My nephew walked in on me watching the live proceedings of Uganda’s candidates for the East African Legislative Assembly campaigning in Parliament.
Like most 16-year-olds, he spends half his time with his ears and eyes behind headphones and shades. He just wants to be left alone with food in the refrigerator and the Wi-Fi password. So I almost jumped out of my skin when he actually spoke and asked what I was watching.
I mumbled a response which he cut short with a curt, “yes, I can see what it is, but why are you watching that?” I looked back at the television screen, searching for an answer in the cacophony of juvenile prancing and shouting.
I didn’t know how long he had been standing there and how much abuse he’d been exposed to. ‘It’s important for my work,’ I said defensively. “Yeah, warrever,” he muttered, walking away as he shook his head. Presently I muted the sound and, with the animated images prancing up and down on the television set, contemplated the meaning of it all.
Now, we must be careful not to get carried away by assessments made in the heat of the moment. Campaigns, the world over, can be pretty loud and dramatic. And parliamentarians have been known to come to blows, or worse, when they disagree, from fistfights in South Africa and Ukraine, to tear gas in Kosovo. So what we saw was a relatively tame affair, but a shocking one nonetheless.
Many have argued that Ingrid Turinawe, the FDC mobiliser whose candidature was itself a subject of controversy, got a generic taste of her own medicine by being shouted down and booed when she tried to campaign.
That might very well be the case and FDC did not cover itself in glory in managing the internal contradictions and disagreements in its nomination process. But what we saw in Parliament on Tuesday, with MPs singing secondary school chants extolling their love for money, or in the earlier NRM nominations that were marred by chaos and had to be repeated, are symptoms of a political process that is fundamentally flawed, and a society that is damaged, perhaps even irreparably.
There are so many examples of this that we need not go into the details but it is easy to see some of the underlying causes. In September 2011, this column wrote about the shocking inadequacies of undergraduate students at Makerere University who couldn’t answer grade two questions (See: http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/columnists/DanielKalinaki/878782-1228326-fs4bci/index.html) or tell the difference between a cobbler and a cobra. My nephew, who inspired the earlier column and provoked this one, recently sat his O-Levels. The undergrads I subjected the test to left university many years ago and are now part of the workforce or ‘successful’ businesspeople.
Our MPs are not from an alien species that landed from Mars. They are a reflection of what most of us have become; loud-mouthed, money-loving, obscenity-spewing, narrow-minded, selfish and uncouth individuals peerless in our mannerlessness, devoid of decorum, without a sense of community, lacking empathy for those who disagree with us, with a deep-seated aversion to order or rules, and willing to only offer a nodding acknowledgement to the facts in the blind defence of our self-entitlement.
Education does not just teach us the difference between cobblers and cobras. It is supposed to teach us how to ask questions, how to question our beliefs and assumptions, and how to disagree without being disagreeable. It is supposed to inspire a rejection of mediocrity while leadership provides the soundtrack to the march of progress.
On the evidence of the quality of our public discourse, of which Tuesday’s events were just the latest symptom shown by this chronic patient, we have not just lowered ourselves into the quagmire of mediocrity; we have willingly and enthusiastically become a kakistocracy.
Earlier generations of Ugandans could have blamed their failures on war, poverty and pestilence. We do not have such luxuries. The failures that stare us in the face – schools that don’t teach, hospitals that don’t treat, farms that don’t produce, taps that don’t run, bulbs that don’t light, cops that don’t police, economic growth without development or jobless growth, a predatory state and so on – are entirely of our making.
My nephew was too young to understand the import of second-year university students failing his grammar homework. I intend to find time to explain to him why our Parliament was like a village market day; sooner or later we need to explain to our children why we allowed ourselves to become so mediocre.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. email@example.com &Twitter: @Kalinaki