So I’ve entered the reflection phase of my sojourn to East Africa. For many of you, those not so keen on sentimentality, this means you get to tune out the rest of this blog. But for the remaining three readers, I’ll be filling you in on my trip here, and how it has changed the way I think about the world.
First things first. The Uganda that I have spent the past nine months experiencing is dying. Fomenting as I write are a number of alterations to the Ugandan political and cultural landscape that will leave the country a vastly different place than it is today.
1. The discovery of oil in the Lake Albert region has the potential to destabilize a country already battling the age old African foe to political regime: tribalism. But tribalism in Uganda is still a very real issue. Just last September, riots broke out around Kampala when disagreement between the Kabaka, the king of Buganda, and President Yoweri Museveni jumped from words to action. Although the riots were relatively short lived, dozens of people were killed in the reminder that the allegiance of many Africans still lies with their traditional rulers and not with the Ugandan government. Already we have seen an unfair focus of development aid and infrastructure spending funneled into Southwest Uganda, the region Museveni hails from and Jinja’s replacement as the industrial center of the country. As soon as the petrodollars start flowing into the country, the likelihood that the money is unfairly allocated across its tribal landscape is high. In addition, the environmental degradation (Do you really trust planners to heed strict environmental regulations when there is double-digit growth to be had?) of one of Uganda’s most beautiful areas may anger local communities and farmers. Oil legislation and an influx of petrodollars have the potential to disrupt Uganda’s relative stability enjoyed since Joseph Kony and his LRA were kicked out of the country several years ago, and create new avenues for corrupt purse bearers to extort money out of the arrangement. Extraction won’t reach full capacity (a predicted 200,000 barrels/day) until 2014 or 2015, but hopefully Uganda can figure it out and avoid the curse that has plagued countries like Nigeria and Iraq.
2. President Museveni’s hold on power seems to be slipping., suggesting next year’s April elections may produce some interesting results. This past February’s bi-election in Mbale saw both a shooting, an attempt at ballot-box rigging, and an unseating of the NRM candidate, a party that has traditionally enjoyed a very strong following in Mbale.
3. In two years rafting the White Nile will be a different experience with the completion of the Bujugali Falls Damn. A treaty signed in 1929 gives Egypt final say in the exploitation of the Nile River Basin’s waters. To this day, Egypt retains the power to veto any dam or barrage on Nile waters planned by its upstream riparian neighbors. But its historical control is waning, and upstream neighbors are moving to set up a Nile River Basin Commission to monitor the sharing of the waters. The countries that have already signed the new treaty, Uganda included, all have considerable plans to develop the Nile river, either for irrigation or power generation, and Egypt is furious. Cairo has already started beating the drums of war, claiming it would sever ties with any upstream neighbor that hindered its unilateral consumption of the river, but Uganda is responding. When pressed for the reason the government ordered six new Sukhoi SU-30MK2 fighter jets from Russia, a military spokesman told reporters that the jets had been ordered for the “defense of the River Nile.” But that’s not even the worst part of it all: Bujugali Falls, which sits 16km downstream from Jinja, will erase some of the best white water rafting rapids along the Nile River.
4. Southern Sudan is voting for secession next year, and, should the referendum succeed, may become the world’s newest country. Already, East Africa is preparing for this. The Kenyan government is building a massive port, one that will rival Mombasa, in Lamu, a coastal city in its north that is probably Juba’s closest access to the ocean. Independence means autonomy over Sudan’s oil wealth, which, means exports in the future will soon have to cross borders and pass through the northern neighbor. Talks of building a pipeline from Lamu to the taps in South Sudan have begun in an effort to reduce Juba’s dependence on a hostile Khartoum. Assuming all goes as planned and South Sudan gets its pipeline, economic growth will come to the country and, with it, increasing regional economic integration. Uganda’s northern territory, which has traditionally lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of economic growth and infrastructure development, will be the most effected by this. The “backward,” poverty and famine stricken towns and cities I visited in the north this past year may be transformed, and with the transformation, experience commercial and cultural assimilation and its resulting loss of heritage.
5. The anti-homosexuality bill proposed by MP David Bahati has caused a number of foreign donors to threaten to cut off all aid to Uganda. With oil production still several years away, a donor-reliant Uganda will have to find a way to fill the gap in missing aid, probably by borrowing from domestic or international banks, which would raise interest rates and reduce consumption by consumers and businesses.