Sunday July 20 2014

Why debate in Parliament is more of wolokoso these days

By Bernard Tabaire

If the deputy speaker says it, it must be correct. Debate in Parliament today is so idiotic that Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah does not read the Hansard anymore.

“We miss the big picture all the time in our debate and that is why we are so political because that is the only issue you can speak [about] without research,” recent media reports quote him saying. “You just walk from your car and begin politics.”

For calling out his MPs in so simple yet devastating way, Mr Oulanyah must resign. What in purgatory is the man doing there in such a high position? On second thoughts, however, there is no point in resigning for stepping back to reflect on the quality of the institution one leads.

In trashing his MPs, Mr Oulanyah compares, unfavourably of course, the current lot to the men and women who legislated in the 1960s. As I grow older I romanticise the past less and less. But let us for a moment agree that the quality of debate in the 1960s was high – something researchers Nelson Kasfir and Hippo Twebaze may have a lot of evidence-based opinions to proffer.

What was it about the 1960s?
That decade of independence was a decade of promise – at least it started that way – and disaster. The disaster manifested itself through the Nakulabye massacre, the army mutiny, the fallout over the Lost Counties referendum, the jailing of political opponents, the deportation and jailing of some media people, the invasion of the Lubiri and the exiling of the Kabaka.

The list is not yet done. There was the abrogation of the Independence Constitution, the abolition of kingdoms, the declaration of a state of emergency mainly in Buganda, the smuggling of Congo gold, the expulsion from the ruling UPC party of dissenting members, and the refusal to hold the first post-Independence elections of 1967.

The promise is what Mr Oulanyah refers to. If Akena Adoko, Milton Obote’s cousin and alter ego, was not debating Ali Mazrui in person at city hall, the men or their surrogates were ducking it out in the pages of the Uganda Journal, Mawazo, or the sassy Transition magazine. Other smaller projects that extended intellectual/cultural work were going on in the country.

In a way, some of the excesses of the Ugandan society were mediated through generally serious-minded public discourse. Reading some of the popular press of the time such as Uganda Argus bears out the point more.

Maybe the intellectual situation I am trying to describe was a mere logical step, borne out of the fight for independence.

Because Uganda’s demand for independence never dissolved into war, it necessarily was advanced by people who were not only courageous but also thoughtful. These are the people, products of mission education that they were, who took themselves seriously.

Even those who never made it to the National Assembly, as Parliament was then known, had gravitas. Not all of them, in fact, spoke the colonial master’s language. Not all had gone “far” in formal education.

Incipient meritocracy in the public sector system went a long way in throwing up fairly capable people ready to take on a challenge.

Of course, the mistakes of the 1960s eventually overwhelmed the achievements. The result was Idi Amin Dada. Intellectual life either died or fled to exile. The destruction wrought has turned out to have some long lasting effects.

People who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s are in power today. They are children of a Uganda that was on its knees. Today, not only do they think about development narrowly in political and economic terms, but have also done their best to coarsen public discourse.

The coarsening of discourse has happened partly because there has been no high-minded but popular journal to mediate conversation amongst citizens interested in issues beyond their bread, butter, beef, and beer.

Besides, the rise of talk radio in Uganda coincided with the rise of a ruling class that is utterly ignorant in the cultural-intellectual sense. Yet talk radio, with its maddening gibberish, is pretty much all we have.

Unfortunately, some of the key players in the radio landscape as owners or as frequently featured guests are politicians or aspiring politicians. They have consistently listened to each over the last two decades.

What they tell each other and the rest of us does not make sense, but they do not know that. These are the people who have had to ride their luck to Parliament.

The result is what Mr Deputy Speaker is concerned about: too much wolokoso in Parliament is embarrassing him. It could not have been otherwise although it can be otherwise in the future.

Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.