Nepali Times
Ugandan parallels


There are many things here in Uganda that make a Nepali nostalgic for home, especially during the festival season.

Uganda is landlocked like Nepal, and the rolling green hills look like the midhills back home. The children love to laugh and, like Nepali children, break quickly into smiles. Ugandans are gentle, but behind their politeness is a 'trying to figure you out' expression and body language, something that is carried over from the country's 22-year war, before which the country bled under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin.

Peace and development are relative terms here. Sickened by the excesses of Amin, Obete and Okello, Ugandans have enjoyed peace since President Museveni was sworn in in army fatigues in 1986. His National Resistance Army was a highly disciplined and organised guerrilla force that had the support of the population, especially the young people.

Uganda's post-conflict transformation holds lessons for Nepal, both successes we can emulate and mistakes we must avoid. For Museveni, economic development was priority number one. Although trained in Marxist ideology, he was accepted by the west for opening up the country to foreign investors. Businesses driven out by Amin were given tax-free privileges to rebuild the economy. Roads in industrial areas ravaged by war were quickly rehabilitated and factories resumed production.

Uganda's GDP which had shrunk by 40 per cent under Amin soon returned to the prosperity of the 1970s when Uganda was called the 'pearl of Africa'. Museveni not only understood that economic development was crucial, but actually did a lot to spur growth.

He built a government of national consensus and set up a broad-based Constitutional Commission which travelled throughout the country to meet tribal leaders and people from various ethnic groups. Their viewpoints were heard and suggestions were incorporated into the new constitution which took 10 years to write.

One wonders about our own two-year timetable for drafting the constitution, of which only 18 months are left. Museveni's government also didn't get distracted by politics. It used the 10 years to really kickstart the economy and the campaign of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Will we do the same?

Besides the economy, Museveni paid special attention to education and health. He became a crusader in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and Uganda is regarded as a model of how a developing country can successfully tackle the epidemic with public awareness and behaviour change.

Absolute poverty was reduced from 56 per cent to 44 per cent by 1995. Primary school enrolment jumped from 2.5 million to 6.8 million. In 1986 there was only one university but by 2001 there were 13.

The recent controversial amendment of the Ugandan constitution to cater for another presidential term for Museveni has angered many outside his party?and some within his party. Squabbles and rivalries within his party are now fodder for newspaper headlines. The once-disciplined liberators are now accusing each other of corruption.

Hopefully our new government will have the wisdom to invest in health and education and propel the economy with investor-friendly policies. Let's hope our political leaders can work together in a consensus government and not delay the constitution-making process with endless wrangling. Fifteen thousand Nepalis sacrificed their lives in the war. Now their souls demand nothing less.

Subhadra Belbase is country director for Plan International in Uganda, and the author of the recently published book, Mero Nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)