Wednesday February 14 2018

State should stay the hell out of people’s gardens and ranches


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Gen Salim Saleh, Presidential Adviser on Military Affairs, and coordinator of Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), was reported by the Daily Monitor to have “demanded” that the government bans the export of unprocessed grains.
“Due to lack of enforcement of standards and open border policy, Kenya, Rwanda and South Sudanese informal traders flock the villages from border to border in search of low priced and processed grains,” Gen Saleh said at a food security event organised by Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) in Kampala, according to the report
He added: “As a result, Kenya, a country always in deficit, formally exports more grain than Uganda. Unless addressed, Uganda will remain a source of cheap, poor quality grain to the region and investors will continue to lose out in spite of their contribution to the national coffers.”

According to Gen Saleh, in November last year, the paper reported him saying, “Uganda exported more than 600 tonnes of unprocessed sorghum, more than 3,000 tonnes of maize, 9,000 tonnes of beans, 2,000 tonnes of millet all in raw form.
“A kilogramme of processed maize costs Shs1,500 as opposed to a mere Shs500 farm gate price”.

On the face of it, Gen Saleh sounds correct. Uganda would do much better, and create more jobs, if it exported processed grains.
The small problem here is that the farmers will not get the Sh1,500. They will still get Sh500 – and even lower, because the Sh500 is driven by demand from the region.
Last October, for example, The East African reported that because of poor harvests due to weather in neighbouring countries, “Uganda has come to the rescue of Kenya and Rwanda, selling both countries more than 11,502 tonnes of maize worth $6.65 million over the past two months…”

Without that demand, farm gate prices would fall sharply. Who would benefit? The fledgling Uganda food processors, who would now buy cheaply. Not surprisingly, some Ugandans are alarmed that the call to ban exports of unprocessed is designed to benefit a few “processors with powerful friends”.
The second problem is that it is based on a misunderstanding of how regional food markets have been reshaped. First, Uganda cannot be a champion of an East African integrated market, and begin pushing for curbs on food exports.

To complicate matters, the farmers in Sebei, rural Bugisu, remote Kisoro, or West Nile, really don’t sell to Kampala or the big towns. In Sebei and Bugisu, they sell to Kenya; West Nile they sell to DR Congo and South Sudan; Kisoro to Rwanda, and so on. And it’s not one way. The biggest market for coffee grown in western Kenya is now Uganda. A few days ago, we all read that “Uganda overtook South Africa for the first time in November as the largest source of goods ordered by Kenyans…which saw electricity and food imports shoot up.
“Kenya’s monthly import bill from Uganda jumped more than two-fold to Sh7.59 billion compared with Sh2.93 billion in October, marking the highest ever recorded monthly imports value from the land-locked country…”

What many people think of as national markets being the same as geographical markets, is a long dead idea. In fact, if Gen Saleh looks back to the trade figures from five years ago, Uganda’s most lucrative export to then still stable South Sudan was not beer, sugar, or food. It was mobile phones, yet Uganda doesn’t even have a factory that boxes phones.
Fourthly, the biggest losses Ugandan farmers suffer is not from exporting unprocessed foods. It’s from post-harvest losses. Nearly 87 per cent of Uganda’s farmers suffer post-harvest losses, and in an eye-popping figure, by 2014, in just two districts —Mubende and Masindi— they were registering more than Shs26b in post-harvest losses every year!

The losses must be scandalously higher today. If you want to help Ugandan farmers, fix post-harvest losses and waste. In fact, doing that alone would lead to an oversupply and price collapse, if that is what processors want.
Fifth, it is bad – and dangerous - politics. Because of the food market structure, and add to it poor infrastructure, if Gen Saleh got his wish, already marginalised areas of Uganda would become poorer.

Back to our farmers in rural Kisoro and Sebei. While they wouldn’t be able to sell to Rwanda and Kenya respectively, they wouldn’t be able to get their produce to Mbarara or Mbale either. They would incur big losses, if they tried.
Sixth, it’s discriminatory. Why impose curbs on beans, millet, maize and sorghum, not beef, milk, chicken, bananas? I can see accusations being made that it’s because President Museveni is a rancher. If you don’t pay for people’s seeds, farm labour, fertiliser, cattle dips, and chicken feed, me thinks you should just stay the hell out of their farm gates.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday February 7 2018

The death of Mowzey Radio: Behind the shock and emotion


Music superstar Moses Ssekibogo, popularly known by his stage name Mowzey Radio, was laid to rest Saturday in Kagga, Wakiso District, amid very emotional scenes.
The brutal beating of Radio in an Entebbe club on January 22, his hospitalisation, and his death were a big deal. On the face of it, it shouldn’t have been.

