A trader in downtown Kampala. PHOTOS/ FILE  

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The true existential crisis facing Uganda

What you need to know:

  • As daunting as it presently seems to achieve free and fair general elections, a political transition, and the restoration of the presidential age and term limits, Uganda’s problems run much deeper than even this.

Most of the focus and emphasis of the Ugandan media over the last 30 or so years, has been on the politics of the country; the unresolved political and governance questions.

The assumption has been that if or when these unresolved questions are addressed, the way will have been set for a better country.

I wish I could put my heart into this belief, but I’ve experienced Uganda enough at all levels and from all walks of life to know better than to think that the key to a better Uganda lies with resolving the political question.

As daunting as it presently seems to achieve free and fair general elections, a political transition, and the restoration of the presidential age and term limits, Uganda’s problems run much deeper than even this.

On a day-to-day basis, the vast majority of Ugandans do not directly encounter the head of State; Most have never seen President Museveni in person.

Other than traffic police officers, soldiers, one or two LC I officials, and health centre officials, most Ugandans, especially in the countryside, can go for weeks without getting into direct contact with an official of the State.

Also, on a daily basis most Ugandans struggle not with rigged elections, Museveni’s overstay in power, or the bloated Parliament.

Bogged down

Daily life is bogged down by the struggle to make ends meet -- getting customers to kiosks, shops, barber salons, vegetable stalls and the rest of the retail economy.

At the higher level, hotels, restaurants, tourist lodges and other services struggle to get a sufficient volume of foot traffic amid high, fixed overhead operating costs.

The other burden is finding the money for school fees, rent and paying basic medical bills.

The news media, the political class, and civil society organisations get so preoccupied with the question of governance, they sometimes forget that the general public is not always thinking about politics.

And so, there are a number of challenges to overcome.

The first challenge will be to return the country to a degree of honesty in public matters.
This includes the payment of taxes, the respect for traffic regulations, the honouring of contracts and financial obligations.

Behind the friendly and warm attitude of Ugandans is a dishonest, lawless society. 
So entrenched has this disregard of laws, rules and regulations become that it is now part of the way the society functions.

To try and return Uganda to a regime of enforced laws and regulations would be to inflict severe pain on the population. It would be a traumatic experience.

The second challenge, perhaps the most difficult of all, will be to inculcate among the educated workforce a sense of accuracy in their official or public writing, this as basic as spelling, punctuation, grammar, styling and the proper use and rendering of formal titles.

At first, some of us thought that what we read online, on social media platforms, was just an informal way of communicating but that when writing formal documents, Ugandans know what is right and proper.

President Museveni at a rally in 2016. On a day-to-day basis, the vast majority of Ugandans do not directly encounter the head of State.

It has become alarmingly clear that this is not so; most Ugandans, even the best-educated among them, have grown up in a society and gone through an education system in which they don’t know basics, for example, that the way to describe an army officer is as Lt Col John Okello or Lt Col Okello, not Lt Col John, as is now typical in Uganda.

Even with all the auto proofreading programmes on smartphones, social media platforms and desktop computers, it is almost impossible to come across a single Ugandan public or formal document that is free of grammatical or typographical errors.

The third challenge has to do with craftsmanship, diligence, a sense of fine quality in everything from packaging commercial products to finishings in houses and offices, video and photo quality, accuracy in colour rendering, graphics, website and mobile application design, and so forth.

Be it a major new shopping mall or a hotel room, a political party press conference or NGO advocacy print material, it is almost always a case of poor accompanying photography or, in the case of buildings, poor finish in the woodwork, painting, or fittings.

The fourth challenge is the well-known one of record-keeping and documentation -- minutes of meetings, financial transactions, records of residents of LC I villages, video and audio recordings, government documents.

Ugandans, like most Africans, live almost entirely in the present.
Once the activities or preoccupation of the moment are finished, they move on to the next activity and what happened yesterday gets lost in history.

Very little archiving or collecting takes place in the society, and so there is very little of a sense of continuity.
After about three years in the life of an LC I village of a business company, it is difficult for new residents or employees to have a clear sense of what came before them.

Institutional history disappears within a short span of time.
Fortunately, the Internet and its sub-section social media, by their built-in archiving features have enabled a default archiving and retrieval of written posts, photos and videos.

Had it not been for the Internet, Ugandan history would have been almost entirely one of dark holes.
Much contemporary Ugandan history would have been lost for good in the ether.

Cleanliness

The other well-known challenge, as well known as the fourth, is that of cleanliness, especially in public places: Garbage disposal and litter.
This needs no overstating; everyone is familiar with the shabby surroundings of Kampala and other towns, and how little this seems to bother most residents.

In other words, the trait that is most lacking and that is most urgently needed in Ugandan society is attention to detail and a sense of higher purpose than just a going through the motions of life.

This is the true, endemic, existential crisis facing the country.

If we were to overcome any one of these five challenges and no other, the quality and pleasantness of life in Uganda would dramatically improve even without any political reform.

There has been too much a focus on political and governance questions, to the total neglect of these much more entrenched weaknesses and problems.

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