Charles Onyango Obbo

Ebola and religion: Be warned, some ideas here have not been intelligently thought out

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo Ear To the Ground

Posted  Wednesday, October 15   2014 at  01:00

In Summary

So, looking at our disease future, as long as Muslims continue burying their dead quickly and washing incessantly, and the Asian-African Hindus continue cremating, they still have a better shot than Christians in dealing with viruses if they continue cuddling their dead irrespective of what killed them


The other day I passed through Entebbe airport. I have got the Ebola screening treatment at Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos, and Jomo Kenyatta International in Nairobi.
Without doubt Entebbe’s is the most aggressive of the three, complete with hand sanitiser – the only ones who do that bit. Clearly, as many observers have noted, because twice Ebola has struck Uganda, the country has gotten smarter at dealing with medical crises, and has got a cupboard full of donor-funded experts.
This, despite functioning in an environment where public health facilities have gone to the dogs, was evident in the handling of the latest outbreak of Marburg, that equally deadly stepbrother of Ebola. Clearly, some lessons were learnt in the October 2012 Marburg that killed 10 people.

Like Ebola, the Marburg virus is also transmitted via contact with bodily fluids and fatality rates range from 25 to 80 per cent.
The Ebola epidemic that has been raging in west Africa has so far claimed over 4,000 lives, with Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone worst hit.
But as we reflect on that, there is one case that is worth examining – Nigeria. Though parts of Nigeria are efficient, others are messy and the Goodluck Jonathan’s government is utterly incompetent at best.
Yet Nigeria all but stopped Ebola in its tracks, and other countries in the world, including the US, are sending their experts to learn the tricks. For me, one of the most striking photographs of the West African Ebola is probably, on the face of it, the least interesting. It shows the special Ebola hospital set up in Nigeria’s capital Lagos spanking clean, beds neatly laid out…and totally empty. It had no “customers”.
One might say it is not surprising in Uber governor Babatunde Fashola’s Lagos, where Ebola first landed in Nigeria. And, also, Nigeria won a geography lottery on this one – it doesn’t share a border with worst-hit Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone. Yes, but in the case of Lagos, it is a city of nearly 20 million people. Containing a disease like Ebola in such a place would be a nightmare for the most efficient African governor.
On geography, Cote d’Ivore shares a border with Liberia and Guinea, but it even suffered less Ebola than Nigeria and acted equally firmly. So did Senegal, which shares a border with Guinea.

I have a politically incorrect, and still shaky, theory. I think to understand diseases like Ebola in Africa; we need to look at the role of religion.
I first came to this view with HIV/Aids. Generally, Muslim or Muslim-majority countries were ravaged less by Aids. Striking, because Muslims – doctrinally – have a more generous view of polygamy than monogamy-preaching Christendom.
One possible explanation of this is something that I disagree with in orthodox Islam – the practice of controlling, especially, women’s sexuality. If a hardline cleric is going to sentence you to be stoned to death for sleeping around, as happened recently in al-Shabaab-held Somalia, you are likely to think twice about rolling in the hay casually.
However, that is probably the least contributing factor. The more critical ones are that good Muslims fast long and hard during Ramadan. I think that makes African Muslims more capable of discipline than Christians.
Secondly, the many rituals of washing and cleanliness associated with Islamic prayer means on the whole Muslims have higher hygiene than Christians.
But the biggest thing Muslims have going for them, is the practice of burying the dead quickly within 24 hours, without hanging around with the body for days, as we Christians do, with wailing mourners falling on it.
The only problem here is the numbers contradict my theory. For what they are worth, some Nigerian counts say Muslims are 50 per cent of the population, and Christians 40 per cent.

