Uganda - a Model of Transition and Transformation?

04/03/2015 14:29

Hannes Swoboda


Thirty years ago Austria helped the different Ugandan political forces to find a national compromise. 1985, in a small village in Lower Austria the then Austrian foreign minister Erwin Lanc managed to bring several leaders to this place and helped them to agree for starting a new free and democratic Uganda. Shortly after that – in 1986- President Museveni came to power and is governing the country and dominating the political scene ever since. But it seems he himself is not convinced of the sustainability of peace and stability because he runs again for President at the next election in 2016.

Overall one can say, that in relation to many of its neighbours like South Sudan and Congo – as well as in the past also Ruanda - Uganda may seem as a model for a peaceful transition from a war torn country towards a peaceful one. But there are still many challenges Uganda has to face. It is the country in Africa with the highest population growth and the youngest population - without the necessary jobs. Yes, oil has been found, but with the oil price going down there may be less income than expected. And it will be important not to spend the oil profits too fast and without consideration for long term development.

One of the problems originating from the war is how to combine justice and reconciliation. The LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army, is a rebel army which became more and more cruel and abducted many children and transformed them into soldiers. But also massive mutilation and killings against the civil population in the North were used to gain influence and power. The LRA seems to be beaten and at least so much weakened that it is no longer active in Uganda. But the victims are there. They often want justice and compensation. Besides, not everybody in the North, the area mostly affected by the LRA activities, agrees to the International Criminal Court in The Hague as the court where the responsible perpetrators should be tried.

This is an opinion rejected by Victor Ochen, who is a young NGO leader who is engaged to promote reconciliation and justice. And that is also the opinion of the Leaders of the Centre for Transitional Justice. The government was not always clear about this issue. But at least it seems not to oppose the activities of the ICC currently. And as especially one commander of the LRA, Mr. Dominic Ongwen is appearing before the Court, one can hope that there will be full cooperation from the side of the Ugandan government. However, questions concerning compensation are still at the very core of Ugandan concerns, especially after the Supreme Court of Uganda decided in an exceptional case of cattle theft, that the government - due to its obligation to care for security - has to pay compensation if they fail to do so.

By the way, Victor Ochen is proposed for the Nobel Price and it would be a great support for all those in Africa, who are working for justice and reconciliation, if he would be awarded this price. When we met him we got the impression of a very engaged person, who is also working on the formation and education of a new generation of young leaders.

The issues of post conflict peace and transition were the reason for a visit to Uganda in the first place. The assistant of the Institute for Peace visited also the North and together we had various talks in Kampala (see for a detailed analysis and documentation the report prepared by Stephanie Fenkart). Kampala is a city growing over several hills. As the Ghanaian, Tanzanian and British architect David Adjaye correctly describes African cities, also Kampala is combining city and country side in itself. Beyond a small city centre it is not easy to differentiate between urban and country settlements. Both grow into each other. That is visible in the slums, but also at the extended trade and handicraft shops along the roads leading out or into the proper city. And that structure creates also a lot of traffic jam and serious accidents.


Definitely there are also positive elements to be recognized in these "street-markets"! If I may cite David Adjaye again: "Markets and street traders are an integral part of everyday life in Africa. The informal sector is the product of a very resourceful entrepreneurial class. They aim to take hold of their destiny by succeeding in the gray economy in the face of weak government". But on the other hand weak (or corrupt) government is often a big problem in Africa. In several discussions we had, the question of good governance has been raised by our interlocutors. Good governance stood often on top of the list of necessary reforms in the country. And that is not only true for Uganda.

The enormous population growth with the many children is mostly visible in the slums adjacent to the city centre. They grow up in extreme poverty and with horrible environmental conditions. The most negative impact of these conditions can be noted in the water supply. Even where there is water coming out of the ground or the pipes, it is extremely polluted and contaminated. And the slowly running - or not running at all - water  between the dwellings is attracting insects which inter alia are carrying the Malaria disease. And the contaminated water - if one can call "water" - is causing cholera and typhus. As we stayed in Kampala the media reported about a growing number of typhus cases. Therefore, basic health care is a big issue.

Another environmental issue of course is the deforestation and the contamination of the soil. The need for wood to cook leads to deforestation and the burning of woods leads to a dangerous deterioration of the air quality.

One of the most important issues concerns education. There are many schools, but the questions about the quality and the orientation of the education have to be addressed. There are many public schools, but as teacher are rarely paid or paid very late, they are often on strike. And that means schools stay closed. In consequence the parents try to find private schools. Here they have to pay fees. But in addition they are mostly religious schools. And very often they are schools run by very conservative evangelical groups. The influence of these churches is unfortunately very strong, also on legislation concerning family and sex related affairs. The strict rejection of homosexuality promoted by these religious fanatics, as I would call them, has less to do with the traditional life styles and attitudes than with the European and US influence of the colonial past and the present. This is the opinion of the Ugandan law professor Sylvia Tamale when she writes :" Not homosexuality is unafrican but the laws which are criminalizing such relationships". Nevertheless although President Musevini was first not very keen on forbidding and sanctioning homosexuality he finally agreed to such a legislation which includes drastic punishments for gay people.

