Yesterday, Uganda celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence. The Golden Jubilee is of course a cause for celebration, but I noticed many of my Ugandan friends on Facebook were somewhat cynical, or at least unimpressed. And not without reason.
True to form, the government of Yoweri Museveni banned all demonstrations and rallies ahead of Independence Day and invoked a colonial-era law to trap opposition leaders in their homes. There was plenty of reason to expect discontent from the masses on the occasion of Uganda’s Golden Jubilee. Youth unemployment remains high, infrastructure is crumbling, corruption runs rampant throughout business and government, and presiding over it all is an increasingly autocratic President and his band of cronies.
There’s certainly much to bemoan, and during my year of living in Uganda, there was more than one occasion when I was ready to give up hope for the country. But several times I’ve thought about where my own country (the USA) was 50 years after our independence from Great Britain, and I think it’s helpful to remember that 50 years is still quite young for a country, and problems such as Uganda’s are, if not to be expected, at least not entirely out of the ordinary.
Please note that none of the following is not meant to create any sense of equivalence or to downplay Uganda’s problems. I merely hope that this can be an encouragement to my Ugandan friends (and non-UG friends who care about the country).
In 1826, 50 years after the US declared its independence, the Presidency was still the province of the aristocracy. By that point the US had had 20 Presidents (14 under the Articles of Confederation and 6 under the new Constitution), the vast majority of whom were wealthy and/or from powerful dynastic families. Indeed, the President in 1826 was John Quincy Adams, who was the son of a previous President, John Adams (and we still haven’t abandoned that system).
At 50 years old, Uganda’s government is riddled with corruption. Well, at that point in US history, a system of patronage called “the spoils system” was increasingly being used to determine political office holders (it would be solidified several years later after the election of Andrew Jackson). This spoils system would remain the primary mechanism for appointing government officials until Chester Arthur’s civil service reform in the 1880s, more than 100 years after Independence.
The US economy might very well have been stronger at 50 years than Uganda’s is today (at least at purchasing power parity), but the US was certainly not a model for Uganda to copy. Indeed, 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence, about 15% of the US population was enslaved, and in most Southern states, over 30% of the population was in slavery! The inequalities in Uganda today are not to brush aside, but they are certainly less daunting than those in the US at the corresponding period in our history.
Again, the problems Uganda faces at is Golden Jubilee are unique and incomparable to those of 19th century America. And significantly, Uganda is coming of age at a very different time in history — one when the world is much more interconnected and the fate of individual countries is much more dependent on that of every other country.
Undoubtedly, President Museveni’s recent claim that in the next few years, Uganda will join the “league of first-world nations” is a bit delusional. But given Uganda’s resilience after several terrible conflicts (and several terrible leaders), there’s certainly cause for hope.
And so to Uganda, I say, “You’re looking alright for your age.”