Charles Onyango Obbo

‘Sitya Loss’ man Kenzo brings the bacon home. Celebrations are in order

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 1  2015 at  01:00

It was a delightful piece of news to have musician Eddy Kenzo running away with the “Viewer’s Choice Best New International Artiste” prize at the 2015 BET Awards held at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles, in the US, on Sunday.

Kenzo, Daily Monitor noted, became the first Ugandan artiste to ever win a Black Entertainment Television (BET) award.

New Vision told us that his world-popular Sitya Loss video, with the happy dancing Ghetto Kids, tipped in at 7 million YouTube views, making it the highest viewed Ugandan video here and fifth in Africa, last year.

I checked again, and the numbers by Monday evening were through the roof. The official video had over 12 million views, and the unofficial nearly 12 million, so right there, it was closing in on 25 million views.

Since it’s the morning of presidential election season in Uganda, it is worth noting how different Kenzo’s achievement is.
He was not “unopposed” or “sole candidate”. He beat out two brilliant African competitors, and three from the UK.

And he did not appoint the judges, the “electoral commission”. It is as fair as a win by a Ugandan as it can ever get.

Which brings us to a big question that this column toyed with briefly before; why has Sitya Loss become such a global hit? And what does it teach us?

I doubt Kenzo himself ever expected it would be so big; otherwise he would have ruined it.
In fact, the official video where Kenzo appears is not as good as the one where we have him singing, and the only thing we see are the kids dancing.

The latter is remarkably authentic; because we get the sense that the Ghetto Kids are just having fun on a dusty street on an average day in the outskirts of Kampala. There are no gimmicks, no dancers with bumping big buttocks in red and blue wigs trying to grab our attention by appealing to our prurient element. In other words, there is something like trying too hard. And it is a bad thing.

If you are a good dancer, it should be obvious within two or so minutes of you getting on the stage. If you are hopeless, you won’t convince the audience by dancing for one hour. In that sense, it is not very different from politics. If you are good, within 10 years as president, you should have achieved enough. In exceptional circumstances, you might need 15 years.

After that, you should really leave. Of course, there are many leaders who have stayed longer, say 30 years, and still achieved a lot. Still, that is more down to inertia and the difficulty of removing a long-ruling incumbent with a record.

In reality, the last 10 or so years, such a leader is just treading water, because most of the “progress” of those last years will be not from what he is doing, but the foundation he laid in the first 10 to 15 years. In other words, if he had left a competent successor to take over, the progress would still have been made.

One of the best examples of this in Africa today is in Ethiopia, in what is happening in the country’s economy under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a lot of which have their roots in the years of Meles Zenawi, who led the country from 1991 until his death in 2012.
But we have digressed. So back to Kenzo and Sitya Loss.

The video, at another level, is a celebration of something that people relate to – finding moments of joy in adversity. Children in a slum dancing with so much accomplishment and relish couldn’t have told the story better.
But we can’t help going back and ending on a political note.

When one reads the Uganda media today, there are heart-breaking stories of suffering; of wrenching poverty, of desperate struggles to save the lives of loved ones in the worst healthcare situation Uganda has known.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Uganda 2016: If you didn’t know, the real elections never happen on Election Day

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, June 24  2015 at  01:00

In Summary

Recently, I hang out with a Ugandan friend who has lived and worked in London for many years. He told me he had volunteered to help a friend who was running in the previous general election. His job was to distribute election materials. He was told that he couldn’t go posting them on electricity poles, and people’s walls as we do in Uganda


And so the political season has truly started, with former prime minister Amama Mbabazi throwing his hat in the presidential ring.

It was interesting to see that his rival, President Yoweri Museveni, felt it necessary to hold a press conference to push back. And the next thing was fairly predictable, with the state trying to find out if, in declaring his interest “early”, Mbabazi had somehow committed a crime.

Attorney General Fred Ruhindi cleared the air on that one, saying he was within his rights. Next, his posters were taken down, but the President’s remained. And now the ruling party, NRM, will hold a disciplinary hearing to see if a man they kicked out of office for having presidential ambitions without openly declaring so, is now guilty of violating its rules by coming out openly to say he wants the job.

