20 September 2017

Uganda: The Museveni Harvest Season Has Corrupted National Psyche


In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, there is an Igbo saying that "when mother cow is chewing grass, its young ones watch its mouth."

The wisdom behind this saying is that young ones will learn eating - voraciously, gobbling, or calmly - from the matriarch.

There is a meek version of this proverb among the Bantu talking about mother-bird teaching her nestlings to fly. I prefer the Igbo one.

To put the recent judiciary's industrial [sic] strike in context, one has to begin from the position that Yoweri Museveni's ongoing presidency (and his 1981-1986 war veterans, their spouses, broods and footmen) has been a sweet season of harvest.

To paraphrase Michela Wrong, it has been "a time to eat!" And chewing they have chewed! But because the gardens belong to all of us, it is difficult to just sit by and watch without helping ourselves!

Despite the dangers of understanding through analogy, comparative criticism remains very attractive. Indeed, against a Museveni presidency, the critique of the previous regimes - especially Milton Obote and Idi Amin - has been succinctly made: Ineffective. Authoritarian. Swine. Murderers.

However, what the mendacious chroniclers of our history will not tell you is how much these two 'dullards' contributed or did not destroy under the circumstances of their time.

With land and property being the hottest items in town, let's fancy an investigation. It is well documented that the upscale locations of Kololo and Nakasero were never private estates.

The land and buildings there were public assets housing senior and middle-rank staff of parastatals including Uganda Electricity Board, Uganda Railways Corporation, Coffee Marketing Board (CMB), Uganda Television (UTV), Radio Uganda, etc.

For parastatals which engaged in value addition outside Uganda, property was never rented but owned. For coffee that crossed Kenyan territory with key stops in Nairobi and Mombasa, CMB owned almost entire streets in Nairobi and Mombasa, housing both senior and junior staffers, factory hands and warehouses.

For similar purposes, Uganda owned over ten houses in London. There was plenty of property in New York, Geneva and several other major cities where we had business interests and dealings.

Then came the season of the harvest. When our heroes had just returned from the bush, they were housed in hotels around town including Apollo, Fairway and Speke.

Quickly, some moved into residences in Kololo, which had fallen vacant after those who occupied them had fled. It was understandable then as many did not have residences and had just done the country a favour through sacrifice.

Soon, however, advantaging from the circumstances of their time, especially Structural Adjustment Programs, which also pitched privatization, our heroes and heroines started harvesting the country.

They started by arguing that parastatals owned too much property than they actually needed! Buildings were even expensive to maintain.

(Sadly, many parastatals now are in rented offices). Since some of the structures - for reasons of age and poor maintenance - had deteriorated, a private investor - often an NRA/M junkie - would be asked to carve off part of the land or utilize the structure for personal gain and, in turn, renovate the aged structure.

Uganda Railways, UEB, CMB, National Housing and most recently UBC were harvested under this arrangement. Continuing the harvest, these lucky 'palm wine drunkards' introduced a policy of selling parastatal houses to sitting tenants.

Recall that most of these had been occupied by them upon return from the bush. Oh boy, they harvested them on the cheap and, in some cases, sold them off immediately!

This is how senior citizens such as Amanya Mushega, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, Eriya Kategaya, General Henry Tumukunde, Amama Mbabazi, Captain Francis Babu and several others acquired houses in the swankiest parts of Kampala.

Sometime in 2007, a bizarre story of presidential aide on political affairs, Moses Byaruhanga, appeared in the media. He had grabbed a Cotton House in Kololo (which had been occupied by some low-ranking officers, drivers or security guards), was on sale to a sitting tenant.

Insisting he was the sitting tenant, government sold it to him at Shs 250 million. The good politician rushed to Dfcu bank for a loan. A couple of weeks later, he sold the house at Shs 600m, cleared the loan, and walked away.

So, before we even consider public servants earning extortionist salaries (directors at KCCA, UNRA, URA, NSSF or MPs... ) as we debate the judiciary's strike, we have to appreciate a 1986 shift in national psyche towards public service. One quickly realizes the judges are simply latecomers.

The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.


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