Tuesday April 22 2014

Ah, Uganda, the Moses who will not step in the Promised Land

By Charles Onyango Obbo

When one sees the state of Uganda’s government institutions, public services, the state of education today, and the morass that is hitting even once-forward looking institutions like the cellphone companies, it is easy to think that the country has lost it kabisa.

That is understandable, but in recent years, I have come to the conclusion that the role Uganda plays in Africa, is one that will always bring its citizens to grief. That the things that start here will always provide an example whose benefits will only be enjoyed in other parts of the world.
Thus, Uganda was the first African country where a homegrown rebellion ousted a post-independence government.

Subsequently, other African movements, some that had started before the National Resistance Army/Movement fought its way to victory in January 1986, were inspired or spurred. To name a few in Ethiopia in 1991, the Meles Zenawi-led rebel forces defeated and ousted dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. In 1990, the Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front started their return-to-the-motherland war—from Uganda.

Museveni’s Uganda was also the first African country to undertake successful post-war reconstruction. It also undertook the most ambitious privatisation and economic liberalisation in the world, rivalled only by Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. At one point, in the mid to late 1990s, we had the fastest growth rates in the world.

Uganda also led the way in being open about the scourge of HIV/Aids and subsequently+ notched up one of the world’s most successful rollbacks of the disease.
Musician Philly Bongoley Lutaaya was, according to some accounts, only the second person in the world to come out and openly acknowledge that he was HIV positive. The worthy Noreen Kaleba is thought to be the first woman in the world to do so, and The Aids Support Organisation (TASO), that she set up, was among the world’s first such organisations.

The Inspector General of Government (IGG) was Africa’s first serious attempt to set up an anti-corruption Czar’s office.

Uganda’s Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme was among the first pioneer programmes, and the counter-boom in the primary education market the largest such burst ever seen in Africa. Uganda was also the first country in Africa to truly throw open its broadcast market and licence FM stations, allowing them to operate without any fetters in the early years.

Today, we have fallen behind in all these areas, and have turned the clock in most of them and become the worst example. The enlightened views about Aids have been reversed in a wave of extreme Pentecostal reactionary moralism and deranged misogyny, and infection rates are up.

Corruption in Uganda is now a national epidemic, and the IGG’s office has been neutered. Rwanda learnt from Uganda’s corruption horrors, and has avoided the disastrous road we veered into. The broadcast (and media) industry has been muzzled in a series of repression laws and state high-handedness, and today one of the least free in Africa—compare it to Ghana’s or Senegal’s, for example.

Ethiopia is modernising and investing in infrastructure at rates the NRM government can only make empty talk about. Economic reform in Uganda is dead. Once Kenyans swarmed Uganda in their thousands to attend our private secondary schools and universities.

In the last five years, Kenyan investment in this sector has eclipsed ours, and the hopes of some years ago that we could become the “education Mecca” of the region are slowly evaporating.

Yet, true to its character, Uganda continues to surprise, often in ways that are going unnoticed.
Two unusual economic “earthquakes” have struck over the last five years. There was a time when East African Breweries (Uganda Breweries) beers had cornered nearly 80 per cent of the market. Nile Breweries was a miserable and distant second.

Today, those roles have been reversed. Nile Breweries has the lion’s share of the beer and Uganda Breweries is a distant second.
In the history of the booze industry, the Nile Breweries vs. Uganda Breweries reversal of fortunes is one of the rarest in the world.

Likewise, up until about five years ago, Coca Cola had nearly 80 per cent of the cola market, and Pepsi was struggling and even in the throes of death. Today, they are 50-50 with the momentum on Pepsi’s side.

In these cola wars, it is extremely rare for Pepsi to dethrone Coca Cola where the latter is dominant, or for Coca Cola to oust Pepsi in markets where the latter has a stranglehold.

As a study of David vs. Goliath economics, the cola and beer wars in Uganda offer something you will not find anywhere else in Africa today. I don’t know how to summarise this, but seems to me that, ultimately, our story is like that of the girl whom every body wants to date, but none of them will marry.