However, Muslims comprise about 85 per cent of the Guinea population. It should, if Muslim itself alone were a factor, have done better than Nigeria in fighting Ebola but, no, it has been a total disaster. So should Sierra Leone, where 60 to 70 per cent are Muslims.
Liberia, maybe, Muslims are 12 per cent, almost same as Uganda.
So what is going on? One, I think is a “West African problem” where there is what religious purists might call a “pagan” Islam, which dips its toes into superstition the way Christianity tends to do in some parts of Africa.
However, if we flip this, things looks bleak for Christianity because some of the new fundamentalist Born Again religions in Africa are even worse; they are against medicine, science, and prey financially on their flock.
So, looking at our disease future, as long as Muslims continue burying their dead quickly and washing incessantly, and the Asian-African Hindus continue cremating, they still have a better shot than Christians in dealing with viruses if they continue cuddling their dead irrespective of what killed them.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa ( Twitter:@cobbo3

Charles Onyango Obbo

How many Ugandan beauty queens does it take to grow rice for export to Nigeria?

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By Charles Onyango Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 29   2014 at  02:00

In Summary

Also, he always has spare trucks on standby to relieve the ones that break down; otherwise if he is late for the flight to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands, he takes a massive hit


First, congratulations to Leah Kalanguka, who tried her hand at growing mushrooms and raising chicken, entered the Miss Uganda contest, and won it.

And a cheer for the organisers of the contest, who themed it “promoting agriculture entrepreneurship among the youth”, a way of making farming glamorous to young people.

It is a noble goal, but is the wrong incentive. The winning formula is to make farming profitable.

I have a few friends who make money farming in both Kenya and Uganda. They are not glamorous. They wear khaki jackets, cargo trousers, heavy boots, curse, drive hardy old Landrovers and weathered pick-ups…but holiday in the Bahamas, and shop on Oxford Street in London.

Farming is not for stilettos, long polished nails, or a place where you can wear your jeans halfway your buttocks.
The reality is that the problem with farming in Uganda is not farming or farmers. The success to commercial farming is not in the gardens.

Some examples. I was on a trip with a top man in the largest meat processing firm in East Africa. Everywhere you go in East Africa, their products are in supermarket freezers.

I told him business must be good, they “own East Africa”. He told me, “no”, on the contrary they were operating barely at 40 per cent of their capacity. I was shocked. But what he told me next truly stunned me. He said if all the cows, chicken, and pigs brought to market in the whole of East Africa on any given day were consolidated and sold to them, their factory would still not be operating at 100 per cent.

Now that was surprising, because in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, farmers get peanuts for their animals because there is no market (and don’t mention the milk they pour away).

The problem, he told me, is that the apparent shortage is caused by infrastructure bottlenecks and the cost of transportation.

Then I had sat next to a flower farmer from the Rift Valley on a flight back from Amsterdam. He told me growing flowers, when you get the hang of it, is easy. It is getting to market that is a nightmare. Because of the state of roads from his farm to the highway to carry his flowers to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for export, he runs through lorry tyres every month.

Also, he always has spare trucks on standby to relieve the ones that break down; otherwise if he is late for the flight to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands, he takes a massive hit.

Also, he gives his drivers a certain amount of money to bribe the policemen along the way. If he doesn’t they will hold up his trucks and they miss the flight.

“What would happen if those problems were sorted, and fuel was cheaper,” I asked him.

He shifted in his seat, and said, smile on the face: “I wouldn’t be sitting next to you Charles. I would be flying my own private jet.”

Now our Nigerian brothers and sisters are good at many things. The one thing modern Nigerians aren’t good at is farming. Today, Nigeria is the world’s second importer of rice, after China. And it also imports Kenyan and Ethiopian flowers…. from the Netherlands.