I saw also the effort and engagement of some people in building up a new - non-confessional - school at the fringe of one of the extended slums in Kampala. It is hard work to get the finances and all the permits without corruption, which is a big problem in Uganda. But there are people who have the relevant spirit, conviction and engagement. They do respect religion but are not using it as a basis for education and promoting certain "values"!

Another family issue which would need new and modern legislation concerns marriage and divorce law. The president of the Ugandan parliament, who by the way was promoting the anti- gay legislation, is now promoting a modernized divorce legislation. As there was a very strong opposition in the Parliament, President Museveni sent the deputies - with financial support (!) - back to their constituencies in order  to discuss the proposed legislation with their voters. Nobody knows what will be the result of these consultations.

As domestic violence is one of the most committed offenses in the country a modern divorce and family law may help to reduce these crimes. It is very important to note that the male violence does not only affect women but also children. Besides laws and punishment one needs more open discussion and education.

Another kind of conflicts which often leads to violence concerns land disputes. The development of the infrastructure, building of schools, etc. are often hampered by unclear land ownership. Much more legislature work has to be done with regard to land issues. Not everything can be "regulated" and decided by the traditional chiefs. But they should not be neglected either. The Nobel Price Winner from Kenya, Wangari Maathai is pleading for embracing the Micro - nations, an expression she uses to avoid the term "tribes": "In my view, it is essential that Africa's citizens and leaders embrace a revival of their micro- national cultures, languages, and values, and then bring the best of these to the table - that is, the nation-state......In this way, African nation- states, which now for many people merely serve to issue necessary documents such as a passport and an identity card, will more fully represent the diversity and the achievements of their distinct peoples" . And Wangari Maathai is pointing to the efforts of the European Union, but we know how difficult and time-consuming that process of community building is.

It is clear that President Museveni not only has dominated Ugandan policy now over thirty years but he also wants to continue that dominance after the next presidential elections. But with all his abilities and skills, also Uganda needs to get used to the normal rules of democracy and that includes a possibility for change and open and free competition between political forces. Irrespective of election cheating, changes of presidents and governments should get normal and not be too long retarded and postponed even after internal conflicts and crises, which need some continuity.

It was my first visit to Uganda or correctly to Kampala and its surroundings including Jinja, the oldest city of Uganda, situated at the source of the Nile, which flows out of the Lake Victoria already as a big river. Uganda was the ninth black African state I could visit and I am far from being an African expert. As I mentioned at the beginning, Uganda under its long term president managed to create stability and a relatively successful transition and transformation - anyway in comparison to many other African countries in its neighbourhood. But it has, due to its still existing poverty and the high population growth, many problems to solve. The educational system is not up to the necessities of this developing country. There are many extremely conservative and reactionary influences by some of the churches. These influences add to many clashes between traditional life styles and modernity. And the victims of the war are still waiting for justice and reconciliation including compensation. Some of the animosities and strains, between the North on the one side and the centre on the other side are still existing. In consequence many transitions are still lacking or are at least incomplete, including the transition to normal democratic political change, alternation and competition. Some countries in Africa would be happy to have only these problems, other are confronted with similar situations.

We in Europe should be not at all arrogant in view of these problems and challenges. Many have their roots in the colonial domination. As my/our visit happened exactly hundred years after the Berlin Conference where the colonial domination and many borders have been fixed, it is good to remember European co-responsibility for many of today's problems in Africa. This is neither an excuse for mistakes of today's African leadership and nor for China's sometimes problematic activities in Africa. Very often the Chinese do not care about human rights and import cheap products from China and destroy local productions as the British did it famously or infamously with the cotton industry in India.

Uganda like all African states is a two or even multi-speed country. You meet people with vision, courage, many skills and modern orientation and you see poverty and children you would count to a lost generation. And many European, US and Chinese companies just see Africa as the source for extracting oil, gas, ore, coal, copper and rare earth. But these activities are often the source for new conflicts and wars. The European Union at least sees and tries to develop the other side too, as does also Austria. In view of the enormous problems of Uganda in specific and the whole continent in general we should not give up in helping to lay the ground for peace. Quite the contrary, the environment of Uganda is still in a very fragile situation and not free of conflicts and tensions. And those conflicts if getting heated up could always inflame conflict with or within Uganda.


To cite once again the African Nobel Peace Price Winner Wangari Maathai :"When conflicts arise in Africa, they are almost exclusively over governance, corruption, poverty and a perception that national resources are not distributed equitably". Yes, these are also the problems Uganda has to address, but we should not leave the country and its peoples alone. Therefore Europe and in specific Austria should continue its support for the stabilization of this country. We should do that not without criticism but with sympathy.