Uganda: Away With the Fairies, Dreaming of Real Freedom

opinion

Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio was in Kampala last week, visiting President Yoweri Museveni.

He seemed to have had a hugely euphoric effect on Museveni, because the Ugandan chief announced that Uganda is to construct a railway line through Central Africa to the Atlantic Ocean to boost trade between East and West Africa, according to various reports.

Eyebrows were raised so high they touched the ceiling. Cynics suggested, sensibly, that perhaps Museveni could start by fixing the long-dead Ugandan railway, or the short bit between the Kenyan border and Kampala, as a trial run.

That is not to mention the much-touted Kenya-Uganda-Rwanda standard gauge railway, on which we were supposed to be riding by now.

Uganda has a long history of presidential flight of fancy. Campaigning in 1980, after the fall of military dictator Idi Amin, former president Milton Obote famously promised that he would return Uganda to great prosperity "with the turn of a switch." He never found the switch.

Amin was a master - a very demonstrative one too. He would hold exercises and charge into the field, showing how his forces were going to demolish the apartheid regime in South Africa and liberate "our people"; and how he'd swoop upon Israel, chase the Zionists into the sea, and free the Palestinians.

That too ended inauspiciously. In 1976, Israeli soldiers flew into Entebbe airport to rescue over 100 hostages being held there after Palestinian and German militants hijacked an Air France aeroplane and landed it there.

They killed the seven hijackers who were at the airport, possibly up to 45 Ugandan soldiers, and destroyed most of Amin's warplanes.

There are various accounts about Amin's conduct during the noisy raid. One popular, and possibly inaccurate, one says he hid under the bed in the presidential bedroom in State House not too far away.

However, until this recent Museveni great railway promise, the top honours belonged to former president Godfrey Binaisa. A jocular fellow with a gift of the gab, in 1980 he surveyed the Namanve forest outside Kampala, notorious as a body dump for the Amin regime, and declared he was going to build a massive aeroplane factory in the middle of it.

Until a few weeks ago, Uganda didn't even have an airline.

Though, in real-world terms, all the four men were away with the fairies, there was still something profoundly visionary in their dreams.

Obote's vision was to bring glory back to a fallen Pearl of Africa, and the country hankered for it.

Amin channelled one of the greatest aspirations of the last half of the 20th century - the liberation of Southern Africa. Binaisa symbolised what is still Africa's big search, and what many see as the continent's key to economic heaven: Industrialisation.

Museveni's vision of an Africa connected by roads and railways, running from coast to coast, is the same as that of other pan-African leaders, including Kwame Nkrumah.

A small part of it will come true when the African Continental Free Trade Area comes into reality.

The East-West Africa Railway will be built, but not by Museveni. Those who know these things say the Chinese, at least strategically, are already working on it.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs.

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