Has Uganda wasted 54 years of independence?

Monday October 17 2016

By William G. Naggaga

As I was watching on TV the 54th independence celebrations held in Luuka, Busoga, my mind raced to the famous statement by President Museveni more than 30 years, in Addis Ababa at the OAU summit, which received ramptous applause from assembled delegates. He said, “The problem with Africa was leaders who overstay in power”. Museveni also caught the attention of Western leaders who, at last, thought there was someone in this hopeless continent who believed in the peaceful transfer of power! It was someone , they said, they could do business with and soon a lot of doors in the Western capitals opened to him.
Although many African leaders may have been uneasy about this sweeping condemnation, none to my recollection had spent three decades in office by 1986 when Museveni spoke to them. Muammar Gadaffi of Libya who seized power in 1969 from King Idris had only been in office for 17 years by then, though he went on to rule for a total of 42 years until he was toppled in 2011 by a combination of Libyan and Western forces. Gadaffi remains to date the man who ruled longest in Africa, excluding the late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
On the whole there was frequent turn-over at the top in most African countries as a result of military coups and occasionally, voluntarily hand over of power to chosen successors but rarely through elections. In Uganda, Milton Obote ruled for just under nine years (1962 - 1971) before he was toppled by Idi Amin who stayed at the helm for nine years (1971 -1979). The period 1979 - 80 was characterised by ‘katemba’ which saw many faces in and out of State House Entebbe. Obote re-emerged as president after a rigged election and assumed power from 1981 until July 1985 when he was toppled by Gen Tito Okello who himself was swept aside by Museveni in January 1986.
In the sister East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania, both president Daniel Arap Moi and president Julius Nyerere clocked 24 years each at the helm. In both countries, new constitutions were made limiting presidents to two- five years terms and they are so far sticking to them religiously. These two countries seem to have matured politically and realised the dangers of “politicians who overstay in power” and have not succumbed to the temptation of lifting term limits which are the only safety valve for taming the appetite for power of African big men.
In 1986, Ugandans had some hope that the ‘new kids on block’ could deliver on the promise of a “fundamental change and not a change of guards”. In 1995 a new Constitution was promulgated which seemed to reflect Museveni’s earlier vision of not staying in power for too long. It provided for a mandatory two-term limits for the presidency although the framers of the Constitution did not to entrench this provision. President Museveni called it the best Constitution in the world.
Well, we all know what happened to this wonderful Constitution. It has been mutilated beyond recognition and the two-term limit was among the early causalities. Now the age limit 75 for one to stand for president is about to suffer the same fate. All this has been done in name of “ democracy and the will of the people” exercised by their “democratically elected representatives”. I sometimes wonder what these terms actually mean. To call greedy and selfish parliamentarians representatives of the people is both an insult and a confirmation of what someone has called “ the primitivity of the masses” who elected them.
On balance, not many Ugandans have benefited much from 54 years of independence. In many respects as I have written before the country has retrogressed. In 1962 the British handed over a buoyant economy with enviable social amenities including good roads, schools and hospitals. Public transportation was second to none in East Africa. Kampala was a booming city and with a well-developed city bus service which ran on time; which has now been replaced by boda bodas and DMC matatus.
The colonial economic momentum was sustained until 1972. We can all see what followed thereafter. Countries in Asia that were at the same level economically with Uganda in 1962 have moved on, with per capita incomes of $ 30,000 and above while Uganda is still languishing at the bottom with a per capita income of only $ 740 and hoping to ‘leap frog’ to middle income country in the next five years!
Mr Naggaga is an economist, administrator and retired ambassador.