North to Gulu: The Mystery Deepens

This is the second in my series about my trip to Uganda. As in my first post in The Case of the Missing Development, I had many questions to answer about factors that were contributing to a lack of development. Many of my answers would come during my journey to Gulu. (if you haven’t read that post, go there first for context).

First, for any first time travelers to Gulu, if you don’t have your own vehicle or private transportation, your best bet is to take the postal bus north from Kampala. The postal bus is well maintained and safety is considered. If you have trouble mixing with the local people or if you are shy, you may find this your best bet since more ex-patriots travel on the postal bus. As for me, I enjoyed the trip north, but quickly learned to love being with the Ugandan friends and after my first trip on the postal bus, I began venturing out to the other bus lines on which I generally found myself alone as the only foreigner. It was great.

The Ugandan people are extremely friendly. One smile, a friendly hello and I always found myself in deep conversations. It was on the way up to Gulu for the first time that I met Joyce, a woman who worked for the church in Gulu and who later introduced me to Patrick, a young man who had extra room in his (rented) house and with whom I found not only a place to stay, but who became like a younger brother to me. Patrick, I later learned was one of the many children who was abducted by the LRA and ended up spending 8 years serving, first as a soldier at the age of 13 and then after being shot in the leg, he served in the LRA medical camp. I still keep in touch with him on skype and facebook. This was an opportunity to learn first hand about the war and about child soldiers.

Topics for today? First, reconciliation after the war, second, some of my thoughts on the economy and corruption… Read More

Was there still animosity between factions and what did people really feel about the Kony 2012 video in Gulu?

Patrick dispelled many myths for me. A popular belief is that most child soldiers grow up to be messed up in their head. Certainly Patrick was anything but messed up. Here was a young man of exceptional qualities, extremely happy, fun loving and capable. Undoubtedly many suffer from PTSD, just as our own soldiers do. But Patrick shared with me that many of the young men and women who served in the LRA came back from the bush quite sane and very capable. After all, they had survived hell and made it back in spite of very difficult circumstances. This was confirmed in the book by Romeo Dallaire, “They fight like soldiers, they die like children”. Many of these children have skills and courage far beyond their years. Patrick mentioned that what most of them required upon returning from the bush was some re-orientation towards society and learning how to solve problems through social systems. They also needed jobs and education for themselves and their children. Most had missed out on parts of their education after being abducted and their own children, born in the bush, had no opportunity for schooling.

Patrick, as it turns out, was the Executive Director for Third Hope Uganda, an organization dedicated to helping young women who had returned home from the bush with their children. Most of the young women had children either from other soldiers and some from Joseph Kony or other commanders. Most had been raped at a very young age and many were rejected by their families after having been part of the LRA. When he, and others, described their experiences, it was clear that they resented some of the things they were forced to do, but they had largely moved on and in fact saw many of the people they had previously fought along side as family.  And I asked others who had lost friends and relatives in the war about their feelings. Most of the people said, “they were our children so you have to forgive”.  In fact, the attitude was more one of love, forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere, among the populous but also in the political realm. Most saw it as a war between two sides, not so much as rebels against the government. Most were lobbying the government for an extension to the amnesty which had expired. They wanted to be able to bring their children home without charges being laid. Good news, the amnesty has been extended and their are continuing campaigns to encourage the soldiers of the LRA to desert their post and come home.

Was their a crime here? Absolutely but who committed it is another question. One bishop told me that at first, even the religious leaders in the north were supporting the rebellion. Why? because the government that had come to power through force and allegedly was killing former combatants in a preemptive move to quell future rebellions. It didn’t work and rather lead to 20 years more conflict. Both sides committed atrocities and even the President admitted this, although the extent of government atrocities, according to one person I talked to, were much more extreme than most documentation identified.  After having completed my MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding, a program which looked deeply at the causes and impacts of conflict, the only thing that can be safely said (in my opinion)  is that when a war occurs, both sides are wrong and that peaceful dialogue is the only correct solution. Sadly, most people in power don’t see it this way.

So back to another question:

Is the lack of development primarily due to corruption in Government or is it more due to the 20 year war in the north?

