'Queen of Katwe’ and its roots in a 100-years-old Ugandan history

How much would the film try to “internationalise”, and how much would it be truly Ugandan and force the rest of the world to come to terms with that. Even I who is philosophically prepared to deal

Wednesday October 19 2016

Left to right: Queen of Katwe actors Madina

Left to right: Queen of Katwe actors Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo in one of the movie scenes. Courtesy photo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

So finally, I got to watch Mira Naira’s much-anticipated film “Queen of Katwe”.
Because it is based on Tim Crothers’ book “The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion”, for many such films are about how truthful they remain to the book.

For me, once I have read the book, I find it boring when a filmmaker stays faithful to it, so I always look for the new nuance, the creative licences, and the risks a director takes because that is what reveals their guts.
Straight out of the gate, a friend said, it was the first time she had watched a big Hollywood film – especially one set in a slum as Queen of Katwe is – “without a white saviour”.

Not only does it go against the dominant narrative where it’s the international charities that fight poverty in the desperate places in Africa, but it’s a big risk with the commercial success of the film in the Western markets, though Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are probably meaty enough in their own right to deliver many eyeballs.

So we tick that box. Lots of guts.
The next test was one of authenticity. How much would the film try to “internationalise”, and how much would it be truly Ugandan and force the rest of the world to come to terms with that. Even I who is philosophically prepared to deal with “Ugandan English”, was surprised how much of it made its way into the film.

Usually, the fear that it might come across as “too local” has led many filmmakers to scrub out the “native fingerprints”.

Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo totally ace the Ugandan accents and Ugandan mannerisms.
So we tick that box too. No scrubbing.

Third, and most difficult I thought, was how to avoid it being either a pity story or another stereotypical tale of African squalor.

The poverty, and dreariness were all there, yet somehow they didn’t get in the way.

“Queen of Katwe” is a story of 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her family. Her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess. Phiona becomes taken by the game and soon becomes a top player under Katende’s tutelage. Her success in local competitions and tournaments opens the door to a bright future and an escape for her family from a life of poverty.

But would it be a linear story, or take some surprising turns? Lupita Nyong’o (Harriet Nakku) is a strong woman, yet she battles with the moral dilemma presented to her by her older daughter Night, who brings money home that she got from a man she slept with.

She refuses it from her, but like the proverbial pragmatic Catholic bishop, accepts it when it is Phiona who passes it to her. Genius!

And while Phiona is a chess prodigy, luck also plays a large part in her fortunes. Coach Katende was just one such person in one slum, Katwe, married to the kind of big-hearted wife not everyone is married to.

In the process, Mira works in a subtle caveat on the “Phiona model” – it’s not the way in which the thousands of children in the slums and other desperate places will get of poverty. Where does the film come short? To me, it is in a part that perhaps would not have improved it to most viewers.

It could have used a greater sense of history. The triumph of Phiona, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Katwe as an important symbol of modern Uganda’s political life.

Katwe was the birthplace of insurgent ideas. On the margins of the colonial state, it is in Katwe that Ugandan nationalism was born.

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At 54, here are some unusual ways Uganda has changed

The State in Uganda today is quite minimalist, although, in a contradictory way, the number of State functionaries, including MPs, has shot up

Wednesday October 12 2016

President Yoweri Museveni swears-in at Kololo

President Yoweri Museveni swears-in at Kololo on May 12, 2006. Mr Museveni has been president for a better half of the 54 years of independence. File photo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Uganda celebrated its 54th anniversary of independence this week. So has the country changed in these 54 years?
Some things are still largely the same – Uganda’s “native imperialism”, beginning with Milton Obote 1’s incursion into the Congo, Idi Amin’s threats against Kenya and fateful foray into Tanzania. These instincts were taken to a new level by Yoweri Museveni – Congo, Sudan, Central African Republic, kind of in Rwanda, and Somalia, he actually projected an old Ugandan characteristic of its soldiery.

