Daniel Kalinaki's weblog

A commentary on news and events in Uganda and elsewhere


Just an ordinary bloke.

Monday, May 25, 2009

In search for the winds of change

SECOND FLOOR - I gave this speech earlier today at the Afrobarometer Global Release Event at the Serena Hotel Kampala today. Here is hoping that it makes a bit of sense.

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is my honour and privilege to speak to you today about a matter that is dear to my heart and should be to all who love their country and seek progress for it and its people. First, I must apologise, on behalf of the organisers, for my selection to speak here today. They tried very hard to find someone intelligent and distinguished but they were all too busy or unavailable. So they invited me. Please forgive them.

The timing of this event could not have been more opportune. As we mark Africa Day today, we must ask ourselves the question, as we are doing today: How much progress has Africa made in regard to consolidation of democracy and fighting poverty? Robert Sentamu has given an excellent presentation on the Afrobarometer and its findings, over the last decade, of social, economic and political progress in selected African countries. In my short remarks I shall attempt to share some thoughts about the progress we’ve made in Uganda.

First the good news. Uganda has made some progress in the political arena including: enacting a fairly progressive constitution; holding elections at national, parliamentary and local council levels; lifting the legal (some would say illegal) restrictions on political pluralism and multiparty politics; and bringing some semblance of peace and stability – albeit a fragile one – to northern Uganda and other regional theatres of conflict like Burundi.

Economically, we posted year-on-year Gross Domestic Product growth for more than a decade and have consistently been higher than the Sub-Saharan Africa average. The country has continued to attract foreign direct investment that has created jobs, grown tax revenues and continued to reduce our dependence on foreign donors.

There has been some social payoff from these political/economic developments with more children going to school and more health centres built across the country. The number of Ugandans living in abject poverty – defined as less than a dollar a day – has fallen from 56% in 1992 to less than 40%.

While this progress is commendable, it begs three questions that all Ugandans ought to ask themselves. One, is this the best we could have done with the resources available to us? Two, is it sustainable? And three, what must we do as a country to improve our lot sustainably and equitably?

Our political reforms have not been deep enough or backed by the development of institutions that would engrave them in our political culture. Thus the Constitution was doctored for 30 silver coins to achieve short-term political ambitions of the Executive; armed men have raped the temple of justice; our elections have been marred by rigging and smeared with the blood of the innocents; political freedoms have been given with one hand and then taken away with another through manipulation, coercion or intimidation; and the voice of the people has been silenced to a whimper through the emasculation of Parliament and the enfeeblement of the press.

The socio-economic gains, too, have been lost in many areas. An unsustainably high population growth rate continues to put pressure on the social infrastructure and has thrown more people through the cracks back down into abject poverty. Teachers and pupils have abandoned classrooms often to eke a more rewarding living off the land; doctors have abandoned their patients for fatter paycheques abroad and a cloud of hopeless has descended over the land, giving cover to the thieves and the corrupt to loot, pillage and plunder what’s left of our national resources. Things have, indeed, fallen apart.

As the figures from the Afrobarometer show, there is a direct correlation between the way a country is governed and the quality of life its citizens enjoy or suffer. It is the politics, stupid.

The Afrobarometer shows growing demand for democracy in Uganda. It also shows that many people are unsatisfied with the quality of democracy we have. We must not clamour for democracy as an end in itself but as a means to an end. Democracy should empower the voice of ordinary citizens, not just to be heard, but to also be listened to, especially in the allocation of national resources.

Democracy, right from its origins in the Greek city states, revolves around the core assumption that ordinary people cede some of their power to elected leaders who are them supposed to act in the best interest of the people. If we pose and take a look around our country today, do our leaders act in our best interests? Are we spending our meagre resources in productive areas that will generate more opportunities or are we splashing out on primitive and predatory displays of insensitive luxury? Do our elected leaders deliver on their promises or do they shift the goalposts every time to manipulate ignorant and illiterate voters, seeking re-election with fistfuls of coins and shovels of sugar?

More than one in every two Ugandans alive today was born after 1990. They don’t want to know about the “bad old days” of Idi Amin, Milton Obote, or the bloody war that brought the current government to power in 1986. What they want to know is that there will be jobs when they graduate; that they will be able to compete for those jobs on merit, not on the basis of their surnames or facial features. That they will afford medical care and housing when they need it and that they will inherit a country that is stable and prosperous and a society that is dynamic and inclusive.

As we head towards the next election in 2011, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can choose to continue the personality-driven winner-takes-it-all political model where we have an election and petition every five years and then let our MPs and other politicians sleep on the job as long as they wake up and vote for their parties. Alternatively, we can choose a bi-partisan approach that puts Uganda first, that allows free and open debate about our burning priorities and how to achieve them, and which puts power back in the hands of the people.

Asking the politicians to decide which model to adopt is, like an African saying goes, asking the monkey to decide whether the forest should be cut down. It is up to the people to demand this right to be heard and served. The Afrobarometer survey and others like it help provide a reality check for our countries and provide useful information that can be used by the media, civil society, and progressive political groups to empower the public.

At the end of the day, however, the responsibility falls on every individual to inform themselves and others, in order to build political awareness and a critical mass of interested and involved publics who can mobilise, organise, demand and receive what is fairly due to them.

On a recent visit to Robben Island, I was struck by many things, not least of all the fact that the dog houses were much bigger than the cell in which Nelson Mandela spent his time in detention. Some of the inmates like Mandela were educated professionals at the time they were jailed while others, like current President Jacob Zuma, were illiterates. The inmates developed a phrase; each one teach one, which helped those who knew to teach those who didn’t.

In many ways, our own long walk to true economic and political freedom can never be complete unless those who know can teach those who don’t. Only such political enlightenment can end the manipulation of the masses and ensure that they do not live a dog’s life.

I thank you.