Fifty four years ago the Union Jack came down at Kololo airstrip and the Uganda flag went up signalling the end of colonial rule and a descent into chaos that we are only beginning to unravel.
In hindsight we were not ready for independence – we were a small little country in the middle of Africa, mostly illiterate, with huge infrastructure deficits and institutional inadequacies, without the capacity or the temperament to run a modern state.
“We were ready for independence,” insists Kavuma Kagwa, who turned 26, weeks after Uganda gained independence.
“The British concentrated on education, agriculture and later on medicine. At independence we had an agricultural officer at every Gombolola (LCIII). We were graduating doctors from Mulago. The leaders of our political parties were very educated men,” he added.
For good measure he threw the anecdote of Dr Dionysius Bamundaga, a pioneer graduate of Mulago medical school, who was the first indigenous doctor to operate a European.
“The provincial commissioner of northern Uganda’s wife in 1953 got an appendicitis attack while in Gulu and there was no time to get her to Nakasero Hospital which was where European’s were treated. Bamundaga who was the provincial medical officer at the time volunteered his services which the PC grudgingly accepted. The operation was a success and soon after Governor Andrew Cohen made a radio announcement that indigenous medical doctors could operate on Europeans.”
The case of Dr Bamundga is more case of an exception to the rule.
"According to the 1962 Civil Service Survey there was no chartered accountant, solicitor, architect or pathologist and there was only one geologist, one veterinary officer, one entomologist and two dentists in public service....
This should not have come as a surprise since total enrollment at Makerere at that time, the sole university was only 364. There were about seven million Ugandans at independence.
While the civil service was not the only employer at the time it dominated the private sector especially in its employment of specialist skills.
The scarcity continued into the administration where the same survey showed that of the 408 executive class posts in the civil service Ugandans only filled 102 of them while another 106 were vacant. In the super scales which were just below executive class it was even worse with Ugandans only filling 269 or about 20 percent of the 1,250 positions available.
But this should not have come as a surprise. In 1962 there were only 364 students at university, JC Ssekamwa reported in his book “History & Development of Education in Uganda” going on to reveal that there were 1991 students enrolled in O-Level in the whole country at the time. The number of students graduating from O-Level in 1960 was 700. It is not clear whether this means they were moving on to A-level or not.
"To get a sense of how deficient our manpower training was at independence, if O-level enrollment had kept pace with population growth there would be just under 10,000 students in lower secondary school today...
Today there are about 1.3 million students enrolled in secondary school.
In lamenting our backwardness they never tire of reminding us how Uganda was at par with some South Eastern Asian nations – South Korea and Singapore, who now enjoy developed world standards in 1962.
A cursory look over the data not only shows that not to be true, but more embarrassingly shows in key areas like human resource and infrastructure we are only just catching up to where they were in 1962!
If we take South Korea as an example. In the year of our independence, South Korea was still reeling from the after effects of civil war that had split the peninsula into two.
They had a per capita GDP of $103 while we were at $62. That may give the impression we were nearly toe-to-toe with them at that point but place this figure against a figure like secondary school enrollment and the chasm between our two situations becomes apparent.
While as noted above our O-level enrollment was about 2,000, South Korea had an enrollment of 620,000 for the comparable age groups. Note too that today we only just double their 1962 secondary school enrollment figures.
By another measure the doctor to patient ratio in South Korea was 0.344 per 1000 it is now about 2 doctors for every 1000 South Koreans. Figures for Uganda were hard to come by but today we have a patient to doctor ratio of 0.41, we are just better than South Korea in 1962.
These disparities are reflected wherever you look.
South Korea had 27,000km of road in 1962, today Uganda has about 20,000 km. The Asian nation was generating 1,512 Gwh of power 54 years ago we are now doing about 3,000 Gwh according to official figures.
The point is that comparing ourselves against the south eastern nations when we attained is a false base.
"Of course the colonial authorities’ primary mission was not to educate or empower Ugandans, so our deficiencies in manpower and infrastructure should come as no surprise...
And there are no guarantees that they would have worked hard to bridge those deficiencies except for the benefit of an elite few. But knowing this puts into sharper perspective the losses to the country caused by the lost decades of the 1970s and 1980s, which can be argued were due to the very same shortfalls in human capacity that we inherited.
So for those who were there, do they still think we were ready?
“Very much so. For me those comparisons with Asia don’t interest me very much, after all when are you ready,” Presidential media advisor John Nagenda asked.
“I wasn’t interested in politics at the time but the feeling was it was time and we would sort ourselves out on our own.”