Monday, February 23, 2009


Somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself in Kampala, the verdant capital of Uganda on the highlands of central East Africa. Sitting in the pleasant breeze that blew gently through the greenery in my hotel garden, I reminisced about my old times in this part of the world. Although this was only my second time in Uganda, I had spent much more time in the past in the neighbouring Kenya. In those days, Kenya was the peaceful and thriving nation in the region, while Uganda was ruled by the brutal and capricious dictator Idi Amin, and after his overthrow faced the chaotic times of Milton Obote’s rule. Now times have changed and the tables turned. Although Kenya has by now gotten over the violence and mayhem that marred the elections a year ago, it has long ago been overtaken in economic development by its western neighbour. Kampala is now the boomtown with lots of construction going on and life constantly improving for the people. Nairobi, on the other hand, now contains some of the largest and worst slums in the world and the high crime rate makes life nearly unbearable there.

I hadn’t been here for over a decade. And I hadn’t intended to come here this time either. Just four days before departing from New York, my colleague had come to my office pleading that I would replace him on his Uganda trip. Something had come up and Oscar was not able to travel. Who was I to deny this urgent request, so I started hastily to make travel arrangements. The purpose of the trip was to design an evaluation in the country and all the partners were lined up for the coming week so the timing could not be changed. Now sitting in the cool early evening I was happy I had agreed, although I had initially felt inconvenienced.

In the nearby trees several huge Marabous were flexing their powerful wings. These enormous flying creatures are living proof that birds have indeed evolved from dinosaurs: their resemblance to Pterodactyls is unmistakable! Although the Marabous with their striking size and prehistoric look draw one’s attention, they are far from being the only birds circling above the hilly city or roosting in its many parks. There are hawks and kites, egrets and herons, and a host of smaller feathery things. The famous mountain gorillas lead their leisurely lives in the more remote hills towards and in Rwanda and Burundi, but I had seen smaller monkeys running across the roofs around Entebbe airport when I arrived.

The name Entebbe conjures up images of the legendary raid by Israeli commandos in 1976 to free a planeload of hostages held by Palestinian hijackers at the airport. The dictator Amin himself had appeared at the terminal pontificating to the miserable and exhausted crowd. Having trained as a soldier in Israel, Amin had reversed his affinity towards his old sponsors. To his amazement—and to that of the Palestinians—the Israelis pulled off their daring surprise attack with precision, soon lifting off from Entebbe with the freed hostages.

Located on the shore of Lake Victoria, Entebbe still cannot be described as a major hub, but the airport is clean and functional, served mainly by a few international airlines, such as Ethiopian, Kenya Airways and Emirates on which I am travelling. In addition, there were a few white UN planes serving the world organization’s Congo mission, as well as an assortment of small one- and two-engine craft on the tarmac. The landings and departures take place over the lake, the world’s second largest. From the air it looks as vast as the sea, yet dotted with islands close to the shores.

In Kampala, I chatted with Dennis, a veteran driver who has worked with the United Nations in Uganda for 28 years. He has seen the fortunes of the country rise and fall. He endured the horrors of Dada Amin’s worst excesses. Amin based his rule on fear and himself trusted nobody. He was so afraid of assassination that he would sleep every night in different one of his houses and would himself frequently drive his various cars incognito. He expelled the Asians who formed the economic backbone of the country and even many embassies had to close. Torturing and killing his enemies was routine for the big man. He would ruthlessly get rid of anyone whom he suspected of having any ambitions to challenge him. Amin’s rule lasted eight years (1971-1978). His downfall turned out to be declaring war to next door neighbour Tanzania whose leader Mwalimu (“Teacher”) Julius Nyerere he loathed—and losing it. Despite all his evil deeds, Idi’s karma didn’t catch up with him and he managed to escape to Libya and on to Saudi Arabia where he was allowed to live through his days in luxury as a reward for having propagated Islam in Uganda.

Milton Obote took over. He had been the prime minister of Uganda for the first eight years of independence until the coup by Amin. Such were the misfortunes of the Ugandans that the man whose return they had awaited turned out not to be much better than the one they’d gotten rid of. The renowned Polish Africa correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński described Obote as a “psychopath and butcher”. The country’s fortunes only turned around when Obote was again thrown out and a young reformer Yoweri Museweni took the reign in 1986. Another eight years of misrule had ended.

Today there are actually two Ugandas: the booming, bustling relatively prosperous Uganda, which includes most of the country; then there is the north, which suffered 21 years of armed conflict. At the heart of this conflict was—and still is—a madman called Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has terrorized the locals, killing people at will and abducting children to indoctrinate them as frenzied little soldiers. Kony’s movement has the characteristics of a Christian cult with the man himself posing as some sort of saviour. LRA (as well as other lesser rebel groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces operating from Congo) first had some receptivity amongst the local populace who were particularly weary about the central governments in Kampala. The current chairperson of the Gulu district in the north told me how things had gotten so bad that there was no other way for the people than to abandon their homes and move to refugee camps built by the government. There were hundreds of camps and, according to the chairman, life in them was terrible—but at least it was safe. Finally the people realized that their true enemy was the crazed warlord.