For Radio was not Elly Wamala, who tapped in the nation’s post-independence euphoria and its souring love with parts of itself; a Fred Masagazi, who basically told the country not to give up and die; or kadongo kamu great Paul Kafeero, who enshrined an unshakable salt-of-the earth spirit that was a (sometimes uncomfortable) compass to who we were.
Radio, you would think at first glance, didn’t belong on the big Ugandan cultural or historical canvas. Well, it turns out he did. Born in 1985, Radio was your archetypal Ugandan millennial, a Museveni era child.

He enshrined its possibilities, finding fame and fortune at home and abroad while young. To understand Radio, and other musicians of his generation, you need partly to appreciate how technology has revolutionised artistic production.

Since late 1994 when Uganda’s airwaves were liberalised, the explosion of private FM stations gave musicians a reach and ability for overnight fame that others even in the 1980s would have thought impossible. The proliferation of computer production, and later internet distribution, enabled them to leapfrog channels that were previously controlled by bands, music labels, agents, band and marketers.

But there is something else: a star (celebrity) system enabled by the amplification of digital and social media. Thus, we have reached a point where some of them have up to 100 million followers.
Critics argue that there’s something problematic about that, adulation by people who could well be ghosts to you, but the possibilities to reach beyond the parochialism of home are also quite liberating, as Eddy Kenzo must have felt as he saw his Sitya Loss racking up millions of views on YouTube.

It is a powerful counter-narrative to the limitations imposed by politics, tribe, religion, and other local forces. Folks like Radio made fabulous livelihoods, but not on roads built by the State; nor from industries licensed by the powers that be. It was from that elusive, yet omnipresent “attention economy” that has bedeviled traditional authority.

For Radio, who was a product of this system, and a vindication of its promise, millennial culture viewed him as having certain immunities. In this culture, people like Radio die by their own hand (suicide), a drug overdose, a plane crash, and even possibly a drive-by shooting like Tupac Shakur. Dying from a beating, even by a night club bouncer, is insufferably 20th century, and disrupts the millennial narrative. The scariest part though, is that while State delinquency and rising criminality has put the security of many at risk, the points system of the new popular culture that has grown around all these hurdles should have given Radio some protection. It didn’t.

It can be hard to put a finger on it, because these things are “just felt”. What does it mean for (now MP) Bobi Wine to be “president of the Ghetto republic”? That he’s the embodiment of hope for the urban youth marginalised by the economy and politics. What exactly is that if you wanted to touch it?
So, that’s how it goes. Radio’s death, if the insights from the outpouring of commentary on Ugandan social media tells us anything, was unsettling because it epitomised the fragility of present day young Ugandans at its sharpest point. And from their actions, the Men of Power clearly understand that “something happened” with Radio’s attack, and death. What follows next? I am not a millennial, so I wouldn’t pretend to know, but this generation can learn from what ours did in December 1989. I was still a young man then, the year musician and HIV/Aids activist Philly Bongoley Lutaaya died.

At that time, it was just three years into the NRM’s ascendance to power. The “nightmare” of the previous 15 years to 1986 had supposedly ended, and those who had survived had geared up to celebrate a new promise when the HIV/Aids pandemic rained on the party.
A few years earlier when Philly pulled among the few world-firsts by publicly announcing he was HIV positive, the immediate response was denial and negativism. It was not uncommon at that time for journalists to ask him; “how/from who did you get Aids?”

By 1989, we had travelled a long way with him in his harrowing pain and heroic struggle. When he died, he enabled us to embrace the reality of Aids with a new found grace. We really got smart, and it’s partly why some of us are still here. This one is yours. How Radio goes down, is not the story of my generation to write.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday January 24 2018

Uganda’s boda boda: From the humble bike ‘taxi’ to gangsters


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

This week Uganda trended on social media outside the country for the strangest of reasons.
Military Intelligence operatives and the UPDF carried out a series of operations against Boda Boda 2010, a criminal gang affiliated to the Uganda police, and praised by police chief Gen Kale Kayihura, for among other things, helping to crackdown on the opposition at various points.