There is still the same nauseating nepotism in national government, the corruption (worse today, some argue), the violent treatment of the Opposition, the president-for-life politics, and so forth.

Yet, even in the politics, things have actually changed…even if in strange ways. There are at least 10 big changes, but we have space for three.

Staying with the political, in the early years of independence, Opposition politics was primarily a parliamentary affair. The shift ticked up considerably during Idi Amin’s military rule in part because, well, there was no Parliament.

However, the seeds had been sown in 1966 with the Milton Obote’s attack on the Lubiri and subsequent abolition of kingdoms. A militant underground movement took root in Buganda, with an active external wing based out of Nairobi.

After the ouster of Amin, and President Museveni and other leaders’ move to the bush after the 1980 election theft; and the NRM’s one-party state after it took power in 1986, the most significant Opposition politics in Uganda shifted outside Parliament.

Today, it only matters marginally what, for example, the Opposition FDC does in the House. The FDC leadership that the government focuses on, and the one that ultimately matters, is outside Parliament, especially people like the party’s presidential candidate Kizza Besigye.

Another major change is the office, or station, of the First Lady. First Lady Janet Museveni is very politically active, and in recent years she has been an elected MP and a minister, in a break with the past.

But there is also another difference. Miria Obote had brought a classical tradition to the State House, complete with an annual ball in black tie.

Surrounded by other “noble” women who knew the waltz and fox trot, they kept a certain style to State House. And Miria generally is a gentle spirit, often bringing back banana leaves for her friends from the village so they can make luwombo in purist tradition.

From Amin’s time, you can say we have had the common, or proletarian, touch in our First Ladies. If you are a traditionalist Africanist, that is probably a good thing. If you are an aristocratic snob, you might sneer.

One of the most dramatic changes has been in the economy. Driven by the economic liberalisation and privatisation of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the State has – commendably – retreated from a commandist role in the economy. The State in Uganda today is quite minimalist, although, in a contradictory way, the number of State functionaries, including MPs, has shot up. What that has done is increased the number of people leeching off the taxpayer, not expanded the State structures themselves.

It is like overloading a bus. The size of the vehicle itself doesn’t change.

The things post-independence “Africanisation”, Amin’s expulsion of the Asians and his plunder (or “allocation” to use the word of the time) of their property, have actually been achieved through liberalisation, and the survival from the inevitable carnage that came from the World Bank/IMF-driven structural adjustment programmes.

Uganda today is Africa’s leading coffee exporter, for example. Only a mad or drunk – man would have bet on that 20 years ago.

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Museveni needs inspiration? He should go to Tororo…and Nasser Road

I am going to go out on a limb here. If you want to find out how you can create wide 21st Century streets from nothing, go to my hometown of Tororo. Yes, Tororo.

Wednesday October 5 2016

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I am going to go out on a limb here.
If you want to find out how you can create wide 21st Century streets from nothing, go to my hometown of Tororo. Yes, Tororo.

In the last two years Tororo has been fidgeting with redoing its streets, and it is not finished yet. But the chap who designed them chipped a few inches off the sidewalks, got rid of islands, and lo and behold in the areas they have done, he has probably created the widest streets in Uganda.
The genius is that you see that the streets are dramatically wider, but you have to look hard to begin to figure out how they did it.

The problem, of course, is that many of the town’s buildings belong to the early 20th Century so the dissonance between the streets and the structures can be jarring.

The moral of the story is that simple genius, executed with little or no drama, can achieve huge results. It’s just that it is difficult to know where to look. Who would have figured that the smartest urban planner in Uganda would be some unsung chap in Tororo?
No one would benefit most from this lesson more than President Museveni.

The President has intensified his efforts to win over hearts in and around Kampala, areas that have politically rejected him and seem to be deeply in love with his nemesis Kizza Besigye.

In the process, he has been doling out money, and has attracted all sorts of crooks who have cheated him. To win Kampala’s heart, Museveni will still need money.