Recently, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta travelled to Nigeria, to discuss with the Nigerians whether they could buy Kenyan flowers directly. Kenyans would make a fortune, and Nigerians could actually get fresher flowers cheaper.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Rub out Mbabazi, Uganda, and you get VP Mujuru and Zimbabwe in another African succession war

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 22   2014 at  01:00

In Summary

Mujuru is also vice president of the ruling ZANU-PF. She was in the bush, rising to junior commander of Mugabe’s ZANLA rebel forces, so you can say she fought for her place at the table


It is not only in Uganda where we are having succession battles in Africa. There are quite a few happening on the continent, but the one that has an uncanny resemblance to Uganda’s is Zimbabwe’s.

There, the equivalent of former Uganda prime minister Amama Mbabazi, who was hounded by a political lynch mob, before President Yoweri Museveni dealt him a coup de grace and axed him from the office, is vice president Joice Mujuru.

Mujuru is also vice president of the ruling ZANU-PF. She was in the bush, rising to junior commander of Mugabe’s ZANLA rebel forces, so you can say she fought for her place at the table.
And, to boot, she was married to Solomon Mujuru, who was a commander of ZANLA, and became a powerful politician after he left the army. Before his death in 2011, he was considered one of the likely successors to the 90-year-old Mugabe.

The front woman for the war against Mujuru is First Lady Grace Mugabe. Grace in turn is seen as a patsy for the ruthless Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, himself a veteran of the struggle.

In December, ZANU-PF will have its congress – around the same time our own National Resistance Movement (NRM) is scheduled to hold its own convention. Grace is on course to be elected secretary of women’s affairs of the ruling party – the equivalent of the head of the Women’s League that Mbabazi’s feisty wife Jacqueline holds in the NRM.

Some say Mnangagwa is being naïve if he thinks that Grace, as some speculate, will settle for the vice presidency – Mujuru’s position - in a post-Uncle Bob order, leaving him to be president. They argue that Grace wants the big job itself.

This has echoes, which were once loud but have gone a bit silent, that our own dear First Lady Janet Museveni, is orchestrating most of the succession drama behind the scenes, and wants to be president. As Mbabazi said, every Ugandan has a right to seek to be president, so why not?

Things get more eerily familiar. Mujuru is being accused by Mrs Mugabe of “creating and leading factions” inside the party, exactly the same “crime” that Mbabazi was accused of.

The interesting thing is that the people who make these accusations are themselves part of a faction, and in both Uganda and Zimbabwe, that faction is the First Family – led either by the president himself, or his wife, or his brother, or his son, or his daughter (as in Angola).

And it is this phenomenon that interests us, not who is right or wrong. From Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, we have seen that no party that came from the bush as an armed movement has lost power either through an election (thanks in part to the occasional vote fiddling), or through a counter-armed struggle – Riek Machar almost succeeded in South Sudan against Salva Kiir, but his sail seems to have run out of wind.

And there is the great irony. African liberation movements that are very difficult for the opposition to oust, don’t progressively grow into modern political parties. When the critical time comes for transition, they degenerate into narrow “familiocracies”.

In Ethiopia, where the mighty Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rules, even there, when the steely-fisted Meles Zenawi died in 2012, his powerful wife Azeb Mesfin came close to denying Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn the job.

In South Sudan, the charismatic late John Garang, effectively came into office with his wife Rebecca and sons…and they remain players in the nation’s troubled politics. This after nearly 30 years of struggle.

Even in South Africa, where the comparatively more enlightened African National Congress (ANC) reigns, in what critics see as one of the aberrations of the Jacob Zuma presidency, there is loose talk about him trying to position his ex-wife, African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to succeed him.
Now we have Zimbabwe, and of course Uganda where, if you step back and look beyond the Museveni household, even Mbabazi himself had/has his family up to their necks in NRM politics.

