THE PEARL OF AFRICA 114 YEARS LATER

By Okot Nyormoi

A Ugandan DancerYears ago, if you wanted to see a smile on a Ugandan’s face, mention the Pearl of Africa. That was because in 1908, Winston Churchill published a book titled, “My African Journey” in which he called Uganda the Pearl of Africa based on his tour of the country in 1907. Though Churchill was looking at the country through the eyes of a colonialist and a wildlife tourist, Ugandans were happy and proud of the description. They embraced the name knowing that pearls are beautiful and assumed that the description applied to all aspects of life in Uganda. If so, is Uganda still the Pearl of Africa as Churchill called it 114 years ago?

In 1954, the late Queen Elizabeth II, visited Uganda to commission the Owen Falls Hydropower Dam (180 megawatts) which the colonial government believed and led Ugandans to think that it would usher unprecedented industrial development in the country. Meanwhile, 65 years later, additional hydropower dams have been built at Bujagali (250 mw)  a short distance downstream from the Owen Falls dam (180 mw), Isimba (183.2 mw) commissioned in 2019, Karuma (600 mw) to be commissioned in 2022, and a yet to be built at Ayago (840 mw) projected to be commissioned in 2030. Will building more hydropower dams bring the necessary development as the colonialist thought or is this a mere repeat of the same colonial mindset which resulted in very little change?

In 1962, a Ugandan, George Willberforce Kakoma wrote the country’s national anthem in which he trusted the country’s future in the hand of God, declared Uganda the land of freedom, the land that feeds her people, united free for liberty, etc. Beautiful, inspiring, and hopeful lyrics. October 9th, 2022  was 60 years after the lyrics of the national anthem was written and sung on Independence day. The occasion was celebrated with pomp and circumstance. The president made a powerful speech criticizing  Western governments for interfering with what he wanted to do to develop the country. The celebrants were awe struck by an impressive flyover by the national Air Force. Has Kakoma’s inspiring and hopeful lyrics of the national anthem come to pass?

In 1986, a forty-something-year-old Museveni became the new kid on the block who assured Uganda, Africa, and the rest of the world that he knew Africa’s problem. He revealed that the problem was that leaders overstay in power. He called his predecessors swine. With a flair, he promised to bring fundamental change to the country and the people cheered him excitedly. The question is, has he solved Africa’s problem which he confidently diagnosed 36 years ago?  

To assess the state of Churchill’s Pearl of Africa, one must look at the current political, socio-economic conditions of the country. It is not unreasonable to believe that Churchill was impressed by the natural view of the country: lush green vegetation, mountains, rivers, lakes, animals, and birds  which were abundant. Has this changed in the last 114 years since Churchill’s visit? The answer is yes and no. The mountains, rivers, and lakes are still there though many of them are being degraded by pollution. However, the vegetation in some areas like Amuru District, has been degraded for making charcoal. Imagine that in Uganda which over produces electric power, even with only one power generator at Jinja, most of the citizens still rely predominantly on firewood, charcoal, and kerosene oil for power.

Ugandan Environment Drowning in PlasticsThe environment has also been degraded by the rampant use of plastic bottles and bags and other containers. Face mask was added on the list during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the wetlands have been encroached on by unscrupulous land sharks and sold them off for building houses. Likewise, with a growing population, the 1907 animal habitats have been reduced and poaching goes on sometimes allegedly with the collusion of some game wardens. So, Uganda is no longer the Pearl of Africa which Churchill saw in 1907. If anything, it has become at best a soiled Pearl of Africa.

What of the projected effect of the Owen Falls Dam? Apart from a few industries such as Nytil, Nile Breweries, Copper Smelting factory at Jinja, massive industrialization has so far not happened. The predicted rural electrification has not yet occurred. The cost of electric power remains beyond the means of peasants. Even the few heavy industries which sprang up have collapsed. Even before they collapsed, the cotton production precipitously declined during Amin’s rule. In any case, the textile industry never produced enough fabrics of good quality and variety to meet the consumers’  demands. Many clothes are still being imported from other countries. The copper smelting factory at Jinja went bust when the Canadian company which mined copper ores to supply the factory withdrew its operation during the atrocious rule of General Amin. Even the nascent gold mines in Karamoja, one of the poorest regions of the country, remains extractive for export to other countries. Moreover, the extraction relies primarily on brute human labor. Even the new effort to attract investments into exploration of green energy minerals such as rare earth elements, graphite, copper, cobalt, lithium, and nickel will remain basically extractive.  

At this rate, it is doubtful if the country will be industrialized any time soon along the same line of thinking as the colonialists had some 72 years ago when they approved the building of the Owen Falls dam. Most citizens (about 80%) are rural peasants living off subsistence economy despite the many government Poverty Eradication Programs such as Emyooga, SACCOs, YELT and PDP being the latest. It is, therefore, clear that building more hydropower dams, creating more developmental programs are not going to magically turn the soiled Pearl of Africa into a wealthy middle-income country by 2040.

The promise to rid Uganda of the scourge of overstaying in power suffered failures after failures when Museveni asked for an extension of his tenure after the first five years, then more extension after fifteen years. Finally, in 2005 and 2017, the hope for a fundamental change was dealt a coup de grâce when term and age limits were removed, thanks to bribery of legislators. Museveni who confidently proclaimed that he knew Africa’s problem failed miserably in solving it. He is now in his 36th year in power with no indication of relinquishing it at all. Even if he were to do so, it is suspected that he will relinquish it to his son.

To paraphrase Einstein, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is madness. Uganda seems to be doing just that. In a March 2022 article, Lutaaya Brian Wamala, explained why doing the same thing over and over without understanding why previous efforts failed is equivalent to Einstein’s definition of madness. The reasons for past failures are, of course, many: political patronage, corruption, impunity, unaccountability, unequal application of the law, injustice, insecurity, political persecution, torture, ritual bogus elections, etc. Unfortunately, instead of addressing these problems in meaningful and consequential ways to ensure the success of the Poverty Eradication Programs, the programs themselves have become the go-to tools for sustaining the president in power. After 36 years in power, the promised fundamental change has been nothing, but the perpetuation of the same problem.

So, yes, unless these fundamental problems are addressed, building more hydropower dams, creating more poverty eradication programs, having more ritualistic charade elections, shrinking the democratic political space, etc. will continue á la Alice in Wonderland. That is, the more programs the regime comes up with the more the peasants’ conditions remain the same.