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The gateway to African economic revival in a place once famous only for a hijacking

The gateway to African economic revival in a place once famous only for a hijacking

18 October 2006

4:58 PM

18 October 2006

4:58 PM

‘We men don’t want to wear condoms, we want the West to find a cure.’ This dilemma, faced by HIV counsellors at the Mildmay Centre near Entebbe, mirrors that experienced by those hoping to help Uganda financially. Mukasa, a handler at the chimpanzee sanctuary on Ngamba Island, 45 minutes from Entebbe by speedboat, gives me the analogy: the chimps there are hand-reared orphans. Five times a day food for them is tossed over the fence. A Pavlovian response has developed: they come whooping through the undergrowth at set times — and can never be released into the wild, as they would not survive. They are literally sustained by handouts.

The other problem with handouts is that ‘the Big Men eat all the money’, a reference to high-level corruption heard all over Uganda — earlier this year Britain redirected £15 million of aid away from President Yoweri Museveni’s government and into the humanitarian agencies. And sometimes it’s not just the Big Men eating all the money; the pilot of the light aircraft flying me out of Entebbe to trek for gorillas tells me of a colleague who used to transport payroll cash for workers on the tea plantations. One day, on landing at the airstrip, he was surrounded by heavily armed bandits who forced him to hand over the money. Today the same pilot flies low and drops sacks of money out of the window; he is the proud owner of a certificate, hanging in the private airline’s clubhouse, for ‘retaining sphincter muscle control in the face of automatic gunfire and grenades’.

To most British people over the age of 40, Entebbe is synonymous with hijacking. In July 1976 Israel conducted a daring raid to rescue hostages from an Air France plane which had been hijacked by Palestinians and forced to land at Entebbe. The episode marked the beginning of the end for Idi Amin, who supported the hijackers, and his ruthless regime. As such, ‘Entebbe’ is still a defining moment for many Ugandans today.

Thirty years on, the old airport is home to the UN, which uses it as the logistical base for peacekeeping operations in the Congo, Sudan and Burundi. Across the road is the new airport. With its cluster of duty-free shops well stocked with international liquor and perfume brands, it is the gateway to the industry that

is being groomed to play a major part in

landlocked Uganda’s economic renaissance: tourism. The past year has seen an 18 per cent increase in international passenger numbers through Entebbe compared with roughly

5 per cent growth for the rest of Africa,

with revenues of $22.5 million. President Museveni’s vision is to turn Entebbe into a logistical centre for Africa’s cargo traffic; there is talk of increasing the retail and recreational areas to bring it closer to the standards of modern international airports.

With increased air traffic comes a need

for additional accommodation. Hotels are springing up all along the tarmac road from Entebbe to the capital, Kampala. Part of this construction boom is linked to Uganda’s role as host of the 2007 Commonwealth heads of government meeting, for which the government estimates it needs an additional 3,000 hotel rooms. Some Ugandans remain to be convinced. So adept has Museveni’s government become at selling off land to foreign investors and developers (who can form 100 per cent foreign-owned companies, or joint ventures with local investors with no restrictions) that ordinary people have taken to putting hand-painted signs on their one-storey brick homes saying: This Plot Is Not For Sale.

Uganda’s economic revival depends above all on one thing: security. Along its Western border, Uganda has suffered from a continuing power vacuum in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while its north-eastern region has been terrorised for two decades by the Lord’s Resistance Army, infamous for its use of children as fighters and sex slaves. This civil war has resulted in a humanitarian crisis thought to have displaced 1.8 million people; the LRA’s territory is now a wasteland — its once-thriving agricultural base destroyed. A recent truce is proving fragile.

Newly discovered oil deposits near Lake Albert to the east of the country (30 million recoverable barrels, apparently) need to be protected, as does the workforce. And in the major tourist attraction of gorilla trekking, every group of tourists is accompanied by Ugandan army soldiers, AK-47s slung over their shoulders — a practice put into place following the killing in 1999 of eight tourists, including four Britons.

Many ordinary Ugandans are finding out for themselves that increased tourism brings benefits. People who previously eked out a living on the banana plantations are establishing new communities around the national parks, home to the endangered mountain gorillas. In Bwindi, fledgling entrepreneurs offer a nice line in freshly baked cakes and wooden gorillas: the splash of white on the back to denote the rare Silverback males is done with Tippex. The strongest men in the village act as porters to trekking tourists; mine earned £40 for a day’s work, a month’s wages for a farm labourer. But he earned it, carrying me piggy-back for four hours in humid temperatures after I’d injured myself, up near-vertical inclines, hacking at the jungle as he went — the park is not called the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for nothing.

Despite rumours at home and abroad of corruption, Museveni pursues a commendably long-term approach to tourism: only 24 people a day are allowed to trek the gorillas, to avoid stressing the primates and compromising their immune systems; a recent conference at one of Entebbe’s lakeside hotels explored increased vocational training opportunities for Ugandans, now that the country needs more hotel managers and chefs; and water experts from Britain are advising the Ugandan authorities on how to tackle the fact that 30 per cent of urban dwellers and 40 per cent of the rural population lack any water supply.

There’s a lot at stake for this stunningly beautiful, friendly country. Full economic progress is being hampered by potholed roads, water shortages and power-cuts; there is no national airline, and credit cards are not widely accepted. But as one expat told me, ‘The government here is very forward-thinking; it just needs to get the basics right.’

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