JUST WHEN WE THOUGHT THE CRISES in Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan couldn’t get worse, they did.
From CAR, photos of a man, a deranged Christian called “Mad Dog”, cutting and eating up a dead Muslim in revenge emerged. There is a mob surrounding him, cheering on in approval. The “cannibal” is so confident, he didn’t even bother to mask his face.
From South Sudan, stories of ghost towns and villages in which either the Dinka or Nuer had been slaughtered to the last child in a furious fit of ethnic madness, were flowing freely. Photos showed us a people who might well be in the Stone Age… the pain and terror on their faces, deeply troubling.
And where there is war, there are soldiers and guns. More African Union troops arrived in CAR, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) approved the deployment of a 5,500-strong intervention force in South Sudan.
In Addis Ababa, the talks between the South Sudan president Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar, the two leading warlords in the current fighting, floundered. In part, Machar’s people were demanding that Uganda withdraw the troops that it sent there to back Kiir.
Meanwhile, in Kampala the Uganda army revealed that nine of its soldiers had been killed, and 12 injured. (A ceasefire agreement was finally signed last Thursday night).
Again, where there is war, there are losers and winners. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, observers say, is seeking to straddle the region like some Napoleonic figure. He has his army in CAR, northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and now South Sudan.
Many Ugandan soldiers have died in this imperial enterprise over the years, but if you want to know how the regional crises are also putting money in people’s pockets, the place to go is Entebbe, Uganda’s former capital, and home to the country’s only international
airport by the same name.
Entebbe used to be a quiet sleepy city, popular mostly with a small group of snotty and eccentric senior government bureaucrats, a few international organisations, and secretive businessmen who wanted to live far away from the madding noise of the capital Kampala.
The old Entebbe airforce base, was not busy. It was mostly a place where military transport planes, fighter jets and helicopter gunships went to die. The active planes were hidden in remote bases, far away from the eyes of the casual spy.
The war in Rwanda that brought the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front to power in 1994, changed all that. Millions of Rwandan refugees poured into eastern DRC, and international relief operations quickly set up shop in Entebbe.
Down the road, DRC itself imploded, and more relief operations opened shop in Entebbe. Then South Sudan, where Uganda had troops before even its Independence, happened, and a lot of the international support activity for the new nation was managed out of Entebbe.
A big UN compound started to spring up at the edge of the old airport. There were several UN helicopters parked there, and a car yard of over 100 new Toyota cars of all types sprang up.
There were all sorts of clean-shaven men in every type of military uniform in Entebbe. Uganda’s prostitutes made a beeline for the city to give comfort to these men. So did Rwandan, Burundian and Congolese prostitutes.
Stories started cropping up in the Kampala gossip press about Uganda prostitutes complaining of “unfair” competition.
A property boom followed as the crises in the region multiplied. A Somali businessman, a friend, invited me to coffee one evening in Nairobi not too long ago. He whipped out his laptop and showed me photos of a block of fancy apartments he was about to finish building in Entebbe.
I asked him how much he was going to rent them for. He didn’t say, just that the embassy of a powerful Western nation in Uganda had taken out a lease on the whole property for its people.
Banks — especially ATMs — mushroomed everywhere you turned in Entebbe. New hotels came up.
When the latest fighting broke out in South Sudan, the UN evacuated its staff there to Entebbe. Entebbe has beautiful beaches; today they are crowded. Photographs of curvaceous Ugandan women flopping about in the water are popular offerings in the lifestyle pages of newspaper.
There used to be a small occasional Sunday sporting event, mostly beach volleyball, at a beach sports club. Now it is huge. The women play in the skimpiest bikinis.
The traffic jam on the day stretches nearly 30 kilometres from outside Kampala to Entebbe. It used to be that you needed to leave Kampala three hours beforehand to catch your flight in Entebbe. On beach volleyball Sunday, wise travellers now set out five hours before their flight.
The beach crowd is young, hip, drives fancy cars with open roofs, dresses to kill, and some of the women wear false hair a metre long, and there are designer sunglasses galore.
A high wall is now going up to shield the airforce and UN base. The giant tarpaulin UN tents are coming down, and permanent office buildings are replacing them.
For the Commonwealth Summit that took place in Uganda in 2007, the abandoned State House was refurbished and furnished at the highest cost ever for a building of its size in East Africa. Now it is a palace, with a vast, brightly lit compound that looks like an alien aircraft from a Steven Spielberg movie at night.
A totally new dual carriageway road which you will have to pay money to ride on, is being built to Entebbe — by the Chinese.
The old hippie slogan was: “Make Love, Not War.” For Entebbe, it seems the Great Lakes region needs to make war, so that it can make love. And that inconvenient fact — the fact that Uganda has been one of the chief architects of the crises it is benefiting from — understandably seems difficult to remember when you are in Entebbe with so much skin and beach partying around you.