Country Profile: Uganda


Left to right, from top: Jessica Agiro washes clothes while keeping her sleeping baby close in Angica village; keen pupils vie for attention at the primary school in Obalang; jumping for joy in the Teso region of central Uganda; a midwife using a Pinard stethoscope in the Aketa health centre; and 40-year-old farmer Tom Opila consults his daughter in the village of Opot, near Obalang. © Mikkel Ostergaard / Panos Pictures

If you visit Uganda, be careful when taking public transportation to State House, the official residence of the President. The real thing is a sprawling white building in Entebbe – a town on Lake Victoria that houses the local offices of the UN and where the ostentatious living is a legacy of the British colonialists who used it as an administrative base until independence in 1962. But you might instead find yourself on the dirt road to Kasangati – a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital, Kampala, that opposition leader Kizza Besigye calls home.

In February, Uganda held a presidential election where Besigye’s campaign centred on defiance of President Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year rule, which many now view as a certified dictatorship. After the elections, Besigye was slapped with treason charges and thrown in jail, where he has since remained. He has now run against and lost to Museveni in four elections – each of them marred by bribery, voter intimidation and trumped-up charges against the opposition. Besigye’s supporters’ nascent expression of resistance is the assertion that Kasangati is the de facto home of the presidency.

In the run-up to the 2016 elections, foreign direct investment dropped, with investors fearing the instability that is part and parcel of the country’s political history. However, after the elections, there was a furtive return of investors who realized that it might, after all, be business as usual. The involvement of these investors, many of them Chinese, backs up the statistics that indicate that Uganda, like many African countries, is turning east.

Having dropped any pretence at democracy, Museveni now advises the West to borrow a leaf from the Chinese book and to do business with African regimes without questioning their human rights and governance record. His nuanced response to criticism from the West is threats to withdraw Uganda’s troops from peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the Central African Republic.

Uganda has strategically positioned herself as the region’s police officer, lending forces to stem instability in South Sudan, Congo or wherever it may break out in this volatile part of the world. Museveni has himself warned that, were he to be deposed as President, he would not rule out the possibility of ‘going back to the bush’ – a euphemism for waging a guerrilla war similar to the five-year one that brought him to power in 1986.

In the name of peace and stability, Museveni has held Ugandans and the world to ransom while managing to maintain a semblance of development. He drowns out all the noise on inequality, corruption and poverty with massive, albeit questionable, investments in infrastructure and a promise to deliver middle-income status to Uganda by 2020. The recent discovery of oilfields of the order of 6.5 billion barrels, despite allegations of corruption and human rights violations that have blighted the road to production, is expected to generate revenue that will aid this transformation.

The country did achieve a notable success in the fight against HIV and AIDS but even here it has stalled: the introduction of morality laws, most notably the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which has justifiably garnered international opprobrium, has reinforced discrimination and is partly responsible for regression on this front.

Only the effortlessly green vegetation, fertile soils and wildlife treasures still hidden in pockets of the country remind you that Uganda is still the Pearl of Africa, as former British leader Winston Churchill once put it. But it is hard to see a glimmer of that through all the rot that has piled up. It will take a very skilled technician to excavate this pearl and once again reveal its true beauty.

Patience Akumu