There were several attempts at peace. One was by Betty Bigombe, a former state minister of Uganda. I met an extremely dynamic and bright youngish man, Bruno Otto, who had been part of Mrs. Bigombe’s entourage. Their effort turned out to be short-lived. Despite good intentions, there was never trust established as the opponents considered the good lady as being too close to the Ugandan government. Incidentally, despite his name, Bruno has no German ancestry but is of the Luo tribe (the same as President Barack Obama’s father) and Otto is a local family name. He inherited his first name from his father who had been christened by an Italian priest. The Gulu chairman had himself been a part of another, later delegation that had been flown in the belly of a transport plane to southern Sudan to meet with LRA. It had turned out that the maniac Kony did not dare to venture there but the delegation did meet him across the border close to his camp. Nothing came out of that meeting either.

Today the war criminal is still at large, although on the run presumably hiding in the marshlands of eastern Congo. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court and the government of Uganda has placed a bounty on his head. During my stay in Kampala a local newspaper carried a cartoon of the dreadlocked nutcase half immersed in a swamp with a swarm of mosquitoes attacking him with a plan to kill him with malaria and then claim the prize.

The damage LRA has caused reaches beyond the people he has directly killed and whose lives he has destroyed. Over time, services—health, education and so forth—were built in the camps. Outside, the jungle took over. All infrastructure was destroyed either by the rebels or simply by the encroaching tropical nature that crushed everything in its way. Now that a fragile peace prevails, people are returning to their former homes. But there is nothing to return to but the bush. No roads exist to serve these areas and people are cutting the forest to be able to settle in, thus causing severe environmental damage. No services exist and although the government—as well as the foreign donors, international agencies and NGOs—consider the north as a priority area for development, the demands are huge. In Gulu alone, 43 schools operate outdoors under trees as there are no school buildings.

Uganda as a whole has in recent years been the favourite of foreign aid agencies—‘Donor Darling’ it has been called. Economic growth has been impressive and poverty rates have indeed decreased rapidly, from over half of the people more than a decade ago to the official figure of 31 percent today. This figure, though, hides great regional differences. In the north, the poverty rate is still 61 percent and in Karamoja—the remote semiarid region in the country’s northeast on the border with Kenya—it is still a whopping 75 percent! I had the privilege of meeting with the Minister of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Prof. Tarsis Bazana Kabwegyere, as well as the Under Secretary for Pacification and Development in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mme Flavia Waduwa in charge of the northern region. The philosophical bearded professor, a political sociologist by civil profession, outlined the plans the government had for developing and reintegrating the conflict-affected region into the mainstream of the country. An indication of the importance placed on the north at the highest levels, during my visit on, 17 February 2009, President Museweni in a cabinet reshuffle appointed his wife, the first lady Janet as the Minister for Karamoja. (The good professor was particularly jolly when I met him that same day, having just received a renewed mandate from the president who had sacked several of the ministers.) The newspaper Daily Monitor reported a few days later how the “Karimojong women welcome Janet appointment.”

Despite its current success, Uganda still faces many development challenges. The country is landlocked and vulnerable to any disturbances in its less stable neighbours. Recently, significant amounts of oil were found in the west of the country, nearby Lake Albert on the Congolese border. Wherever in the world oil has been found, it has proven to be a mixed blessing at best. There is fear of conflict with the western neighbour when its people and army smell money in the viscous black substance. There is also a risk that the oil companies will take over, replacing the legitimate government in the region. Lessons from Nigeria, where oil brought terrible suffering to the local people are most pertinent. There the violent conflict over the revenues from the abundant resources that have been shared between the foreign oil companies, like Shell, and the ruling elite in distant Lagos, have little benefited the people whose land has been devastated by the extraction.

Another challenge is the extraordinarily high population growth, which continues at 3.4 percent annually, meaning the doubling of the population in about two decades. Even a growing economy is hampered by that pace. Population growth in the rural areas has long pushed people to the cities. I saw the situation during my previous visit to Uganda in 1998 when I stayed around the small city of Mbarara in the south. The beautiful hilly region used to be a highly productive agricultural area. Already at that time, the massive increases in population had forced the farmers to subdivide their plots for the benefit of their many children and to expand their farms to the steep hillsides, which were ravaged by erosion. Forests had been cut down. In another ten years from now, Uganda will wake up to face a huge cohort of young men who are unemployed, undereducated and angry.

On my last evening in town, my old buddy took me out to explore some of Kampala nightlife. David is an Englishman who has lived here for the past couple of years working as an adviser to the government. We started the evening at ‘Amin Pasha’, an exclusive hotel and restaurant where people like Prince Charles and the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair stayed on their visits to Uganda. It is perched up on a hill with a lovely view down to the valley and the other green mounts. Kampala is surrounded by—and lately sprawling up the slopes of—seven hills. At this elevation, the evening breeze was distinctly cool and this close to the equator darkness descended rapidly.

We continued on to a suburban location to ‘Katch the Sun’, a garden restaurant serving drinks and food. This Thursday night the place was quite crowded with a mixed clientele consisting mostly of locals but also a fair number of foreigners. A band was playing a lively mixture of African high life, jazz and international pop. The band, which apart from the expected guitars and keyboards included a trumpet and African drums, itself was mixed with both black and white players. Their interpretations of international tunes were original and good. For some reason, David decided that they were Kenyan. Sitting in the garden with a friend I hadn’t seen since he moved here, with a refreshing Nile Special in front of me, put me in a relaxed mood.

The following day I would leave this beautiful country, which the British during the colonial days dubbed the Pearl of Africa, a name that still meets the traveller arriving at Entebbe. I deeply hope that when I return here next time things will continue to look up and the country will prosper in peace like today.