But he doesn’t have to carry sacks handing it out as patronage. To find the solution, he needs to do a Tororo thing – look in an unlikely place. He will have to go (secretly in an unmarked) to a place, where he probably has never been – to Nasser Street.

There is probably no main street that is as busy, and does high value business as Nasser in East Africa, that remains open as late and frenetic as it does.

Governments in East Africa have spoken of creating 24 hour economies, and have failed to do it in the centre of cities. You have 24 hour economies in the suburbs, but they revolve around bars and muchomo joints, petrol stations, and the odd supermarket.

However, the swath along Nasser, Market Street, Luwum, and Nakivubo can be the first successful 24 hour strip in a downtown area in our region. Why has Nasser happened? First, generally, Kampala enjoys advantages that other cities don’t have.

It doesn’t have some of the sophisticated infrastructure of Nairobi, nor the size, nor its cosmopolitanism, but it has nearly the same hunger, and far less crime – what you might call “normal” crime rates for a big city.

It is not organised and isn’t modernising the way Kigali is, but it has what Ugandan journalism lecturer at Rhodes University in South Africa Simogerere Kyazze called the “necessary messiness” that all enterprising cities need. Kampala is like a child born from an illicit liaison between Nairobi and Kigali.

It needs three things. Many of the businesses in that Nasser-Lumum Street close when they do because of transport.

Beyond a certain point, if you don’t have a private car and use public transport, you won’t get home.
The city centre needs a new and very different transport hub.

I used to be a fan of the Constitution Square, and considered it sacred. But perhaps the time has come to get rid of it. Not to build a mall, but a tram station.

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Why the traffic massacre on Uganda’s roads: The one reason no one talks about

Operation Fika Salama raises a broader question; why should the police have to intervene to stop people from killing themselves? Why can’t Ugandans just drive safely out of an intelligent choice?

Wednesday September 28 2016

Onlookers at the accident s

Onlookers at a recent accident scene on Masaka road. FILE PHOTO 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

So, according to early data, operation Fika Salama has stopped (at least for now) the carnage on Kampala-Masaka Road.

The car accident deaths on Masaka Road had become so high, one recent AFP account suggested it was the most dangerous in the world, after Bolivia’s Yungas Road, a notorious mountain pass better known as “Death Road.”

There are many things that have been blamed for the slaughter on Masaka Road. As the AFP report noted, “Witchcraft, poor roadwork and dangerous driving — all have been blamed for the killer highway whose users will often turn to prayer before taking the road.”

Even if all those things were true, and indeed we pay State authorities and the traffic police to ensure safety, the operation Fika Salama raises a broader question; why should the police have to intervene to stop people from killing themselves? Why can’t Ugandans just drive safely out of an intelligent choice for self-preservation?

There are many readers who will have had the experience in travelling in parts of the world where, without risk of being caught or reprimanded, drivers still respect traffic rules. I have been to rural parts of the US and Europe, and you are driving in a remote part, basically in the village.

You drive through a rural forested area, come to a small junction without lights. There is a small sign on the roadside that advises the driver to yield for a minute in case of oncoming traffic. The place is as silent as a cemetery, and the driver stops, with his eye on the dashboard clock, and only takes off after a minute.

In Kampala, Nairobi, or most other African cities and countries, that would be greater than a miracle. We not only disregard traffic lights, but even when a policeman is added, he is lucky to go home without being run over.
It seems then something deeper is going on here. And for that reason, I will go back a few years and introduce Nardos Bekele-Thomas.

The Ethiopian-born Bekele-Thomas is currently coordinator of the United Nations System and Resident Representative of the UNDP in Kenya.

I first met her in Kampala at the end of the 1990s where she was working for the UN.

One time I was interviewing her and she dropped something casually that violently jolted my mind. She said, during the early years of strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam’s rule in Ethiopia, the level of literacy rose sharply. By the time of the fall of Mengistu in 1991, the literacy level had fallen off.

