Rethinking Uganda from down Botswana

Wednesday August 28 2019


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I hadn’t been back to Botswana for donkey’s years. That is the strange problem these countries that are peaceful, where the police are not slaughtering protestors on the streets, and the main government activity isn’t stealing taxpayers’ money – if you are in our line of work (we aren’t in the postcard making business), you can find yourself having no reason to go there.
Anyway, I finally did again. Then, I also realised that travel outside East Africa had made me forget that there are still places left out there where I can present my Ugandan passport and I wouldn’t have to pay visa fees or endure irritating beady-eyed immigration officers.
When I presented my passport on arrival at the airport at Gaborone, the immigration didn’t even look at me or ask a thing. “Bam”, and he waved me on. Did a powerful Motswana man’s son marry a beautiful Ugandan woman recently, and I was enjoying in-law privileges?
In Gaborone, I also had to reflect longer on an old statistic. Botswana is a country of about 2.3 million people. Uganda is today about 44 million people – 19 times bigger. The circulation of their main daily newspaper Daily News (which to all intents and purposes is free) alone is 70,000.
Going by some of the numbers I have seen recently, on a bad day the combined circulation of all Ugandan dailies is below 60,000. An unscientific calculation suggests that if Ugandan dailies were at equal cost with the Daily News, we would be having about a combined circulation of nearly 1.2 million copies a day.
One could shrug that off, but then recently I read in a brilliant study that in 1964 – when the population of Uganda was 7.7 million - the main daily in English, The Uganda Argus, was circulating 100,000 copies daily. I had not encountered that 100,000 figure before, only the more commonly referenced 75,000.
However, even with that, the total circulation of all dailies in Uganda today would still be below The Uganda Argus. If you added in Munno and Taifa, the total sales were huge compared to today. If The Uganda Argus were around today with 44 million people in the country, and we didn’t adjust for far higher literacy levels and incomes, it would be selling in the region of 500,000 copies.
These numbers are important because they signal how the years of political and economic crisis, and the dislocation of the Ugandan-Asian community, ravaged the fundamentals that make for a modern newspaper-reading society.
But back to the ease of entering (at least in my case) Botswana on a Ugandan passport. It raised the whole issue of the ease – and difficulty – Africans face travelling around Africa. An Ethiopian comrade said he had to pay $150 for a visa to Botswana – you would get a small goat and a few chickens for that in a far-flung Ugandan village.
Another comrade from Ivory Coast had taken nearly 24 hours to get from Abidjan, with a few connections, to Gaborone. A friend from Zimbabwe, when he took a break from lamenting how things are worse now two years after our disastrous Uncle Bob Mugabe, mourned about a recent trip he made to Morocco. He had two affordable and relatively quick alternatives. To fly to South Africa and then on to Dubai, and Morocco. Or hop from Harare to Nairobi or some such place, get on a flight to Paris and fly back to Morocco. He chose Dubai, where his sister works, and he could at least eat a meal at her house without paying for it.
It sent me to studying the map of Africa again, to see how Uganda – now that it has made a crazy gamble on a national airline again – could sell its location and the time zone it’s in to be the “switch” in the wider central Africa, before Rwanda runs away with it, which it will definitely do when it opens its new Bugesera International Airport probably by the end of next year.
Uganda and Zambia have something no other countries in Africa have. They are the only two countries that sit between a country that has a coast on the Atlantic Ocean (DR Congo) and another which sits on the coast of the Indian Ocean (Kenya). If you removed Uganda, you would have only one border between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, and you would totally remake how Africa travels and trades.
Zambia does the same, but with three countries – on the Indian Ocean Tanzania and Mozambique, and on the Atlantic Ocean end Angola. However, Uganda can actually still do that through a series of decisions about open borders and skies and create a magnet that sharply draws north and west Africa into middle Africa – and make massive fortunes while at it.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site