A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, so the English of old said. The saying is worth revisiting at this time when our imaginative ambitions and ambitious imaginations are running in overdrive in Uganda.
Seventeen years ago we struck oil in the western region around Lake Albert. If you open an Atlas printed in the 1970s it is labelled Lake Mobutu and the smaller one south of it Lake Amin, now since reverted to Lake Edward. The leaders of that time and the colonialists before them knew of the oil in that area but being of low ambition, did not pursue its exploitation, concentrating instead on other low-hanging fruits Uganda is endowed with, including a very high comparative advantage in agriculture.
For 17 years we have been preparing to drill the oil and imagining the paved roads all over the country, several airports, schools with more computers than pupils, hospitals with medicine and medical equipment that works which the petrodollars will bring us.
But the waiting is getting rather long and we have now set our sights on other rich endowments nature put in the soil for us. Recently it was announced from the government that we have gold deposits worth over $10 trillion. The long-awaited oil whose confirmed deposits are worth “only” a hundred billion dollars or so paled in significance. Our gold is worth $12 trillion, not Ush12 trillion you man! And it is the government experts talking, not a used car salesman.
We were still trying to figure out what $10 trillion in our newfound fortune means in terms of a brand new car for every family, everybody going abroad for medical attention not only a few hundred lucky ones, all Ugandan kids going to school abroad instead of being taught by our hungry teachers always complaining over salaries, planes becoming our new taxis, Europeans coming to work as our shamba boys and housegirls when bang! Another stupendous fortune.
This one was not very specific. It is called a variety of rare earth minerals (we thought all minerals are in the earth) and was announced by a minister in parliament. The rare earth minerals are in a region called Busoga, a mere 80 kilometres east of Kampala by road and a few minutes by water over Lake Victoria. To help our unsophisticated minds grasp the magnitude of the new discovery, we were told that the rare earth minerals are worth much, much more than the oil which we have for the past 17 years thought was a big deal.
At this rate, is there a better place to be than Uganda? We can start by selling citizenship at $1 million. Since we are hosting 1.5 million poor refugees, let us sell the same number of citizen slots and make uncountable money, and let the new citizens work here to make a profit on their $1 million investment.
But before our imagination runs out of control, let us remember the old English saying and concentrate on the bird we already have before chasing the one in the wild, lest the one at home also runs away. We have fertile soil, fantastic climate and plenty of surface water. Talking of surface water, energy is soon becoming the most precious commodity and we are already generating more electricity than we use, enough to power all our cooking and transport needs. Imagine not having to cut another tree for cooking, nor import another drop of fuel for transport!
Part Two of the English saying about the bird in hand is in a Ugandan language and it goes: “Hoping is better than dreaming!” Yes, if we want our dreams to come true, we may have to wake up first, replace them with hope based on what we have. Then we can surge forward, in reality.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]