First let it be said that although there is now a relatively stable situation in Uganda, many will argue that there is not a free democracy as we believe we have in North America. But let me raise just a few side topics on that issue. It is true that in Canada we have the ability to express ourselves in public provided we do so peacefully, a right that is not always available for individuals in Uganda. Ironically, our parliamentary representatives do not have that same right in parliament because if they say something out of alignment with the decision of their party leader, they are punished within the party. While I am very thankful for having been born and raise in Canada, I’m personally not very impressed by our own system of democracy. So my hope is that we eventually learn from mistakes, elect representatives who band together courageously agree to change aspects of government which are not working. For example, create a scenario where all votes in parliament are free votes, where all representatives can vote according to their own conscience after open and free discussion in parliament. I hope that our system of democracy removes the right of corporations to contribute to political campaigns and eliminates lobbyists.  Democracy is about social education and the good of all, including those who live in other countries. My hope is that we learn the lessons by observing other systems of government and taking from them what works and eliminating what doesn’t work. Government should act as a balance against capitalism and excessive power of corporations, not cater to them for financial gain. The polarization and opposition imposed by partisan politics leaves government impotent.  So while it is fair to say that Uganda’s democracy has some problems, we in Canada must also focus on fixing our own democratic systems first before offering our expertise to other countries. Surprisingly when you look at the actual system of democracy in Uganda, the laws, policies and structures, they are actually quite well developed. The problem lies with certain individuals in government and a lack of enforcement of laws. While police are there to serve, they are reportedly underpaid, under-trained and under-educated. Far too often, they spend their time striving to make a reasonable living by collecting small bribes rather than focusing on the imposition of justice.

Secondly, I have no doubt that the war made a very deep impact on the economy. Now that there is relative peace, the economy of Uganda is growing at about 6% per year (in spite of corruption) so if you consider a 20 year span of conflict where a potential exponential growth of 6% per year was either limited or reversed and prior to that, the period of Idi Amin during which Asian residents most of whom were investors, business owners and employers, were tossed out, undoubtedly that had a very negative impact on the economy. Corruption, according to some estimates, impacts a country’s GDP by about 2%, still leaving plenty of potential for growth.  In some other ways, foreign aid is responsible for growth and lack of growth. The challenge with foreign aid is that it tends to show up in droves when there are wars, but dissipates quickly after the war is done. Unfortunately, this results in a situation where governments, or at least certain corrupt individuals within the governments benefit from the war. As the money arrives, there are ample opportunities for rent seeking and misappropriation of funds.

What does corruption look like? I talked to a district deputy CAO, who shared with me how the politician gives small bribes to people in need, small bags of sugar or salt, which the people are very grateful for. They don’t see it as a bribe so much as it is a gift from someone who is helping them. They vote for that individual, that individual having made the investment to get votes, also expects something in return. As a result, they encourage the CAO and hence the deputy to move some of the allocated funds around, they benefit financially as well and everyone keeps quiet. Unfortunately much of the money never makes it to the intended recipients.  But when he explained why, he told me that he wants for himself a house, a car, an education for his children, all things that a person in a similar role in Canada or the US would believe to be a right. The other challenge is that the people who actually do the on-the-ground work of moving money from one account to another are doing so under orders. If they don’t, they lose their job. If they do, there is no trace back to the person who ordered it and they become scapegoats. My comment to him was that in all probability I would go hungry in his country because I would likely not be able to sacrifice my own ethics to play that political game. But to be fair, it is hard to judge another person when we come from such a different circumstance.

At the top of Government the corruption is more significant. Stories abound how individuals at the top steal money from the system. Undoubtedly, problems exist when corruption is overlooked. But the solution, most likely,  is to recognize the government as developing (as we are all developing), to strengthen the independence of the justice system and to  to impose justice in those cases where it needs to be imposed. Ironically, anti-corruption campaigns are likely not the answer. Consider this: if I am a child growing up in Uganda and hearing on a constant basis that Uganda is corrupt, what is my constant focus? What do I learn about my country? Then I see all the politicians in nice suits, with nice houses and cars, what do I learn about my country and corruption? I learn that if I want to do well, I had better learn how to be corrupt.  Alternatively, I learn rebellion, which has the potential to destabilize and cause huge negative impacts.  On the other hand, what if I never heard about corruption, rather than I learned about the honesty within my family, honesty and kindness of most of my neighbors, that being truthful was a foundation of virtue, that I should be proud of the progress my country is making.  What would be my assumption? My assumption would be that truthfulness and honesty lead to progress and I would more likely associate that with success. Consider a good company looking to invest. Are they more likely to invest in a corrupt nation or a stable nation? Consider a corrupt corporation? Are they likely to invest in a country where they have to obey laws or one where corruption is talked about all the time and expected? Studies suggest that pride in one’s country, is correlated with a low level of corruption. Whether this is causal is another question, but I think it is fair to say that over a long period of time, when people feel proud of themselves and their nation, they are more likely to have, share and learn good ethics. So perhaps, governments should do more to work closely with their civil society organizations to market the good qualities of the country, both internally and externally, and how wonderful their people are. Clearly, it won’t change their situation over night, but in a generation, it might make a difference.

