Uganda at 60 – Poisoned Eden: Part 3 – The Pearl of Africa’s Crown, a land flowing with milk and honey – Uganda’s legendary potential

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Uganda at 60 – Poisoned Eden: Part 3 – The Pearl of Africa’s Crown, a land flowing with milk and honey – Uganda’s legendary potential

Central message:

Part 3 briefly sketches what once made Uganda a model developing nation, that was cited as a development success story: an idyllic natural setting; ethnic diversity of inter-ethnic many commonalities; the streak of a cosmopolitan nation; an effective public administration structure that pre-dated the arrival of Europeans; the good fortune of being governed by the British as a ‘protectorate’ rather than a ‘colony’; the relatively easy road to an independent country; and a pre-Independence head start on socio-economic development. Part 3 ends with the question: how, then did Uganda manage to snatch defeat out of the jaws of what looked like pre-ordained victory?


Bbuye lya Mukanga

15 November 2022

 “The original Garden of Eden”. ~~ Uganda has been described as “Paradise” or “The Garden of Eden” by its own natives, by its neighbours and by visitors from afar, including the Europeans who tried to colonize it. It was Winston Churchill who first called Uganda by its totemic acronym: the Pearl of Africa’s Crown. There are few places in the world that have the geographical variety, the diversity of natural resources and the overall environment to sustain life and livelihoods in such a small area as Uganda has. The place is a traveler’s and a residents’ dream with a heavenly nature, adventure opportunities, friendly weather, gorgeous beaches, awesome landscapes that include snow-capped mountains, fascinating history, rich cultural capital, and some of the most hospitable people in the world.


The country’s plentiful rainfall and surface and underground water, its mild high latitude temperatures, self-regenerating fertile alluvial soils, and other attributes caused one Dutch friend to describe Uganda thus: “Uganda has to have been the original Garden of Eden. This is one place where everything that is planted grows abundantly. A family can just throw seeds out of the window, and the seeds will sprout to supply enough food for the year. Groves of volunteer mango, jak fruit and other trees are capable of producing an abundant supply of fruit for all to eat without going to the market.”


Until recently the lakes and rivers seemed like they were teeming with an inexhaustible supply of all manner of freshwater fish and other aquatic animals. Heavy forests dominated the landscape of the South-West, Centre, South-East, supplying plentiful timber and non-timber products. Expansive, well-watered and fertile savannah lands covered the North and North-East. In August 2021, the avifauna of Uganda included a total of 1090 confirmed species of birds. Uganda’s current revenue from tourism is about US 1.5 billion per year. The World Bank projects that if fully developed and professionally managed, tourism should generate US$ 12 billion per year. In contrast, if ever fully developed Uganda’s oil resources would generate only around US$ 2 billion per year, before subtracting the presumably costs of environmental degradation that go with tourism.


An ethnic diversity with considerable multi-dimensional commonalties. ~~ On the surface Uganda may appear to be ethnically, culturally, and nationalistically fragmented. There are at least five major kingdoms (Ankore, Buganda, Bunyoro, Busoga, and Toro) and some minor hereditary principalities (such as Bunyala, Kooki, Buhorooro and others) in the Southern Belt. However, these kingdoms and principalities are synergized through both ancient and recent inter-connected migratory streams, common roots of the Bantu language group, and royal families that were all branches of the Chwezi Dynasty and its successor Babiito Dynasty. Kigyezi in the extreme Southwest and Bugisu around Mount Elgon on the eastern border with Kenya have the only two major Bantu speaking groups (Bakyiga and Bagisu, respectively) that did not have firmly established hereditary rulers. Kigyezi region includes the Bufumbira area whose people (Bafumbira) speak Kinyarwanda and whose culture, customs and identity may, in some ways, be more akin to the people of nearby Rwanda than to rest of the Bakyiga.


