Charles Onyango Obbo

2016: At 71, Museveni isn’t too old; problem is he isn’t as good as a 76-year-old president

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 27  2015 at  01:00

The 2016 Ugandan elections are taking shape every other week, with the Daily Monitor reporting that at least 20 MPs will not defend their seats.
Soroti Municipality MP Mike Mukula is retiring from politics, and First Lady Janet Museveni, who is also Minister for Karamoja Affairs and MP for Ruhaama, too announced she is out. At least out of the race for Ruhaama.
With President Yoweri Museveni having been picked as ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) sole candidate, it can be expected that he will formally be nominated as its flag bearer later in the year.
Inevitably, the jokes about his record and, especially, his age, are proliferating by the day on the Internet. On this one, I must defend Museveni. Age might determine how fast one runs a marathon, but is a very poor predictor of presidential success.
If we stick to our region, the most roundly successful president in East Africa of recent years was Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki was elected when he was in a wheelchair recovering from an accident in December 2002 at 71 years of age.
With all the criticisms and fun that was made of him, and despite his controversial 2007 re-election, he did something few African leaders have achieved. He expanded both democratic space (his regime was the freest for expression in Kenya’s history), and the country’s economy saw an unparalleled boom. Amidst the political squabbling, he still invested more in infrastructure than had been done since the country’s independence in 1963.
So the question is what Museveni (who really should have left in 2001), has to offer beyond 2016.
And perhaps to answer that question, we should compare him with someone who is only slightly younger than him, and thus his “age mate” in the loose sense of the word – Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh. He was born November 27, 1947.
At 67, he is just three years younger than Museveni.
His country has a population of 850,000 compared to Uganda’s 38 million, and 23,000km sq in size, 10 times smaller than Uganda at 236,040km sq.
A recent Bloomberg report summarised Guelleh’s ambitions.
He wants to turn his country into the “largest logistics hub” in Africa, a “Dubai of Africa” or a “Singapore” as his officials put it.
His government has embarked on a series of ambitious infrastructure projects that will cost at least $14 billion.
It already has the most advanced ports on the east side of the continent, but is now building six new specialised docking terminals -- each one will be dedicated to different commodities including minerals, livestock, oil and gas -- to add to the two terminals already in operation.
It is looking to take the shine off Mombasa and, in fact, two years ago there was a striking news item – that Rwanda had got land to build a terminal at the port.
For that to make sense, one has to take a view of how the economic and geopolitical game is going to play out in Africa the next few years. It presumes that Ethiopia will be the economic giant in the wider eastern African region.
On current form, with even more ambitious projects, Ethiopia is set to be by far Africa’s industrial powerhouse within 25 years.
Djibouti is building partly to service Ethiopia, and from Ethiopia, the thinking would be that a train line could come to South Sudan, into DR Congo and into Rwanda.
It is a very long way, but who wants to bet that the new railway from Kenya to Uganda and onward to Rwanda will be built faster?
In addition to its massive port expansion, and a modern railway to Ethiopia, Djibouti is planning to build two new airports, and industrial parks.
Djibouti understands that the real prize is collectively the 10 landlocked countries on Africa’s east side, which currently has 400 million people with no direct access to the sea. As their ports chief said, “They [the 400m] are the ones we want to serve.”
But to me, the most revolutionary thing that undemocratic fellow Guelleh is working on is energy.
His government has a bold project on lava lake at Ghoubbet el Kharab sea to tap green energy. With that and other investments in solar and wind power, Djibouti seeks to become completely reliant on green energy by 2020.
So, I would say, Museveni should give us not the plan of a 49-year-old president, but that of a 67-year-old one like Guelleh, or even a 76-year-old’s like Kibaki because 60 per cent of his achievements came in his second – and last – term to which he was elected at that age.
And “professionalising the army”, “modernising agriculture”, or “reducing poverty” are not grand strategic plans. They are routine daily business for any leader with half average intelligence and ability.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

Nkurunziza faced a coup because he didn’t attend Museveni’s class

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 20  2015 at  01:00

In Summary

Generally, there are rules. First, never put the Opposition in a position where the best alternative is for them to boycott an election as Nkurunziza did the last time round


Well, we have heard most of the explanations for the failed coup attempt against Burundi’s avocado man, President Pierre Nkurunziza, last week.

The one mentioned most is that his bid to go for an “illegal” third term was the primary cause of the demonstrations in Burundi of recent weeks, then the coup.