I thought she was going to blame the decline on the Ethiopian civil war. She didn’t, and that is what surprised me. She said she was more interested in functional literacy, that dropped dramatically because “people didn’t have an opportunity to use their education, and when that happens people basically become ‘illiterate’ again”.

As anyone who has watched politics closely knows, she was probably right. Educated people can very easily become buffoons.

I took her view and put against that of one of my graduate school professors in Cairo, who once told us in a seminar that the reason traffic in the Egyptian capital was maddeningly unruly, is because the country “didn’t have a technological culture”.

I have written about it before, and there is a part of it that sounds racist. He was an Egyptian himself, so I gave him a pass on it.

So we come back to the carnage on the Kampala-Masaka and other roads on this our fair continent. I think the absence of a technological culture, and the fact that drivers don’t have to use the slightest bit of their education to navigate our roads, contributes something to the traffic tragedies.

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Are Uganda’s MPs greedy, or is it our country that has changed?

Ugandans are up in arms after Parliament budgeted Shs67.7m on burial expenses for each MP who dies

Wednesday September 21 2016

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Ugandans are up in arms after Parliament budgeted Shs67.7m on burial expenses for each MP who dies.

It seems what made this particularly difficult to swallow is that a few a days earlier the same Parliament had passed a budget of more than Shs 64 billion for the purchase of vehicles for MPs of the 10th Parliament.

At the rate Parliament is going, it might not be surprising if next year they introduced a wedding allowance for the single MPs who get hitched – or veterans who divorce and remarry.
Outrageous as these things are, however, they are fairly common even in private companies.

What is telling is how Parliament has decided to deal with. It is a smart thing to prepare for death. In Africa, perhaps the people who do it best are the South Africans.

There are about 19 million South African adults who are insured (50 per cent of the population), but the majority are only insured for funerals.

Our Parliament should have borrowed a leaf from there – make reforms that grow the insurance market and buy funeral insurance for MPs. It is cheaper, and some of the money could actually go to their families.

And that is the interesting point here, why don’t the MPs do that? The answer leads us to something bigger than Parliament.
In the early days of The Monitor, a bunch of us six idealistic guys owned it. It seemed the right thing to do to have a car allowance for the directors, who were also owners. It was our money, after all.

In 2000 Nation Media Group bought into Monitor. The “historical” directors’ car scheme remained, but it changed into an interest-free loan. It was not just because we no longer owned everything the issue went to fundamental differences about the way “old” Kenyan capitalism and Uganda’s post-1986 variety viewed wealth.

Old Kenyan money thinks the best thing is to make a company profitable, pay the owners a handsome dividend from the profit at the end of the year, and they can buy a car of their choosing. Also pay workers good bonuses, and from it they could retire their loans, including the cheap car loans.

At base, what they fundamentally changed were the incentives.
Now, theoretically, they focused those who were minded to work toward profitability and growth, because it was the only way they could get the dividends and bonuses.

We shall not judge today how that turned out, but these differences are not small. Today, I am doing a media startup again, and I would not even dream of going for the model we used in our early inexperienced years at The Monitor.

At the political level what is happening in Parliament is not much different. To appreciate it, let’s go back to the making of the 1994-95 Constitution.

Though it was leftist in its thinking about “giving power to the people” in the Resistance Councils, when it moved to the centre and embraced free market economic policies from 1988, the NRM maintained the logic of the people being at the centre of things, and owning the factors of production.

The 1995 Constitution thus declared, for example, in a rarity for Africa, that the land in Uganda belongs to the people!
It was a specific concept of citizenship – that Uganda, its economy, and so forth, was what its people, not the government or the rulers, made it. Truly revolutionary stuff.

In recent years, we have seen a big reversal. A re-growth of the state, an attempt to roll back even the people’s rights over land.
Compare for example that by the end of the 1990s, there was a consensus of sorts that our ethnic make-up and the geographical areas where we lived needed to be united as markets.

That has changed now, and instead we have a record 116 districts, tribal hamlets. The majority are new, and some are undermining the idea of a national market for goods and services (Kiga labour is chased from Bunyoro because they are bafuruki). We were supposed to be sovereign entrepreneurs in that business market. Today the main market that exists is the political market. Most young Ugandans don’t know a rich man or woman who didn’t start by stealing from the government or a State parastatal (or NGO), or made money doing anything else other than selling stuff – or air - at inflated prices to the State.

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The ‘South Sudan Report’ and the morality of profiting from a neighbour’s misfortune

The “Rwandaphonie” business people in eastern DR Congo stash their money in Rwanda, because there, it is safe from seizure from the bouts of “anti-Tutsi” politics that often erupts there.

Wednesday September 14 2016

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The much-anticipated report on corruption and war-profiteering in conflict-wracked South Sudan was published on Monday.

Produced by investigative unit “The Sentry” co-funded by American actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast, it spent two years following the money trail.

It reports some extraordinary looting, nepotism, and corruption by the South Sudan political and military elite who have made themselves rich while the country has been impoverished by a civil war of their making.
There are no saints and villians, both President Salva Kiir and his former deputy and rival Riek Machar have their snouts in the murk.

The report makes for sad reading, but one cannot help reflect on the ways in which South Sudan is different from almost every country in the region. Almost everywhere else, you have a few years of idealism and an attempt to do good after independence or liberation. Then the “revolution” stalls or is hijacked, and the corruption starts. No such thing for South Sudan.

The new country hit the ground stealing, so to speak. The other thing, which shouldn’t really be surprising, the report says the top leaders in the country have invested in property in neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. It also says that they have interests in Australia.

Army Chief, Gen Paul Malong, also the grand polygamist of Juba, and the man blamed for a lot of the recent madness in the country, has at least two luxurious mansions in Uganda in addition to a $2m mansion in Nairobi.

It’s last bit that interests us most today, because Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia have also been the regional mediators.
If you are God-loving or a human rights activist, you would find something terribly wrong with that because it seems the three countries are actually profiting from the conflict in South Sudan, so how can they be expected to go the extra kilometre to make peace there. And wouldn’t the ability of the belligerents to invest in these countries give them an easy way out and thus remove the incentive for them to compromise for peace?

However, the South Sudan conflict has also stunk up the neighbourhood, increased regional risk, and taken away some points from its attraction as an investment destination. The loss, some economists argue, is higher than the gain. But if you flip the argument, you could argue that because neighbouring countries also get refugees (as dramatically illustrated in Uganda’s case with the new flood of South Sudanese refugees), suffer from loss of trading opportunities, and are hit by the “stink factor” referred to earlier, they deserve some “compensation”.
Profiting from a neighbour’s misfortune is one way of doing this.

These events, however, also point to some changes in our region, as indeed the rest of Africa, since the economic liberalisation wave kicked off at the end of the 1980s.

There are more private businesses, more rich people, and more thieving politicians who are skimming off the fat.
All these people now need “first stop” destinations where they hedge against future instability at home, a place where they can keep their money, buy expensive homes.
Next, they move to “second stop” destinations – London, Geneva, New York – where they stash their wealth to hedge against the bigger “Africa risk”.

For this reason, it has become important for countries to invest in “stability” in ways it wasn’t 30 years. The reward for being viewed as stable can be huge – both honest and crooked people – will take their money out of their countries and put it in yours, giving your economy – especially the banking sector – a liquidity boost. If you get it wrong, like South Sudan has, everyone will steal and take their loot out. It’s a diverse business with a grey (or even dark) side, because you don’t just need stability. You also require a certain permissiveness that guarantees these people who bring their money confidentiality. In otherwords, that no one in Kampala will come to ask Malong where he found the $2 million to buy his villa.