Several Boda Boda 2010 leaders were arrested, and they were allegedly found with stolen property, including vehicles belonging to people, who had recently been murdered.

The idea that the police is the benefactor of a criminal gang, and it requires other arms of the country’s security establishment, to deal with it, is both fascinating and disturbing. This, considering that, in turn, both the leaders of the police, military intelligence, and the army are right hand men of President Museveni.

The bigger problem is that the Uganda leadership is addicted to militias. From the Kiboko Squad to now Boda Boda 2010, in the last 20 years we have had about 30 militias, death squads, and quasi-official paramilitary organisations to deal with the opposition during and after elections, and to help put down insurgencies.

In a way, this is a good thing, because the leaders seem not to trust that the UPDF and the security agencies can be relied on 100 per cent to go totally native and partisan every time, so the very dirty work is subcontracted to militias and criminal gangs.

In the case of the police, one would have thought that the concerted effort over the last 15 years to militarise and politicise it would by now have turned it into a crude weapon of repression and political banditry, but it seems even that has not gone far enough. Hence the need for these Boda Boda 2010 type gangs.

There is an element of this that is cynical political calculation. If, for example, a president relies too heavily on just the army to keep him in power, with every partisan deployment, his debt to them grows, and with time he becomes too beholden to them. This is what happened to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Using militias and gangs, allows the Big Man to distribute his eggs in several baskets. However, the results are always disastrous, and can leave deep scars on a country. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Tonton Macoutes, from that long-suffering country Haiti.

We will leave you with a long extract from Wikipedia on the Macoute, for it speaks for itself. And it has uncanny parallels with what is happening in Uganda:
“The Tonton Macoute, or simply the Macoute, was a special operations unit within the Haitian paramilitary force created in 1959 by dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.
“Papa Doc Duvalier created the Tontons Macoutes because he perceived the military to be a threat to his power.
After the July 1958 Haitian coup d’état attempt against president François Duvalier, he disbanded the army and all law enforcement agencies in Haiti and executed numerous officers as he perceived them as a threat to his regime.
“To counteract this threat, he created a military force that bore several names… They began to be called the Tonton Macoute when people started to disappear for no apparent reason. This group answered to him only.
“Duvalier authorised the Tontons Macoutes to commit systematic violence and human rights abuses to suppress political opposition. They were responsible for unknown numbers of murders and rapes in Haiti. Political opponents often disappeared overnight, or were sometimes attacked in broad daylight.

“Tontons Macoutes stoned and burned people alive. Many times they put the corpses of their victims on display, often hung in trees for everyone to see and take as warnings against opposition. Family members, who tried to remove the bodies for proper burial often disappeared themselves. Anyone who challenged the MVSN risked assassination.

“Their unrestrained state terrorism was accompanied by corruption, extortion and personal aggrandisement among the leadership. The victims of Tontons Macoutes could range from a woman in the poorest of neighbourhoods, who had previously supported an opposing politician to a businessman who refused to comply with extortion threats…The Tontons Macoutes murdered between 30,000 and 60,000 Haitians.

“Luckner Cambronne led the Tonton Macoute throughout the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. His cruelty earned him the nickname ‘Vampire of the Caribbean’.
“In 1971, president Duvalier died and his widow Simone, and son Baby Doc Duvalier ordered Cambronne into exile.”

Then this: “The Tontons Macoutes were a ubiquitous presence at the polls in the 1961 election, in which Duvalier’s official vote count was an ‘outrageous’ and fraudulent 1,320,748 to 0, electing him to another term. They appeared in force again at polls in 1964, when Duvalier held a rigged referendum that declared him President for Life.”
You caught that last bit?

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday January 10 2018

Of kings and presidents-for-life in this Republic of Uganda


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

My good friend Kalundi Serumaga from time to time likes to needle what he calls “Republicans” in Uganda, and Africa more broadly.
“Republicans” is a catch-all word by which Kalundi means many things. Often, it is a jibe at modernists who tend to see most “traditional” things (including in Uganda kingdoms) as backward. Sometimes, he uses it to mean defenders of the colonial African state and its borders.

