Every January/February, many Ugandans shift focus to take stock of the condition of education in the country. The trigger is the results from the Primary Seven national examinations of the previous year.
All sorts of classifications, comparisons and analyses are given space in our newspapers.
This year, I have seen highlighted somewhere, the village primary schools at which some of the top NRM leaders got their early education. For most, so pathetic was their performance that you would think these schools had been condemned to prevent them from ever producing any other leader to lord it over their fellow Ugandans. Perhaps not a bad thing.
Moreover, 50 or 60 years ago, these primary schools produced the youngsters who would go on to university and later shine as NRM Bush War heroes. But the great need of those heroes today is for loyal ‘boda boda’ NRM cadres and other ruffians to intimidate Opposition politicians and activists.
It is, therefore, not entirely to be regretted that the schools that nurtured the rulers have been largely transformed into the kind of institutions that produce those ruffians; cadres to whom just wearing a yellow jersey and carrying a whip are the marks of a prince.
A ruling clique can shape the education system, or exploit its weaknesses, to get the human ‘products’ it needs.
There was a time when a handful of reputable primary schools had before their blackboards very substantial numbers of the youngsters who were likely to become the next line of administrators, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, and who would tap into the networks of public management to rise through the ranks at least a little more easily than the next bloke; assuming the next bloke was as gifted, and as learned, but did not have those connections.
The dominance of those schools is more or less broken. High expectations have shifted from membership of those school networks to those who have links in the new channels controlled by the people who hold political power and practice a more direct brand of favouritism and nepotism.
In an environment of massive unemployment, the new dynamics have created a privileged social class, which is entrenched by its codes of exclusion, corruption and impunity, breeding levels of inequality never witnessed even under colonial rule.
I doubt whether the NRM roughnecks, brandishing their whips, understand how perpetuation of the regime strengthens the seal on that inequality.
Now, this new socio-economic order dictates that very many citizens will remain slaves. How do you decide who will be slaves?
Enter UPE, as deceptive as it is charming.
I have never understood why ‘universal’ should necessarily mean ‘free’ education; but then I am an idiot.
In my unenviable situation, I guess that whenever President Museveni thinks of the votes of ‘his’ peasants, he cheerfully and loudly talks about free primary education, and whenever he thinks rationally about the realities in his vampire state, he secretly acknowledges that it cannot be free and satisfactory.
But the new privileged class will need slaves; people who do the menial work, the dirty work; slaves who drain the sewers, lift the bricks, and who wash the top people’s feet and polish their nails.
The source of these slaves will be UPE schools; the millions who drop out, or complete the seven years but perform very poorly; or are anyway already financially too disadvantaged to get decent further education.
The NRM has created the socio-economic fabric and the education system that guarantee the supply of these slaves.