Saturday March 16 2013

Uganda’s disturbing trend of doublespeak

By David F. K. Mpanga

Uganda is the land of doublespeak. In Uganda we can say one thing and mean exactly the opposite. This has a light and innocent aspect, brought about by cultural idiosyncrasies or by the evolution of the English language in the Ugandan context.

A good example of the former would be waiting for a Muganda after he or she says, in Luganda, that they will be back in a moment. This, for those of you who do not know, is not to be taken literally; it is simply a polite way of saying goodbye. While an example of the latter, would be the common Ugandan expression, “extend please”, frequently used in crowded taxis or lifts.

Again, for the uninitiated, it is not an invitation to spread your arms and legs as wide as possible or to distend your belly and puff out your cheeks (for how else can a human being extend?). In fact it means the opposite. It means “move up, pull your legs together and breathe in, if you must, because there is room for a couple more (usually very sweaty) people to squeeze in here.”

In the middle of the spectrum, and of more concern, are commonly used words like “investor” and “savings” which have one dictionary meaning and a completely opposite real life effect in Uganda. In Uganda “investors” are more likely to be extractors, using none of their own money and bearing no real risk to extract huge profits at the expense of the poor Ugandans.

Similarly the interest given on “savings” is way below the average rate of inflation. So instead of gaining money, as one would expect to do when one is saving, in Uganda “savings” accounts are in fact losing accounts.

Finally, words like “project” are more likely to connote a corruption scam in the making rather than some enterprise that will bring about some public good. This could be described as the loose use of language, which masks the true effect of certain acts or omissions.

However, there is a far darker side to Uganda’s doublespeak. This is most commonly encountered when dealing with government officials and is neatly illustrated by a recent incident, to use a neutral word, which occurred at Mbuya Barracks.

Two newspapers carried front page banner headlines reporting the incident as an attack by 30 armed rebels that was repelled by the alert UPDF personnel. We were not told how the two newspapers knew that the attack was carried out by 30 and not, say, 27 armed rebels.

We assumed that they had been briefed by a source that they considered reliable enough to support a front page headline. It was reported that one of the rebel attackers was killed and two or so were captured.
All peace-loving Ugandans and non-Ugandans who wish Uganda well were concerned by the reports. But the military spokesman came out swiftly to rebut the allegation that there had been an attack on the barracks. In a detailed and, no doubt, carefully worded statement, which we must assume was based on a thorough briefing by somebody familiar with the facts, the spokesman said that what happened was not an attack but a scuffle.

Apparently the incident was nothing more than “an attempt by thugs to snatch a rifle from a sentry”. The spokesman continued, reassuringly, that “the [sentry] was alert and as a result did what he was trained to do and killed one of the thieves arresting the three others, contrary to five as reported in the media yesterday”.

All Ugandans breathed a collective sigh of relief at the thought that what had been reported as a symptom of the beginnings of armed rebellion in the heart of Kampala, the capital city, was in fact nothing more than a botched attempt to steal a gun.

They would have been particularly reassured by the spokesman’s categorical words, “It’s instructive to note that an attack would have involved a deliberate and sustained exchange of fire from the alleged attackers and the defenders. This was not the case. It was the guard that shot the thugs led by a deserter and the guard executed his job very well, harvesting two thugs.”

The next we heard of the incident, was when the three men arrested in connection therewith were produced before the General Court Martial and charged with offences “related to security and treachery”. Treachery is a synonym for treason and treason is a conspiracy to overthrow the lawfully established government by force of arms.

Yes, the three men were being charged with conspiring to overthrow the government and not with making a foolish attempt to steal a loaded gun from a sentry at Mbuya Barracks. So in true Ugandan fashion, the thieving scuffle, which was not an attack on the Mbuya Barracks was in fact an attack and part of an armed conspiracy to overthrow the lawfully established government.
I’ll be back in a moment.