The question can be asked why the powers that be bother to go this far over a man whom they will cheat at the polls, anyway.
There is a good reason, actually. Democracy, contrary to the popular view, is not what happens on election day. It is what happens before, and after.

Look at it like you would your lunch. What makes the food tasty is not you eating it. It is the cooking.

Now during lunch, we can all be nice to the host, telling him or her how the lunch was delicious (sometimes even when it isn’t) and thanking them for the meal. That’s easy. The really difficult part, and the true test of a gentleman or lady, is if you will help them clear the table and wash the dishes.

Let’s illustrate. A lot has been written about last month’s British election. Among other things, the candidates lined up as the election officer declared the winner.

The losers then went and politely congratulated the winner, and even took selfies with the election officer, and went off into the night to lick their wounds.

There was no fistfight. No one was stabbed, shot, or beaten with kiboko. No one even tried to snatch the results paper the election officer was reading from and chew it. A good African couldn’t help but wonder what went wrong with these British.

But there is where democracy happens.
Recently, I hang out with a Ugandan friend who has lived and worked in London for many years. He told me he had volunteered to help a friend who was running in the previous general election. His job was to distribute election materials. He was told that he couldn’t go posting them on electricity poles, and people’s walls as we do in Uganda.

He was to deliver them, packed in a prescribed way, to the Post Office. Basically, because he was working for a politician in the opposition, he was essentially delivering the posters to the government.

Well, he went to the Post Office, and found the appropriate election officials who checked the posters to make sure they were tasteful and didn’t violate any laws.

Sure enough they were delivered to all registered voters in the constituency - at taxpayers’ expense.

He told me that was when he understood how democracy works. “Forget what happens at the ballot box, that was the real stuff.”

The same thing happens with the BBC. As a public broadcaster, the prime minister and leader of the opposition are given equal time. Try and do that at UBC and you will be escorted by armed guards out of the building the next day.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Mbabazi to take on Museveni in 2016; why it is both a smart and dumb idea

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, June 17  2015 at  01:00

And so, after a longish wait, former Uganda prime minister Amama Mbabazi announced Monday that he will challenge President Yoweri Museveni in elections due next year.

Not surprisingly, 66-year-old Mbabazi’s announcement that he will go against his 71-year-old former bossom ally and boss, was met with a predictable result – a lot of mudslinging.

All his “sins” that the NRM Graft Fellowship had overlooked or “forgiven” have been dredged up, and there is talk he will now face criminal charges.

There is, still, a lot of “if” about the Mbabazi challenge. For, as we have seen before, apart from stubborn Kizza Besigye, no one has left top NRM or UPDF leadership and gone directly to take on Museveni in an election. But there is no shortage of those who have made threats, including former vice president Gilbert Bukenya.

And because so far he has indicated he will challenge Museveni in the NRM, he will most certainly lose the nomination. Will he give up, or then go and set up a different political shop?

And that is where our story is. In the lead up to 2001, there was something ripe in Uganda politics. Both internal and external pressures were making it impossible for the ruling NRM to maintain a one-party state under the so-called “no-party” system.

It needed to release the valve to ensure its long-term survival.
So, though they beat him down, Besigye helped the NRM in challenging Museveni, for he enabled it open the valve, and also a perfect excuse for Museveni to purge the party of those who had become lukewarm or disaffected. Then the party also rallied around Museveni.

My own sense is that without the spirited Besigye challenges of 2001 and 2006, the NRM would have collapsed in a big internal meltdown by 2011 and Museveni might not be president today. Or, at least, he wouldn’t be standing again next year.

My sense is that the Besigye threat in 2001 extended the NRM’s shelf life by between 15 and 20 years. On the other hand, though, as this column has noted before, it became easily the biggest driver for the opening up to multiparty politics in 2005.

Besigye might have been brazenly cheated in the 2001 and 2006 elections, but it is not certain that he would have beaten Museveni conclusively. For, if history does fashion roles for us, it probably never meant that Besigye be president. Rather, that he would force Museveni and the NRM to open up.

