is how you now come to have growing expanses of abandoned barren land in places that were heavily settled just 25 years ago.

If you had to sum this up in a few words, it is that Uganda’s countryside is being killed by a crisis of water. I encountered one possible solution in a remote area where a new bridge is being built over a largely dried swamp.

To create the right elevation for the bridge to ensure it isn’t submerged in future floods, the engineers dug up a lot of the soil and mud that long ago clogged the river to ease the passage of water in future. The accidental result is that around the 5 metres stretch they dug up, there is now tap clear water, the type that villagers in the area have not seen, one elder told me, in over 40 years!

I think these efforts at reclaiming lost rivers and water sources can be done in this way village by village. But it requires that we revive our stressed small communities; establish cooperative life, one village at a time. It is a project that is probably too micro to be led by government policy from Kampala. But it is also an approach that requires a sophistication that local governments lack. It’s the awareness of innovative ways to rebuild the social and economic viability of small communities that I find almost totally absent in all candidates’ manifestos.

But there is something else. The one change I found is that in the remotest of villages where I went, everyone says, “corruption is our biggest problem”. This awareness of the pervasiveness of corruption is impressive.

I wondered though, how aware these good folks were aware of how that corruption affects their ability to survive as sovereign citizens beyond the reality that it results in the many non-functioning medical centres up-country, or the shambolic government schools. It is worse.

My sense is that the biggest (and fairly respectable) money laundering project in Uganda is land. As the small people flee their barren lands, the corrupt are buying them up in record amounts. The incentive for the peasants to sell is that many of them are being offered very good money for their land.

In many ways, the peasants and small producers are indirect beneficiaries of corruption, because it allows them to be paid above-market values for their abused lands. With this money, a lot of these peasants are moving to the Busoga region, and deeper into Mukono and buying new land.

They are likely going to kill their new land in a similar way in another 10 to 15 years, because micro environment is the trade-off that macro-corrupt national politicians make with peasants. So they are not solving a problem by moving and buying fertile land elsewhere. They are only exporting the problem of environmental destruction and water stress to Busoga, Buganda, and the Lango regions, and fast-tracking the wider national ecological crisis. Next week, we look at the small ways in which we might stop this environmental death race.