In search of common ground to move Uganda forward

We live in a highly-polarized world. In the West, toxic politics has meshed with social bigotry to produce exceedingly charged atmospheres wheeled by political ‘tribalism’ and cultural wars.

American voters rebelled against establishment politics to get Donald Trump through the Republican Party primaries and stunningly to the White House. Protest against globalization has produced alt-right political parties in Europe that feed off anxieties over religious and ethnic minorities.

Societies that had only recently primed themselves as socially accommodative and inclusive now have growing public opinion that craves for protecting the nation against perceived external impurities. The primary target is migrants and other social minorities; religious, ethnic, sexual, etc.

It’s an unsettling fear of small numbers, where majority social groups feel threatened by a minuscule minority. A combination of social strain and economic distress has made democratic countries vulnerable to populist agendas.

Across the Middle East and South Asia, social unrest and political turmoil has raged for years with intractable civil wars in Syria and Yemen, terror groups holding firm in Iraq and Afghanistan, and renewed religious antagonism in India and Pakistan.

Age-old animosities have received new fuel from activism powered by the information-technological revolution that has democratized access to information and thrown wide open the doors of misinformation.

In Latin America, runaway income inequality and pervasive official corruption continue to drive unrest and political crises in both regional powers like Brazil and relatively smaller states such as Peru.

In Africa, the rattle of poverty remains a hugely destabilizing force. Young people in small countries like Uganda are yearning for a secure tomorrow.

The old are desperate to make through today. Economic desperation has combined with social dislocation to build up a potential powder keg in the face of weak state institutions.

The crises that have in recent years hit Mali, Niger, Nigeria and, earlier, Somalia and Chad point to imminent implosions that many African nations face due to dire economic conditions, social stresses, and weak state systems.

In Uganda, the stakes couldn’t be higher. We face gross economic difficulties, with the vast majority of our compatriots suffering social injustices and economic deprivation. But we are also up against a crisis of the nation called Uganda.

We largely remain a country and geographic expression that lacks vivid presence and deep meaning in the imagination of the average citizen. This is not at any rate anything new.

The forging of a genuine nation called Uganda has been an elusive project from the very onset of British colonial rule, never mind that the current ruler dubiously talks about a fictitious Uganda that has existed for the last 500 years.

But arguably Uganda today has festering social disharmony, to the magnitude never experienced before at any one point in the country’s not-so-long history as a national project. Modern nations have, for the most part, been purposively imagined and engineered by political actors either out of social pressures or due to ideological  commitments.  

Either way, nation-building is a deeply demanding process that cannot be achieved through some cosmetic activities like teaching patriotism. Being patriotic cannot be merely taught, not least by people who don’t live it.

Ugandans who went through the traditional secondary schools in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s were not taken through the motions of how to love Uganda and be patriotic citizens. But they knew that being born in Tororo and going to school in Tooro underscored not so much the geographical spread of the country as the social diversity of our nation.

Here is the crux of the issue at hand. In a world so globalized yet deeply polarized and facing a global civil war that manifests in different fashions depending on continent and country, we more than ever before need to search for common ground.

The former prime minister (katikkiro) of Buganda, Dan Muliika, gave a very interesting interview to The Observer last week. The old ‘Buganda sentiment’ was palpable. Muliika is a fiery fellow who shoots straight. His combative tone during his time in Mengo put him on a collision course with Uganda’s rulers. It appears the tone hasn’t changed one bit.

But the hard reality staring at Muliika is that Ganda nationalism without a viable Uganda project is a dead end.

The common ground between all Uganda’s ethnicities and religions is as large and widespread as the width and breadth of the country.

The onus remains largely with those in charge of state power who, unfortunately, appear out of depth and incapable of charting the common ground that would move the country forward.

Ours is a deeply ethnically-fractured society run on a broken political system in an environment of social injustice and economic inequality. The rulers’ response is to double-down with nepotism and blatant political corruption.


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd