Joseph Kabuleta

Museveni’s recent impromptu State of The Nation address reminded me of a scene, one of the most poignant no doubt, from the 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic.

A sweet little girl with her mother standing behind a chain barrier as the rising waters simmered beneath them. “Mum, when shall we board the boats?”
“Don’t worry darling, as soon as the First Class folks have boarded, they will get to us.”

As the president dragged on with his three-hour monologue, seeming to get bored by his own words at some stage, I had my flashbacks to the days when people believed that stuff, to the days when his jokes were actually funny and when radio stations didn’t have to be threatened with repercussions if they didn’t abandon all programming to carry his speech.

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One address stood out in my mind because it left such an impression on my (then) youthful mind. The year was 1996. He was fresh from an election victory riding on the “no change” slogan —- perhaps the only election he won fair and square, definitely the only one that was not followed by the now routine court petition.

In that speech, the president related how he took over a nation that could not finance even a half of its annual budget. “Now 70 per cent of the budget is financed through our tax collections and that percentage is growing every year.”

The target, of course, was to get to 100 per cent and even have a surplus.
“Then we shall go to the Paris Club as donors and not beggars,” he said with a chuckle. Perhaps it was meant as a joke but I took it seriously. He went on to give the customary statistics which showed how fast the economy was growing in every sector.

It’s true what Napoleon Bonaparte said, that a leader is a dealer in hope. At the time, I was unemployed and barely surviving in this city. But the president’s speech gave me hope. With all growth indicators soaring through the roof, surely it was just a matter of time before that wealth trickled down and located me.

I patiently waited for the ‘First Class folks’ to have their fill and hoped that the system would be magnanimous enough to throw me some crumbs, but it never did. Fast Forward to now. The 2018/19 budget totals 29 trillion, of which only 14.2 trillion (49 per cent) is from domestic revenue. The rest is borrowed. We seem to be heading the wrong direction.

It looks like the appetite of the ‘First Class folks’ is growing at a faster rate than their domestic revenue. So Uganda still goes to the Paris Club as a beggar, only a much bigger beggar. But now we also have the Beijing Club, which will happily indulge our insatiable appetite with few questions asked.

Thankfully, I am no longer one of those waiting for crumbs. I came to the realization that those who do not fight their way to the top deck will drown at the bottom like that single mother and her daughter on the Titanic.

While the ‘First Class folks’ are busy traversing the globe looking for more debt to satiate their voracious bellies, the great unwashed on the lower decks are fed on a staple diet of hope and statistics. That’s what the recent State of The Nation address was all about; feeding the masses their annual meal of impressive graphs and figures. That should keep them placated for at least another year.

But such a system can only last so long. Eventually the ship will sink, and so many ‘First Class folks’ will suffer the same fate as the rest, like it was with the Titanic.

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