The main ethnic groupings in the Northwest (commonly referred to as West Nile Region) consist of the Alur, Madi and Lugbara in the Northeast who speak variations of a common Central Sudan language. The Acholi and Langi live in the North Centre. They speak an identical version of the Luo language. Both Acholi and Lango folklore trace their respective founding to two brothers who each took parts of one family and settled in different adjoining areas. The Itesot and Karamojong live in the Northeast. Their respective historical narratives also trace a common ancestry. They too speak a language that is related to the Luo language, and they also claim a farther-back common ancestry to the Luo. The Bukedi area in the Southeast of Uganda corner is a literal melting pot of ethnicities with respective affinities from surrounding areas as well as from farther-way ethnic groups I Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.


The contemporary Lacustrine Kingdoms of Uganda were successors to the earlier Empire of Kitara which was set up by Babiito rulers from the Nilotic people of Northern Uganda. Thus, the Lacustrine Kingdoms’ ruling families as well as other social groups have lineal ancestral connections to the people from the North of Uganda who founded Kitara Empire. A person from Bunyoro once authoritatively suggested to the author that it was not mere coincidence, but instead a natural turn of events, that Mukama Kabarega of Bunyoro and Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda (who were distant relatives with a common ancestry) sought refuge and were welcomed in Acholi and Lango when the British were hunting them down in 1899. Kabarega and Mwanga were captured NOT through the connivance or cooperation of their Luo hosts, but through the treasonous acts of two Baganda who were collaborating with the British, namely Semei Kakungulu and Andereya Luwandagga.


A cosmopolitan society. ~~ There were at least three significant ethnically identifiable groups that migrated into Uganda starting in the British colonial period. Roughly 10,000 Ugandans of Sudanese descent are classified as Nubians in reference to their origin near the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. They are descendants of Sudanese military recruits who entered Uganda in the late nineteenth century as part of the colonial army employed to quell popular revolts.


Also, starting in the late 1890s, the British encouraged the migration into Uganda of some people from the Indian Sub-Continent to perform some labour roles and to be artisans, shopkeepers, traders, and middle rank civil servants. By the late 1960s, there were some 70,000 ethnic Asians living in Uganda. The Asians grew to dominate and control the retail and wholesale trade, cotton ginning, coffee and sugar processing, and other segments of commerce. The expulsion of most of the Asian community in the early 1970s seriously dented the cosmopolitan nature of the country.


Between 1959 and 1964, about 100,000 Rwandans (predominantly Tutsi) fled from Rwanda and settled in Uganda. Combining births in Uganda and new migrations, the number of displaced Rwandans and their descendants in Uganda numbered around 1.5 million in the early 1990s.


There are also smaller numbers Kenyans, Tanzanians, Somalis, Ethiopians, Yemenis, Syrians, and others who chose to settle in Uganda.


Traditionally well-administered ~~ The first Europeans to arrive in Uganda found politico-administrative systems in place that were as good as, if not better than those in Europe. In fact, Alexander Mackay, one of the earliest Christian missionaries in Uganda wrote back to England in his dispatches that the county, sub-county, parish, and village structures in Buganda were better organised and administered than their counterparts in his home country. The quality of life and delivery of services sometimes exceeded what people were receiving in Europe at that time. For example, long before the colonialists came to Uganda, there were medical specialists in Buganda, Bunyoro and Ankore who routinely carried out Caesarean section operations in which both mothers’ and children’s lives were secured. There was also strict monitoring of the environment and hygienic practices to limit the spread of infectious diseases, all based on traditional knowledge and practices.


A Protectorate instead of a colony, and the easy road to Independence. Uganda was not colonized in the same way as neighbouring Kenya or South Africa and former Rhodesia were. Uganda was a British Protectorate in which there was minimal displacement of local people from their land and occupations by Europeans or other outsiders. The British left the traditional native administrative structures in place, strengthened them where necessary, and imposed their policy of “indirect rule” through the traditional structures. The agitation for “freedom” started gained significant momentum after the Second World War. (The word ‘independence’ only started gaining traction after the start of Independence negotiations near the end of the 1950s.) The agitation was relatively mild, and one would say non-violent. There was nothing in Uganda’s march to Independence that compared the blood-letting that bathed the journeys to independence of other African countries like Algeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. When Independence was suddenly granted to Uganda after only a couple of years of negotiations, it seemed to be a pleasant surprise for many people.


