The more things change, the more they remain the same
When he was nine years old, Mr Genasio Okot’s family relocated to Palenga Village in Bobi Sub-county in Omoro District in 1958. The ever-expanding numbers of his family’s livestock demanded so. Koro, from where his father—then a medical worker at Gulu Hospital—was commuting to work, was not enough.
Okot, now 73, currently resides at Lapono Village, Alokolum-gok Parish in Anaka Sub-county, under the care of his grandchildren.
His dad, who in 1965 swapped public work with dealing in hides and skins, laid for them a strong foundation in business administration that indeed compelled him to join as early as the age of 16.
What remains clear in Okot’s memory is the 1962 experience of October 9 when Uganda gained its independence.
As the country marks 60 years of self rule, Mr Okot, who has since lived a life characterised by insurgency, poverty and injustice, fears he could die before witnessing and experiencing another true democracy like the one he saw when Uganda became independent.
“Honestly, so many questionable things happen today but unfortunately they are not new,” he says, adding, “Many have been reoccurring for ages now due to the nature of all these governments I have personally seen through since then.”
He further notes thus: “In my experience since 1962, the country has not had a clean (democratic) transition of power because all these presidents have fought their way into that seat, including the incumbent who has been on the throne for more than 35 years.”
According to Mr Okot, the injustices are brought about by the persistently high levels of corruption, poverty, and political repression, among others.
“Perhaps that was a redefinition of independence for us, although not because it is impossible under all these circumstances. You remember very well the stories around the Congo (invasion) of the late 1990s and the resultant plunder accusations against Uganda for which each of us is required to contribute more than a million to pay back for those damages,” he notes.
Twenty-four years ago, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) led by the late Gen James Kazini, entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in an invasion to flush the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) out of the country.
The DRC has since been seeking $4.3 billion (Shs16.3 trillion) from Uganda for allegedly plundering its natural resources.
However, early this year (February), the International Court of Justice (ICJ) conditioned Uganda to pay $325m (Shs1.2 trillion) in compensation to the DRC after its army was accused of human rights violations and plunder during its deployment in the eastern part of the country.
Mr Okot says in his rural experience of post-independence life, Uganda will need another lot of reformist leaders who will overturn the current status quo in which life seems no different from the colonial era.
“For example, right now in my village here, one will simply feel that we were better off continuing to live in internally displaced people’s camps (IDPs) because we were constrained to practising evils and backwardness that poverty has pushed us into,” he reasons, adding, “The joblessness coupled with laziness is at its best, as early as 9am, men and women of productive ages are already in local joints drinking unconsciously while fertile lands are wasting away in their sight, and this, we must not deceive ourselves that peace returned to the region already.”
He also says there have been few efforts to redevelop or design policies that favour the production of key commercial crops that are likely to change the lives of a common farmer.
He says: “The colonialists duped us to believe that certain crops never grew here, but right now that is becoming theoretical but even when we had crop production under the cooperative unions’ arrangement when it died in the early 1990s, the government seemed unbothered to return it.”
Okot says life was at the climax of its hardest when Idi Amin expelled Ugandan Asians.
“For the few village-mates who had resources to purchase stuff, they did not have the opportunity because those items did not exist. There were no medicines, no meaningful education, and business was at a slump,” he recalls.
He says this was a period of uncertainty until the Obote II government stopped it, “you woke up every day not knowing you would survive to see the next day because a neighbour who hated you would report you to Amin’s soldiers and you would be killed.”
But with the return of Milton Obote, some normalcy returned, with education, health systems, economy, and infrastructure flourishing. This, though, was short-lived since the Obote II government quickly got divided.
“All these trends of happenings have created a scenario which makes the post-independence era in Uganda in a rural setting no different from that of the pre-colonial because only a few privileged lots have had the opportunity to gain in one way or the other,” he says.
To put the picture of the depressive and corrupt state of the past and present governments into perspective, Mr Okot refers to a recent story carried by this newspaper in September. The story reported that each Ugandan owes approximately Shs1.8 million after the national debt hit over Shs65 trillion.
“The post-independence leadership should have found it very easy to set the country on a path of progressive development by prioritising its finances into critical and significant infrastructure instead of misappropriating the money,” he reasons.
When Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) government captured power, the post-1986 environment seemed amicable and favourable, an amalgamation of the NRA and varying militias brought hope to the people.
Mr Okot remembers President Museveni’s message of hope that “convinced the former insurgents to denounce rebellion and join him not until the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war quickly broke out.”
While he is specifically impressed that the current lot of the army, compared to the past armies, has observed a relatively great deal of discipline and professionalism, he is disheartened by the fact that it has never been politically neutral as an organ of the state.
He notes thus: “There has not been any democracy, for example, in the 2021 elections, the army beat up and dehumanised people here under the disguise of the Covid-19 lockdown while indirectly drumming for and mobilising support for the NRM government. They routinely interfered with the campaign schedules of others, especially the Opposition candidates.”
While the army has ideally insulated the government against any possible mutinies and coups, a problem endemic to previous governments, Okot says its brutality and lawlessness are a projection of the past armies that have run Uganda since independence.
“Right now, you cannot stand on the streets to attempt to criticise the government because you would be inviting heavy punishment, including imprisonment or death, which constantly writes off the dream of democracy and freedom. That makes independence meaningless.”
On conflict and partiality, Mr Okot says the country’s post-independence history of conflict and war was profoundly shaped by its colonial experience.
According to him, the post-independence governments have not been able to break from dysfunctional patterns built by colonial masters.
For example, he says, “the dilemma of privileged access to both sources of wealth and means for social improvement for some ethnic communities over others, fortifying the notion of colonial rule, has been perpetuated by every regime.”
He adds: “In my view, the government has been deliberately delaying rebuilding the north after the LRA war ended, the rate at which communities here are recovering on their own is slow compared to other sub-regions.”
He says the government limited its definition of armed conflicts to physical gun clashes and ignored the traditional non-violent situations where family life and economy in the sub-region were broken as people were abducted or forced into camps.
The sight of youth drinking alcohol from morning to sunset, playing cards and sitting by the roadside is common in most urban centres in Acholi.
“Beyond the physical end of the war lay blistering crises which have to do with issues of property rights in the post-conflict situation, and without this, I feel we will always remain abandoned.”