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Sub-Saharan Africa has enormous tourism potential: leopards lounging in acacia trees, elephant herds drifting across vast savannah plains, gorillas and chimps rioting in deep forests, the earliest traces of human beings and their works.
But according to the World Bank, the region receives a mere 3% of global tourism arrivals.
What scares tourists off may have something to do with an unfair, continent-wide reputation for lawlessness. There is a way around this. During the 1970s, entrepreneurs created the idea of eco-tourism as an alternative to the sun and sand package tours that wreaked havoc on the environment and local communities.
Uganda’s new tourism push is a case in point. The government hopes to welcome four million visitors in 2020, more than double the current number. The Uganda Investment Authority is expediting bids from eco-tourism companies to develop ten sites in the nation’s national parks, including Queen Elizabeth, Masindi and Kidepo Valley.
The World Bank has lent Uganda $25 million dollars to build a new hotel and tourism school, purchase equipment such as buses, game drive trucks, boats and binoculars and hire public relations firms to market Uganda in US, Europe, the Middle East and China.
The downside of Uganda’s tourism campaign is that every safari-goer it attracts will pay fees to government agencies such as the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which is currently engaged in a program of violent evictions that have left thousands of people in northern Uganda’s Acholi region destitute, and has also been implicated in trafficking in ivory, pangolin scales and other illegal wildlife products, both inside Uganda and in neighboring countries.
Since 2010, thousands of huts in Apaa, northern Uganda have been burned to the ground, and animals and belongings stolen by UWA officials and members of other security agencies. The government claims the area is gazetted for a game reserve, but residents say their families have lived in the area for generations and have nowhere else to go.
Sixteen people have been killed and thousands, mainly women and children are now homeless. Some of the raids appear to have been carried out by members of the neighboring Madi ethnic group, and government officials have characterized them as ethnically motivated. However, the Madi and Acholi have lived in peace for generations and some suspect that senior government officials may be inciting the attackers.
Meanwhile, CITES, the international body that tracks endangered species has named Uganda as a global hub for the illegal wildlife trade. After damning reports about the scale of poaching in Kenya and Tanzania revealed that elephant populations were plummeting in both countries, stricter laws and better enforcement resulted in a nearly 80 percent decline in poaching in Kenya since 2013.
Tougher enforcement has also resulted in steep declines in poaching in Tanzania. But between 2009 and 2016 an estimated 20 tons of ivory were trafficked via Uganda, along with over 3000 kilograms of pangolin scales.
The trade in wildlife products appears to be organized by senior officers of the army and UWA. Ivory traffickers working along the Uganda-Congo border told Belgian political scientist Kristof Titeca that much of their loot came from Congo and the Central African Republic, where the Ugandan Army, with US support, unsuccessfully tried to track down the notorious warlord Joseph Kony between 2012 and 2017. Thus, US taxpayers may have inadvertently facilitated Uganda’s wildlife crimes.
Uganda’s recently established Standards, Utilities and Wildlife Court, which is supposed to deal with trafficking crimes has begun prosecuting and convicting low level traffickers—the men who transport the goods to Kampala for export – but as yet there have been no prosecutions of those suspected of organizing the trade.
Uganda’s own elephants have largely been spared, and their numbers may even have increased in recent years. But other animals have not been so lucky. In 2014, the UWA granted a local company a license to collect thousands of pounds of scales from the shy, aardvark-like creatures known as pangolins.
Unfortunately, the World Bank’s assistance to Uganda could be making things worse. It’s $25 million Tourism Sector Competitiveness and Labor Force Development loan, approved in 2013, is part of a larger $100 million Competitiveness and Enterprise Development Project which, according to project documents, allocates 21% – or $21 million, to government agencies, including the Uganda Wildlife Authority. World Bank spokespersons declined say how much of that will go to the UWA, and what the money will spent on, other than “systems strengthening and procuring tourism assets.”
Before the World Bank launches any project, it commissions an environmental impact assessment, as well as a review of safeguards to protect habitats and indigenous people who might be affected by it. In this case, the safeguards and Impact Assessment documents don’t consider the risk that Ugandan security agencies, including the army and UWA, might use funds raised from the project to engage in human rights abuses and trafficking.
This matters because countless development groups, including the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, the Red Cross and the World Bank itself– have seen millions of dollars in funding sink into Uganda’s swamp of corruption.
In power for 33 years, Uganda’s leader Yoweri Museveni has hung on in part by spending funds looted from various development projects on voter bribery and harsh repression. In 2017, he sent Special Forces troops into Parliament to beat up MPs who were trying to block debate about a bill that would enable him to rule for life. One of the victims, MP Betty Nambooze, may never walk unaided again.
Some of Museveni’s opposition-politician-victims, if allowed to govern, might – like the leaders of Tanzania and Kenya – do a better job of protecting Uganda’s people and its wildlife than he has. But as long as the World Bank and other donors keep allowing Museveni’s government to get away with corruption, human rights abuses and wildlife trafficking, these activities will only continue. While the World Bank continues to ignore this reality, Uganda’s prospective investors and tourists should steer their dollars towards less odious regimes.