Nkurunziza has also been a mostly hopeless ruler, failing to pull off the immediate post-war boom that Uganda witnessed from 1988 and Rwanda from about 1996 following the 1994 genocide.

Not that he didn’t do anything, rather he didn’t do enough.
However, the thing that many leaders in Africa who bid for this president-for-life thing seem not to understand, is that even within its undemocratic context, there is a right and wrong way to do it.

There is no better good-bad example than Uganda in 2005. First, if you are doing away with term limits, you need to ensure that you will not be confronted by riots.

That requires a sweet-sour approach. Thus in Uganda in 2005, President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) did away with term limits, but offered a sweetener – ending one party-rule and returning the country to multiparty politics.

That presented the Opposition with a dilemma; to take the half a loaf of bread and live to fight for the other another day, or reject it and fight for the whole loaf all over again?
At the end of the day, the pragmatists in the multiparty campaign won the day. They settled for a victory on a return to more open politics, and settled for a loss on term limits.

So Nkurunziza’s big fail was not to present his opponents with a dilemma. A shame really, because he has Museveni’s number. He should have called.

Strongmen in Africa, generally have a problem with multiparty politics, and it is this failure that is leading to unrest and coup attempts.

Generally, there are rules. First, never put the Opposition in a position where the best alternative is for them to boycott an election as Nkurunziza did the last time round.

The trick in not provoking boycott, is not to seek to win an election with more than 65 per cent - and definitely not more than 70 per cent. Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir needs to go to school on this.

A figure of 35 per cent is worthwhile for your rivals, so they will not boycott.
Then if you are a ruling party or ruler, you cannot rig both the presidential and parliamentary election to the same level.

In Africa, usually if you have the presidency, you can live with a close margin in Parliament. In any case, if you are a president, even if you don’t have a majority, because you control the Treasury, you can buy a majority on the very first sitting of the new parliament.

So, as Uganda learnt (although I am afraid the lesson is being lost gradually), steal the presidential election, and allow most of the parliamentary election to be free – or at least partly free.

But it is managing multipartyism itself that is very tricky. Again here, most African leaders don’t understand that the role of Opposition politics is to occupy the vacuum that, as in the case of Burundi, can be taken on by the army.
Military coups and attempts happen mostly where there is a vacuum. So the best mix of democracy-autocratic practice is to give the Opposition just enough to occupy most of the non-state space, but not so much that it is enough for them to win an election.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

East Africa’s central banks can’t help their currencies vs US dollar: Only Somalis can

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 13  2015 at  01:00

On Monday, Daily Monitor reported; “East African currencies are struggling to keep afloat against the appreciating United States dollar….
“The most affected currencies are the Ugandan, Kenyan and Tanzania shillings.
“Experts largely attribute [this] to a global strengthening dollar, and reduced foreign exchange inflows from tourism, trade, and agriculture.”

The Kenya Shilling is inching toward a record KES97 to the dollar. The Uganda Shilling touched 3,000 late Monday.
So, yes, tourism and agriculture are all down, but then we are all paying less for the single item that “experts” used to tell us consume most of the dollars – fuel. That is why, on these matters, it often helps to talk to smart street fellows and real business that are buying and selling stuff.

I got a lesson in looking to unusual places for answers recently when I got involved in a big conservation issue. In March, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta burnt elephant tusks, a statement against poaching. Some days later, I met up with some friends for coffee, and they were raving, saying it was a waste. The ivory should have been sold, they argued.

So I wrote about it, and an outraged Kenyan conservation community came at me with everything they had. They demanded a public debate. And so there was a big debate, with I and two friends on one side saying only free market solutions (privatising national elephant herds, commercialising national parks etc.,) would stop the African elephant from being poached into extinction in 10 years.
The conservationists, on the other hand, said that would only fuel poaching, and stronger enforcement of anti-poaching laws and so forth was the answer. It was an extremely enjoyable debate.
Now most people say demand for ivory is driven by China, where it is used to make ornaments.
Well, we looked at the data, and found some very surprising things.
The underground prices for ivory have remained fairly stable in US dollar prices in recent years, but the Chinese Yuan has strengthened in value against the dollar.

