Exploring Citizenship; learning from Ugandan perspectives

Behind the headlines

Think of Uganda and you probably conjure up images of Idi Amin, and memories, or at least knowledge of, the atrocities committed under his dictatorship in 1970s Uganda. More recently you may be familiar with stories of child abduction and sporadic violence associated with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] in northern Uganda. As someone who has lived and worked in Uganda and followed the trials and tribulations of this East African country for many years, this narrow portrayal of the country is troubling. There is another Uganda; a Uganda beyond the headlines of the international media; a Uganda that I have come to know, to respect and to admire.

Data Profile: 2002

Population = 25,004,000

Population <18 years = 57% [highest in the world]

Life expectancy at birth = 46

Under 5 mortality rate = 14% [world rank 29th highest]

GNI per capita = US$250 [world rank 188]

Population below national poverty line = 55%

Source: World Bank and UN Agencies

Uganda: a snapshot

Almost two decades of political and social upheaval have left Uganda with a legacy as one of the poorest countries in the world.

Uganda provides a fascinating opportunity to investigate and learn about various aspects of development, and has been heralded by many as a role model for Africa - a ‘star performer’ in the words of the World Bank. A basic survey of the country suggests this accolade is well deserved. Uganda has sustained economic growth, it is the only country in Africa to have reduced the incidence of new cases of HIV/AIDS, and it has introduced a universal primary education programme [UPE] that doubled school enrolments almost overnight. It was also one of the first countries to qualify for World Bank debt write-off schemes in recognition of its progress in human development and good government.

Building new citizenship?

It is Uganda’s experiences of building new citizenship that are, to me at least, the most interesting aspect of its recent development history. When the present government came to power in 1986 they inherited a country torn apart by a civil war that had affected almost the whole population and an entire generation of Ugandans;

"Political and economic problems were compounded by social decay and moral degeneration. Decency, honesty and integrity were replaced by deceit, corruption, double-dealing and unreliability. Moral and educational standards progressively declined." Mugaju, J. [Ed.] 1999. Uganda’s Age of Reforms: A Critical Review, Kampala: Fountain Publishers.

Despite this challenging social environment the new Ugandan government, under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni, immediately embarked on an ambitious approach to governance that placed people and their citizenship at its core. They called this a ‘Movement’ and advocated it as a new form of democracy ‘indigenous to Africa’, that aimed to reconnect people with politics and build trust between citizens and the state. In its own documentation the Movement describes itself as:

"a political system [that] brings people of different shades of opinion and identities to work together in order to develop their country. The Movement is broad based, inclusive, non-partisan, non-sectarian, and committed to the principle of participatory democracy"

The focal point of Uganda’s Movement system has been its decentralisation policy. This is a policy and economic framework for governance that seeks to connect all levels of society, from the President’s office to the village resident. It comprises a number of levels or councils [see diagram below], each of which feeds into the next.

The village, or in urban areas town councils, form the basis of decentralisation and are made up of nine locally elected members [including a women’s representative and a youth representative]. Selected members of each LC 1, as the village council is known, then make up part of the next tier of government, LC 2, and so on up the chain. The principle behind the systems is that ideas, information and revenue flow in both directions through the LC system, ensuring local participation, which is considered by the government to be a tool of empowerment and an instrument of poverty eradication.

In many ways the decentralisation process in Uganda echoes a process that is occurring [at least in theory] in democracies throughout the world - the devolution of power away from central government and closer to the people. But are such forms of participatory democracy really what building new citizenship is all about?

"Decentralisation was fraught with problems from the start. The policy was decided by senior government officials and donors without wider consultation and is perceived as imposed from above. Local council leaders were given responsibility but neither the financial means nor the training in financial management and administration to handle it. Embezzlement and misappropriation of funds is common in some districts."  J. B. Kwesiga, Zie Gariyo, Social Watch Country Reports, Uganda 1999.

‘A year in the bush’

In 1998/99, whilst at the University of Brighton, an opportunity arose for me to conduct some research in Uganda. I had several agendas, but foremost amongst them was to investigate elements of citizenship as they applied to young people in Uganda. In particular I was interested in young people’s participation in the decisions that affected them. I spent a year living in a village along the shores of Lake Victoria - ‘a year in the bush’ as my visitors called it. This allowed me to develop relationships with the young people living there and to begin to understand their issues and ways of working.

The outcomes of this year are too many to mention here, but I did leave with a clear understanding that young people in Uganda considered the process of building new citizenship to be central to the future of their country. At the same time they were acutely aware of the barriers facing them and the legacy of their country’s troubled past. They were also critical of the acclaim landed on Uganda’s political reforms and the LC system in particular. They raised numerous issues, such as the problems of ethnic, religious, gender and generational tensions, all of which are worthy of further in-depth investigation.

I left Uganda with more lines of enquiry than when I arrived.

Sharing experiences

Many of the questions I left Uganda with have revisited me over the past two years as I have become involved with the Tide~ initiative ‘Building New Citizenship’. I have found myself thinking of experiences in Uganda and how similar many of the issues are for us in the West Midlands. I suggested to Tide~ that it might be worth sharing these ideas to see if there was merit to be had in learning from Ugandan perspectives.

I was invited to present a seminar and later a workshop at a Tide~ conference. These presented an opportunity to introduce experiences from Uganda to teachers and to discuss ideas as to how those experiences might inform plans for future work. The two sessions proved very successful and created considerable enthusiasm and debate. It became apparent that there was a real interest in exploring issues in more depth and that this process would be useful for our own understanding and teaching.

Enthused and motivated by the feedback from the Uganda sessions a new project called ‘Learning from Ugandan perspectives’ was developed and launched in Autumn 2003. This was conceived as an investigatory project to explore what we might learn from experiences of citizenship and development in Uganda. A group of teachers was formed and visited Uganda in April 2004.

Their specific objectives on behalf of Tide~ were:

  • to investigate a variety of Ugandan experiences and perspectives;
  • to reflect upon what we learn from these experiences in relation to our own thinking about ‘citizenship’ and ‘development’;
  • to develop a number of activities to enable students to explore Ugandan experiences as a stimulus to learning about ideas such as ‘citizenship’, ‘development’ and ‘participation’.

A key objective of this study visit project is to share experiences and thinking from the group with others from across the West Midlands.

Time to return

As I prepare to travel to Uganda again for the first time in over 4 years I find myself eager to engage again with its people and their experiences. In many ways their lives are worlds apart from my life in Stafford, but the more I immerse myself in the emerging debates around citizenship education the more I realise how similar they are too. It is these varied and yet shared agendas that make ‘citizenship’ and ‘development’ such interesting and important areas of the curriculum. They also make it an extremely challenging area in which to work, as there are no clear cut answers. ‘Learning from Ugandan perspectives’ will embrace these issues and in doing so will make a contribution towards the challenge that faces us all in Building New Citizenship.