What then could be a historical role for Mbabazi? At first, it is not easy to see.
Changes in Africa, the shifting demographics in Uganda, the way the new world works, are rendering Museveni and the NRM irrelevant with every passing month.

Not that they are finished, no. However, any future for the NRM lies in a post-Museveni era, and a party that will be more naturally an evolved offspring from it, the way the Kadima party in Israel sprang from the Likud, or better still in the UK, how Labour morphed into Tony Blair’s New Labour.

The historical role that I read for Mbabazi is to fight the last internal battle of the Old NRM, to close shop on the last political divide of the NRM/NRA’s early 1980s Bush War.

We know that all revolutions that die must eat their children. The Mbabazists are the last children of the NRM “revolution” that have to be eaten.

But there is something good, if you look at all this in a big frame. In many ways, the NRM story was partly a challenge of what many honest scholars presented as “northern military domination”, a fact that seemed to be underscored by both the Lakwena and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army wars.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Third term: Why the good presidents must leave, and the bad ones may stay

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, June 10  2015 at  01:00

In Summary

Leaving power when you are in your best form does good - it raises the bar. Therefore, the president who should not have a third term, is the one who has done well


Africa is full of clever people, but we really let ourselves down, especially when it comes to politics. Right now, as happened in Uganda in 2005, it has all to do with presidential term limits.

Though I am a great believer in term limits, I would be quite happy with an African big man who came forward and said, as our own Godfrey Binaisa said memorably 35 years ago, that “’the presidential chair is sweet’, let me continue for more years because I like power”.

But that kind of honesty is rare, and a lot of effort goes into trying to justifying lifting term limits or perpetuating presidencies-for-life on the basis of some grand design or higher purpose.

Our good President Yoweri Museveni justified his on the basis of wanting to “modernise” and “industrialise” Uganda, and there have been times when he even said he wanted to make the Pearl a nuclear power. Many otherwise intelligent people accepted that, and argued that Museveni was indeed the only Ugandan who could deliver on those goals.

However, to modernise, industrialise, or become a nuclear power, if you can’t create a world-class education system, at least establish some world-class technology institutions (as Pakistan and India did).

However, that wonderful Uweza study that tracks the state of education in East Africa in its latest report, makes for very depressing reading. It found that 20 per cent of the kids in your average school in Primary Seven in Uganda were not able to comprehend a standard story from a Primary Two book!

If the term limits had been lifted to allow Museveni continue in power for power’s sake, we would not be judging him on the higher standard of how far he has gone in creating an industrialised African superpower. He would be getting 100 per cent for staying in power.

Burundi is in turmoil, and some hapless general even tried – and failed – to topple President Pierre Nkurunziza over this third term thing. Nkurunziza has been in power for two terms, as the constitution and the Arusha agreements that ended that country’s civil war over 10 years provide. On that, everyone agrees.

The disagreement is over when the two terms begin. For his first term, Nkurunziza was elected by Parliament. For his second, he was elected directly by the voters. He says the first term doesn’t count, because the people didn’t directly elect him.

Nkurunziza is the kind of guy who will look at the sky through a window, and then look at the same sky from out in the open, and say it is different. If Nkurunziza had said he was still young, his children hadn’t finished school, and he still wanted to enjoy power, he would have disarmed his opponents. Instead, he has got himself caught in his current absurdities.

However, the supporters of extending presidential terms would seem to have what at first looks like a good argument. Indeed, in Museveni’s case, some of his supporters invoked it – a good record (of course many thought he didn’t have one).

We are seeing it currently in Rwanda, as the country debates whether or not to amend the constitution, and allow President Paul Kagame run again in 2017 when his current term ends.
Basically, they ask, as sports fans do, “why change a winning team?”

“Why send home a president with a good record?”
There are two real problems with this argument. The first, again, comes from sports. It says that the best time to quit is when you are at the top of your game.

Nelson Mandela did it in politics, after just one term. He would have been re-elected with 70 per cent of the vote for his party even if he hadn’t campaigned for a single day. But he walked away, and became a saint.