Why does this happen? It is simplistic to say the Big Men are greedy, and that corrupt First Families feel insecure and therefore want to continue in power when the chief passes on or steps down, to protect their wealth.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Flashback: Will Amama survive 2012? Yes, but he is now damaged goods (now he owes me coffee)

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 8   2014 at  01:00

Then prime minister Amama Mbabazi offered a good-natured response to this article when it was first published on January 4, 2012. He said: “Obbo’s analysis is right, but the conclusion is wrong” and, if I remember well, kind of put a bet on it. I think he owes me coffee, which I will be collecting on one of these days:
Amama Mbabazi survived a concerted onslaught for allegedly eating an oil bribe in 2011. Others like former Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa, and minister of State for Labour Mwesigwa Rukutana cut their losses and “stepped aside” to allow the storm to blow over.
Minister for the Presidency Kabakumba Masiko bit the dust over allegations that she used the transmitters of the State broadcaster UBC to profit her private FM station, and did not pay for the services.
The real prize in this long drama, will of course be Mbabazi. Interestingly, the action against Mbabazi is based on a claim by someone, who was told by someone, that Mbabazi was “eyeing a bribe” in the now murky oil business. That is like trying to censure someone for dreaming about a bribe!
So to understand what is really happening around Mbabazi, we need to look beyond the bribe allegation. Mbabazi is a shrewd and formidable political operative, but I sense that he has been sucker-punched this time.
First, I think a narrative that Mbabazi is a “divisive figure in the NRM” has now been well established. There was the sale of his Temangalo land to NSSF, which caused uproar in the NRM and the country, because many felt the price NSSF paid was too high. The issue divided NRM in the middle, and Amama survived in part because President Museveni backed him.
This “divisive Mbabazi”, who first truly emerged in the NRM conventions of 2005, continued through 2010, when he was forced into winning the Secretary-Generalship of the party for a second time in very acrimonious circumstances. That continued into the shambolic NRM 2010 grassroots elections in which he again emerged as the villain.
There is a widespread, and correct view that the kerfuffle around Mbabazi is all about the Museveni succession. Mbabazi is seen as now having fought his way to the top of the succession queue. Probably, but that is a pyrrhic victory because imagine the moment comes when a Museveni successor will be chosen. How do you think it will be done?
Everyone, including Museveni himself, will argue that what is required is a candidate who is not divisive, one who is a uniter, because it is the only way the NRM can win the next election (whenever that is). So every bruising battle Mbabazi has won in the last 12 years has been necessary for him to be disqualified as a Museveni successor.
In short, for the last so many years, Mbabazi has been played. And the support Museveni has given him at every turn was also necessary to raise jealousy and resentment against him as the President’s blue-eyed boy. Museveni is many things; the one thing he is not, is a fool. He is an adept political chess player.
But even without this, history is not in Mbabazi’s favour. Look at all the NRM politicians and UPDF officers who have been censured, survived attempts to censure them, or been embroiled in controversies or scandals —Jim Muhwezi, Sam Kutesa, Gen Salim Saleh, Kahinda Otafiire, and so forth.
They will return to Parliament, be reappointed ministers (Muhwezi, Kutesa, Saleh) or presidential advisers. The one thing that happens is that their star never again rises to the level of its heyday, and they will always be tripped up by another scandal or controversy (Muhwezi on GAVI, Kutesa on Chogm).
In Muhwezi’s case, we now know that while Museveni would defend him stoutly by day, by night State House would huddle with some of the MPs who were leading the censure motion against him in Parliament, and provide them with the ammunition for the next day’s assault.
This history is important because it reminds us that though the NRM government has bred the worst corruption Uganda has seen, and even if Museveni defends you, a corruption scandal is a kiss of death, because it is a tool that is used to sort out the political pecking order. If you survive it, you remain wounded forever.
There is something else about Mbabazi’s case. The political grapevine has it that after the elections [in 2011], he asked Museveni to be rewarded for the years of his unswerving loyalty to the President…
Museveni, the story goes, rewarded him with the prime ministership. Mbabazi thus became the first person appointed PM (or VP) by Museveni as a right, not a favour. Mbabazi cashed in a cheque he wasn’t supposed to. With that, he was handed a poison chalice to drink from.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA ( Twitter:@cobbo3