For example, it is said that Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, the anti-corruption republic, has not really ended corruption as such, it has driven a lot of it off the radar. So what do Rwanda’s corrupt do? They use Uganda and Kenya as their “first stop” destinations to stash their “unexplained surplus”. On the other hand, the “Rwandaphonie” business people in eastern DR Congo stash their money in Rwanda, because there, it is safe from seizure from the bouts of “anti-Tutsi” politics that often erupts there.
So there is that bit - a “first stop” destination can also be a sanctuary. It’s complicated.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the editor of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3

Phew! Here’s how much the world has changed since Cranes made AFCON finals

I was driving to Entebbe early last Sunday evening, and the first half of the historic clash between The Cranes and Comoros to qualify for the African Cup of Nations had just ended.

Wednesday September 7 2016

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I was driving to Entebbe early last Sunday evening, and the first half of the historic clash between The Cranes and Comoros to qualify for the African Cup of Nations had just ended.

I can’t remember a time when Ugandans were so collectively ecstatic, totally crazy, and had so much belief. For many reasons, The Cranes have become the national big fix.
I posted a poll on Twitter asking, “Who are East Africa’s most badass football fans?”

There were 842 votes by the time the poll closed exactly 24 hours later on Monday – no vote fiddling and election officials that can’t read maps here.

The result? Ugandans- 65 per cent. Kenyans 21 per cent. Tanzanians 9 per cent. Rwandans 5 per cent.

When the final whistle was blown, The Cranes had floored Comoros 1-0. Not a killer punch, but a winning one, enough to take us to the AFCON finals for the first time since 1978.

Now, you might say it was inevitable the Ugandan fans would win the poll, but no. My experience is that when a matter involves East Africans, we generally tend to vote fairly in these online polls. In other words, East Africans don’t always vote for themselves when they don’t think they deserve it.

A few days earlier, I had asked again on Twitter; “Kenya is East Africa’s top start-up nation. Who’s most likely to oust it from the EAC lead?”

This article was written Monday evening with two days to go, but this was the result: Rwanda – 58 per cent; Uganda – 24 per cent; - Tanzania – 18 per cent.

Again, smells like a reasonable vote.
The Cranes is an unusual creature. It’s probably the last national institution in the country that is not only most representative of the “face of Uganda”, but it and a section of places like Makerere University, is one the last standing public meritocracies in the land.
Their qualification to AFCON finals is therefore worth a lot. Which is one of the reasons we referred to it as “historic”. To better illustrate that, let us look at how the world has changed since we last qualified.
•It was 12 years before the Internet, as the World Wide Web, was invented in 1990.
•It was six years before the CD-ROM was invented in 1984.
•Perhaps one of the most remarkable things is that it was four years before Aids was first identified in Uganda in 1982.
•It was 12 years ahead of the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
•Our man in Zimbabwe, Uncle Bob Mugabe, is 92-years old and has been in power since 1980, the fourth longest-ruling African Big Man. But that Cranes slot in the 1978 finals, was two years before Mugabe “ate the chair”.
•Today, the population of Uganda is 40.32 million. In 1978 there were “only” 11.82 million of us.
•At that time, the Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony was 17 years. Commander-in-Chief Yoweri Museveni was a youthful 34. While we are on the subject, we might as well say that Kizza Besigye was 22 – and his and Museveni’s paths hadn’t crossed yet.
•The Cranes played in the finals six months before Idi Amin’s fateful invasion of Tanzania in October 1978, and his army’s occupation of the Kagera Salient. You can see that our imperialist tendencies didn’t start a few years ago. They go way back, as The Crusaders song would say.
•The Cranes head coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic was a small kid of nine with a running nose.
•No member of the qualifying Cranes squad had been born. We are still checking, but we have not found evidence yet that any of their parents had even met by then.
•In 1978 Uganda had 20 districts. That number has grown nearly six fold to 116 today. In other words, apart from our international borders, the mountains and hills, and big rivers and lakes, there is no relationship at all between the political map of Uganda today and that of 38 years ago.
•AFCON 1978 was played between March 5 and March 16. It’s interesting what the most popular songs in the world, including Uganda, then were. The song that ruled February 1978 and ushered in March was “Stayin’ Alive” by the pop music group Bee Gees.
As the tournament was played, it gave way to “Love is thicker than water” by, again, the Bee Gees. And as the tournament ended, another Bee Gees song, “Night Fever” become the big hit.

