I have been inundated by calls to sign a petition to stop the building of a hydro-power dam at the iconic and stupendously scenic roaring waters of the Murchison Falls, aka Kabalega Falls. Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) published a note inviting the public to give views on the planned feasibility study of the area by an investor, Bonang Power Limited (BPL) from South Africa. BPL has the intention of eventually constructing the proposed 360MW capacity power dam.
The petitioners correctly and passionately elucidate how the dam would irreversibly affect the biodiversity of the area, the levels of the River Nile and adverse impact on tourism. This is not the first time Ugandans have been forced to desperately petition government to drop the temerity of proceeding against prudence and ingenuity, with attempts to destroy nature - all in the name of investment and development. It ended tragically more than a decade ago, when there was a planned attempt to carve out part of the ancient Mabira Forest, for sugarcane growing.
What is baffling is the gusto and confidence with which the government is proceeding with such projects when it is glaringly obvious that their shortcomings far outweigh the benefits.
On many occasions in the last 33 years, the government has come up with many of these investor-driven development projects and succeeded in appealing to the vocal middle class by taking advantage of their greed and myopia.
The investor simply brings drawings and lists the advantages of their project like employment and economic growth. Some actors in the media motivated by both corporate and individual pecuniary interests, drum up support for the project.
They denigrate whoever has a contrary opinion or urges caution as being part of the opposition or is anti- progress. In the case of the building of the dam, they simplistically claim it is going to lead to industrialisation, job creation, export promotion, increase in foreign exchange earnings and the speedy arrival into the promised land of the middle income status.
In Kampala, for instance, nearly every wetland has been ‘redeveloped’ and bang, you have swanky malls complete with high-end restaurants and supermarkets. This is where most of us announce our arrival by perching our ample backsides on soft, imitation leather seats; painfully abusing the etiquette employed when using stainless steel cutlery, as we rapaciously tear through succulent steaks, accompanied by an array of cholesterol inducing junk food and carbonated drinks. A selfie of us partaking this gastronomic feat posted on social media, completes the picture.
Then when it rains for slightly more than half an hour, most of Kampala becomes impassable as the angry waters whose pathways were blocked by ‘re-development,’ rise up like the heads of provoked cobras waiting to impose themselves in self-defence and take over the roads. The rest attack the buildings where they previously flowed peacefully. Bugolobi, Kitgum House intersection, Clock Tower are all victims of this quest for ‘investor driven development.’
Then the traffic jam. Then the destruction of our vehicles some of which were never meant to swim through dirty, let alone water. Then the lives lost due to drowning. Then the concrete perimeter walls falling and killing our neighbours. That is when the elite angrily take to social media to condemn the government for destruction of wetlands and not minding about the environment. They say if you give the devil an inch, he takes a mile. Because the devil found us comfortable with the abuse of a ‘mere wetland,’ Lucifer is now asking for the whole of Murchison Falls.
That is what you get when a society has more popularity-seeking politicians than honest activists. Honest activists are stone-cold focused on goals without compromise. If it is environmental protection, from green parks, to forests, from streams to water falls. They will not shift an inch.
Politicians are all about achieving instant, quick fix short-term gains (kagwirawo) often through concessions and selfish compromises. They are about the present, leaving the future to take care of itself. They love money so much that the procurement process involved in these humongous projects suits them.
They act very well in environments where the vocal and visible elite and middle classes are unserious, equivocal easily compromised or are recumbent or lackadaisical and are in the habit of deceiving themselves that they are living happily because they are detached from the happenings in politics. ‘As long as I eat well, have my fun and sleep peacefully, those things don’t concern me,’ they claim. This politically illiterate but influential group cannot put the dots together and see that the adverse effects of bad decisions taken by politicians will eventually come back to haunt everyone including those that are ‘apolitical!
Now all these petitions reflect the general underdevelopment of political conscience. Many times the people we intend to appeal to are the ones who have created an impression and environment where con men, crooks, and criminals come up with apparently good plans, but are their intention is to make a quick buck leaving destruction in the wake of their actions. Many a foreign investor has done exactly that. A petition in this sense reports the bad guy to those who share a bed with them.
Our prayer is that the dam is not built. But in case it happens, we shall give BPL the benefit of doubt that they are not like the bad guys we have described above and seen in the past.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. [email protected]