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.
|Leader||President Yoweri Museveni.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $670 (Tanzania $920, UK $43,430). The economic growth figures of around 5% per annum are impressive but have manifestly failed to translate into improved quality of life for most people. In 2015 the shilling depreciated 22% against the dollar, inflation rose from 3% to 9%, and interest rates were hiked from 11% to an eye-watering 17%.|
|Monetary unit||Ugandan shilling.|
|Main exports||Coffee, tea, fish, cocoa, vanilla, tobacco, cotton.|
|People||39.0 million. People per square kilometre: 164 (UK 267). The annual population growth rate of 3% is one of the highest in the world. About three quarters of the population is under 30.|
|Health||Infant mortality 38 per 1,000 live births (Tanzania 35, UK 4). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 47 (UK 1 in 5,800). HIV prevalence 5.3%. Hospitals are understaffed and often suffer drug stock-outs, including shortages of life-saving ARVs.|
|Environment||The National Environmental Management Authority tries to enforce protective laws but investor interests often triumph. Oil exploration is a major threat to wildlife reserves.|
|Culture||Uganda is home to over 57 ethnicities. The biggest ethnic group is the Baganda (17%); other groups include Banyankore, Bakiga, Basoga, Iteso and Langi.|
|Religion||Around 85% Christian, equally divided between Catholics and Protestants. Pentecostal churches have been largely responsible for Uganda’s increasingly anti-gay rhetoric.|
|Language||English (official). Kiswahili is taught in some schools but plans to make it the national language have not taken off.|
|Human development index||0.483, 163rd of 188 countries (Tanzania 0.521, UK 0.907).|
||Official poverty levels have dropped from 24% in 2009 to about 20% now, but the elite still lives opulently while most Ugandans can barely afford a meal a day. 2006 ★★|
||59 years (Tanzania 66, UK 81). This is significantly up from 48 years a decade ago and 42 ten years before that, largely because of successes in combating HIV and AIDS. But healthcare is unreliable and most cannot afford it. 2006 ★★|
||73%. In theory Uganda has universal primary education. But the quality of government schools is dismal and the school drop-out rate of 72% is the highest in East Africa. 2006 ★★★|
|Position of women
||Initial progress under the 1995 Constitution has since been reversed. The government sees reproductive health rights as problematic and sanctions a culture of policing the way women dress in public. 2006 ★★★|
||Opposition members are randomly arrested without charge; media houses are closed for ‘unwelcome’ reporting; and the law is used to clamp down on protest. 2006 ★★★|
||The gay community successfully resisted the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014. But homosexuality remains illegal; gay people are ostracized, denied employment and evicted from their homes. 2006 ★|
|NI Assessment (Politics)
President Museveni oversees a corrupt system and has publicly bribed members of parliament to pass laws, increase the presidential budget and most markedly, in 2005, lift presidential term limits. His NRM party is now pushing for the lifting of age limits so that Museveni, now 71, can run for president again in 2021. By then he will have spent 35 years in power. A big chunk of the country’s budget goes into the military, consolidating his grip on power. Ironically, Museveni once declared that Africa’s biggest problem is leaders who stay too long in power.