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Uganda independence: A more ill-prepared country hard to find

Uganda independence: A more ill-prepared country hard to find

I honour the great men and women who stood tall in the struggle for equality, freedom, democratic participation in our national economy and governance, and political independence from Britain.  


An incomplete list of the heroes of our pre-independence struggle, many of whom have disappeared into the dark hole of disinterest and erasure of history, includes Sir Andrew Benjamin Cohen, Ignatius Kangave Musaazi, Abubaker Kakyama Mayanja, Apollo K. Kironde, Stefano Abwangoto, Ben Okwerede, Yekosofati Engur, S.B Katembo, John Kalekezi, Joseph Kasolo, Louis Tyaba, P. Nsubuga, A.B Serubiri, S.B. Kibuuka, M. Kiddu, Alphonse Ntale, J.S. Kasule, Matayo Mugwanya, John C. Kiwanuka, Antony Oryem, Charles Makayu, Benedicto Kagimu Mugumba Kiwanuka, Eria Muwazi, Apolo Milton Obote, William Wilberforce Rwetsiba, Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa, Augustine Kamya, E.M.K Mulira, Cuthbert Obwangor, George B. K. Magezi, Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro, Florence Alice Lubega, Sepiriya Kisawuzi Masembe Kabali, and Amos K. Sempa. 


Some were thrown in colonial prison. Binaisa was incarcerated and exiled to Karamoja. All gave their intellect, sweat and money to a valiant struggle for our independence. Their stories should be mandatory reading, right from primary school, and should be subjects for examination at O-Level. Streets, mountains, and buildings should be named after them. More importantly, the ideals of their struggle should inspire us to seek genuine independence, democracy, and freedom for all. 


However, to equate their struggle to a fight for our independence, in the sense of the Indian, Kenyan, Zimbabwean, or South African experience, is a romantic falsehood that has taken hold of many people’s imagination. To some, it is a boost to their anti-British sentiments, affording them the sweet illusion that their forebears gave the colonialists a bloody nose in the struggle for control of the Pearl of Africa.  To others, it is a fact of history, perhaps informed by an assumption that the British never wanted to leave any of their colonies when they did. The reality was different.


Uganda’s independence from Britain came easily and too quickly for us. Consider this: the Uganda National Congress (UNC), our first national political party, was formed in 1952. By 1958, it had splintered into factions. Milton Obote, with no leadership or management experience, replaced Ignatius Musaazi as leader of UNC in January 1959. The following year, he led the UNC into a merger with the two-year old Uganda People’s Union (UPU) that was led by Rwetsiba, to form the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) on March 9, 1960. The Democratic Party (DP), formed in 1954, was under its third leader by the end of the decade, even as it was still struggling to have a strong nationwide footing. 


It is to these very young political parties, with a shallow presence in the land, led by inexperienced, though well-intentioned men, that Iain Norman Macleod, the British Secretary for the Colonies in the Government of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, could not wait to hand over the fractious colony. MacLeod had, at the start of his tenure, declared that he hoped to be the last colonial secretary. As such, offloading the colonies to the natives was an urgent item on the British Government’s agenda of the early 1960s. 


After a brief Uganda Constitutional Conference, held at Lancaster House in London from September 18 to October 9, 1961, the decision was made to grant us independence exactly twelve months later. Yes, the formal negotiations and hammering together of our first independence constitution were completed in just 21 days! Secretary MacLeod, who was leaving his docket on October 9, 1961, to become the Leader of the House and Chairman of the Conservative Party, did not wish to leave the Ugandan file incomplete before handing the keys to Reginald Maudling, his successor.


The choice of October 9, 1962, as our Independence Day seems to have been Macleod’s idea, not a well-thought-out plan for careful transition. “Uganda is all wrapped up,” Macleod told Maudling. A more ill-prepared country than Uganda is hard to find. A British colonial state full of promise that chose a more self-destructive path is a rare find. Not even Sierra Leone, Gambia, or Zimbabwe come close. Notwithstanding their own suicide attempts, those and other troubled British colonies avoided the complete state capture that became the central travel plan for Uganda’s tragic path. 


As I reflected on the events of sixty years ago this past weekend, I recalled that to us independence meant decanting Britain’s good ways but remaining addicted to her bad habits.  We shunned their democracy, their freedom of thought, of speech and association, but adhered to the cruelty of the colonial police who had, for example, supervised Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. 


We love their ancient wigs that adorn the heads of our parliamentary speakers and justices of the high court, but resolutely ignore British principles of parliamentary democracy and impartial administration of justice. We love British police and military ranks and titles, their uniforms, medals, and epaulets, but reject their tradition of non-partisan security services that serve the citizens, not the autocrats.  


We love their Eurocentric telling of our history but reject their insistence on scientific inquiry and evidence-based decisions and actions. We love their academic titles, their language, and their school syllabi, but reject their insistence on accountable and transparent governance and civil service. We embrace the pomp and circumstance of their ancient rulers but reject their democracy that considers all but their constitutional monarchs to be subject to the will of the people.


While the British have had some ill-suited characters in Number 10 Downing Street, they have routinely tossed them out, not just because of incompetence, but on account of their moral failures and reckless conduct, and violation of the rules. In Uganda, we attach little importance to the personal behaviours of our rulers and elevate some of the most reckless characters to high office, while rejecting sober alternatives as being too boring or too gentle for our tastes.


Is there hope for our country? Yes, there most certainly is. Today’s circumstances may cause us to despair. Yet sixty years is too short a time to declare the patient incurable. In the words of Dr Bbuye Lya Mukanga, a Ugandan economist with extensive international experience, “the Nation of Uganda is, so far, a failed concept that requires radical rethinking, agreement on, and implementation of measures for its restoration." 


Bbuye, who has lived and worked in several Asian countries, and has travelled and worked on all the remaining continents, except Antarctica, has worked with respective governments, private sectors, and civil societies to hone their capacities in formulating and implementing economic policies that promote good governance, build peace, and reduce poverty.


In a series of articles that he will be publishing on Mulera’s Fireplace over the next few weeks, Dr Bbuye Lya Mukanga will examine our history and offer possible solutions to the problems of what he calls our “poisoned Eden.”  The prologue to the series, which he published this past weekend, is worth reading by all, especially Uganda’s policy makers and all who care about the fate of our beloved homeland.

© Muniini K. Mulera

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