There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation: Sword and debt

Monday June 17 2024

Classic American parlance designates Death and Taxes as the only two certainties of life. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG


Classic American parlance designates Death and Taxes as the only two certainties of life. Contemporary Uganda has three certainties in 3 Ds: Debt, Dishonesty and (environmental) Degradation.

Dishonesty, commonly called corruption, was previously disputed, with the government challenging critics to give evidence, but there is now consensus over its being endemic, with the Executive acknowledging its entrenchment in the Legislature and the Treasury.

So it is no longer “unpatriotic” to say corruption in the country is alarming. Indeed, in his State Of the Nation Address last week, President Yoweri Museveni said evidence of corruption is now available.

As for Debt, another American saying attributed to President John Adams goes: “There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation — one is by sword, the other is by debt.” Uganda’s debt is a statistical fact requiring no argument and now equals half of the country’s GDP, claiming an unhealthy chunk of the government’s revenue to service it, thus limiting the capacity to deliver essential services.

You don’t want to imagine what the situation will be in the foreseeable future — maybe sooner than later — when the repayment for the principal debt sums on key major loans taken two decades ago comes due. The only solace is the fatalistic observation that some other African countries are in the same sinking boat.

Climate Change has made the third certainty —the prevalence of environmental degradation — undeniable. Besides the jeopardised food production, air pollution directly kills 31,000 Ugandans a year. Kampala City’s air is now nine times above the World Health Organisation’s standard.


For long, only the American Embassy was monitoring Kampala’s air quality but, today, other organisations do, including a TV station that “alarms” the public about the most poisonous areas to breathe in. More people, too, are downloading the phone to monitor pollution.

Thankfully, of the three Ds, the government has taken concrete measures to tackle one — Degradation. In fact, last week, as the President was delivering his annual address before parliament, a fleet on of newly manufactured electric buses was released from the secluded military workshop in central Uganda and glided silently towards Kampala. The gleaming convoy of buses designed and built by Ugandan engineers with government funding made an eastward detour towards Jinja, to the country’s vehicle manufacturing plant expected to be commissioned this year, but where a quality inspection facility for buses is located.

A week earlier, Uganda had showcased its electric buses in Dar es Salaam. As production increases, these electric buses are poised to significantly reduce air pollution in Kampala, a city of five million by day and three million by night, for each bus can replace six 14-seater minibuses or up to 90 boda bodas — which are notorious for billowing not only soot but also unburnt fuel into the lungs of passengers and bystanders.

There is a linkage through the perpetuation of Uganda’s three certainties of Dishonesty, Debt and Degradation, but the solution also lies in linkage, not treatment in isolation. Debt and corruption go hand-in-hand. Refusing to do the work that one is contracted to do while getting paid is corruption, and that is what the experts in the Treasury indulge in daily.

They refuse to think but treacherously keep ignoring what John Adams said 222 years ago by accepting loans designed to trap their country into re-colonisation. Indeed, they celebrate when they ink another foreign loan agreement! As national budget day approaches, they work with the Legislature to blow up the expenditure, without increasing the revenue, thus widening the gate for the colonisers’ re-entry by making more debt inevitable.

Degradation is roped in by the perpetuation of Dishonest practices, especially in the transport sector, which is the biggest polluter. I will not dwell on the hitherto unsalvaged MV Kabalega that sank in Lake Victoria 19 years ago with a lot of diesel cargo that keeps Ugandan environmentalists biting their fingers as its spillage would shut down the fishing industry in Africa’s largest water body.

But, again, it is with Degradation that the government is delivering a solution linking the evil 3Ds; by electrifying vehicular transport. First, the programme is entirely government-funded. Second, e-mobility will cut down on pollution whose effects on health are too depressing to detail. Third, it should ease the poor country’s fuel import bill, currently running at over $2 billion per year. Fourth, it might solve the “normalisation of criminality” by the two-wheeler boda bodas that defy every traffic rule in the book, making the police look impotent and the state ineffective as a million young men operate above the law, also filling hospital beds with their injured victims.

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