The Observer Kampala Benedict Mutyaba
Displayed with permission from allAfrica.com

Uganda has celebrated 54 years of independence. As usual, there was a lot of pomp, eating, drinking and speeches and, of course, the colonial bashing.

Independence was meant to bring unfettered freedom and development for the African people. By getting rid of the yoke of colonialism, we were going to shape our destiny and bring progress and joy to our nations.

Our celebrations mask the inconvenient truth; that after more than five decades of independence for most African countries, out of the 25 poorest countries in world, 21 are in Africa.

To explain away this reality, African leaders have always pointed the finger at colonialism. Recently, I was listening to a chat show on one of the local radio stations and there was this politician who called the « wazungu » very evil people who enslaved us for decades. I am no apologist for colonialism. I believe that a lot of bad things happened in the colonial era, but there were a lot of positives too.

Colonialism ushered Africa into the modern world. Instead of trekking, we were introduced to the bicycle, the motor car, electricity and the telephone. Instead of barter trade, we were incorporated into the money economy and we received education and came to interact with other races.

Many colonialists had genuine interest to develop their colonies. Sir Hesketh Bell, the governor of Uganda between 1905 and 1909, for example, dismissed calls to turn Uganda into a settler’s colony and, instead, encouraged small peasant farming. He introduced cotton, coffee, rubber and sugarcane farming, thereby ushering Uganda into the cash economy.

He eased travel and transportation and facilitated agriculture by construction of feeder roads to link productive areas to the main railway line. In hindsight, he could probably have invited the settlers to come to Uganda.

They did that in Kenya and despite their recent political problems, they have an economy that is two and a half times bigger than ours; they still have a functioning and efficient civil service, a very productive agricultural sector and produce better-quality products.

While Sir Henry Johnston, the architect of the Buganda Agreement, believed in the superiority of Europeans over Africans, he practiced paternalistic governance rather than the use of brute force and believed in giving room where it was possible for the local people to administer (indirect rule).

However, even if we agree that colonialism was a very bad experience for us, why is it that after 50 years, we have not been able to shed off the effects of this misrule?

Does it console us that the oppression and subjugation is now being meted out by our own kind rather than the white man? Isn’t it telling that the more prosperous countries in Africa are those where the mzungu settled or where independence was achieved last – Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, South Africa? Zimbabwe is the only exception, and we know why!

While we continue lamenting about colonialism, we forget to contemplate that Africa is not the only continent that was colonized. Asia and South America also came under white rule. Countries in these continents have made big strides by letting the past pass and embracing the present and future with hard work and vision

Yes, it is true that some African countries have, at least in nominal terms, grown rapidly in the last decade as a result of the commodity boom; but the quicksand nature of the growth can be discerned from how quickly these economies have faltered at the first sign of a slump in commodity prices.

A glaring example is Equatorial Guinea. With its tiny population and huge oil reserves, it is nominally one of the wealthiest countries based on GDP per capita. Recently, it was knocking on the door of the IMF begging for a loan to balance its budget! The same for Angola.

Without the spike in commodity prices, we rely mostly on remittances from our brothers and sisters overseas. In 2014, these Ugandans remitted nearly $1 billion, more than what we earned from the export of coffee, tea, fish and tobacco. In the same year, Uganda exported $2.54 billion and imported $6.03 billion, resulting in a negative trade balance of $3.7 billion. We have a voracious appetite for imported luxury goods but cannot export enough products to balance our trade!

After more than 50 years of self-governance, we cannot properly plan our cities or provide decent housing for our people; our sick people do not have medical insurance and cannot afford any; the education systems are failing and we keep churning out graduates who can’t get jobs or are unemployable.

While 84 per cent of our citizens are rural-based, we have not lent a helping hand to the peasant farmers leaving them just to subsist and rely on the grace of nature to grow their food. We encourage our farmers to grow this and that crop and when they do, we cannot pay them decent prices.

Yet it is the resilience of those small farmers that has, time and time again, saved this country from total collapse and ensured the survival of our people.

We have let our lakes get polluted and overfished and failed to stock our rivers with fish, at least to provide good nutrition to our people.

We have failed to appreciate that we can have divergent political views and belong to opposing political groups but still remain decent human beings and civil to each other.

After all our indiscretions, we continue piling the blame on the white man. If after 54 years of independence we cannot extricate ourselves from the grip of colonialism, perhaps it is time to call the Martians for help.

The author is a former Makindye East MP.

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