A cheeky fellow, his range is wide, but it is these above two that interest us today. The “Republicans” say Kalundi is “nativist” and “conservative”. But is he? Kalundi is also East Africanist and Pan-Africanist, and thinks African borders are a joke that will in future evaporate in the many crises that have beset Africa’s neo-colonial states. In their place, we shall have more organic African states informed by the continent’s culture, history, and geography.
In that sense he takes what, in keeping with the Nkrumahist tradition, is an extreme leftist position, that makes the “Republicans” seem conservative.

All this has played out interestingly in Uganda over, especially, the last 15 years as the authoritarianism of the Uganda government has risen, and lately in the return to the Aminist-era quest to make President Yoweri Museveni president-for-life with the age limit amendment of the Constitution to enable him run for office well beyond his 75th birthday.
The opposition to chopping up the Constitution, election rigging, and regime excesses in the south has taken two very distinct – and seemingly contradictory – trends in central Uganda (i.e. Buganda).
On one hand, it has been very radical (though not universal), as we have seen in the very militant support opposition leader Kizza Besigye has enjoyed among the youth in the region over the years.

Last year, it took a further turn, in the wave that elected Bobi Wine (the “Ghetto president”) as Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East in one of the country’s most dramatic by-elections.
On the other hand, the Buganda upper middle class, has responded to the infirmities of Museveni’s rule with aloofness and disdain. Many of my friends from central, express themselves with a British nose-turned-up and stiff-upper-lip scorn. If you didn’t know, you’d think they were indifferent. Wrong.
To understand what is going on, we need to go back to Kalundi’s criticism of “Republicans”.

Of all the kingdoms that followed the restoration, only Buganda’s has taken deep enough roots for it to have re-established itself as having a life of its own separate from the kindness of the central state.
Those with a sense of history, will remember that both before and after the coronation of Ronnie Mutebi as Kabaka (king), the matter was not settled.

There were a few challenges to his crown sponsored by NRM factions, that are unthinkable today. Thus the crown sits easily on Mutebi’s head as a result of his having consolidated his kabakaship.
Thus in addition to the legitimacy of history and culture, there was a rally around the Buganda crown, from which it drew new sources of legitimacy.

The result is that while “kingdomless” parts of Uganda or those with feeble monarchs, feel a deep sense of alienation from the central government’s injury to their interests, it is felt differently in Buganda where the more legitimate and authentic authority is the kingdom.
Where the Republicans feel betrayed by president-for-life projects, and orphaned by repression and corruption, many Buganda elite feel contempt, some seeing these transgressions as “obukopi” (a lack of class).

The monarchists in other parts of Uganda probably feel the same thing, though to a lesser degree.
If the kingdoms hadn’t been restored, it is reasonable to assume that as happened during the last part of Milton Obote I and the even more difficult period of Obote II, Buganda’s contradiction with the regime would all have been militant.
So you have one of the great ironies of Ugandan politics today.

Kalundi’s “Republicans” tend to be anti-monarchist, or politely indifferent to kingdoms and their kings, at best.
However, the existence of the kingdoms has allowed the Republic to survive with less opposition, despite its many failures, because the monarchists hold it to low standards, and are able to comfortably be Ugandans, without having to embrace Kampala as the central authority in their lives. One monarchist, with masterful disdain, told me of the Museveni State House: “He was not ready, nor had he been prepared to lead. What did you expect?”
He was telling me that because he didn’t expect much from Museveni’s rule, he could not be expected to get very worked up about its shortcomings. And that those of us who know better, should do the same.
This has created a pool of benign opposition and moderate nooks born of snobbery, which has kept a lid of the spread of militant anti-regime politics in Uganda against things like the recent constitution mugging.
It’s complicated.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday January 3 2018

Africa is changing. How far is Uganda behind?


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

From Milton Obote, Field Marshall Idi Amin, and in recent decades President Yoweri Museveni, politicians in Uganda like to see themselves as being at the centre of the big political movements in Africa.

