With such a youthful nation, sometimes we Ugandans forget our history, but that history is full of some remarkable “firsts,” events that changed the course of history. Events that at the time were revolutionary, but today are commonplace. Many of these earth-shifting changes came from President Museveni, but whether you support him or one of the opposition candidates, we can all as Ugandans be proud of the ways in which our country changed the world.
Let’s take a spin through recent history.
Give us trade, not aid. Remember the bad old days when the world saw Africa as nothing but coast-to-coast disasters with a few game parks thrown in? The idea of demanding trade, not aid, was revolutionary, and sadly, few other leaders were calling for it. In fact, many saw aid as a perpetual gravy train. President Museveni was the first to support the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that allowed African-made goods duty free entry into the United States. Fast forward to today, and the trade argument has won in all but a few corners. Every country in Africa is striving to increase their AGOA offerings and lobbying the US government every time the bill comes up for renewal. There are Africa Summits in India, China, Japan, Europe, and America, and the world is talking about the vast opportunities Africa offers. Throughout all the buzz on business in Africa, it’s hard to hear any mention of aid!
Breaking the HIV/AIDS taboo. Thousands were dying throughout the world, US President Ronald Reagan refused to even mention the word, “AIDS,” and yet despite cultural taboos in Africa, President Museveni came out loud and clear. He set up one of the most comprehensive programs to combat the disease. Realizing that the disease could impact nearly every aspect of Ugandan life, the president developed a national HIV/AIDS policy and instructed every government ministry to create an AIDS task force. Uganda was the first to open a Voluntary Counseling and Testing clinic in Africa, pioneered the concept of voluntary testing centers in Africa, and led the way with adopting ABC: Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use a Condom. Leading through example, President Museveni is one of the only heads of state in the world to have been publicly tested for HIV/AIDS in order to encourage others to be tested.
Smashing the Anglophone/Francophone divide. The post-colonial world didn’t look all that different than the colonial world. Governments engaged with their previous colonial masters, not realizing that with the fall of colonialism, the whole world was now open to them. President Museveni famously declared, “Africa is neither Anglophone nor Francophone.” He let the world know we had our own “phone”! In Uganda, we now have trade and investment with China, India, America, all of Europe, and beyond. Following our lead, most African countries did the same, throwing off the previously misplaced loyalty to former colonial powers. Today, we have choices, and decisions are made based on who gives us the best deal, not who dominated and oppressed us.
A women’s place is in government leadership. With great fanfare, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was voted president of Liberia in 2006, and six years later Joyce Banda became president of Zambia. Before either of these women stepped into her country’s highest role, it was Uganda that showed the world what African women’s leadership could do. In 1994, Specioza Naigaga Wandira Kazibwe became the first women in Africa to hold the position of vice-president of a sovereign nation. President Museveni’s constant support of women has prompted many women to aspire to government. Of the 386 seats in Uganda’s Parliament today, 35% are filled by women.
Getting debt off our back. For decades, the major development institutions poured money into Africa, but where did that money go? Everyone knew it was going to bank accounts of corrupt leaders, held in Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands, or other other locale that promised secrecy. What was clear from the persistent poverty on the ground was that little, if any, was staying in Africa to address the intended purpose. Through hardship and sacrifice, countries like Uganda were able to overthrow these corrupt despots, and yet the “reward” was often being saddled with debt from funds that should have never been given and were certainly never used by the people. Paying just the interest of this crushing debt load was enough to destroy any hopes of a new, fledging government. President Museveni was an outspoken critic of the debt burden plaguing Africa. Finally, the IMF and World Bank relented and offered debt relief under HIPC, the Highly Indebted Poor Country program. In 1997, Uganda became the first country to qualify based on its strong economic performance. The nearly 20% of Ugandan budget that had been used to service debt was suddenly free to go towards health and education.
Primary is good, secondary even better. In 1996, Uganda became one of the few African countries to offer free universal primary education. A few years later, the United Nations declared through the Millennium Development Goals that universal primary education should be available to all children. The world was focusing on primary education, but the Ugandan government knew that secondary education was just as important, especially for the skills development that leads to employment. In 2007, Uganda became the first African country to offer free universal secondary education. Today, with growing concern over unemployment and the youth bulge throughout Africa, everyone recognizes that education doesn’t end with primary.
It’s easy to forget history and how much we changed the world, but we Ugandans really have a lot to be proud of.