Tale of two countries conjoined at the hip by colonial England

Saturday May 14 2022

Kenya and Uganda have almost the same population size, but Kenya’s GDP is three times bigger than resource-rich Uganda’s. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


There is a tale of two countries, England and Vatican in Europe, each relatively small in size but with enormous global influence.

The United Kingdom is an earthly kingdom but whose monarch, the Queen of England, heads the worldwide Church of England.

The Vatican is also a physical independent state — one of the tiniest in the world — but with some 1.4 billion spiritual citizens worldwide, a population only comparable to China, India and Facebook.

Another tale of two countries is of Kenya and Uganda, both independent for about six decades and busy charting the destiny of their people. The two were conjoined at the hip by colonial England and subsequent surgeries to separate them were not too successful, as their border communities continue behaving like one country.

Now, it is expected that when “super” dignitaries who lead powerful states visit a faraway poor country, they speak a phrase in the local language understood by the natives, using words well calculated for deep impact. They can be prophetic but the eventual reality can be to the contrary.

When the Pope Paul VI made the first ever pontifical trip to Africa in July 1969, he told his host people of Uganda in Luganda that he wished them peace. Peace was what they needed badly, for a quarter of the country had been under emergency/martial law for three years after the violent overthrow of the Buganda monarchy.


But, even before the year ended, the peace the Pope had prayed for slid further away as emergency law was extended to the whole country after an assassination attempt on President Milton Obote.

Political parties, except the ruling one, were banned. Things were to get even worse that year when the single-party government was overthrown and replaced by a military dictatorship that rode roughshod over everybody.

Its rule of eight years was only ended by an eight-month war waged by Tanzania that ushered in seven years of anarchy under weak governments, which ended in 1986. But a dubious conflict erupted in northern Uganda and lasted another two decades. The wastage of resources and lives is yet to be quantified.

The northern war ended but in the northeast is another dubious conflict in Karamoja, a region covering over 11.4 percent of Uganda and containing diverse deposits of valuable minerals. It cools once in a while after armed state intervention, then flares up again.

Today, the conflict in Karamoja is at its worst ever, as armed warriors attack and rob anybody as natural elements of weather conspire to stifle food production, condemning 1.2 million people to hunger in the fertile country.

Next door in Kenya, in November 1983, Queen Elizabeth II came visiting and was impressed by the country’s efforts to expand school education to be accessible by every child, under the spirit of harambee, which saw communities pooling resources to build schools all over, something her colonial government hadn’t really prioritised.

The Queen said in Kiswahili that henceforth, the age-old saying that wit is wealth (akili ni mali) should be changed to education is wealth (elimu ni mali).

The expansion of primary, secondary and tertiary education increased and, by the close of the eighties decade, Kenya was self-reliant in matters education.

Kenya and Uganda have almost the same population size, but Kenya’s GDP is now three times bigger than resource-rich Uganda’s.

The Ugandans clutched the Pope’s prayer for peace, and have been investing so much effort in security. Over half a century since the Pontiff prayed in Luganda, Uganda has built an impressive security machine that is operating in several countries on the continent.

But Uganda is still searching for peace in its northeastern region, where 1.2 million human beings are leading a bizarre existence; where anyone can attack anyone and take away their emaciated livestock and even their life, “just for just”!

In Karamoja, strong statements by the security officers are yet to translate into the peace the Pope willed Uganda 53 years ago.

You have by now seen the well circulated inaugural FT 2022 ranking for Africa’s fastest growing companies, where Kenya hogged the limelight. Others who impressed are South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. Kenya’s conjoined twin, Uganda, does not feature.

Kenya’s impressive performance is not by accident. It can be read in the Queen’s words of wisdom uttered 39 years ago: Elimu ni mali. Kenya is quite poor resource-wise but invested in the people. And now that the world is being driven by ideas and innovation, is it surprising that Kenya is growing fast?

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]