If everyone loves Uganda, why does it increasingly feel isolated and smaller?

Mr Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

  • We were once the new kids on the block whom everyone wanted to be friends with. Now we are ponderous, predictable, sulky and inward looking. 

The publicly held view among government folks is that the recent flurry of diplomatic hosting – the back-to-back IGAD, NAM and G77+China summits – was a massive success.

There is much to applaud: there were no security incidents; the newly built infrastructure held up; and even the much-feared traffic hold-ups hardly materialised, most ordinary folk having given the city a wide berth during the summit days.

Deep down inside, however, we must now face some cold hard truths, including what the summits achieved and whether Uganda is slipping down the pecking order of relevance and partnership with traditional friends and allies, and the consequences of that.

It all begins with an understanding that countries seeking to shape global policy usually have something to back up their ambitions. It could be vast deposits of vital commodities (think Saudi Arabia and other oil majors), big armies carrying big sticks (think America, Russia or even North Korea) or big economies that either make or are big markets for stuff (China and the EU).

Some relatively smaller countries punch above their weight categories by dint of how rich they are (see Norway for example), the specialised goods they produce (Taiwan and semiconductor chips), geography (Egypt and Panama) or because they evolve into small tails that can wag big dogs (Israel).

This all makes Uganda’s ability to punch above its weight over the years even more remarkable. We have contributed to regime change in Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo, catalysed the breaking-up of Sudan, saved part of Somalia from itself, and helped to birth the new East African Community which now stretches from the Indian to the Atlantic oceans.

With boots on the ground in places as far-flung as the Central African Republic, Chad and even Equatorial Guinea, few African armies can claim to have fought or deployed so far away from home outside UN peacekeeping mandates.

All of this from a small, poor landlocked country in the middle of nowhere, with an economy smaller than the quarterly earnings of some big corporations, and with the majority of its population still living off the land in the rural areas.

When President Bill Clinton visited Uganda in 1998 it was an almost obvious choice. A policy of openness towards HIV and the Aids pandemic it wrought had allowed us to lead by example and show that good leadership could save lives and restore dignity.

The insurgency in the north of the country was still raging, but a new Constitution only recently enacted held out the promise that we were firmly on the path to a new democratic culture of accountable government. This promise, cemented in the return to multiparty politics in 2006, was rewarded with the hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2007.

Uganda held court at regional, continental and even the global stage, even as our internal contradictions began to show. Our participation in the War on Terror, and our willingness to enforce peace across the region made us guarantors of stability and gave us a seat at the table.

The ability to attract and host big events, as we did earlier this year, is evidence that we still maintain some of this momentum – but the attendance list, or more importantly list of those world leaders who did not show, is a reminder of a great future that lies behind us.

Some of the pain is self-inflicted. Recent legislative outcomes like the passing of the AHA, however popular on the streets as tactical electoral tools, have proven ruinous  strategically. In addition, a return to a violent and repressive political culture has undermined our internal stability and brought us much closer, in form and substance, to the countries that we were once relied upon to help.

In conflicts where we still play an important role, such as in DR Congo, South Sudan and even Somalia, there is an emerging view that our interests might be more closely aligned to the continuation of those conflicts, not their resolution.

The world is changing rapidly around us; regional conflicts now attract global players with their own interests and tools of leverage. As key government officials fall foul of human rights rules and targeted sanctions, the instinct is to look inward, or coalesce around fellow miscreants.

For instance, the Non-Aligned Movement might feel like a good, middle-of-the-road progressive club. But 21 of the 30 countries whose human rights records have regressed the most over the last 10 years are members of the club. Even then, we can’t get the leading lights in most of these countries to turn up at our banquet.

We were once the new kids on the block whom everyone wanted to be friends with. Now we are ponderous, predictable, sulky and inward looking. Our foreign policy was designed for a world of chaos and instability, in which we were willing to step in and provide some form of stability; today that policy looks like a solution looking for a problem. The empty seats and the silence of our friends are telling us something; we should listen.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
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