Wednesday March 7 2012

Problem with Uganda today is that it is losing its hunger

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

For over two years, Uganda has been trapped in succession and, now, oil politics. Having changed the Constitution in 2005 to scrap term limits, President Museveni has to fight harder each year to justify why he should continue staying in power.

And that fight becomes harder as he grows older, as his grip slowly loosens, and his end becomes ever more inevitable. Thus the price for him winning elections becomes higher, and the amount of patronage he has to pay to keep loyalty keeps increasing.

Meanwhile, focus has gone out of efforts to grow the economy through things like attracting foreign and local investment. There is no urgency partly because Uganda has struck oil, so many people think as soon as oil starts flowing there will be a lot of money to go around.

I fear we might, again, end badly. A few examples: Tanzania is mineral-rich, and its mineral, gas, and now oil fields could be several times more lucrative than Uganda’s. It has been ruled by the same, lately very corrupt party, Chama Cha Mapunduzi (CCM or Party of Revolution) since 1964.

Yet Tanzania, whom many Ugandans think are too laid back, still managed to recently complete the wonderful job of tarmacking the nearly 1,200 kilometres between Mwanza and Dar es Salaam. There has been no remotely equivalent project in Uganda for ages now.

The nearest, the equivalent, the rebuilding of Kenya-Mombasa Railway has been just talk, talk, and more talk. Even the extension of the pipeline from Eldoret has been talked about since the NRM came to power in 1986, but nothing has come of it 26 years later! South Sudan became independent in July last year.

Compared to Uganda, in terms of its State capabilities and the competence of its bureaucrats, it is in the Stone Age. When it became independent, the issue of sharing its oil with (North) Sudan became problematic, and a few weeks ago, the Juba government turned off the oil taps, losing nearly 90 per cent of its revenues as it could no longer export oil on the pipeline through Port Sudan – owned by the north.

Though it has been known that Uganda has vast fields of oil since the 1940s, the first time the government decided to announce it officially and begin on the path of exploiting it was in 2006. Six years later, we are just quarrelling and fighting over the little bribes from concessioning and capital gains that are supposed to be paid/not paid by the exploration companies.

South Sudan meanwhile early this year, signed a deal to build a pipeline through Ethiopia to Djibouti, and another one through Kenya to Lamu Port, whose ground-breaking ceremony took place last week with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and South Sudan’s Salva Kiir in attendance, along with all Kenya’s top leaders.

There is now a competition between the Europeans who are building the Djibouti pipeline, and the Chinese who are doing the Lamu one. Both are pushing to complete their project in less than two years.

So a new struggling South Sudan could have two pipelines before Uganda, which has been relatively stable for 26 years, under a president who likes to claim that he is the most revolutionary and visionary in the world, will even have a refinery - or complete the simple uncomplicated 20-years-plus oil pipeline project from Eldoret to Jinja at least, if Kampala is too much.

The difference between Uganda and Tanzania, South Sudan, and Kenya, is that our President and his government have no end point. Even if Tanzania is burdened by the long rule of CCM, every president knows that he can only rule for two terms so he is under pressure to leave a mark.

Also, because no president has failed to get a second term, they ensure that in addition to the usual vote stealing, they still do enough to give themselves a fighting chance for a second term.

Kenya leaders, of course, have the least job security in the region. Apart from term limits, the collapse of the political party system means the life expectancy of any ruling party is very short, and at every election politicians have to negotiate new alliances.

The rise of urban militancy and the 2008 post-election violence also means the Kenyan political class is terrified of the masses, and the effort that has gone into rehabilitating infrastructure in and around Nairobi and along Mombasa Road in the last five years is simply unprecedented in the East African region.

South Sudan, of course, is consumed by a sense of urgency, the hunger to achieve great things and prove it deserves statehood. Our country is in trouble because its leaders don’t feel any of these impulses. Uganda needs a good crisis to wake it up.