View from an ivory tower in Uganda

Ugandans know from lockdown. Their government has kept them locked down for the past seven years, to suppress opposition. The section of the Act that the government used as justification for this was declared unconstitutional on 26 March, and the lockdown was finally lifted, after seven years. 

Four days later, it was promptly slammed back on, this time to prevent the spread of coronavirus.  

According to the excellent article “We Ugandans are used to lockdowns and poor healthcare. But we’re terrified”, even among Ugandans who acknowledge the necessity of the new lockdown, there are many who worry that the government will use it to grab back power.  

The article says that the president, Yoweri Museveni, and his cronies have been widely criticised for being wildly out of touch with the lives of ordinary Ugandans, the majority of whom are either highly susceptible to falling into poverty or already in it. It shows in the blitheness with which officials have issued lockdown directives without giving any thought to the practical implications for most people. They have cancelled public transport without offering any alternatives for those who might need it; for example, HIV-positive people who have to go and get their medicine. They have instructed factory and market workers to keep working but without going home (“Let the factory owners arrange for the crucial employees to camp around the factory area for the 14 days”). They have stopped people from working without offering any sort of financial aid. They have mandated social distancing without explaining how it might work in practice in crowded villages and slums. 

President Museveni even took it upon himself to instruct the rabble on how they can exercise “in the compound”, demonstrating a lockdown workout in which he does a high-knee jog up and down his cavernous, red-carpeted office. This is the best video you will watch today:

(You can read a wonderfully poker-faced article about it here.) 

The transcript of Musuveni’s speech announcing the lockdown makes for gripping reading (see it here). I highly recommend it all, but here are some highlights: 

He explains how measures to control the spread of coronavirus were introduced gradually, starting on 18 March, when he encouraged “enlightened behaviours of not coughing and sneezing in public”, stopped all political rallies, and discouraged “the hexagonal, extravagant Ugandan-style weddings” (if couples were in a hurry to get wed, they were encouraged to “go for the scientific weddings by the actual stakeholders, accompanied by a few people”). 

On 25 March (“the 41st anniversary of the battle of Rugaando”), he stopped people entering Uganda by plane, bus, taxi, boat and “walking on foot from the neighbouring countries”.  

On 21 March public transport and taxis were stopped. Ambulances, army vehicles, garbage collection vehicles, “etc.” were still permitted to operate, as were private vehicles, although private vehicles could only carry three people. 

Then he noticed that some people were using their private vehicles as taxis – which were supposed to be banned – so he put a swift stop to that mischief by banning allpeople to people movement”; i.e. any form of transport.  

He sprung this on the population with no warning, because he didn’t want to give people a chance to run off to the villages before the ban was announced, carrying the virus with them.  

“This freezing of movement,” he said, “will last 14 days from the 1st of April, 2020.” Then he added sagely: “This time it is not Fool’s Day; it is wise-person’s Day.” 

He was most optimistic about the opportunities offered by the pandemic: 
“On account of this pandemic, some sectors of the economy are suffering, such as the tourism industry, the entertainment industry, the transport industry, etc. However, as I said earlier, new opportunities are emerging in this misfortune.  You have seen how the demand for sanitizers, face masks, bicycles, etc., has stimulated new industrial opportunities.”  

Win some, lose some, in other words. Even though some people are doing all the winning while others are doing all the losing. But that’s OK, because the president and his cronies will be doing the winning.  

Except that maybe this time they won’t.  

In the past, government officials and their families have routinely travelled abroad for medical treatment, because Ugandan hospitals are woefully underequipped. (The country has more government ministers than intensive-care beds.) But the pandemic is about to burst their bubble, says activist Anthony Masake: “People had their money, ready to run away in case of things like war. And now here is a pandemic, and they are stuck in the same broken hospitals as people they were running away from”. 

Political moving and shaking is a popular pastime among Ugandan musicians, and Bobi Wine, one of the country’s biggest pop stars and an opposition MP, who styles himself as “president of the ghetto republic of Uganja”, is reported to be distributing jerrycans, soap and informational leaflets on coronavirus. Because of his inconvenient political views, he is banned from performing in public, but he has made it to a studio with fellow singer Nubian Li to record a peppy song to raise awareness of coronavirus:


“If you get sick,” they exhort, “please do not transmit the disease. Isolate yourself from the public. Be patriotic. See what is happening in Italy! Many people have died! Prevention is better than cure.”

Prevention is, indeed, better than cure. And all you need to achieve it is a big, red-carpeted office and a white towel.

2 thoughts on “View from an ivory tower in Uganda

  1. Thank you, Lara. It’s so enlightening to see the view from an ivory tower in Uganda. I have to say, their president does a mean press-up – particularly considering that he is no spring chicken. But Bobi Wine’s song is rather more focused on the real predicament of the real people than is the president’s jog around his red-carpeted, untastefully furnished office.


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