We aren’t disciplined enough to take on anyone, leave alone US

Monday November 06 2023

A cartoon illustration. PHOTO | NMG


As a youngish journalist during the last decade of the last century, I had the good fortune to interact rather closely with some outstanding Ugandans in their middle age then and had served in senior positions during the dangerous seventies when the country was under military rule. They included a few former cabinet ministers, top diplomats and security officers.

Most have passed on, but some are still around. There was something common among them in the way they survived the unpredictable seventies – they had to play dumb. By the way two of them are women.

One guy used to be seen on TV at major public functions, seated close to the president and exchanging whispers with much feared African strongman. One day when he disclosed to me the presidential secrets that were being whispered in his ear my jaw dropped.

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It transpired that the whispers were always made when the traditional dancers were performing in the ceremonial arena after the uniformed forced had done their march past.

The president would be commenting about the dancers’ wriggling waists and speculating on how they would perform in a more confidential arena, to which the minister dutifully concurred and nodded vigorously in assent. His robust agreement with the inconsequential banter often earned him the seat next to the big man.


Another highly polished top official who remained safe with the military ruler until the end of the regime used psychology and knowledge of the instincts that keep wild animals alive in the jungle.

He learnt early enough that the military strongman had a sixth sense of smelling out negative feelings against him. So whenever he was summoned, he used to psyche himself with feelings of immense love for the boss. By the time he was ushered into the man’s presence, he just felt like hugging and holding him tightly like the dearest being he ever knew. And the big man loved him back.

The private testimonies of these men and women came to mind when another written threat of an economic nature came to Kampala from Washington last week, the fourth this year.

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It appears relations are set to continue going downhill before they become better. I think Ugandan leaders and diplomats need to learn from those officials who survived in Kampala under a regime they knew they could not convince to see things their way and played dumb.

There are things which Ugandans and Americans feel strongly about, and these respective feelings are at variance. Earlier this year, Ugandans leaders acted like they had eaten lion’s liver for breakfast and told off Washington. But they did not become a lion. In economic and military terms, Uganda remains a rabbit, if not a fly, compared to Lion America. Its leaders and diplomats should consider playing dumb as they quietly fortify themselves, so that one day they will not be so vulnerable to a slight cough from across the Atlantic.

It would help if our foreign affairs officials learnt to nod vigorously, clap loudly and smile convincingly whenever they are lectured about American positions on matters of the globe, the region and the bedroom. In the meantime, the government in Kampala should be working around the clock to develop local capacity to process raw materials into industrial products, also to promote a culture of individual and institutional saving so as to minimise over-reliance on borrowing.

These cannot be achieved without discipline. The government will, for example, have to make a sacrifice, and abandon its tolerance for corruption. No significant level of success can be attained in implementing government programmes if public resources are stolen with ease. There is a price for everything. The price you pay for independence is discipline. Without it, prepare to be a dependent, not allowed to hold your own opinion, for all of your life.

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