Once Uganda was ‘wow’. Now it’s in the Stone Age

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • At that time, many in the NRM and the professional class had returned from years of exile, working in global environments, and they were fired up to do world-class things. 

If you left Uganda through the Malaba border in May 1992 and didn’t return until May 2022, you would likely think that it had gone backwards from where you left it. Not so much in the big things, but the small stuff that defines how good a State is.

The Uganda government hates non-sciences like History, preferring to invest taxpayers’ money in pure science, perhaps because things like history can be inconvenient. Still, let’s go back to 1992.

The big reforms and clever things that started in 1988 were still gathering momentum. The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) had just been formed in 1991. Many people don’t think much of URA today and probably hate it. But in 1991 it was something that Africa hadn’t seen; a quasi-autonomous tax agency, staffed by mostly independent and competent professionals.

In Africa at that point, tax collection was done by government bureaucrats in a State department, and it was not much different than running the Prison Service. The idea that it could be a professional agency managed by technocrats was not just alien, it was criminal. When Uganda established the URA, many people in Africa thought a disease that might have entered President Yoweri Museveni’s head while he was in the bush had finally thrown him mad. His insanity was confirmed by the fact that the first Commissioner General of URA wasn’t even Ugandan. It was the unflinching Ghanaian Edward Larbi Siaw.

Uganda was in a period when it was the first country to do things. People soon came from near and far to watch and learn once URA started posting stellar results. The URA model became a big hit, and today many countries in Africa are doing it better than us.

By that time, Uganda had also done a true first. Museveni was banging on about how a passport was a right, not a favour, and pushed the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Passport Control Officer to ensure it was so.

A decision was also taken that even people who were fighting the government in the bush, would get passports if their application could get to the Passport office. In this way, rebels like former Milton Obote, Minister of State for Defence Peter Otai, who was leading the rebel Uganda People Army (UPA) from exile, and several others, reportedly applied and got passports.

It was a move unheard of in Africa at that point. Along with that, Uganda was also the first country in East Africa where the government backed dual citizenship, although, in West Africa, there had been early movers. The list is long. The short of it is that the Uganda government was the African light and doing clever things, hard as that might be to believe today.

There are many things at our land borders where roles have reversed. The Covid-19 protocols are just one example. When you arrive at Malaba today, for example, you take your vaccination certificate to a window in a makeshift health office. You must print it. If you have it on your mobile phone only, there is a business centre-cum-forex bureau nearby. You go there and get it printed. It cost me the equivalent of Kenya Shillings 300. I was horrified, because, in Kenya, it would have cost KSh50-100 to print it, depending on where I did it.

You then take it to a window where it is logged, you get a piece of paper, it is stamped, and on to a second window. It is entered manually in a book. If, like your columnist, you have been nomadic in the recent post-pandemic period, you will be shocked at how Stone Age it all is. The best thing about it, which eases the pain, is the Ugandans manning the stations. Warm and friendly fellows.

So you come to Uganda, and a few days later you return to Kenya. Kenya has just one simple desk, along the route to the immigration counter. No printed paper is necessary. You open the vaccination certificate on your phone, they scan the Quick Response (QR) code, in a few seconds, and you are on your way.

A small thing, yes, but in 1992 Uganda would have been the one doing what Kenya is doing at Malaba, and Kenya was the one bogged down in the old era approach that Uganda has fallen back to.

We have fallen behind as part of the rot that has set in from the decay that happens with a government and leadership that has been in place for nearly four decades and become complacent. Additionally, the calibre of the rank of file in charge of decision and policymaking has deteriorated.

At that time, many in the NRM and the professional class had returned from years of exile, working in global environments, and they were fired up to do world-class things. Today, there are just too many municipal-minded types in control.


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