Only Ugandans can save Uganda

must confess that until recently I never knew the name Kanye West. All credit to the politics of Donald Trump and the ‘Trump Doctrine.’

Not that now I know much about the man and his celebrity spouse. Blame it on a clueless academic. From the White House, then straight over to State House Entebbe, in only a few days, Kanye moved from a flirtation with an American president desperate for the African American vote to an ingratiating moment with our authoritarian ruler who is keen on clinging to power.

The ruler will clutch at any opportunity that can ostensibly help clean up his rusty record and shore up his international standing. That is all fine and makes political sense. But the real tragedy is the thinking of many a Ugandan about the magical solutions that somehow have to come from outside sources.

We have had endless talk about just how much tourism-attraction can come out of an American rapper and his celebrity wife visiting and promoting Uganda. It’s an old mentality.

The literary scholar Ngungi wa Thiong’o spoke to the crux of the problem in his book, Decolonizing the Mind. Somehow, there is a bizarre perception of the magic wand that comes out of some distant somewhere, which is inside the country, Uganda. Yet the real solution to Uganda’s ills and issues lies right deep inside Uganda, with Ugandans and their rulers (not quite leaders).

For one, no distant-based person holds the key to unlocking Uganda’s tourism potential. And not just tourism but the entirety of the enormous potentials our country wields. The gem in Uganda cannot be overemphasized, matched of course by the endemic problems we face.

But whatever good a celebrity musician delivers on a one-off visit, complete with a presidential helicopter, can easily be wiped away by one stroke of political madness, which the current ruler and his government aren’t short on supplying, in fact quick to commit.

Any day the ruler feels provoked by political dissent, he will likely order the military and the police to unleash terror on his opponents and members of the public, often indiscriminately and with remarkable casualness.

And in this age of rapid news flow, the ugly scenes and senseless display of state coercion will be on full display for the world. Then followed by the inevitable cries from those at the forefront of promoting and selling Uganda as the go-to tourism place: negative publicity is hurting tourism and investment.

If the rulers did the right thing and avoided generating gratuitous negative press, tourists and those wishing to invest in Uganda would require far less persuading and incentivizing.

That being said, of course there’s a business logic to padding Uganda against the negativities and excesses of power that result in negative representation – there are individuals who scheme to cash in from the PR work. No surprises tomorrow if those who may have done something remotely related to Kanye’s trip to Uganda put in a hefty bill to be paid our tax cash. It could be a million dollars!

The same bad politics that produces a tainted image for the country also greatly undermines optimal utilization of Uganda’s human resources. There is nothing more important to any society than its human resources - the people. Yet, we have a warped system where politics drives human resource utilization decisions.

The political system created by the NRM and superintended by Mr Museveni has engendered blatant and unprecedented nepotism and favoritism. Meritocracy is out in the wind. Individuals with highly questionable credentials occupy critical positions because they have political connections.

At any rate, a system bereft of merit will take us nowhere precisely because the results we desire can only be produced by individuals with the requisite competencies.

The nepotism around the presidency and across the breadth of the public sector is simply astounding. This is not a problem to be magically cured by a foreigner. It is inherently a Ugandan sickness that only Ugandans can cure.

Not only appointment and promotion in public position, but also access to business opportunities in the private sector from government, with an evident ethnic-lopsidedness has been a hallmark of the current regime. This is a big problem for the country’s development needs because it quite obviously compromises efficiency and performance.

You end up with shoddy road works at inflated prices and a broken healthcare system or even a poorly managed and ineptly run tourism sector. You have the Uganda Investment Authority sucked in controversy over the executive director who recently was in the news over suspension by the board for managerial indiscretions. How did she get the job in the first place?

There is an even bigger danger posed by the system that disregards merit and foregrounds ethnic connections and cronyism: social disharmony. The latent animosity among Ugandans over perceptions of unfairness in access to opportunities is something that could well set us on course for a possible future inter-ethnic conflagration.

Without a feeling of equitable and fair due-process, social fragility can incubate into a potentially larger disaster. There are already signals of this. I am not predicting anything and I hope that my reading of the situation is grossly inaccurate.


The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd