Charles Onyango Obbo

Everywhere in Africa, there are new sheriffs in town: Meet The Consultants

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 25   2016 at  01:00

In Summary

...intellectual power has migrated from the universities to these consultancies. Look at it this way. How many traditional African intellectuals spoke at the recent World Economic Forum Africa in Kigali? And how many consultants? I can tell you, the consultants won hands down.

With all the political drama in Uganda, and the region, the other day I got an important, but probably boring, email from a good man.
He had been in one of the big Western capitals and got into an argument about African intellectuals. His view was that there was a whole new crop of African intellectuals, but international organisations (e.g IMF and World Bank) and the global companies that are now trooping to Africa, are not using them. Instead, they continue to use Western intellectuals and policy wonks to fashion approaches in and for Africa.
Apparently, he thought the people he was discussing with would be a little embarrassed, leave it there, and forget his arguments.

The opposite happened. They took him very seriously. So they said they were going to change their approach on a big Africa programme they were working on. Things got more complicated: they asked him for a list of these African intellectuals.
But being a clever chap, he played for time and promised them he would not bother them with a laundry list of these African intellectuals then, but would get back to them with an email. And that is how I became his victim. He wanted some help.

Now these things are like the sun. If someone asks if the sun is yellow, deep beige, orange or red, you will stop and think about it. For while we live with the sun everyday of our lives, very few spend time nailing down precisely what it’s colour is.
So it is with my good man. He knows of many top notch African intellectuals, but he has never kept a list of them. Fortunately, I do.
When I looked at the list closely, though, something I had never fully recognised struck me. Be it Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and other countries on the continent, the leading intellectual voices today are no longer professors or researchers at universities.

The majority of them are consultants.
How did we get to this point? When Africa was a big mess in the 1970s and 1980s, with incompetent military dictatorships and one-party states, NGOs – most foreign – started to germinate everywhere in the continent to do things that these governments could no longer do. Things like immunise children, build schools, provide clean water, and so on.
In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, two things happened. First, there was the necessary restructuring of the State (retrenchment and so on), which came with economic liberalisation and privatisation.

These turbo charged the growth of NGOs and civil society, because there was a lot of thinking and serious argument about policy, and how to reduce the carnage that followed the dismantling of the old State structures.
Then HIV/Aids came in the 1990s, and we were plunged into apocalyptic mode. Not only did our societies look like they might perish, but the old institutions like family, that had withstood war and dictatorship, frayed badly. And poverty took a new more frightening form.
Globally, that opened the floodgates for a lot of donor and other international money to flow into the NGO and civil society sector, and with it the best brains migrated into these areas.

Thus as we entered the 2000s, the best minds about fighting HIV/Aids, or tackling corruption were not in government, but in NGOs and civil society. It was the first phase of the shift of the balance of intellectual power from the State.
As Africa put HIV/Aids behind it, and the fruits of 1990s economic reforms started to come online, the State in most of Africa had money thanks to the growth of business taxes, but not enough intellectual resources.
That was available in the form of, mostly, foreign consultancy groups. Then we Africans got into the act, and everyone became a consultant.

With the growing influence of extremely rich donor organisations like the Bill Gates Foundation that had arisen out of late 20th Century fortune, their preference for tapping intellectual resources outside the State, only gave wings to the rise of the consultancy industry.
Because consultancies were businesses, many led by young people, and also not regulated by NGO laws, they were more nimble and able to adapt to globalisation.
To survive, professors too became consultants.

There were some good effects of this, because academia was brought a little closer to real life problems, but we will have to wait for a few more years to pass a final verdict.
One senses though, that intellectual power has migrated from the universities to these consultancies. Look at it this way. How many traditional African intellectuals spoke at the recent World Economic Forum Africa in Kigali? And how many consultants? I can tell you, the consultants won hands down.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

Think for a minute, what will be happening around Uganda by 2020

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 18   2016 at  01:00

In Summary

The country that takes the prize in this innovation contest is the one that shifts regional talent and their equipment through new railway and road networks, and brings them together with the global wave, through modern airports.

Uganda is pre-occupied with the oppression business, but still few would have missed the announcement by Rwanda a few days ago that it has decided to develop a rail link to the Indian Ocean through Tanzania. Kigali said it is because that option was cheaper and shorter than the route through Kenya.
Why is this important? Because in 2013, when Presidents Yoweri Museveni, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame were meeting virtually every two weeks in what the media came to call “the coalition of the willing” to turbo charge regional infrastructure projects, the three agreed to link up to the Kenyan port of Mombasa along a standard-gauge railway estimated to cost $13 billion.

The Dar es Salaam-Isaka-Kigali/Keza-Musongati standard gauge railway project is expected to be completed by March 2018 and is estimated to cost $5.2 billion. This will be yet another boost to Tanzania, and a feather in the cap for its disruptive president John Magufuli. In March, Tanzania and Uganda agreed to build a $4 billion pipeline to transport crude oil from Kabale to Tanga Port in Tanzania.

Uganda chose the Tanzania route, saying it was cheaper than the Kenyan one, had more access infrastructure, and presented fewer complications in securing land for it.
It is not a loss to Kenya, as Rwanda says it will continue using Mombasa too, so it is more a two-port strategy, than an exclusive shift to Dar es Salaam.
This column on April 20, 2016 (See “If you think the Uganda pipeline is about a pipeline, you are dead wrong”) looked at how Magufuli has pushed along forces that were already at play in the region. It noted that the East African logic of the last 20 years, was based on the fact that Tanzania would always be lukewarm towards the East African Community (EAC), and have its heart more in the Southern African Development Community.

Since the death of Nyerere in 1999, there had been a growing anti-Rwanda sentiment in the Tanzanian establishment, which reached its worst point under former president Jakaya Kikwete.
When Magufuli went to Rwanda in April, his first trip as president since he was sworn in in November, and attended the 22nd genocide memorial, you could say it sealed the railway deal. Kigali pulled out all the stops for him.
Today, we will not dwell on the politics. We will focus on a spin off. Rwanda did the same thing with its fibre optic link to the Indian Ocean, building a connection through Uganda and Kenya, and through Tanzania.

In several ways, then, its railway, like the Uganda oil pipeline, is going to shape the “innovation corridors” in the region. To begin with, new train services will soon not make sense, if they don’t have Internet.
With free movement of East Africans across borders, the places with the fastest and cheapest Internet connection will be the ones to which innovative young East Africans who can only afford bus and ticket fare can get to quickly and affordably.

The Kenya-Uganda Railway had a great impact on how industries were located, and several towns emerged in Uganda along it. But also, how cosmopolitan those towns became. Thus outside Kampala, Lugazi, then Jinja, and Tororo, were the cosmopolitan towns in the sense of having other East Africans working there, and by extension also determined the shape of the early trade union movement in the country.
The modern-day equal phenomenon, we believe, will be determined by the confluence of fibre optics, railway lines, and air travel. It is significant that Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda all have ambitious plans to expand their airports, and they are in various stages of completion.

Uganda has something on paper, but has not broken ground. With the present political climate, it will probably be a while before there is a return to enlightened government and a focus on building things that make the economy competitive.
In any event, the investments in airport expansions and redevelopment recognise that global talent is on the move, and those who will win the innovation game are the ones who will have the means to move and collect them in one place.
Also note that all the East African countries (minus Burundi and South Sudan) are also in a race to develop their own technology cities.

The country that takes the prize in this innovation contest is the one that shifts regional talent and their equipment through new railway and road networks, and brings them together with the global wave, through modern airports.
With broadband, all the winners have to do is sit back, let the people get on with it, as it watches the magic unfold.
Good people, a lot of stuff is bubbling below the surface.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

In the war between Museveni and FDC, here is a lesson Mandela taught us

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 11   2016 at  01:00

So, ahead of the swearing in of Mr Yoweri Museveni, the crackdown on the Opposition has been upped, with people like out-going Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Mr Wafula Oguttu, being blockaded in his house.
On his Facebook, Mr Oguttu also alleged that FDC’s feisty head of mobilisation, Ms Ingrid Turinawe, had been “abducted” on Sunday night.

Of course, the party’s presidential candidate in the controversial February election, and long-term Museveni rival Kizza Besigye, still has his home in Kasangati besieged.

This clampdown is part of the overall suppression that the Opposition has faced, but in this specific case, it relates to fears that they might disrupt Museveni’s swearing-in. FDC has vowed to carry out a campaign of ‘defiance’.

History is full of cases of leaders who took a different path. South Africa’s iconic Nelson Mandela was one of them. One could dismiss Mandela’s velvet-handed dealings with his apartheid jailors as shrewd political calculation, or even a pragmatism imposed by the realities of South Africa at the end of late 1980s and the 1990s. But let us look at an incident where Mandela disarmed a small, but difficult customer – a sweet but crying child.

Many Ugandans, like New Vision chief Robert Kabushenga, know and are friends with South African Jay Naidoo. Naidoo is currently chair of the board of directors and chair of the partnership council of the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and also of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
Many people first got to know of Naidoo at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle when he was secretary of the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions.
After Mandela became president, Naidoo was a minister in his office, and later minister of Post, Telecommunications, and Broadcasting - the time many of us got to know him personally. He has been a favourite of the pan-African intellectual circle since.

One evening two years ago, I was having dinner with Naidoo outside Johannesburg, and we got to talking about what was “Mandela’s secret”. It was then that he said Mandela, intrinsically, had become very good at disarming people.

He told the story of a big rally Mandela addressed in his early days in office. Naidoo went to the rally with his wife and toddler son. They sat in the pavillion some rows behind Mandela.

Naidoo’s son, otherwise a quiet chap, decided to raise hell and wailed so loudly that the proceedings had to be interrupted. Embarrassed Naidoo made to rush with the crying child off stage.

Mandela, who had now turned his back to face him, stopped him. He beckoned to him to bring the boy over. He carried and put him on the pulpit next to his notes, and continued talking. The chap leaned over, put his head on Mandela’s chest, and lay still until the great man finished speaking, and handed him over to Naidoo.

It was an amazing episode, and something most people would have thought to be a deadly gamble. But Mandela figured that in a big event, Naidoo’s boy felt marginalised in a very serious way. All he did was give him a piece of the action.

Which brings us back home. From just before the election, during, and after, the repression of the FDC by the Museveni government hit insane levels rarely before seen.

But in so doing, all they have done is rob Museveni’s “victory” further of legitimacy. The narrative that has taken shape now is that the vote so stolen, and rests on such rickety legs, if the Opposition is left free, they can easily expose it as a fraud, even by kneeling down to pray and crying a few tears of distress, as FDC president Mugisha Muntu famously did recently.

The President and his side have struggled badly to own the story of the election, and the state of Ugandan politics today, they need force to even the playing field.

Now assume top FDC leaders, including Besigye, had been given VIP invitations to the Museveni swearing in, what would have happened? Arguing that they would be giving credibility to a rigged victory for Museveni, they would most probably stay away. But they are already saying that anyway.

However, it would have added something new to the conversation. FM talk-show call in programmes would be heated, with some arguing that FDC was being petty and bad mannered by not showing up. And was Museveni offering an olive branch? Why?

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Charles Onyango Obbo

This country has changed, now Ugandans fight over prayers!

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 4   2016 at  01:00

In Summary

I can imagine Ugandans who are atheists asking themselves; how do I fit in this new country?

So, basically, the government has banned the Opposition from praying. It sealed off the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) headquarters in Najjanankumbi yesterday, so that FDC could not assemble to pray.
On the other hand, of course, FDC’s prayers are not ordinary prayers asking the good Lord to forgive the sins of the members. In summary, in praying for the country, FDC is saying President Yoweri Museveni’s misrule has become a kind of Biblical plague upon the nation, and things are so desperate it needs the additional support of divine intervention to lift the torment.
Or, perhaps more threatening to the political narrative, that the Museveni regime should, like the Egyptians in the good book, release the Israelites (ordinary Ugandans) from slavery.

Now all that wouldn’t bother Museveni and his government too much. Except, of course, implicit in it all is that God has moved from the Museveni family column, to FDC’s. In recent years, State House, with a very saved First Family (or sections of it), are seen to have tried to appropriate God.
What is, therefore, fascinating is how religion has become central to Uganda’s politics – again. The colonial project was, partly, a religious project.
The British colonialists, and missionaries, outlawed Ugandan traditional spiritual practices as pagan worship. Some of the missionaries might have been in it for religion, believing the God of the Bible was the real thing, and our thing in the banana plantation was quackery.

But Kabaka Mwanga, who was to order the execution of the Uganda Martyrs toward the end of 19th Century, understood that there were political implications. The very idea of a higher god immediately reduced the standing of the Kabaka as the “final man”, while creating an alternative authority to which his subjects pledged their loyalty.
Mzungu religion (as Chango Machyo used to call it) is hierarchical – with parishioners, lay leaders, priests, bishops, archbishops, Pope (in the case of Catholics), then God himself up there. The thing about this is that it mirrors the structure of earthly power – the masses, the LC1, LC2 up to LC5, CAO, RDC, all the way to minister, prime minister, up to the President as the Total Big Man.

African traditional priests, or what some call witchdoctors and their ilk, subverted that linear structure. There was no Chief Witchdoctor, the way we have a president or archbishop. Every witchdoctor or traditional priest was master of his shrine. And he didn’t control territory. Villagers were free to go to the witchdoctor of their choosing, depending on reputation and speciality. The spiritual services they provided were, therefore, offered in a very competitive market.
But it was also something else; it was profoundly democratic. To organise the modern state, seize control of its productive resources, and to concentrate power in a president – or earlier king in Uganda or of England - therefore necessarily required that traditional religious be smashed.

We say this not as advocates for the witchdoctor, but to explain why radicals and leftists in Uganda (think pre-1996 Museveni) have historically been critical of mzungu religion, and sometimes embraced the traditional thing. It is because it is a popular democratic position, and a challenge to power as currently constituted and concentrated in State House.
We can now see what makes the current ban on FDC prayers unusual. It is the first clash we are having where one political wing, which practices mzungu religion and sees itself as its custodian, is stopping another from also practicing the same mzungu religion, because it fears it will take away moral authority from it.

There are many ways to interpret this. If you agree that historically our views on the role of religion represents a substantial philosophical divide about power, then one conclusion could be that the clash over prayer indicates how much the concerns of ordinary Ugandans have been alienated from politics.
This, for example, is evident in the ongoing debate about the state of the health sector in Uganda, where the government’s argument is essentially about how many people it’s acceptable to die and from what diseases, before you consider there to be a crisis. The second is that politics in Uganda today is about regime change, not democratic change.

God is seen as doing two things. Either anointing Museveni to continue ruling in the face of an Opposition that has no faith and doesn’t see the light, and therefore doesn’t recognise that his mission is divine.
Or He has sent his disciples, in the form of the Opposition, to evict an usurper who is dishonouring the temples and cleanse the lands he has polluted. I can imagine Ugandans who are atheists asking themselves; how do I fit in this new country?

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

From Barry, Dube, MJ, Prince and Wemba - they are who we are

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 27   2016 at  01:00

First, it was the ultimate badass and innovator Fela Kuti in 1997. Barry White, the man with the deepest and most romantic voice, left us in July 2003. Then South African reggae star Lucky Dube was shot to death in October 2007. Not too long after, it was the - King of Pop- who died in June, 2009. Then last week, it was Prince Rogers Nelson, known simply as Prince. And this week, the DR Congolese musician Papa Wemba.

These people mean something to Uganda’s ‘Amin Children’, those who became teenagers during the trying years of our diabolical, but also fascinating President for Life, Field Marshal Al Haji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire.

We became serious men and women in the 1980s and also left for exile in large numbers; got married from the mid-80s and were done by the 1990s, we started making a bit of money - and those of us who were still around died in record numbers from HIV/Aids - and started paying serious school fees, greying and giving up on daily exercise in the 2000s.

By just so there is outrage, I have to acknowledge that there was, of course, the death of the great man Bob Marley in 1981; Tupac in 1996; and Ray Charles in 2004. And we have not even touched the wonderful female singers who defined those times.
But if we were to talk about all of them, things would get too heavy and thick and we would still be here by the time of the next rigged election in 2021. It’s therefore prudent to leave them here.

So what did the five musicians mean for ‘Amin’s Children’? In an age where there was fear, death, and deprivation all around, Barry White was like the guy who watered the heart. He sang love songs, and really that was it.

And he was born with a voice that would deliver few others. But with Barry White, we retreated to the privacy of our homes, and inner selves, and friends.

Michael Jackson took out there. His talent was prodigious, and his aesthestisation of his insecurities, and exploration of individuality delightfully outrageous. But, especially in his videos and dance, he defied all known convention and laws of physics.

I was studying and living in Cairo in 1983 when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Today, it might not seem a big deal. But we gathered, a group of friends, with coffee, pop corn, and strong drinks and played it over and over, in total wonderment. We had never seen - or conceived - of such dramatisation.

Michael Jackson transported us to a parallel universe. We could actually leave Uganda to Amin - and later Obote - and their armed men.

Bob Marley, though, that was the spoiler. He was the rebel. He was saying to us: don’t go into the house and look in the eyes of the girls with cornrows and a flower in her hair; go out there and break it down.

Fela Kuti broke stuff. He was awe-inspiring because he did it all while staring some of the most dangerous military rulers in the world in Nigeria - without a gun. Bare chest. With only a microphone and his musical instruments.

And he also went against the rules of the Church, and society, amassing 27 wives along the way. He went further than the rest, and Michael Jackson and Bob Marley, and actually built a model of what his ideal earthly domain, filled with marijuana, booze, free sex, a study of history, and a love of things African. He gave us the Kalakuta Republic.

Over those two decades, Prince kind of dialed it down. He brought eccentricity, and a very purified Miles Davis - like form to musical expression. But most of all, he became one of the first musicians of colour whom you couldn’t classify. It was an age when identity politics was beginning to get troubled, and Prince was an ambassador of its futility.

Lucky Dube was, like Fela, a homegrown rebel. But of a different variety. Apartheid had ended. Mandela had been freed. It was possible to look upon ourselves, without the constant reminder of failure, which every day’s existence of apartheid spoke to us.

The big conversation about Africa’s place in the world could begin. Papa Wemba led the celebration of Africa’s coming out party. Lucky Dube was the bloke who kept it real, reminding us after the hangover tomorrow, there will be the mess to clean up, bills to pay.
We took small bits of what we are, from them all.

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

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