And play a part they did. Obote was one of the key men in the formation of the Organisation of the African Unity (OAU) in 1963; he helped nurse the East African Community I; he dipped his toes in Congo’s treacherous waters; backed the Anyanya movements in now South Sudan; and with Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, and the white handkerchief-carrying, golf and accordion-playing, and vegan Kenneth Kaunda, formed the “Mulungusi Club”, in many ways the forerunner of the organisation of the southern African Frontline states.

Amin was quite gung-ho about southern African liberation, and was stridently pro-Palestinian.
Museveni outdid them all in his geopolitical activism. He was key in giving the East African Community CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation); he threw heavy military behind the Sudan People’s Liberation Army; was in concert in the war against Mobutu Sese Seko in DR Congo; got the UPDF to roam the bushes of the Central African Republic (CAR) hunting for the elusive Joseph Kony; and in a bold gamble, became the first to dispatch the boys to Somalia to battle al-Shabaab, and ultimately setting the terms for Amisom intervention.

But all these three Big Men, were eventually overtaken by the changes in regional and international forces, and blindsided by shifts in domestic political dynamics. It would take half this newspaper to explore all these, so for now, let’s look to developments that are alive today.

Two events in Africa will illustrate the state of affairs, and if you blinked, you probably missed them. As 2017 started, in The Gambia, the autocrat Jahya Jammeh, who had lost and conceded the election to Adama Barrow, was overcome by his baser nature. He went back on his concession, and rejected the result.

West Africa doesn’t take too kindly to spitting in the face of democracy like that; you are better off pulling those moves in Central and East Africa. Outraged, the regional bloc Ecowas put together a military intervention, went to Banjul, and smoked Jammeh out.

For the longest time, Nigeria had been the regional superpower leading Ecowas military intervention on that side of Africa. This time, it was Senegal. Leave West Africa, and go down to southern Africa.

In Botswana, President Ian Khama’s term is ending in 2019. However, with nearly two years to go, the ruling Botswana Democratic (BDP) party in July elected Vice-President Mokgweetsi Masisi as its leader.

Khama himself has been busy telling anyone who can listen that he can’t wait to leave, and dancing with market women, saying his farewells. Remember, when everyone in southern Africa was mum about criticising Robert Mugabe’s madness in Zimbabwe, only Khama had the guts to do so.

A few days ago, the NRM MPs voted to lift the 75-year age limit, added two years to both theirs and Museveni’s term in office, thus enabling him to stand in 2023 for the 7th term, when he will be 79. Khama will step down when he is 66. President Macky Sall, who spearheaded the action against Jammeh, is 56.

Age doesn’t necessarily matter much in these things, and this is not about that. It is about what translates into specific policy approaches and options in politics - a generational change. Thus recently, Senegal became the second country in the world to launch a digital national currency.

The eCFA, runs on the blockchain like Bitcoin. Part of that has to do with a youngish president’s comfort with technology.

Of interest in Botswana’s case, is what it did in mid-December after US President Donald Trump threatened to punish countries that voted against his controversial move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Botswana not only voted for a UN resolution criticising the move, but also issued a widely reported statement criticising Trump and his threats. Senegal too, voted against it.
Uganda, the third highest recipient of US aid in sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, abstained.

In Obote’s and Amin’s time, and the early years of NRM, Kampala would have voted against the move.
So what have Botswana and Senegal got that enables them to act with this level of confidence? They are both democracies, and their economies are in good shape.

It has given them the moral authority to intervene as in The Gambia, lecture neighbours, or tell Trump off because they don’t need him to pay for their meal cards.

We could be seeing a new order in Africa, in which geopolitical clout is being realised as democratic dividend. Over the next two years, we are likely to have a complete shift when South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, and Botswana all hold elections.
By the way, Mokgweetsi Masisi will be just 46 then.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday December 27 2017

Age limit Bill: Finally, they held Luweero’s last funeral rites


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I have long since got over it, but long ago I used to be hurt when I went to Nakasero Market and saw the butcher casually wrapping meat with yesterday’s newspaper.

As a journalist, I thought newsprint was sacred. The late Sam Owor, Rotarian extraordinaire, and former Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) chief, also was a man who saw newspapers as an enduring trove of knowledge.

He kept all the newspapers that he had ever bought over the years, so much so that his collection was more complete than the Makerere University Library archives’. Local and international researchers on Uganda who needed a complete newspaper collection went to Owor’s private collection.

