At the moment there is something called a coffee deal in Uganda. Everyone has been talking about it for a couple of months but it is difficult to describe it. What many people are talking of is just an unusual agreement under which the Uganda government has granted generous rights to an Italian dealer to access Uganda coffee for export and processing, which include tax holidays and even exemption from paying the obligatory social security for workers.
Hardly anybody is saying the document is an amendment, meaning there was a previous agreement before the one that has got local coffee farmers mad. The controversial agreement being just an amendment of another agreement was discussed at a meeting of prominent intellectuals and public personalities from different fields last weekend. They had gathered to join history scholar and archaeologist, Prof Lwanga Lunyiigo, for the launch of his newest book Uganda an Indian Colony 1897 -1972.
Firebrand legislator Nandala Mafabi startled the audience by reporting that the original coffee agreement was penned in 2010, giving the Italian dealer the Arabica coffee grown by the Bagishu people who live on the slopes of Mount Elgon (whom he represents in parliament) in a move to kill the cooperative union of the ‘natives’, a move he said the Bagishu successfully resisted.
The evening was dominated by economic discourse of how the natives deliberately spelt by Prof Lunyiigo with capital ‘N’ to identify indigenous locals as a race like Europeans, Indians or Chinese, can get economically liberated after 60 years of political independence. A star guest at the event was an old Indian agent, Prof Yash Tandon, who was part of Uganda’s Independence struggle on the side of the Natives, and speaks several native languages, including Kiswahili and Luo.
Startling revelations and allegations were made at the event, all of them arguing that although the exploitative Indians described in Lunyiigo’s book were expelled from Uganda in 1972, they were replaced by another brand of ‘Indians’, more vicious and very destructive, who are not from India but broke away from the Natives and are collaborating with external money lenders and deal pushers to erode whatever little economic independence remained.
Former Finance minister and current chancellor of Makerere University Prof Ezra Suruma narrated how he has been repeatedly sacked from public office as he tried to protect Natives’ economic interests. Several speakers accused the author of cowardice in framing the title as Uganda – An Indian Colony 1897-1972” instead of “1897 – Present”.
In the book, the author is very particular to point out that the Ismaili Indians were different from the others, as they identified with the Natives’ cause, had empathy for the Africans, sharing with them their social amenities namely schools and health services. The function was indeed held at a classy Ismaili Indian’s hotel.
Most participants were middle to old age Ugandans of successful careers, not angry at their station but lamenting about their country so full of natural resources but whose main export is fast becoming its children (who go to do menial jobs in the Middle East), who should have been busy in Ugandan industries transforming its minerals and agricultural produce into high value industrial products.
Participants had not yet read the book but from their contributions, it was clear that the author’s message will land on fertile ground of the already converted, as they were all angry with the death of the producer cooperative societies and the proliferation of the new consumers’ societies known as Saccos whose members clamour for handouts from the government — to enhance consumption.
Another preacher to the converted was the guest speaker himself, Hon Nandala Mafabi, who regaled the audience with the colonial conspiracy to discourage the growth of a domestic coffee market by starting a myth to convince the Natives that coffee makes the heart “overbeat” and scared them off the beverage.
Most in the audience agreed that they had bought the lie for years, that coffee is bad for the African’s heart, yet strangely good for the Europeans’ health.
Indeed, if Uganda’s 45 million natives — and not fewer than a million — were regular coffee drinkers, controversies like the current Italian deal wouldn’t arise.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]