In the Chinese market, rising demand drives up the price of ivory that, in turn, increases the attractiveness of ivory as an asset and store of financial value because real estate and the stock market are going soft. Basically, tusks are becoming like gold.
Thus, since 2006, eight out of 10 ivory carvers are now in the raw ivory smuggling business, because profit margins are higher. This shift has far-reaching consequences for conservation. It means the two people who can save African elephants are the most unlikely; they are China’s Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan, and the US Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen.
What they do to determine the exchange rates, which in turn are affecting the value of smuggled ivory, will do more to shape the future of elephants than two million conservationists.
But even I am not a fool. I had the wisdom not to say that at the debate.

Which is why I now recommend an article by an interesting Kenyan chap Paul Goldsmith. In 2008, he wrote an article in The East African entitled “Eastleigh goes global”. Check it out. Eastleigh is the mixed suburb of Nairobi, where Somali businesses are big.
Goldsmith makes a couple of points about Eastleigh. He cites a 1997 interview on KTN TV news, in which Kenya’s then Finance minister George Saitoti remarked that the Central Bank fixes its currency exchange rates after checking with the money-dealers in Garissa Lodge in Eastleigh.

Also, that Eastleigh was not just critical to what happened in the money market in Kenya (and we might add Somalia itself), but that effectively it was an “emerging financial centre for the Indian Ocean region”. Basically, what happened in Eastleigh ultimately impacted the money markets in the economies along the East African Indian Ocean coast – and the countries they traded with inland like Uganda.

So, a businessman tells me that the increased depreciation of the regional currencies is driven by the recent Kenyan anti-terrorist crackdown on Somali money transfer services and freezing of several Somali-owned business that were suspected of funneling money to al-Shabaab, in the wake of the terror attack on Garissa University.
Secondly, that recent xenophobic attacks that targeted Somali and Ethiopian businesses in South Africa, had also affected the flow of dollars to eastern Africa.

Finally, that we should prepare for fuel shortages, because “Somali capital” is what oils the pumps in the Great Lakes region.
So President Yoweri Museveni and other leaders can do something about the region’s depreciating currencies, through Amisom in Somalia, and tweaking how the region deals with suspected friends of Shabaab. There might be little that the Bank of Uganda can do to help the shilling here.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

Uganda can become very rich with smart money, seriously: Here is how

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, May 6  2015 at  01:00

In Summary

There are more radical changes, incentives, and further reforms to land law and infrastructure investment (including at least three new airports – one in the east, one in the north, and another in the west – built by private people, not government) that is needed for this to work; but the most important is immigration


Last month, there were two news items that didn’t make it to the front pages of Uganda’s newspapers.

One was the announcement by the Finance minister that the government had abolished taxes on the yet-to-produce-cash oil, gas and mining exploration industries.

Companies in the sector will be exempted from value-added and withholding taxes during the investment phase of projects.

The other was that in July, the Uganda Securities Exchange will end the open-outcry trading, where offers are written on a board on the exchange’s floor, and moving to a system of electronic share buying and selling.

Of the two, the more significant was the second one, though it might not at first appear like it.

The tax exemption on oil and gas companies was important mostly for something else; it represented the kind of market thinking that marked the management of Uganda’s economy in the late 1980s and 1990s and is almost dead now.

For those who have forgotten, or have been too lazy to read it up, Uganda was one of the very first countries in Africa to end foreign exchange controls; to end the very bad practice of the government fighting fixing fuel prices and; impossible as it might be to believe, to open the airwaves to independent FM and TV stations.

When Uganda granted the first licences for independent radios, there were actually only two “independent” stations on the continent. And churches ran them both, so they were not free enterprise entities run by private businessmen for profit.

So rare were these things, that a fairly serious organisation in 1994 or thereabouts, rated Uganda the world’s second freest economy. It was so dramatic, that both New Vision and Monitor reported it with some dizzied excitement.

Recent years have not seen the kind of head-turning innovation witnessed in Kenya, Nigeria, or investments in technology and infrastructure for the future that Rwanda has done.

One reason is that Uganda (at least the Uganda of President Yoweri Museveni) is really hopeless at doing most other things, except making good policy. For us to move forward, we return to doing good policy that expands free enterprise again.

I have five suggestions, but list two here:
1. One of the biggest assets countries like Hong Kong and Singapore exploited, is time zone. When the rich industrialised markets of the West used to go to sleep, their businesses would shut down.

But when satellite technology became affordable, countries like Hong Kong saw a business opportunity to solve a problem for Western companies. They would take over their work, so that they could become 24-hour businesses.

Thus wire agencies like Reuters handed over to Hong Kong when they went to sleep; banks did the same for back office processes; its one reason when you wake up today, you get your international CNN broadcast from Hong Kong, then it moves to London, and back to the US as the day progresses. It is really just milking time zones.