One day at the Monitor, one of Owor’s relatives walked into my office. At that time Owor was away with the African Development Bank in Abidjan. He said he was selling “rare” old newspapers, and he was the only one who had them.

My face fell, because I immediately figured out what had happened. He was raiding Owor’s collection.

I said he should bring the material I look at it. Immediately he left, I rushed to Wafula Oguttu’s office and told him. He said we had two choices; either refuse to buy the newspapers and the gentleman would sell it cheaply in the market and the archive would be lost; or we buy and save it, and let Owor know. We did the latter, and over a period bound the newspaper collection.

Later, I realised that the fact that even the day’s newspaper was being used to wrap meat was a signal of the beginning of the end for print. The time for the newspaper to die had arrived. It still survives, but it is a dead man walking.

There was the same feeling last week after the Age Limit bill was passed by Parliament. With the same casualness the Nakasero Market butcher wraps meat with newspapers, the MPs not only deleted the 75-year age limit – which was expected – but in a grand gesture of democratic contempt also changed theirs and the president’s term from five to seven years.

Although they brought back the term limit, it was meaningless. There was no sense of occasion about it.

On the day the bill passed, before I went to bed I decided to check the main Ugandan websites to see how they closed their day with the story. None of them had the passage of the age limit Bill as their lead on their websites at that point. Then the penny dropped. I realised that the 1995 constitution had finally died.

This story begins in 1981 when Yoweri Museveni and a band of brave young men take to the bush in Luweero to begin a bush war, after the disputed December 1980 elections. Their goal was to “bring a fundamental change, not a mere change of guard” to Uganda.

In the bush, and early in power, Museveni railed against Africa leaders who cling to power – until early 2005 when his tone changed, ahead of the scrapping of the two term limit.

I only went to Museveni’s-war Luwero in late 1985. The Okello generals (Tito and Bazllio) had overthrown Milton Obote in July 1985. Peace talks between the Okello junta and Museveni’s NRA/NRM in Nairobi were slow and rocky. Weekly Topic, having been banned by the Obote government in 1981, had reopened.

NRA operatives would sneak to our offices to give us updates. So it was that Wafula, the Xinhua correspondent in Kampala, and myself sneaked to Luweero to meet the NRA.

They were tough, determined, but haggard, and in rags. These guys, had sacrificed a lot.
Immediately after Museveni took power, together with a colleague, Nassali Tamale, at Weekly Topic, we made two trips around Luwero to report the horror of the war – dried up decomposed bodies frozen in the painful postures in which they died. There were axes and machetes still embedded in skulls and spines.

To this day, I believe that the scale of inhumanity that happened in Luweero has not fully registered nationally, in much the same way we have not even began to comprehend what happened in the long years of war in the north. It was a steep price to pay for freedom.

I crisscrossed Luweero twice in recent years. The Luweero of 1986 is gone. On one of the trips I returned to Kampala late at night, on Christmas eve. The towns along the road were packed and busy like crazy. The traffic jam was horrific.

Everywhere hawkers sold cheap plastic and imitation Christmas presents from China. It was tacky, but there was also something heartening about it. “They’ve really moved on from the Luweero of the 1980s”, I said to myself.
Last week on the floor of Parliament, the last men and women standing also did.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday December 13 2017

Want to see new connected Africa? Go to Wandegeya


By Charles Oyango-Obbo

Four times in recent months, the photonews Facebook page Kampala Express, has reported on graduation ceremonies at Sir Nelson School of Languages in Wandegeya.

I was intrigued, because the student community looked surprisingly pan-African. I can understand Somalis and Sudanese (North and South), coming to study English in Uganda, but did not expect that there would be a good number of students from the Comoros.

Alive to the fact that if you ambushed many Ugandans on the street, several wouldn’t know about Comoros the Kampala Express editor helpfully wrote; ‘Most students at the language school come from the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros’.

The school does not have a website. And it is not a big campus. Its main information portal is its Facebook page. This raises the question how so many students from Comoros, and other parts of the continent, would end up travelling to Uganda to study English at a private school in Wandegeya.

The answer is that Africa, like the rest of the world, is changing, and because of the way technology has shifted access to knowledge, especially young people do not get their information from legacy institutions. And few “establishment” institutions are offering knowledge for the future.

