Retention of UN base won’t save troubled economy

The effort put in by Uganda to stop the UN from relocating her Entebbe service center to Nairobi could make you think the country’s future depended entirely on it.

Our ageing revolutionary leader and chairman of the movement, Gen Yoweri Museveni, wrote to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, complaining against the planned relocation – pleading to keep the centre.

On Wednesday last week, parliament, through a motion moved by Lwemiyaga MP Theodore Ssekikubo, joined the campaign to save the Entebbe UN base. Speaker Rebecca Kadaga literally shut down all MPs who faulted Uganda for the UN proposal to close the base.

Uncharacteristic of a presiding officer, she also kept volunteering points to bolster the Ssekikubo motion. MPs, one by one, stood to condemn the UN secretary general and the international community for being ungrateful to a country that has contributed troops to keep peace in Somalia, and is hosting 1.3 million refugees.

I didn’t believe in what many of the MPs were saying, but the environment had been so much fouled for any dissenting views. I told Bukedea woman MP Anita Among, one of the sponsors of the motion, that I didn’t support them. She whispered to the speaker not to grant me opportunity to talk.

When Kadaga eventually allowed me to address parliament that had become hostile to alternative views, I informed jeering MPs that I was opposed to the motion.

The motion was just symbolic as it urged government to intensify diplomatic efforts so Uganda could retain the base. That is all it contained.

My view, which I would like to share with those that don’t sit in parliament, is that we must make Uganda competitive lest we lose opportunities. And how do we make Uganda competitive? That is the million-dollar question.

In the last couple of years, Uganda has lost British Airways and Etihad airlines’ business. These two airlines were paying taxes, and their staff were sleeping in hotels in Entebbe. They eventually terminated their flights to Uganda.

I don’t know why Mr Museveni didn’t see value in keeping British Airways and Etihad flights. These two are important for different reasons. Historically, London is very important to Uganda. They were our rulers for a very long time, and that is why we are members of the Commonwealth.

London has also historically been one of our main funders. But also strategically, they are a key global actor with huge influence.

In fact, that is partly the reason Rwanda invested in a Boeing 737-800 in 2016 to begin direct flights to London’s Gatwick airport. Easing communication with London is important for many reasons.

Etihad, on the other hand, is the official airline of Abu Dhabi, the richest place on earth. While our reserve as a country remains just about $4 billion, Abu Dhabi has a sovereign fund of over $900 billion. And of recent, Abu Dhabi has opened her doors to many migrant workers including thousands of Ugandans.

Mr Museveni himself has visited Abu Dhabi and is pleading with them to invest in Uganda. One will wonder as to how we should have kept the two airlines. Government alone spends Shs 113 billion on travel abroad every year, and a bulk of this money is for buying air tickets.

Government can divide this money among key airlines equitably. Difficult to do in a liberalized economy, but possible. I, therefore, didn’t understand why MPs were so obsessed with the UN base meant to facilitate mainly conflict-prone areas and just kept quiet about the closure of these two important airlines.

Someone tells me Uganda has paid for four aircraft and that Uganda Airlines is about to be revived. It is a good move which I hope will not be messed up again.

My view to the jeering MPs was that instead of crying for the $30 million UN base money and about 400 jobs, we must, as of necessity, reconstruct our economy. 

Jinja Municipality MP, Paul Mwiru, spoke about investment in agriculture but was shut down as this was no time to speak about broader issues.

Two Kenyan giant stores have closed shop and left the country because of lack of business. The economy that used to grow at six per cent now averages about four per cent, while our population is also growing at three per cent.

In effect, we are registering just about one per cent growth which explains the alarming rates of unemployment.

Our young people are restless and the revolutionary leader keeps throwing money at them instead of opportunities. The threat by the UN to leave Entebbe should have given us an opportunity to debate broader issues, but instead we ended up joining the mourning.

Last Friday, the local media reported that after all, the UN service center will remain. To be honest, many people in my constituency didn’t even know it existed until its eminent closure dominated our airwaves.

It is good to retain it, but the country must think beyond a small base.

The author is Kira municipality MP and opposition chief whip in parliament.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd