Liberation Day: T’was the best of times, t’was the worst of times

Thursday February 7 2019

National Resistance Army fighters 1985

National Resistance Army fighters walk past a burnt military vehicle on the Masaka-Mityana Road near Kampala in October 1985. PHOTO | NMG 

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On Saturday, January 26, some Ugandans celebrated what has come to be known as Liberation Day. That is the day Uganda’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, seized power and ushered its leader, Yoweri Museveni, into the presidency.

It is said that almost 80 percent of Ugandans living today had not yet been born at the time. And that is why only some people “celebrate” this event.

The vast majority of Ugandans may have read or heard about what Uganda was before the NRM came to power, but that is as far as it goes. They were not there, so they do not relate to the NRM from the perspective of personal experience and knowledge of what preceded it.

There are also those, truth be told, who were here, welcomed the NRM with open arms, but have since moved on. Some 33 years ago, they might have believed they knew where the NRM was taking us, and that the best was yet to come. Today, at best they wonder where we are going, at worst they say we are headed for disaster.

Among them are those who assure anyone who cares to listen, that the chances for a peaceful transfer of power from Museveni to his successor are now rather slim.

This negative assessment contrasts sharply with that of Museveni supporters who flock to the official celebratory events. Of course, not everyone who attends is a supporter. Some endeavour to be there for fear, as some put it, of being “misunderstood.”

Supporters are wont to recite the “massive achievements” under the NRM and Museveni’s leadership, and to remind the rest of us of our obligation to feel grateful.

Of course, anyone who lived in Uganda before the NRM and is fair-minded will acknowledge the transformation the country has undergone under Museveni’s rule. We may quibble about what in that transformation is because of the government and what is in spite of it, but the changes, many positive, are undeniable.

At the same time, those who prefer to always look on the sunny side of things should spare a moment to reflect on the challenges that continue to stare us in our collective faces. Perhaps even more important, we need to reflect on how we use the term “liberation” and what it ought to mean, given there are features of the pre-1986 context that persist to this day.

For the challenges that have proved intractable, some years ago, the World Bank put a figure to the amount of money Uganda loses to financial corruption per year – a whopping $500 million. Many years later, having heard multiple pledges from none other than Museveni himself, that corruption would be defeated, things have got worse.

Of course, it is not as if Museveni had done nothing. We are all aware of the numerous anti-corruption agencies. And yet, only a few days ago, in its latest report, Transparency International named Uganda as the country with the third highest levels of corruption in East Africa.

In the same week that TI was highlighting the continued challenge corruption poses for the government and the country at large, elsewhere popular media were highlighting other instances of failure by public bodies to deliver on the mandates they have been entrusted with.

At an annual conference of judges where the president was a key speaker, the Chief Justice highlighted the massive challenge of tens of thousands of cases pending resolution because there simply aren’t enough judges to clear the backlog.

The judiciary, the president was told, needs more judges. The president didn’t want to hear it because there is no money. And yet justice delayed is justice denied.

Perhaps no sector has come in for as much criticism for its numerous shortcomings over the past 33 years as health. And this past week it did not disappoint. First were reports that the heart institute at the premier public hospital, Mulago, is unable to respond to the need by hundreds of patients for surgery.

Anyone who is familiar with the endless brain-drain of doctors leaving for greener pastures would be forgiven for thinking that this has to do with a shortage of specialists. No; it doesn’t. Rather, it is because there is simply not enough space to instal enough beds to allow patients to be afforded the care they would need post-surgery.

And so, hundreds of patients endure long waiting periods, with the wealthier or luckier, as the case may be, opting to travel to places such as India to receive the care they need.

In the same week, media were awash with reports of hospitals across the country being unable to perform certain forms of surgery for lack of blood supplies because blood banks were experiencing shortages.

These and similar issues did not come up in the speeches lauding what Museveni and the NRM have achieved. They are perhaps too mundane to feature in high-minded conversations about national transformation. But if their persistence proves anything, it is that replacing one government with another and marking the event is the easy part. Fixing systems and getting them to work is far more complex.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]