On Sunday, Ugandans gave the Cranes love that was thicker than water. The victory set off some very high Sunday night fever.
Now all the Cranes have to do in Gabon next year is to stay alive, and the thing is ours.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapedia and Africa explainer Rogue Chiefs.


Africa’s next frontier: A Nairobi letter to President Museveni

In Uganda, we are still functioning with an old fashioned mid-20th Century Conference Centre, which is not possible to rig up with all the new clever conference tech

Wednesday August 31 2016

President Kenyatta (R) and President Museveni

President Kenyatta (R) and President Museveni in Nairobi. PPU photo  

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

President Yoweri Museveni attended the just-ended Tokyo International Conference for Africa’s Development (TICAD), in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. I would have wished to give him this letter.

It’s for a good reason, one would say, but working in Nairobi has become nearly impossible the last couple of months. Every few days, roads are closed because a Big Chief or a global conference is in town. And with that, an already nightmarish traffic gridlock gets worse.

So why is this resurgence happening in global activity in Nairobi? It’s a long story, but partly to understand it, we need to jump to the central African edge of the East African Community, to Rwanda.

Rwanda has also become a big conference scene, and though small, the things it has done with its relatively new national airline Rwandair, and the massive policy and infrastructure investment it has made to become an attractive international conference venue, it was threatening to eat all of Kenya’s lunch.

With its new Convention Centre, and the big remake of an already well-functioning Kigali for the July African Union meeting, Rwanda with that stroke has become easily the most competitive conference venue between here and Cape Town.

The difference is that Rwanda has had to work hard for it; Nairobi is a more “natural” city to do these things, all it had to do is make it easy. The result is obvious. When I first came to Nairobi some years ago, in the space of a month I would have been to all the top hotels in the city. Today, there are so many new international hotels, I have not been to three quarters of them.

In Uganda, we are still functioning with an old-fashioned mid-20th Century Conference Centre, which is not possible to rig up with all the new clever conference tech. And we are missing out in the conference feast. We should style up, because for Nairobi and Kigali, the conference business is something bigger.

So what is happening? First, as immigration and terrorism become ever bigger global issues, they are impacting how the world meets and discusses. It is important to understand this, because if you do you will figure that it will also lead to a new kind of regional balkanisation.

While, to the annoyance of radical pan-Africanists China, India, Japan, and the US will continue to hold “African conferences” to which all our leaders gather to be told how to develop the continent, increasingly these kinds of events will take place in Africa.

The conference business is therefore not a passing cloud. There is a long-term shift that makes it good investment, because it will be around for a while.

Secondly, while the Internet has reorganised the way the world works and trades in, especially, “digital” goods, these goods still have to be physically transported. That book you ordered from Amazon still has to be sent to your physical address in Kampala.

And that growing trade with China, well, someone still has to carry back the flasks, fake hair, and bad furniture. There is a kind of trade route winding around the continent, and it is being defined by airlines like Emirates, Qatar, Turkish Airlines, in addition to the older ones like British Airways, although the latter hasn’t spread much.

The real trick, though, is how to get people and goods around Africa once they land on the continent. For that, the national airlines of Africa do the donkey work.

Right now the continent has four workhorses – Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, South African Airways, and Rwandair.
If you are coming to a conference in Africa, or flying goods around, the chances that you will use one of these airlines is probably 75 per cent. It’s no accident that Cape Town/Johannesburg, Ethiopia, Nairobi, and Kigali are also the leading conference hubs on the continent.

Conference economics creates the infrastructure – better airport facilities, hotels, etc., - that is good for travel and business. But most critically, as intra-Africa trade grows and more and more countries make it easier for Africans to come in and out, the winners are going to be the countries that make themselves part of the pipeline for that trade.

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