Uganda Airlines: A national airline or regime project?

Sunday September 1 2019

Revived. Kick boxer Moses Golola boards a

Revived. Kick boxer Moses Golola boards a Uganda Airlines plane to Nairobi, Kenya, this week. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA 

By Timothy Kalyegira

This week, the revamped Uganda Airlines took to the skies on its first commercial flight since the national airline ended its operations in 2001.
This was supposed to be a national milestone and occasion for national celebration.
Instead, the resumption of flights by the national carrier revealed the deep political divisions in Uganda.
Supporters of the ruling NRM party and government celebrated it as a moment of national pride and a reason for all Ugandans to throw their support behind the national airline and, for once, put their politics to one side.
Opponents and critics of the NRM government saw it differently, using the occasion to express scepticism at the waste and lack of economic viability of the airline.
And so, the fault lines within the country once again were on display.
It was not this way 30 years ago.
During the early years of the NRM government in the late 1980s, a semblance of togetherness could be felt in much of the country.
(It has to be noted, though, that the northern and north-eastern half of the country felt differently. To the northern half, the late 1980s were a time of nightmarish counterinsurgency operations by the new army, the NRA.)
President Museveni led a “broad-based” government that drew Cabinet ministers and other officials from across the political spectrum. It was a time of emphasis on national unity, of healing and reconciliation.
In October 1988 when a Uganda Airlines Boeing 707 passenger jet crashed as it was approaching landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the disaster triggered off national sorrow and the country with one voice mourned the tragic loss of life.
Today, Uganda is a different country from three decades ago.
The mood is increasingly and openly factional and much of this bitter tone was created in later years by the NRM itself.
After the referendum in 2005 to end the “no-party” political system and re-introduce the multiparty system suspended in 1986, the national mood became sectarian once again.
Since about 2006, the NRM as a party has become noticeably fused with the State. Politically-neutral national events such as Independence Day, International Women’s Day and Labour Day are treated as celebrations of the NRM.
Much of the population has gradually come to the conclusion, right or wrong, that the State has been captured by a cabal within the NRM government, a cabal metaphorically referred to as the “mafia”.
It is in this climate of bitterness and suspicion that Uganda Airlines has been reborn.
It was not helped by the fact that when Parliament last year examined the official registration of the airline, the impression was that it was in the personal names of a few NRM government officials.
The impression from the public discussion in the mainstream newspapers and on radio, TV and social media is that Uganda Airlines might not even be a corporation owned by Uganda but a private venture using public money and national aviation codes and international aviation membership.
After Uganda Airlines was dissolved, its lucrative ground-handling services were sold off to a private company, Entebbe Handling Services Limited (ENHAS), owned by some prominent people in the government.
Typically, national airlines make more money from ground-handling than they do from passenger and cargo services.
Amid the celebration of Uganda Airlines’ revival, little has so far been said about whether or not the airline will get back its ground-handling role. Sceptics who raise such questions are impatiently dismissed by NRM supporters as unpatriotic, always looking for something to complain about.
Without control of its former ground-handling monopoly at Entebbe International Airport, there is little competitive advantage for Uganda Airlines.
The airline is facing stiff competition from well-established and well-funded regional and international airlines that are going to do their utmost to defend their current market share.
Even that aside it will be a challenge for the airline. It has been a long time since Uganda respected the principle of merit-based recruitment into the public service.
Just as national calendar events are increasingly celebrated as NRM events, President Museveni openly speaks of working only with NRM “cadres” in government jobs, from appointments to the Electoral Commission to the Judiciary, the army, police and other senior civil service positions.
Given the high profile enjoyed by Uganda Airlines, many a sceptic has wondered if this prestigious company can or will be insulated from this politicisation of the public service.
If, for example, a son of Opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye were to qualify to get a technical job in Uganda Airlines, would he be given the job?
Would the company’s management resist the pressure from NRM officials to explain why Besigye’s son was given a job? Can the airline’s management find the insulation it needs from political meddling?
In all likelihood the main corporate client of Uganda Airlines will be the Uganda government.
Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, ownership of Uganda Airlines by the State has always been a double-edged sword.
The government is the single-largest player in the economy but is also the single most notorious debt defaulter to the companies in which it has the largest shareholding.
That was what got Uganda Telecom into the financial mess in which it finds itself.