Charles Onyango Obbo

Elders say Amama ‘treated like a chicken thief’. What would a chicken thief say?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 1   2014 at  01:00

Ever since Amama Mbabazi was sacked as prime minister about two weeks ago, it is only right that the privileges he was enjoying as such be withdrawn.
But the way it is being done is small-minded petty vindictiveness. Taking pick-ups full of soldiers to disarm and withdraw, and calling journalists to witness it was designed to do nothing more than humiliate him. It was something that could have been accomplished by a phone call from the soldiers’ commanders. The people of Kanungu, from where Amama hails, have complained that he is being “treated like a chicken thief”.
Some of these things are, to use the expression, “unAfrican”. As President Yoweri Museveni never used to tire telling the nation, it is cowardly to attack a man from the back.
But, secondly, when you have thrown a man – or a woman – for that matter, you don’t follow them to the ground and bite them.
Former minister and East African Community secretary-general Amanya Mushega more than once gave me a good example of why it is good sense not to burn all of one’s boats, and common decency not to make your adversary desperate.
He and former Obote II minister Dr Adonia Tiberondwa, were on the opposite sides of a bitter political divide. Amanya was a member of Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) in the late 70s and start of 80s. Tiberondwa was a diehard UPC. The two men had married into the same family, so while they were bitter political rivals, they maintained a civilised decorum between them.
At the start of 1981, especially after Museveni started his bush war, a manhunt and crackdown of UPM luminaries started. Amanya was on the hit list. Feeling cornered, he sneaked and managed to get into Tiberondwa’s office.
As a good UPC man, Tiberondwa would have accumulated great favour by handing Amanya over. But he didn’t. He rushed him to the basement, put him in his ministerial Benz, and got him safely to the border. If Amanya had been foolish enough to burn all his bridges with Ado, he might not be alive today.
If Uganda’s history – and indeed even Amama’s own story - is anything to go by, no one stays up all the time. They eventually come down. And not everyone, whose odds look poor, stays down forever.
When the UPC came to power in that controversial 1980 election, and Museveni and his band went to the bush, they liked to dismiss him derisively as “a wobbly-legged, milk-drinking cattle herder who would be killed by mosquitoes in the bush”. Look who had the last laugh.
Now one time a Museveni minister who was fed with the corrosive political battles between the ruling NRM and the Uganda Opposition, asked me; “how do the Kenyans do it”. I gave her the “Kenyan formula”, the short of which is to always leave a big window open for the Opposition and not drive them into extremes; and not to interfere with their businesses.
A real example will suffice. The current opposition leader Raila Odinga was PM in the quarrelsome Mwai Kibaki-led Grand Coalition government whose life ended with the March 2013 election. Though Raila had been criticising the Uhuru Kenyatta government, last year when Kenya was marking its 50th anniversary of independence, his government asked Raila and former president Daniel arap Moi to inaugurate separate high profile development projects to mark the occasion.
Then there was a story in the Kenyan media that Ugandans might find bewildering. Raila’s officials claimed that he had been denied “VIP access” due to an opposition leader and former PM at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Government explained that that wasn’t true. One, that Raila still had full access to the VIP longue. Secondly, that what was at issue was that Raila wanted to drive in his convoy to the foot of the plane at the airport apron the way he used to when he was PM.
They said he could indeed drive to the apron, but in a single car.
Pose for a second, and think of what would happen if Amama tried to drive his car to the apron at Entebbe tomorrow.
One of the good things that has come out of this sordid, is a vindication of the policy to get rid of “government housing” for the big men.
If Amama were living in the official residence of the PM, they would also have thrown out his saucepans and mattresses on the street in the ultimate act of humiliation.
It’s interesting then the only person who would be thrown out of a government house if he were to lose, is the President.
So, we say to the Kanungu elders—even a chicken thief deserves to be treated fairly, according to the law.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA ( Twitter:@cobbo3