Power struggles

February 20, 2006

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – OK, who turned Uganda’s lights out? More important, when do they come back on?

On the first question, blame the dry weather and short-sighted politicians. For the second, folks here need to check their savings.

In any case, thanks to a power crisis that dwarfs Ontario’s 2003 blackout, millions of Ugandans are now aboard a rather uncertain ride through the dark. And one can’t help but wonder if their country is not about to come to a grinding halt.

Not that this piece of Africa is a fully serviced kind of place. Mobile phones, interestingly, abound. But lanterns and candles are still commonly used by rural residents, over three-quarters of Uganda’s 22 million inhabitants.

Kampala, though, is different. It isn’t Space Shuttle Central, but this capital region of about two million people has industries, businesses and homes as reliant on hydro as anywhere you are.

Sugar plants are one. And there are schools and offices and supermarkets, not to mention my house, now facing a new load-shedding schedule that cuts power up to 12 hours a day.

Using a couple of truck batteries, my home has backup to run low-voltage lights and small essentials like computers. In fact, I’m on backup as I write. But don’t open the fridge. Please. Not until we get a generator.

Most Ugandans, and small and medium-sized businesses, can’t afford that $500, minimum cost, or gasoline, pricier here than in Canada.

One hard up contractor lamented to me about his inability to weld trusses: “What would take me one month will now take me six.”

It will have a devastating ripple effect. Manufacturing stops, businesses close and the jobless will likely return in an exodus to their home villages. The fortunate, like my family, will undoubtedly pay more for what goods and services remain available. (We already pay more for groceries than in a typical Hamilton supermarket, where, of course, the refrigerated milk isn’t sour.)

One might imagine this is the big issue of the current election campaign. Wrong. Front pages are using more ink on the soap opera of alleged rape and other “secrets” of President Yoweri Museveni and his main competitor.

In a recent two-page newspaper commentary, Museveni, who’s particularly popular among uneducated rural voters, gave a single paragraph to the power crisis to blame — naturally — the opposition.

Otherwise, the government assures it won’t be long — about 2010 — before hydro from new thermal sources is available.

One culprit is regional drought. Power-generating Lake Victoria — the world’s second-largest freshwater lake — supports the livelihoods of 30 million Ugandans, Kenyans and Tanzanians, and has dropped to its lowest level in 80 years. Unchecked deforestation, which slows the rain cycle, has contributed to that.

Typical bureaucratic mismanagement and carelessness have worsened it all. Uganda’s politicians have known for years that they need new options, especially since decaying power lines rule out importing hydro. They simply blame everyone else, including international planners.

I doubt that average Ugandans in my neck of the woods really care whose fault it is. They just want to be able to find their socks again. And have a job to wear them to.

And by the way African election campaigns are never ladylike affairs.

But campaigning for Uganda’s Feb. 23 vote went beyond routine ugliness when the home of government MP Jessica Eriyo was burned down for her alleged hand in the death of her rival Clara Vuni.

Eriyo had earlier defeated Vuni in a party primary.

Vuni, 27, who died in a car crash, was reportedly speeding to police to file a complaint about Eriyo, who was in hot pursuit during the deadly crash. Later, angry relatives and friends nabbed Vuni’s body from hospital, placed it in front of Eriyo’s house, and torched the place.

On the same day, President Museveni’s motorcade was hit with gunfire from an unknown source. The president, safe, continued campaigning. “We still have our old devil of a gun,” he said at a rally afterwards. “There’s no need for you to scare away development from your area. I’m a cattle keeper like you.

“You can’t scare away a cow when you want to milk it.”

And you thought Ottawa was a tough place.

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February 20, 2006 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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