There was outrage in Uganda last week when it emerged that a private company could get to build yet another dam along River Nile in the Murchison Falls National Park.
That would effectively kill one of the most breathtaking attractions in Uganda – and among the leading ones in East Africa – the Murchison Falls.
Uganda already produces more electricity than it consumes, in part because it struggles with the more complex part of power – how to distribute it. But beside the argument as to whether or not the country needs a dam, what greater cynical political cause does snuffing out Murchison Falls in the process serve?
The answer becomes a little clearer if one considers that there is no important forest that the Uganda government hasn’t given or tried to give away to “investors” to grow sugar cane, palm, cotton; and few wetlands or swamps that haven’t been doled out to “industrialists,” all in the name of “development.”
Uganda is not alone. In Tanzania, with loud wailing from environmentalists in the background, the government approved a hydroelectric power dam at Stiegler’s Gorge in the World Heritage Site of Selous Game Reserve.
This is a continuation of a long pattern, starting from African kings and chiefs of past centuries, who allied with foreign traders and slaughtered thousands of elephants for their tusks; captured and sold millions of their own people into slavery; and gave away precious minerals for trinkets and whiskey.
Zimbabwe is clamouring to sell ivory, and Botswana just lifted the ban on elephant hunting, allowing rich men and women to come and pay handsomely to kill the endangered beast.
Yet, there’s something reassuring about exploiting Murchison Falls or Selous out of existence; there’s some true African continuity to it, and a welcome reminder that we are still who we are – warts and all.
But there is also a new development; a group of African countries who are recovering lost wetlands, nature and game parks and breathing new life into them like Rwanda and Chad, and those that are trashing what still exists. The latter are the majority.
They do so because the majesty of the rivers, forests, falls, and wild beasts, are important symbols of national identity.
If you are a Ugandan and are fed up with President Yoweri Museveni’s 33-year rule, and the corruption of the Kampala government, you can still come to terms with being a Ugandan, and love it for things like Murchison Falls, Mabira Forest, the Rwenzori mountains, or Lake Nalubale (Victoria). You could say the same of Mount Kilimanjaro.
It’s no small matter when the snowcaps of the Rwenzori and Kilimanjaro disappear, or when you move to run a cable car up the latter and vulgarise it in the process. A point of national reference disappears.
When Nalubale is polluted and becomes a dead lake, and Murchison ceases to be, people won’t give up looking for national reference points.
However, what they will be offered are portraits of rulers, the highways built by our presidents-for-life, and bridges erected as legacies to political parties that have ruled countries for over half a century. Or the tall buildings on the hill, with their cheap plastic facades.
This is not about development. It is a death struggle for the souls of many countries.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3