Uganda’s problems are bigger than Museveni

On Friday last week (November 7, 2014), after the KFM “hot seat” radio show, my friend Ivan Okuda shared with us a letter to the editor that was set to appear in the Sunday Monitor, the now famous open letter by another friend, Vincent Lengkeek, to the president.

Now, Vincent was part of a team of Dutch journalism students that were in the country for a period of two weeks, doing various stories and documentaries about Uganda. I was one of their student contacts in Uganda. During the time they were in the country, I cannot recount how many times I was involved in debate with Vincent over his perceptions and biases about Uganda. Right from day one when he asked for my views about Museveni – whether he was a “dictator,” to the send off party before we bid them farewell, arguments between us never ceased, and all this while we did not seem to agree. For one reason: his simplistic outlook of Africa/Africans and a heavy dose of naivety about African problems cultivated over time by countless images of African children with protruding bellies from torn shirts, toothpick legs and flies hovering their mouths, extending a bowel for aid from the pious west that are relayed on TV everyday. I do not blame Vincent for this. We simply cannot ignore the impact of such powerful images on a person’s view and perception about Africa. Even more experienced western journalists have fallen from this simplistic narrative.

Indeed, most of the visiting students were surprised at the way things are run in this part of the world – seeing it was their first visit to Africa. That there was more to Uganda than Amin, the anti-homosexuality act and…wait for this, Ebola!

There’s a strong perception that has been created about Africa, in the west, as a continent where everything doesn’t work; where you have to lower your expectations of everything from sanitation, to service delivery, to democracy, etc. For this I’m afraid we’re equally culpable.

And here is why

In the article, Vincent describes two incidents: one where two of his colleagues on a boda boda are stopped by a traffic policeman who asks them for “a lot of money” lest they are sent to jail. Now, I think my friend Vincent embellishes his friends’ unfortunate experience. Bribe seeking by traffic police is rife here. That is not new. But it is not entirely a result of state failure or a failure on the part of Museveni. It is simplicism to posit so. Rather, bribery is a function of a complex citizen-police interaction that is ingrained in our populace…in any case it’s the former that takes initiative to give (or ask to give) bribe. A Ugandan sociologist, Dr. Jude Kagoro, has extensively written about this complex interaction in his articles and publications as a result of six months work with the Uganda Police. In short, police corruption – at least in the Ugandan case – is more “complex than we’re willing to admit. I am not making a case for police bribery or corruption, but a deeper analysis of Ugandan society is important in understanding these nuances.

The second incident that the author draws on to drive his point of Museveni’s failure is the glaring poverty. He again takes the often-trodden western-journo-writing-about-Africa path of street children and the lame begging on streets. To bet my two cents, I saw that coming! Museveni’s leadership (or the lack thereof) is to blame, Vincent concludes. Well, I’m sure my good friend has heard about beggars in his native Netherlands; in Amsterdam. There’s even a whole nationality (our equivalent of the Karimojong) called Gypsies that roam streets of Europe, from Denmark to Greece, to Germany and the Netherlands. I’m quite sure their presence on the streets of Amsterdam is not an indictment on the bad leadership of the Dutch government. Or is it? And then he makes the mother of all blunders, “…the Ugandan students who guided us on the tour did not have any money and live in slums.” For the record, there were eight Ugandan students in charge of this group and four live either in halls at Makerere or hostels. None of us, as far as I know, lives in a slum. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. All Africans are poor, sleep in slums and need money – in the stereotypical western journalist lens.

With all its pitfalls, there’s however much we as Ugandans should take from Vincent’s article. For example, when he talks about a bodaboda man who snatched a female colleague’s bag. It is very unfortunate that such a thing should happen. But it is an all too common occurance in Kampala for people (especially bodaboda men) to fleece off unsuspecting foreigners. They call it “teaching” them how things work in this town! It is not uncommon for a foreigner to be charged twice, thrice or sometimes four times the fare, just because they are white, and we think they have money – lots of it! This paints a bad image of our country. Every time we are to use a bodaboda with friends from Europe, I have to walk ahead of them and negotiate the boda fare lest we’re charged twice. And we say we’re the most hospitable people in East Africa? You do not have to love or hate Museveni to realise that Uganda’s problems are much bigger than him; that he’s only a cog in the wheel of Uganda’s problems.

Vincent’s article, while not entirely accurate, in my thinking, should ignite debate about the image of Uganda that we wish to portray to the world. It is not Museveni’s Uganda, this country is ours.

*An edited version of this article appeared in the Daily Monitor newspaper (November 17, 2014).