I believe Uganda can do something there, especially for Middle East markets that close on Fridays. It could pass legislation that allows for late and “weekend” trades in these markets to happen in Kampala.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Why a Museveni-Mbabazi clash would be good – and bad – for Uganda in 2016 vote

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 29  2015 at  01:00

Every week the 2016 elections draw near, and some of the characteristics of Ugandan electoral politics break out again.
Of all our worst campaign habits, none has been more so than the creation of political villains.
For the Opposition, the villain has been constant – President Yoweri Museveni.
For Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), the villain was now ‘retired’ Forum for Democratic Change’s (FDC) Dr Kizza Besigye.
Many, sometimes it seemed all, Museveni supporters didn’t care about his manifesto or what he was promising to do if re-elected. They were passionate and united in one thing – stopping Besigye.

With Besigye not in the running, and the main Opposition challenge to Museveni falling to new FDC leader retired Major General Mugisha Muntu, the NRM is in crisis. Muntu, unlike Besigye, doesn’t attract passionate support, nor does he attract virulent opposition.
There are no Opposition activists who would die for him, as they would have done for Besigye, and equally there are no NRM supporters eager to lay their hands on and strangle him. In that sense, he is a “bad” opponent because Museveni can’t mobilise his side sufficiently against him. That presents a problem, because if the NRM can’t get their supporters angry and frightened enough to come out in large numbers against Muntu and vote, then it would have to go back to doing something that it did less of in 2011 – steal the vote massively for its candidate to make up for lack of enthusiasm among its supporters.

And this is where former prime minister Amama Mbabazi comes in. Like Besigye when he first came out against Museveni in 2001, Amama would be an insurgent from within the NRM. That kind of thing really gets Movement people agitated, and galvanises them into electoral action. So the opponent that Museveni wants is Mbabazi.
I have spoken to highly educated and otherwise sophisticated Movement people about Muntu, and the discussion is very civil and balanced. But whenever I have brought up Mbabazi, nearly all of them have thrown off their smart face and gone totally native. They just want to feed Mbabazi to the crocodiles in Murchison.
So while the NRM rallied behind Museveni to oust Mbabazi because he allegedly had presidential ambitions, they probably need him to still run against him because he would be the perfect villain and unite them.

However, while Besigye - and Mbabazi if he stands - provided the drama and hard-boiled meat of Uganda elections, there is something else the threat he paused caused; it took the issues out of elections.
Uganda has suffered terribly for it.
If you don’t believe it, let us illustrate. After Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere quit the broad-based government as deputy prime minister in 1995, because the NRM had used its number to make sure the new Constitution didn’t return multiparty politics, the lines for the 1996 were drawn in the sand.

Ssemogerere had a certain economistic ponderous approach to his campaigning, with a tendency to compare then-current social data on poverty, state of health, education, with the standards of Uganda of the past and other African countries. It made for boring news, and generally dull politics, but was effective in highlighting dramatically the failures of the Museveni regime.
And it forced Museveni to respond in a way he didn’t to Besigye. With Besigye, Museveni responded with force and repression. With Ssemogerere, Museveni responded with policy. Also, because Ssemogerere didn’t provoke the fanatic support that Besigye did, it was relatively easy to steal his votes. There were reports of his polling station agents being bought off with bicycles –or even just the promise that they would be given if they looked away.
Besigye’s agents allegedly had to be beaten down, subdued and led out of some polling stations at the point of a gun. Very different dynamics at play.

Anyhow, because of Ssemogerere’s boring facts-driven approach, Museveni moved to completely scrap cost-sharing in the state-run health sector (a bad idea), and to promise free Universal Primary Education (a better idea), which he implemented immediately after the 1996 election.
Thus 1996 became the only election in which Museveni undertook policy initiatives that have endured. All other programmes, especially the “wealth creation” initiatives like Entandikwa, youth enterprise schemes, were all short-term vote and social bribery undertakings that didn’t last long.

If Mbabazi runs, 2016 will certainly be another lets-unite-and-defeat-the-villain race, and at the end of it, Ugandans will be staring at empty plates again, although they would have been fed on an exciting contest.
If Mbabazi doesn’t run, and Muntu is Museveni’s main electoral adversary, then we will have a colourless Kaguta-Kawanga-ish match, and like in 1996, Museveni would be forced to champion an issue strongly and deliver on it after the polls.
Strange choices face the voters.

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