Friday, November 6, 2009

That's how the life gets in

Almost 30 years ago, over lunch to a group of fellow students, my confession that I liked Leonard Cohen was met with derision. "Oh God, he's so depressing" shrieked the post-punk throng. I was silenced, lacking the confidence to argue with the popular perception. But Cohen's insights and poetry still enthrall me, whether in the magnificent rendition of Lorca's Little Viennese waltz, or the haunting Hallelujah, or in one of my favourites, Anthem, with the following refrain:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

I have just completed an extended journey to the UK, where I attended a Private Equity conference focusing on emerging market opportunities, and to Canada for a long weekend with my two sons. Normally, this would be a bad time of year to visit, but I was lucky enough that my stay coincided with clear, warm and still autumn days. The clear weather provided me with what is probably the best view I have ever had of Essex and London on the incoming flight, looking out at a landscape shaped by humanity and its inventions. Orderly, neat, organised - even the small pockets of woodland apparently planted. The contrast between this landscape and Uganda's - indeed, most of Africa's - is considerable. Red earth, green vegetation, trees apparently scattered randomly across a landscape which bears little evidence of human activity. An occasional village, a marram road, and little more.

One of the blogs that I follow, Hollis ramblings, contained a reproduction of a piece entitled How Not To Write About Africa - in which all the cliches and stereotypes of non-Africans writing about Africa are listed with brutal accuracy. These include talking about wide and empty landscapes, huge skies, sunsets and wilderness, and so on. But the fact is that humans are yet to shape the African landscape to anything like the same extent that we see in other parts of the world. This is partly a function of a lack of large-scale mechanised agriculture, but also due to the disruptive force of nature. The absence of winters, the strong sun and heavy rain create an environment where human works breakdown far more quickly than in a colder climate - and where micro-organisms and vegetative growth flourish. The beauty of the African landscape is created by the powerlessness of man to dominate and control nature.

To paraphrase Cohen, there is indeed a crack in everything. It's where the life gets in.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A liberal's dilemma

Kampala traffic is often bad. Like most cities everywhere, the hours between 7 am and 9 am, and 5 pm to 7 pm, are to be avoided if at all possible. The worst habit, beloved by minibus ("Taxi") drivers, is to drive down the wrong side of the road past an impatient line of vehicles and cut in. This infuriatingly inconsiderate behaviour (which is by no means exclusive to taxis) often results in blocking the road for oncoming traffic. Another unwelcome trend on the increase are VIP convoys, preceded by a siren-blaring police escort, which breeze down the wrong side of the road, usually with at least two or three opportunists in tow behind, compelling drivers to take rapid evasive action. The net effect of aggressive and poorly-supervised driving is that it is by no means unusual for my 11 km journey to work to take an hour or more.

Horrible though this is, it does afford me the opportunity to listen to the car radio. I have become quite attached to a Radio 1 daily morning show entitled Talkback, in which a relevant and topical issue is the subject of a phone-in debate. Recently, however, the subject matter has been profoundly depressing. Over the past two weeks, the issues discussed have exclusively centred around public sector corruption in Uganda. For example:

How can head teachers be prevented from absconding with students' examination fees? (Many children have been prevented from sitting primary examinations for at least one year and cannot therefore enter secondary school)

What should be done about officers of the National Agricultural Advisory Development Service (NAADS) who are unable to account for funds provided to them? (Vast amounts of money have apparently disappeared from regional agricultural extension offices instead of providing much-needed resources to peasant farmers)

How can the Government recover money mis-spent during the 2007 CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting) event in Kampala? (The Auditor-General has reported that many large advance payments by Government for the completion of new hotel construction before the CHOGM conference have not yet been recovered from hotel proprietors)

Will the new National Social Security Fund (NSSF) board be able to curb corruption? (The previous NSSF chief executive resigned over a scandal involving alleged political interference in the purchase of high value land)

And, most spectacular of all, the question of what exactly the Executive Director of Uganda's National Forestry Authority was doing with 900m Ugandan Shillings (getting on for US$500,000) in cash, in his house, under his mattress, before it was reportedly "stolen" by his wife. This story, which defies belief, is covered in more depth at and on other Ugandan media websites.

Generally, callers express a touching faith in the rule of law and the ability (and political will) of law enforcement agencies to prosecute offenders. The fact is, however, that cases are few and far between, and seldom result in successful prosecutions.

It was therefore interesting to hear the Talkback host last week advocating what he descibed as "the Chinese solution - shock therapy for offenders" - on the grounds that corruption had become so deeply entrenched in the public sector that public floggings and even executions were now absolutely necessary in order to change the prevailing culture. Rampant corruption is hideous: it distorts markets, steals from the people, stifles enterprise, creates a "something for nothing" culture, creates anger and discontent, especially among the youth.... the list goes on. Most liberals would recoil at such a suggestion : yet what is appropriate where the social consequences are so substantial and so damaging?

Almost at the same time, a bill has already been drafted for consideration by the Ugandan parliament that substantially increases the current penalties for homosexuality. According to a 2-page spread in last week's East African newspaper by a consortium of human rights NGOs, this bill, among other things, will introduce lengthy prison terms for doing anything that could be seen as condoning homosexuality - while in certain cases authorising the death penalty for practicing homosexuals.

Absurd, isn't it? Corruption proceeds unchecked while parliament debates homosexuality.

the bay leaf in Arusha

Last week in Arusha, I had the great pleasure of staying in the Bayleaf hotel. I can unreservedly recommend it to anyone visiting this neat and tidy city in Northern Tanzania. Beautifully designed and decorated, excellent food and service - a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It was also good to see that the short rains have finally arrived, albeit sporadically. There is a strong expectation that rains in Kenya and Northern Tanzania will be heavy due to the El Nino effect, but apart from some localised flooding along the Kenyan coast, these are yet to materialise. After two years of low rainfall, Kenya in particular is facing a food production crisis which is likely to continue into 2010, regardless of rainfall, due to a substantial expected shortage in the availability of quality seed.