What you need to know:
- American actor Terrence Howard is the latest in a long line of international entertainment stars, real or suspect investors and scientists who travel to Uganda, go past all government agencies and are taken straight to meet the head of State.
Among the many things about President Museveni that puzzle, embarrass, and frustrate Ugandans is the way he seems to consistently favour foreign investors over Ugandan business ones.
The foreign investors are the ones who seem to get tax breaks, public land freely given to them by government, while Ugandan entrepreneurs struggle with high bank lending rates and high taxes.
Presidential advisers will go for years (some for decades) without ever meeting the man they are supposed to be advising, but Americans and Europeans land at Entebbe International Airport one day and are meeting Mr Museveni the next day.
American actor Terrence Howard is the latest in a long line of international entertainment stars, real or suspect investors, scientists or alleged scientists and other figures who travel to Uganda, go past all government investment and tourism agencies whose work is to receive these visitors, and are taken straight to meet the head of State.
“I want to develop a new hydrogen technology in Uganda. The main purpose of the project would be to defend the sovereignty of the country as far as technology is concerned,” Howard told the President at State House.
Apparently, according to Howard, his hydrogen project is supposed to help remove waste plastic from Uganda’s oceans.
It’s not clear if by “oceans”, Howard meant lakes or if he really believes Uganda has oceans or is located at the Indian Ocean the way Kenya and Tanzania are.
Howard’s profile on the Wikipedia encyclopaedia and other online sources has him, at best, as a pseudo-scientist or somebody with quite unconventional scientific theories.
Before Howard, President Museveni received the Senegalese R&B singer Akon, who declared that he was going to build a futuristic new city, dubbed “Akon City” and this glittering new city would use his own cryptocurrency, the “Akoin”.
More than 20 years ago, a Sri Lankan national, Kana V Kananathan, was given the contract by the government to set up a company, TriStar, to oversee the production of textiles at Bugolobi, Kampala, as part of Uganda’s participation in the AGOA tariff-free trade deal with the United States.
We had American rapper Kanye West and his then-wife Kim Kardashian, with the former promising to build a theme park.
Then there was Prof Sarfaraz Niazi from the University of Illinois in the United States, who it is said had claimed to have a Covid-19 vaccine at a time before Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson had developed any, and this new vaccine would be produced in Uganda.
President Museveni’s way of welcoming any foreigner posturing as an investor follows in the tradition of our 19th Century ancestors.
An Arab trader or a European explorer -- as long as you were from “abroad”, you were ushered into the court of the king or the local chief.
All other officials and courtiers did not matter. You went straight into the king’s chambers and discussed and negotiated with him.
In that sense, what Museveni does is not new or out of character.
From the time we first made contact with Europe, we have remained outward-facing, seeking validity from what Europeans think of us.
The future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described Uganda as the “Pearl of Africa” in 1908, laying the ground for our permanent view of ourselves, adopting it as our tourism marketing strapline, the pearl word forming the business name of countless restaurants, schools and hotels.
When it comes to re-designs of Ugandan print newspapers, the consultant is almost always a European or American.
Most of today’s Ugandan football fans know every detail about the transfer window, fixtures, weekly salaries, and scoring record of the top English Premier League players, but know next to nothing about Uganda’s national football league.
When a Ugandan drama troupe or musician performs in America or Europe, the first concert in Kampala is marketed as “The Ebonies, fresh from London, will be at LaBonita Theatre this Easter Sunday!”
Few Ugandans, after obtaining their Bachelor’s degree at a Ugandan university, have not at least once contemplated applying for a master’s degree from a university in Canada, Britain, or the United States.
What all this shows, of course, is that for all the hundreds of presidential advisers, agencies, and Cabinet ministers, government of Uganda does not function as a mechanical bureaucracy.
However, before we blame Museveni too much, let’s think about this. We must seek to understand why this is so. Might it be Uganda’s landlocked geographical location?
Until the mid-1800s, no person from the tribes and nations that eventually became the Uganda Protectorate had ever seen a European or any other race.
On the other hand, for Ethiopians, Kenyans, Tanzanians, Somali, Mozambicans and other Africans living along the Indian Ocean coastline or (in Ethiopia’s case, the Red Sea across from the Arabian Peninsula), there had been centuries of direct trading and cultural contact with the Islamic and Arab world.
So, the arrival of the first Arabs and later the first Europeans was a significant development in Buganda and the other territories.
In addition, these pioneering contacts brought with them objects and technology of a sophistication that Buganda had never even heard of.
They looked different, looked modern in their dress and bearing, the natives were mesmerised and this might have started the now ingrained cultural habit of looking up to foreigners.
Although we are now in the second decade of the 21st Century and, in theory, are much more savvy than our forebears of 270 years ago, we are still at a primitive stage relative to where America and Europe are.
We lack their IT, organisational and marketing capabilities and networks.
A single post on Instagram by Kim Kardashian can do more to get Uganda’s name out there than ten years of effort by the Uganda Tourism Board on its own.
Although our heads of state must, for political reasons, maintain a public image as pan-Africanists, they also are realists.
Their experience in the day-to-day business of running a country sobers them up to the glaring limitations of their society, their government ministries, and their cabinet ministers and senior technocrats.
This is why, when the controversy over the Vinci coffee processing contract was raging two months ago, this analyst argued that while the procedure of awarding the Italian company the contract might have been irregular, the fact is a European or American company is much better placed to market Ugandan coffee to the Western market than a Ugandan company would be.
That is why for years, Uganda’s petroleum exploration contracts were kept under lock and key at State House and a veil of secrecy drawn over them.
And so, we carry on the tradition of two centuries of establishing our nation-state, our kingdoms, and our internal administrative systems for day-to-day matters.
But when we must engage with the outside, more sophisticated world, our Parliament, lukiikos, Cabinets and civil service, these are not enough.
The hard bargaining and closing of deals must still be done by the Big Man himself, as it was between Muteesa I and John Hanning Speke.
Only the king or, in this instance, the head of State, has the prestige and voice of authority to close these bilateral treaties or investment contracts.