Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA
On Monday, a colleague who was writing an article on the top “man-made” brands in Africa – either companies or products that are famous, or natural features that clever marketing has brought to global attention – asked me to “be honest” and give him one or two Ugandan ones that truly belonged in the top 10 in Africa.
I was tempted to say “mountain gorillas” but then I realised that Rwanda has colonised them. Partly because of things like the gorilla naming ceremony where world figures like Bill Gates and Hollywood actors have “baptised” baby gorillas, plus the big hype they make about them, the average tourist in the world today thinks that the only place you can see mountain gorillas is in Rwanda.
They also know that mountain gorillas exist in DR Congo, but that the Congolese are killing them for their parts and even eating them.
Uganda? Well, we don’t kill the mountain gorillas. But neither do we do any aggressive self-promotion around them. For example, at the 2014 gorilla naming ceremony, there were dozens of unruly Chinese travel photographers and journalists who had been invited for the event. They went delirious when the “fake” mountain gorillas (humans in gorilla costumes) did their parade.
China is the fastest growing source of tourists for the world. The Rwandans are looking for a slice of the Chinese crowd, so what better way to do it than to pamper a bunch of their travel journalists and photographers?
A few years ago, white water rafting at Bujaggali on River Nile was getting a lot of world attention…then we built the dam over it.
In short, we are not doing well. Kenya and Ethiopia have world famous airlines. The Maasai would have been obscure, then they invented their colourful blankets and perfected that high jump dance of theirs.
Today, one out of four times when an international company (cars, mobile phones) do an Africa advert, there is (annoying to some who think its stereotypical) the tall Maasai in his blanket clutching a phone. Kenya here has done to Tanzania what the Rwandans have done to us with the mountain gorillas – many people don’t know that there are nearly as many Maasai in Tanzania with the same culture as in Kenya.
We had the Kasubi Tombs, then burnt them down one dark night. We are the land of the Christian Martyrs but these days only a few diehard Catholics in the world know that.
So what went wrong? There are two ways brands have been built in Africa – through the actions of determined governments as in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Egypt (with the pyramids), or robust private sectors as in Kenya, and South Africa.
Uganda? We have a strong, but ineffective government that can no longer innovate. We have a lively entrepreneurial spirit, but a weakling private sector that still parasites on the State.
If Uganda were a creature, it would be a hermaphrodite – both male and female, but neither wholly male nor female. So we are a hermaphrodite nation that lives in a kind of limbo in which nothing of a national scale is pursued doggedly for years to the end, either by the government or the private sector.
Take Kenya. Ever since the 1968 Mexico Olympics in which Kipchego Keino tore up the form book in the 1500m and heralded the country’s arrival in world long distance running, largely through private money, Kenya’s Rift Valley is dotted with top athletics training camps where many world elite long distance runners come to hone their craft.
Rwanda took advantage of its hills, a few quirk events after the genocide, and is on course to be Africa’s second biggest cycling training and competition scene after South Africa.
You don’t see that happening in Uganda, perhaps because we are too conflicted and easily distracted. For example, over the last two years we have been too consumed by succession politics – first, it was the “Muhoozi project”. That died down and you couldn’t turn anywhere in Uganda without being hit in the face by the tribulations of Amama Mbabazi. Then now we have the General David Sejusa saga.
Also, a belief has taken root among some (not without justification) that Museveni’s rule is toxic and no longer stable enough for business. So some people are actually waiting for a post-Museveni era.
Problem is that it has also become an easy excuse for some to explain their failures, and is breeding an escapist do-nothing mentality in parts of the country.
I think that while countries like Rwanda and Mauritius have taken advantage of their small size, Uganda has been hurt by it. We would have been a more successful and richer country if we were the size of Tanzania, with Kampala being too far away for its noise to intrude in the daily lives of most people.