In Uganda, another State of the Nation address has come and gone. Three things were particularly striking.
First, President Yoweri Museveni was in good humour, cracking jokes and throwing jibes at this or that individual or group, occasionally putting in a boast or two about this or that achievement by his government or the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement.
I shall come to that part towards the end. The second thing was the president’s unusual candour in talking about things that, thanks to many Ugandans, including his own officials being “asleep,” as he put it, remain as thorny as ever.
The list is long. To cut the story short, I have picked only those I believe tell a story about the government’s overall record in as far as causing fundamental change over the past three decades is concerned.
Fundamental change was the overriding ambition of young Museveni and his associates at the time they seized power.
The government has always aspired to end the dependence of Uganda’s farmers on rainfall and to make irrigation one of the central features of the agricultural sector, the main source of livelihood for well over 70 per cent of Ugandans.
This aspiration has been the subject of much political speech making over the years, invoked almost every time the President has been on his perennial anti-poverty tours across the country.
In more recent times he has even been pictured demonstrating the use of low-tech drip irrigation using plastic bottles filled with water he himself has fetched from wells on a bicycle.
Yet there he was on the podium, talking about the importance of irrigation and in essence admitting that ending dependence on rainfall is still a distant prospect.
Those with long memories recall the emphasis he once laid on the imperative for Uganda to industrialise, get to produce most of the things it was importing 30 years ago, and end the consumption by Ugandans of things they did not produce while producing things they did not consume.
At the time, a favourite critique of previous governments centred on the fact that by the mid-1980s, Uganda was still importing toothpicks, sewing needles and safety pins.
It was therefore noteworthy that 31 years later, Museveni was decrying the importation of high volumes of furniture, shoes, textiles, pharmaceuticals, glass, fertilisers, bicycles, even processed coffee and fruits.
He may not have mentioned safety pins, sewing needles and toothpicks, but Uganda still imports those too.
There are good reasons why Uganda’s manufacturers are not making these things and helping the country to reduce its import bill. Those, however, did not make their way into the speech. Are they the focus of discussion somewhere behind the scenes, perhaps?
One of the subjects that creep into any conversation about the imperative to promote manufacturing is the need for foreign investors to come and set up shop here and begin producing for local consumption and for export.
With the East African Community boasting a population of 170 million people and doing business in the region becoming ever more liberalised, it is not as though there is no internal market for manufactured goods, as the president keeps emphasising.
But then there is a catch here too. Not only are officials handing out licences to fake investors, he said, they are also making the entry of genuine ones something of a nightmare by asking for large bribes. These are the kind of things the establishment of the Uganda Investment Authority was meant to eliminate.
So now we know that one-stop shops are no magic bullet.
And so the president wants anyone who hears of the activities of those who frustrate investors to pass on the information to him. How this is supposed to happen is yet to be revealed.
And now the third thing: The president has spent hundreds of millions of shillings from a special fund located in his office on direct donations to youth groups and jua kali associations as part of an effort to help them become serious creators of jobs and wealth.
In addition, he has put money into training programmes for “young girls” to learn, among other things, baking, embroidery, textile weaving, shoe making and knitting. There may or may not be studies showing how successful or not this has been.
The president, though, is happy enough with the initiative.
The principle of “every little helps” would enjoin onlookers who want the best for the country to celebrate with him. Except the approach raises questions about how much equality of opportunity there is in the selection of beneficiaries.
Even more important, it points to the bypassing of government ministries, agencies and departments mandated to do things of this sort.
It reminds one of the vexed debate during the 1990s regarding the impact of the then bypassing of weak government agencies by donors in favour of NGOs, at the time regarded as offering a workable alternative.
We now know that the strategy never worked because it simply avoided the problem rather than trying to solve it.
Will turning State House into a sort of NGO produce durable results? We have a whole year to the next State of the Nation Address, to find out.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]