Since that fraud of a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao is still fresh in our minds, the sport actually gives us one of the best examples. Rocky Marciano became immortalised partly because he is the only heavyweight champion to retire unbeaten.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Tribal politics: Here is a piece of advice for Museveni that he is free to ignore

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By Charles Onyango Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, June 3  2015 at  01:00

In Summary

Again, only those who wished to would opt in. Thus if you are from Soroti and you study there, you get a voucher worth, say, Shs180,000 a year. If, however, you decide to study in Masaka, you get a voucher worth Shs270,000. But if you decide to go to Fort Portal, you get a Shs360,000 voucher


I was confused. There was this story that President Yoweri Museveni had ordered the arrest of people who recorded then uploaded a “sectarian” audio message on social media, especially WhatsApp.

However, there was no one saying what actually the message was. In the end, I pieced together that the full-length audio played on some of the oldest and divisive prejudices the Bahima and Bakiga have of each other.

Beyond political competition and anger at what some see as the ethnic discrimination by the government, the fact that we are seeing the excavation and propagation of these extreme sectarian stereotypes should force us all to ask; “why?”

In Uganda, in the last 10 years, there has been regression. Some of the prejudiced comments on the Internet, would make our conservative grandparents flinch.

Part of it is that Museveni has, like other leaders before him, failed in the nation-building project. However, the underlying problems predate Museveni. Those who are charitable say he failed to solve them. Others believe he has made them worse.

In concrete policy terms, it is only Milton Obote who tried to solve them. His proposal was as insane as it was bold, and divided opinion. It was the Three-Plus-One election system that Obote devised for the 1971 election, and which didn’t happen in the end because our good friend Field Marshal Idi Amin stepped in and seized power.

The 3-Plus-1 (as others wrote it) system was convoluted, but there is a fairly good description and analysis of it in a paper by Matthijs Bogaards, of the University of Southampton, entitled “Electoral choices for divided societies: Moderation through constituency pooling and vote pooling”. Google it.
Under it, candidates would stand for election in four different constituencies at the same time: their “basic” constituency, and three “national” constituencies. The country was divided into four regions (North, East, West, and South) and each of the “national” constituencies had to be in a different region.
So if your “basic” constituency was Tororo, then you would have to stand in Arua Municipality, Hoima Municipality, and Kawempe Division.

The candidate who received the largest overall percentage of votes, combining the “basic” and the “national” constituencies, would win the seat in the basic constituency.

Every voter had four votes: one for a candidate in his basic constituency, plus three for national candidates of his choice.
Having just nationalised the economy and alienated the money classes, plus imposed a one-party State, and abolished kingdoms, Obote’s timing couldn’t have been worse.

However, his goal of forcing politicians and voters to think nationally was admirable. I don’t think it would have resulted in a fresh outburst of nationalism, just like Museveni’s order to arrest the latest ethnic entrepreneurs can only drive it further underground.

The reason is that people respond better to incentives, not threats or political tinkering.
For example, the older Catholic and Protestant churches did a lot to dilute ethnicity. How? Through the system of the transfer of priests, who in turn had to learn local languages and cultures to be successful shepherds of the flock.

As the late progressive political Chango Machyo and Omwony Ojwok never tired of telling those who could listen, the old bursary systems allowed many students to study far away from their homes, and to experience the rest of the country. This happens far much less these days.
Yet, we shouldn’t give up. There are a few things that could be done.

One quick route is through the judiciary. First, upon conviction by a court, prisoners should be given a chance to choose to serve their sentences in a jail in another part of the country. If you are convicted in Kampala for theft, and given six years, but agree to serve it in Moroto, then your sentence is reduced to three years.

Before long, you will have a complex system of people crisscrossing the country to visit relatives in far away off prisons, journeys that they otherwise wouldn’t have made. If the convict doesn’t want to go far away, that is fine, he stays and serves six.

Secondly, introduce a student voucher system for secondary and high school education, and reduce the current lump sum transfers to colleges.

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