Early grassroots entrepreneurship with fledgling service, infrastructure, and industrial sectors ~~ After Uganda became a Protectorate in 1893, British colonial economic policies started to draw Uganda into the world economy. Recognizing that plantations would be difficult to support, official policy encouraged smallholder farmers to produce and market cotton, and later coffee, through local cooperative associations. Tea and sugar were mainly plantation crops, but with significant components of smallholder growers who sold their produce to the plantations which operated the processing facilities. The economy registered substantial growth, although much of the early growth was in agriculture and centered in the southern areas. By the 1950s, Uganda had a fledgling mining and industrial sector. Some valuable minerals, notably copper, had been discovered and were being mined. Part of the coffee and other commodities boom of early 1950s was invested in developing hydropower resources, and other social and physical infrastructure.


Early excellence in education and health. ~~ A modern literacy and numeracy-driven education systems appeared that included a substantial number of schools, technical and vocational training institutions, and the nascent Makerere University College. The University College later became the headquarters of the University of East Africa before settling into Makerere University. Uganda became a centre of learning to which students from all over Africa and scholars from around the world congregated. By the 1950s, Uganda’s health system, of which the Makerere Medical School was an integral part, had gained a worldwide reputation. Its achievements included breakthrough discoveries in types, causes, diagnoses, prognoses, and treatment of cancer. Kwashiorkor, a protein-deficiency ailment that used to afflict millions of children around the world before the 1960s, was ended largely through research that was conducted in Uganda. The groundbreaking seminal research that proved the link between fibreless processed food to obesity, intestinal diseases and heart and coronary diseases originated in Uganda. By the end of the 1950s, Uganda had a medical referral and treatment system that was recommended by WHO and other authorities for other newly independent countries to adopt. Countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Kenya still pride themselves on the health systems they respectively adopted and adapted from Uganda.


Model developing nation and cited success story. ~~ It is true that the entity known today as Uganda was a colonial creation that was curved out to suit the of whims of the British and their European counterweights. However, based on the concept of nation states that came of out the so-named Age of Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and globalization, there was reasonable ground for being confident that Uganda could grow, develop, and become a workable and valuable member of the family of nations of the world. For many years, even during the colonial period, Uganda was viewed as a model developing nation. Thus, at the time of Independence in 1962, Uganda was being cited as a development success story whose approaches were recommended to other newly independent and developing countries around the world to follow. Uganda’s match to Independence was marked by mild agitation rather than violent conflict. There was, hence, a peaceful transition from colonial rule to national self-governance and Independence. The economy was growing and diversifying. The foundation for the growth of strong education, health and other social services and infrastructure was laid.


Starting in 1947, Uganda had been preparing series of Five-Year Development Plans. The 1962 – 1967 Five-Year Plan whose commencement coincided with Uganda’s Independence year was the fourth in the series. It had the three-pronged goal to eradicate poverty, hunger and disease. Uganda had a strong developmental head-start on most countries that were coming out of colonial rule, including almost every other country in Africa and today’s “Asian Tiger” countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. At Independence, only the sky seemed to be the limit to what Uganda could achieve and become.


The all-important intriguing question about Uganda – A friend from Malaysia once told me that the Uganda condition or call it the Uganda dilemma, can be summarized in a single question. “Tell me”, he said, “with all the opportunities and talent that Uganda had when you got Independence, how did the country manage to, as it were, snatch defeat out of the jaws of what looked like pre-ordained victory?” Teasing out some answers to this question holds the key any future dreams and plans that anyone may have for Uganda.

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