A few other points on the economy and growth. If the stagnation in growth was primarily caused by the war, how do you prevent war? This, of course, is a huge topic but one of the issues also mentioned in Dallaire’s book is that, child soldiers are seen as inexpensive military systems. He suggests that the proliferation of cheap, light weapons is the primary reason why rebel groups are able to utilize children as soldiers. But how to prevent this proliferation is another issue. If we look at this issue from a social justice perspective, wouldn’t it be fair to impose taxes on the sale of all weapons equivalent to the inevitable damage that they cause? Yes, I’m a dreamer. But just as their are taxes for smoking which help to offset health impacts, in some countries carbon taxes that help to offset the costs of climate mitigation, congestion taxes on cars that operate in city centres, shouldn’t their be higher taxes on the production of weapons that go directly to those who are injured by those weapons?

Another point on economy is that many Ugandan friends indicated that the educational system was educating people for jobs that don’t exist, and it is true. I know many educated youth who have degrees but who are unable to find work. In fact unemployment among youth in some places is up to 83%. This is obviously a huge problem for the economy because there are so many people who are not contributing to the tax pool which could be used for improving education and health care and so many other aspects of society.  So why not have more schools which teach entrepreneurial skills and business development?  The answer to this is not obvious but suffice it to say, I suggested an idea on how to resolve the issue and most of the local people thought it was a good idea.

Regarding taxation, studies have suggested that proper taxation of multinationals alone could contribute more than all the foreign aid combined. But corruption and tax evasion contribute to enormous losses in tax revenue. My hope is that the current investigations by the G8 finance leaders will lead to a more fair tax system globally. Again, I may be dreaming but, if designed correctly, this could help to benefit the poorer nations substantially. Multinationals also contribute to problems by extracting resources without giving back a suitable compensation to the country.  Far too often, they also pay local employees very low salaries and never train them in the skills necessary to run their own industries, preferring rather to bring in their own leadership. Now, to be fair, I was not exposed very much to this, only that when I was at Murchison falls, a game reserve which may have been set up to keep people away from the countries oil reserves, I ran into a conference of oil drilling companies. Suffice it to say, there were very few locals involved in the meetings.

And a few last points on the economy. When I was in Gulu, I became aware of the huge birth rate, about 6.9 children per mother on average. Children were everywhere and the population very young. I looked at the huge growth rate as being a problem for the country but most saw it as part of the culture and desired. When I mentioned this to an aboriginal friend, he described population growth as a symptom that rather being the root of the problem. His explanation was that when you want to get a better yield of walnuts from a tree, you stress the tree by beating it, making the tree feel that its existence is threatened. It’s natural response is to create a greater yield in order to assure the survival of the species. The sad reality is that the rapid increase in population also results in the relative degradation of infrastructure and services because increase in taxation cannot keep up with an increase in demand. Having said that, encouraging their population to adopt the same lifestyle as ours would be a mistake since our own lifestyle is not sustainable either. So, what’s the solution? The fact is that I don’t know. What I do know is that the families with higher education and salaries, have fewer children and pay higher taxes. While change undoubtedly needs to happen, let us hope that it is according to their needs and capacities and not our concepts.

Wow, after all that, I’ve barely touched on my experience in Gulu.

Let’s leave the rest of the questions about The case of the Missing Development for the next article.

Here are some of the remaining questions:,

1) What impact does Malaria and other disease have on the national and local economy and the people (or is it HIV that is doing more damage)?

2) What, if anything, is different about the education systems (both private and public) that make it possibly less successful than other educational systems and why did some people believe that UPE ruined the public education system?

3) How far had the North come in its recovery from the war which ended 6 years earlier?

4) What opportunities did all of this learning present that might improve the current situation?

So much more to learn, so many more question yet to arise and so little time. Wait for the next chapter Where has all the money gone? Long time passing.


Til then keep well,




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