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Uganda at 55: The Spectre of a Stunted Country – Part 1 By Dr. Bbuye lya Mukanga

Uganda at 55: The Spectre of a Stunted Country – Part 1 By Dr. Bbuye lya Mukanga

A friend of ours was 12 years when she lost both of her parents. She was left as the minder and care-giver to her three younger siblings. During growing up, the youngest sister, then around 5 years old, contracted Japanese B encephalitis, a brain-attacking viral disease that is spread by mosquitoes.


Against all odds, the little girl survived and has grown into a very beautiful young woman. However, her brain was so affected by the encephalitis that she has the cognitive functionality of a 4 or 5 years old child.


Our friend says that it took her a long time to recognise and come to terms with the reality that although her beautiful younger sister was growing in body, she would never have the capacity to even turn on a tap and have a shower, let alone dress herself. It amazes and warms my heart how our friend and husband love and take care of their younger sister who will never grow up to have the mental capacity that we normally associate with the physically adult person that she is.


This very sad story helped me put in equally sad perspective, a recent headline in the online edition of the NEW VISION Newspaper. It read: “NRM MPs agree to remove presidential age limit: The resolutions will be presented to the floor of the House in form of a Bill for debate and passing.”


Asked by a reporter whether he intends to run again for President in 2021, Pulezidenti Yoweri Museveni gave a reply that alluded to his medical fitness to be Pulezidenti, and said nothing about his constitutional fitness to be Pulezidenti. He said, “I think you should ask the medical doctors. I should not interfere with their work. You should get a medical report about the fitness of someone past 75 years. On whether that person is physically fit to lead or not.”


A few days later, the Prime Minister of Uganda explained his support for lifting the Presidential age limit clause in the Constitution at a youth meeting. He said, "As a medical doctor, I have not come across any scientific research that shows that someone below 35 years or above 75 years lacks the capacity to lead. Those are unscientific barriers, leaders should be judged by their continued capacity to advance the socio-economic development."


On 19 September 20, 2017, Hajji Abdu Naduli, a Minister in the Uganda Government, took aim at any religious leaders who might oppose lifting the Presidential age limit. He piped, “Is there anyone among those religious leaders, who doesn’t go to President Museveni? Why don’t they refuse the cars that Museveni gives them? This is their chance to talk about politics, but they should not forget that Janani Luwum was killed. Therefore, things are not so easy.”


Naduli tries to shame the religious leaders by suggesting that they owe corrupt allegiance to Museveni, while also informing them that opposition to lifting the term limits could lead to their death, presumably at the hands of the Government of the day!


I love Uganda, the land of my ancestry and birth. However, I am cognizant of the sobering reality that, right now, I can only love Uganda in the same way that a parent or guardian loves a child who is an adult in years, but cannot function as a mature human being. This is Uganda’s fate. Uganda suffers from a serious case of arrested political development. This is analogous to the medical condition that is called stunting. In the Buganda or Luganda kitchen lingo, it is called okukona. This is what happens when one tries to cook matooke with a fire that is not strong enough or a fire that dies out before the matooke is cooked.


In either case, one ends up with partly cooked and inedible matooke. When that happens, it is hopeless to continue cooking that matooke. The partly cooked matooke can never be ‘resurrected’. The only viable course of action is to throw out that matooke and start with another fresh batch, try some other food or go hungry.


On 9th October 2017, Uganda will celebrate 55 years since she became a sovereign, self-governing country. Much as the years have ticked by since Independence in October 1962, Uganda still has the political and other functional capacity of a country that failed to grow and move beyond the capacity that it had during its first 3 or 4 years of existence.


Uganda’s sovereign or corporate behaviour and performance is the equivalent of a stunted child. In 55 years as a country, Uganda has never had a harmonious transfer of national leadership. Museveni has been in power for more than 32 years. He would like to stay in power indefinitely.  The country is indeed like a person who aged in body but not in mind; like matooke that failed to get cooked (ag’akona).


The condition may even be worse. When I returned to Uganda in the 1990s (after almost 20 years away), I spoke to some people who had been involved in the struggle for Uganda’s independence. It broke my heart when some of these people spoke about how convinced they were that Uganda was better off under British rule than under the rule of Ugandans. Now, that is something that can be debated. But the huge scandal lies in the fact that such a proposition should even ever cross the mind of a Ugandan, let alone one who fought for Independence.


In Asia, where I have lived most of my life, friends and colleagues ask me: “What happened to Uganda? In the 1950s and 1960s, the country had such promise!” I tell them that unlike their countries, Uganda failed to grow. The evidence is all there. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of Uganda’s stunting is that of a national President who has ruled for more than 30 years, and, barring some mainly cosmetic differences here and there, behaves and governs just like Milton Obote and Idi Amin.


Like Obote (during two times in power), Museveni presides over a sham democracy. Like Idi Amin he rules by the gun. He uses smoke and mirror tactics to give the impression that he is the legitimate choice of most Ugandans.


He also likes to promote the notion that without him as President, everything would go wrong in Uganda and even in the East African region. He will not allow other leaders to emerge, and uses any means, including vote rigging, intimidation and repression to put down any challengers.


Museveni treats Uganda and all its natural and financial resources as his own private property. He refers to the oil in Bunyoro as “my oil”, for example. He appropriates and distributes land as he chooses. He does not bother to make any significant distinction between his own personal money and the respective monetary and financial resources in the central Bank of Uganda and the National Treasury.


Meantime, Uganda continues to exhibit some of the worst development indicators in the world, including high rates of both absolute and relative poverty, high rates morbidity and death, low education outcomes, high unemployment, high rates of both urban and rural squalor, and a high rate of out-migration (citizens checking out of Uganda.)


My Asian friends and colleagues ask me for a more nuanced explanation of how a country like Uganda which was more developed than their own countries in the 1950s and 1960s could so miserably fail to grow and even take backward steps.


My friends and colleagues refuse to accept that the problem can be individualised to Obote, Amin, Yusufu Lule, Godfrey Lukongwa Binayisa, Tito Okello Lutwa and Museveni. One asked, “After more than 30 years, how can one man hold 40 million citizens hostage?” My friends want some more systematic explanation of Uganda’s failure to grow.


I do not claim to have either the last or an exhaustive explanation of Uganda’s stunting.  All I would like to do is propose an explanation that may, hopefully, stimulate others who have a stake in Uganda’s welfare to think about and suggest some constructive ways in which Uganda could, very difficult as it may be, find its way back to a path of long-term self-sustained socio-economic growth and development.


My thesis is that Uganda’s stunted state came about because, in the 55 years since Independence, the country has failed to properly integrate and internalise at what I call three fundamental building blocks of a country’s growth and development. They are: (1) constitutional governance and rule of law; (2) critical thinking; and (3) wisdom.


Educationists assure us that these three blocks also excellently represent the development of human consciousness itself.


In a second article on this subject, I will delve into and reflect on the building blocks of a country’s growth and development.



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