Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ugandans eager for Queen's return

William Hannington Kasozi, 81, has fond memories of the last time Queen Elizabeth visited Uganda.

Artist Aii Katongole with his painting of the Queen

The Queen was last in Uganda before independence in 1954

Working as a clerk in the national electricity company at the time, he got to meet the Queen in person.

"A few of us were selected," he tells me in his small brick house on the outskirts of the capital, Kampala.

"We got to shake her hand, she asked how we were, and we told her she was very welcome in Uganda."

Mr Kasozi thinks it is a miracle that he has lived to see the Queen's return, before she opens the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) on the 24 November.

He is unlikely to get to meet her in person this time.

But many people are just as excited about her visit.

It is the first time she has returned to the country since a trip in 1954 when she inaugurated the Owen Falls Dam, Uganda's first hydro-electric power station.

Much has changed since then.

The country gained independence from Britain eight years later and the Owen Falls Dam became known as Nalubaale.

The British monarchy has often been seen as a symbol of colonial rule and the repression and violence that that often entailed.

Huge outlay

But there is still great affection for the Queen. In a Kampala suburb, I met Aii Katongole, an artist who has captured the Queen's likeness in paint.

Poster advertising Chogm in Kampala

A lot of taxpayers' money has been used to prepare for the summit

Although he sells his work to make a living, he says he'll never sell his picture of the Queen.

"She makes me very happy," he says. "She's the mother of the 53 Commonwealth countries."

The Queen's visit might help to explain why many people are happy to accept the huge outlay that has been spent on the Commonwealth summit.

Many Kampalans want their city to look its best for its illustrious visitors.

At the main post office in Kampala, people tell me they are pleased that Chogm is taking place here.

"We think it'll be good for the country, increase tourism, and we're proud of it," says one man.

"A visit by the Queen is a very rare thing," another man tells me. "A privilege."


But not all think like that.

"If this is Chogm, then Chogm is useless," says one man I met outside the post office.

Tour bus promoting the Commonwealth summit in Kampala is surrounded by people in the northern town of Gulu

Chogm critics say hardly any money has been sent outside the capital

"It's become a burden to the common person, there's so much security and so many roadworks, people are not free to move around."

For months now the Ugandan government has been urging people here to get ready for Chogm.

It employed a sleek advertising agency to get its message across.

Works to repair and resurface roads across the city, including the main artery between Kampala and the international airport at Entebbe, have been going on throughout much of 2007.

Immigration stamps

Several new hotels have emerged from their cocoons of scaffolding.

Hundreds of extra policemen and women have been posted on street corners across the city.

Men work on the last phase of construction at the Imperial Royale Hotel

Several new hotels have emerged from their cocoons of scaffolding

In the last two financial years, the government has spent close to $200m (about £100m) on projects linked to the three-day Commonwealth summit.

So how do they justify it?

"Yes, it's taken up a lot of taxpayers' money," admits Kagole Kivumbi, the government's Chogm spokesman. "But a big percentage of that has gone into facilities that will benefit the country long after the summit."

A glance at the Chogm budget, however, shows that $11,000 has also gone on buying umbrellas.

New rubber stamps for immigration officials cost $18,000 and around $200,000 has been spent on buying state-of-the-art Blackberry mobile phones for members of government.

Wafula Ogutto, the spokesman for the opposition Forum for Democratic Change, is not happy.

"We don't see where this money has been spent on the ground," he complains.

"Roads are not being repaired properly, just patched up, and hardly any money has been sent outside the capital, even though Ugandans are not just a few people in Kampala."

But the government and private investors point out that the real benefits of Chogm will not be felt for some time.

It is an opportunity, they argue, to present a different image of Uganda to a world that associates the country with former President Idi Amin and the Lord's Resistance Army rebels.

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