UG@50 – REFLECTIONS FROM A LONG TIME RESIDENT
When I set foot into Uganda in April 1992, way ahead of celebrating the country’s 30th anniversary of Independence from Britain, it was an eye opener and a half for me. A country blessed with a lot of rain, good soil for ample harvests, a recently passed new investment code, a free currency regime leading in the region and opportunities galore in all sectors of the economy, agri processing, manufacturing, construction, engineering, the services sector like banking and insurance and of course in tourism.
The streets in those days were bare of traffic in Kampala but full of potholes, some of which so bad that a small car could almost disappear in them, but the roads upcountry were good, from the border with Kenya via Kampala to Mbarara and beyond.
The national parks were there, with Mt. Elgon and Kibale just transferred to Uganda National Parks, the predecessor of today’s Uganda Wildlife Authority and we still had the Entebbe Zoo, in a pathetic state admittedly before it was being transformed into the UWEC we know today.
Queen Elizabeth had one functioning lodge, Mweya, where the water was often cold and the beers warm but the hospitality of the staff was even back then warm and friendly, inspite of the difficult working circumstances they suffered from. Game viewing though was surprisingly good even then, 6 years since President Museveni’s NRA had marched into Kampala and driven the last of the dictators out power, as security back then extended to the parks too – hardly a report of poaching back then.
There was a new spirit in the air back then, a firm belief that Uganda had finally emerged from the dark days, ready to claim her place in East Africa, and suddenly the business activity turned the tide from pure trading to real investments. The Hotel Equatoria of Karim Hirji was the first of the old hotels to be reconstructed and reopened in 1993, almost at the same time as Gordon Wavamunno opened the Lake View Hotel in Mbarara and across the country did similar ventures suddenly prosper, albeit still lacking the skilled and well trained staff – most of the hotel professionals were still working abroad at that time.
Industries sprang up, in Kampala, Lugazi and Jinja and suddenly locally produced goods appeared in the shops, many of which were reopened along Jinja, Kampala and Bombo Roads, which were previously boarded up. The kingdoms were restored in 1993 as well, granting ‘Ebyaffe’ to the historical cultural entities and with the increased output of both Nile Breweries and Uganda Breweries, and the resumption of softdrink plants, beer and sodas were once again available in almost unlimited quantities, no longer needing a ‘chit’ from a minister or other well connected individual. Shopping trips by expatriates, who still had access to a duty free shop at the basement of the Nile Conference Centre, to Kisumu across the border with Kenya, progressively phased out as the shelves filled up, at a cost but a range of consumer goods finally available again. Uganda moved from the ‘Money bricks’ bank notes of 50 (reddish), 100 (blueish) and 200 (orangish) denominations, tied together like brickets, to the introduction of first the 1.000 note and then the 5.000 note, ushering in a new age when money no longer needed to be carried in a carry all when going to the Sheraton for a dinner with say 6 or 8 associates, signaling that the economy had truly started to mature.
The elections for the Constituent Assembly were held, which then sat at the Nile International Conference Centre writing a new constitution for the country, drawing the battle lines for the future of the country and its political direction. The international community took notice of these developments and slowly but surely did more and more visitors trickle into the country, to track the gorillas which became officially possible in 1993/4 and the other parks, where newly introduced concessions allowed for the reconstruction of derelict lodges and the building of new ones. The elections of 1996 saw President Museveni and his NRM beat all rivals hands down and suddenly Uganda was booming and buzzling with economic activity.
Kampala roads were done up, and going by the look of it are still being done up, periodically, and the first traffic jams signaled ‘progress’ with fancier and newer models replacing the ‘My Car’ and the late 80’s Toyota Corollas which had once dominated the roads. Coins were re-introduced in 1999 replacing the small denomination notes by end 2000. A 10.000 note had joined the smaller denominations before a 20.000 note followed.
When Uganda reached the 40th anniversary of Independence on 09th October 2002, President Museveni has won his second round of democratic elections earlier that year, again whipping his rivals in the post 9 / 11 period which had changed the world we knew before then.
Entebbe International Airport saw during those years a sharp increase in the number of airlines flying to Uganda, a trend which has continued until today and the pre – CHOGM summit remodeling and additions made Uganda’s main gateway more functional and yet kept it compact, adding dual percentage figures year after year in flight movements, passenger and cargo growth.
Kajjansi as a hub for light aircraft saw the Aero Club being formed in 1997 and there as in Entebbe did traffic grow, for owners MAF as well as for newcomers Ndege Juu, and the onset of drilling for oil in earnest saw the fortunes of the Kajjansi airlines boosted in leaps and bounds.
In tourism did the Marasa Africa Group emerge, part of the Madhvani industrial, agricultural and service empire, joining such companies like pioneer Inns of Uganda, Volcanoes Safaris and Wild Places Africa. Inns of Uganda in a major rebranding has since transformed itself into GeoLodges Africa, with Uganda’s hospitality sector now offering a range of options for the growing number of tourists. Smaller indigenous owned properties followed suit when Great Lakes Safaris put up their own strategically placed units, alongside Wild Frontiers and a few others. Ahead of the CHOGM summit of 2007 was hotel capacity in Kampala boosted with the most significant additions being the Kampala Serena Hotel, which had acquired the former Nile Hotel International in 2004 and re-opened officially in 2007, and of course had the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort joined sister hotel Speke Resort at the lakeside location of Munyonyo, now forming the backbone of Uganda’s growing MICE business, standing for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events, for which ‘Munyonyo’ as it is now commonly referred to is famous, the annual socialite event ‘Royal Ascot Goat Races’ included of course.
Restaurants spread offering almost every ethnic cuisine one could wish for and as a result there was a need to create a regular guide to keep visitors abreast with the latest, newest and most uptodate information on lodges, hotels, restaurants, airlines and a thousand things to do – The Eye Uganda was born in 2001 and has since grown to become Uganda’s premier entertainment guide, maps and locations all at one’s finger tips and available for FREE to make life for new arrivals, for visitors and tourist, but locals too easier.
The energy crisis of 2006 bit hard, just around the time of the elections at the time, costing the government a few percentage points for sure, but the commissioning of the new Bujagali hydro electric power plant just ahead of the country celebrating 50 years of Independence has put that to rest at last.
The country, in my 20+ years, has seen by and large an upwards trend, with a few downs sprinkled in between but it only goes to prove the resilience of Ugandans to be able to deal with 30+ percent inflation, power shortages and still, at an amazing rate, populate the hills of Kampala, from the erstwhile 7 to surely now 70 in the wider metropolitan area while narrowing the gap between the city and Entebbe on one side and Mukono on the other. 50 years and counting, much to celebrate, much to reflect upon and much still to look forward to when the oil finally starts flowing and hopefully bringing new economic prosperity to all, as the slogan of 2006 for President Museveni’s reelection campaign went.
Now a resident for life, let me conclude that we all tend to complain a lot but when push comes to shove, Uganda is my home as it is for many others. Expatriates once we have been integrated into society and embraced by our Ugandan brothers and sisters, and there is no doubt that it has become my permanent home, with few places around the world rivaling our location, weather and a friendly and industrious people. I wish my compatriots once again a Happy UG@50 and all the best for the next 50 years, though I doubt I will still be here to write a piece for UG@100. As we say when ending a speech or major address: For God And My Country.