It’s okay to celebrate Independence, but let’s make it meaningful

Tuesday October 15 2019

Nicholas Sengoba

Nicholas Sengoba 

By Nicholas Sengoba

Uganda marked her 57th independence anniversary last week. It was the usual ceremony in Sironko District with a march-past and the President’s sanguine speech as the highlight. This has been going on from October 9, 1962 to date. Granted, there is no harm in celebrating this milestone which was achieved after 68 years of colonial rule. On the above date, the British Protectorate of Uganda, which was part of the British Empire (1894-1962), was granted self-rule and became Uganda. Since then, a lot of water has passed under the bridge.

Uganda has tested almost all kinds of governance from monarchical to military rule. From elected democratic arrangements to ‘revolutionary’ government and the hybrid pseudo military democratic dispensation, not to forget the one party system also known as the ‘Movement system.’ In all this period leaders have celebrated the October 9 with jubilation, citing progress. Then another leader comes to disprove them with the help of the gun. For that matter, we have never had a peaceful change of government. The gun has been the driver and protector of those who have led since Uganda came into being.

Also, all the years after 1962, independent Uganda has consistently depended heavily on foreign aid from those whom we got our independence - the British in particular and the West in general, IMF and the World Bank. We have now added China and whoever else has big money. The ‘assistance’ does not come cheap.

The givers like the piper who calls the tune have had a say in most of the important milestones in our history, including supporting coups, financing plus monitoring elections, training our armies and the police, paving our roads, building and equipping our schools and hospitals, feeding the poor and disaster-stricken Ugandans. They have done it all and told us to do certain things the way they want them lest they hold back their money.

At one time, an argument was propagated that it was our right to be spoon-fed as an ‘independent nation’ because, especially the West was responsible for our predicament. It was said having exploited countries like ours starting right from the debilitating slave trade to the exploitation visited on us during the six decades of colonialism our development partners had a responsibility to correct their ‘mistakes.’ Trouble is that the more they give the more they take. Countries like Uganda are now deep in the middle of a vicious cycle from which they seemingly cannot extricate themselves.

We have to pay huge interests on loans even before we pay back. Yet we need to borrow more to extract and develop the huge natural resources that are our asset. Uganda’s external debt stood at about $7.3b by June 2018. We are moving deeper and deeper into subjugation as we celebrate our ‘independence’ every year. We are operating in a global system where we almost have no say regarding important matters that affect us directly. The international financial system is controlled by the West in such a way that it can cripple individuals and countries like we saw in the case of Gen Kale Kayihura. It comprehensively ties in sanctions and travel bans.


All we can do is to make moral pleas to the powers that be to treat us fairly (the way Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah pleaded with the Belgian envoy not to issue travel bans against Ugandan officials) without having the clout or recourse to reciprocate –tit for tat- in case they don’t comply.

The international legal system functions in the same way. Whereas countries like the USA has threatened judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) with arrest if they attempt to prosecute American soldiers for crimes committed in wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, African countries like Uganda can only lament and cry about unfair treatment. The global trade and economic system in which we operate is no different. Countries in the West can impose tariffs and sanctions on our goods in case we ban the importation of used garments from them to boost development of local garments industries. Currently, our situation is comparable to that of the children of Israel who after leaving the clutch of slavery in Egypt, wandered in the desert for 40m years as they moved towards the Promised Land. Only that our time in the wilderness seems to be longer than the biblical 40. We seem to be stuck despite all the rosy economic figures that prompt many to claim that Africa is rising.

As we celebrate independence, it is time to focus on it being meaningful in the sense of the word. We have the responsibility to own our destiny on our own terms. The starting point is building and developing local capacities -through affirmative action if need be.
As long as we leave our resources from land, labour and capital to be developed and extracted by foreign interests, we are to remain in the habit of ceremonialism where we display meaningless triumphalism. The reason is that the foreign interest in which we place the family silver is not the legendary mother goose that fends for its young ones.

They are into investing in Uganda and Africa as a business to bring them profits to take back home. Most of what we get are unintended consequences. The earlier we face these realities the better because the young and restless unemployed youth who make more that 50% of our population might rise up to ask for answers that we don’t have. In such moments the investor may cut their losses and run leaving us in dire straits.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.