Uganda will be seeking to impress the world when it hosts the Commonwealth summit this week and convey a new image of a country best known for its history of brutal regimes and civil strife.
The capital Kampala has undergone a major facelift to welcome Queen Elizabeth II and about 50 other world leaders, and the East African nation is hoping to step out of the shadow of its neighbour Kenya.
Queen Elizabeth was on holiday in Kenya when she ascended the throne in 1952 but her visits to Africa have been rare and Uganda -Ã¢â‚¬’ which celebrated 45 years of independence this year — nevertheless hopes to do its former ruler proud.
Potholes — which had become a byword for Kampala — have been hastily filled, street lighting upgraded and roads lined with trees for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
”We are ready for CHOGM,” read banners put in the city, a phrase repeated by many officials during the final weeks of preparations for what is considered the largest international event ever hosted by the country.
”This meeting is good for Uganda. Many foreigners coming here will bring us good business … [and] we are going to use the summit to build capacity to host other meetings,” President Yoweri Museveni told
reporters on Sunday.
Uganda’s hotel capacity more than doubled to 5 300 beds but the Daily Monitor newspaper remained critical, arguing Kampala’s revamp was too little too late and praying that the city’s swanky new hotels will have running water.
The Ugandan government has also been criticised for spending 10 times more on organising the summit than on relief to populations affected by flooding, mainly in western regions.
Torrential rains in Kampala left some of the capital’s outskirts in underwater on Friday, bringing further misery to a country that was one of the hardest hit by Africa’s worst floods in 30 years this summer.
Opposition politicians charge there have been shortcomings both in the organisation of the event and in how the government spent its budget.
”The summit has created an opportunity for the government to cheat Ugandans,” said Salaamu Musumba, the vice-president of the opposition
Forum for Democratic Change.
”A lot of money is being spent recklessly, something which will likely plunge this country into more debts,” he said.
Uganda has spent an estimated $120-million on the summit.
Compared to Nairobi, Kampala is relatively small — with just over a million inhabitants — and has had to rely on foreign assistance for
some logistical problems.
For example, 144 vehicles were leased at a cost of $5,5-million especially for the summit. Last week, Museveni also received four speed boats from Italy to patrol the waters of Lake Victoria.
Organisers believe that the summit will be a key factor in highlighting the country’s potential and hike tourism revenues, which
remain relatively low compared to the riches on offer.
”We want to use the meeting to showcase the country because the summit offers us big publicity,” said senior foreign ministry official James Mugume.
The streets of Kampala are now bustling with activity, sometimes interrupted by police drills. Lawmakers joined the general rehearsal by practising the protocol of their welcome to the British monarch. Despite grumbling over public spending and a host of other economic and political problems plaguing the country, ”Choggum” is seen by many Ugandans as an opportunity to put their country on the world map.
”CHOGM should be organised here every time, because the government came out to invest some money in beautifying the city and working on
the roads to reduce potholes,” said James Kitumba, a taxi driver.
Queen Elizabeth, who last visited Uganda in 1954, will open the summit on Friday for three days of meetings expected to focus on the political crisis in Pakistan.
While the summit could see Pakistan excluded from the organisation of Britain’s former colonies, the 53 heads of state and government in attendance are also expected consider including Rwanda, Yemen and Madagascar. Ã¢â‚¬’ Sapa-AFP