May 10 (Monitor) Few Ugandans would name the capital city of Sri Lanka, let alone find the Asian country on a map. Yet Uganda has surprisingly featured prominently in the protests that have rocked Colombo – that is the name of Sri Lanka’s capital city – for weeks, and culminated in the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday.
It all started with a tweet. On February 23, 2021, Sri Lanka’s Airline Pilot’s Guild tweeted that it had flown three planeloads of cargo to Entebbe International Airport in Uganda.
Eagle-eyed Sri Lankan journalists were piqued. Of Sri Lankan Airline’s 117 destinations at the time, none was in mainland Africa. The coronavirus pandemic was also raging and air travel had collapsed across the world.
What was Sri Lanka Airlines flying to Uganda, of all places?
There were more questions flying around in Sri Lanka. Bad luck and bad decisions had created an economic crisis on this island of 22 million people.
The country had gone on a massive borrowing spree to pay for infrastructure projects through which a lot of money was lost to corruption, critics said. Heavy monsoons and a ban on chemical fertilisers then destroyed farmers’ crops.
Terrorist bombings at luxury hotels and churches during Easter 2019 killed hundreds of people and the country’s tourism sector. And then came Covid-19. Anything that could go wrong had gone wrong.
The government cut taxes to boost growth but its public revenues plunged as a result. The government then turned to its foreign exchange reserves to pay off the growing mountain of debt but rather than climb out of the hole, it was digging itself deeper into trouble. Between 2018 and last month, the reserves evaporated from $6.9 billion to $2.2 billion, according to official data.
Unable to pay for vital imports like fuel, and with the Sri Lankan rupee losing value rapidly, prices began soaring.