If you are a foreigner and wanted to study in Uganda, then went to the Ministry of Education and Sports website, you would not end up at Sir Nelson School of Languages.

The website does not even have a section on “Studying in Uganda”, which ideally should be the most important element in this global age.

This is not meant as a criticism, but to point out that it is just not part of the new reality. For starters, the young men and women in Comoros, while they know about Uganda’s (old) reputation for “good English”, would not look to the Ministry of Education.

Part of this is understandable because in Uganda, we start studying formal English in nursery school, and after secondary school, the next stages are advanced.

It would be considered insane to teach “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” in a college. Yet this is probably where the money is.

To diversify their audiences, languages have become very important for people whose main form of distribution is digital and online. At the very basic level, you see this on Twitter, where someone translates and puts a Spanish twist on your tweet, and it gets 1,500 retweets, when your original managed only 50.

Another element of this, is that many young people see that if they are to build a future business, they need to build a community. It helps if you are going to grow your blog, if you have people who will share it on social media because they are part of a community you have built offline – at college, or even on a bus trip. This community is part of the “capital” that these days can determine your success. It’s more valuable, if it’s less provincial.

Also, the lucrative market is not just national. The Internet has not only brought down the cost of distribution to near-zero, but has also enabled a less “tribal” market, one based on interests, to emerge.

The weekend match between Manchester United and Manchester City trended for hours in nearly every country in Africa. However, a clash between Express FC and Villa FC would almost never make it outside Uganda. If you are looking to become rich from your football website, you have to cross borders.

The Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, seems to understand this better than most others in Africa. It keeps sprinkling its few high quality movies with stars from other African countries where “Ki-Nigeria” is popular.

Some of the current crop of musicians do it too, but they are still far away from the golden age of “Lingala” (more accurately soukous) bands like Mangelepa or Super Mazembe, which brought the best musicians from east and central Africa together.

All this is, therefore, an important tip of a wave to watch in Africa. Many people in Africa will tell you that its students are dying to go and study in the West. No.

According to a recent authoritative report, while France is the top destination for African students, the numbers are declining. Otherwise, the second leading destination for African students is not the US or UK, it’s South Africa. Nearly 20 per cent of African students studying abroad study in South Africa.

Some countries like Mauritius have smelt the opportunity. Mauritius has set itself a goal of attracting 100,000 foreign students by 2020. They would comprise nearly 8 per cent of the island’s population.

If some policy person in the Kampala government wants to understand what is fuelling a connected Africa, well, the answer is not far away – it is in Wandegeya.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday December 6 2017

Uganda is building roads, but will they lead to ‘Rome’?


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

We shall return to Uganda shortly, but first go on the Internet and search for an illustration of the “Central Corridor”, a transit and economic swathe that snakes from Tanzania, the southwestern tip of Uganda, Rwanda, eastern DR Congo, and Burundi.

That is the corridor where the Tanzania-Rwanda railway line is being built. It is very lively, and if you look long and hard at it, you realise that the centre of gravity of future wealth in our region is shifting south.

That, partly is because Kenya’s Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor is off schedule, and Uganda too chose to build its oil pipeline through Tanzania.

Also, it is not clear now whether the Kenya-Uganda standard gauge railway will happen, with indications that in a race with Kenya, Kampala seems to be focusing on building the SGR to South Sudan instead.

In many ways, there is a strategic logic to that. When South Sudan had not yet plunged into the hell of the last four years, it had changed Uganda’s economy in very intriguing ways.

Though Uganda does not have even a small shed that makes mobile phones, it became one of the largest exporters of mobile phones on the continent. That was because it was re-exporting the phones to South Sudan. That now is history.

Recently, Rwanda announced that all citizens in the world could get visas on arrival, becoming one of the few countries in the world to do so.
A while back, Rwanda removed all pre-arrival visa requirements for all Africans.

Kenya recently responded dramatically. In addition to unconditionally ending pre-arrival visas for Africans, it removed work and resident permit requirements for East Africans. Soon any East African can live and work in Kenya, all they need is an ID.
You do not have to be a genius economist to figure out what that will do.

To give you a hint, the Kenya Bureau of Statistics not too long ago, released a long hard-to-read report, but the section on tourism had very surprising insights if you could endure it. Bed occupancy in Kenya’s hotels, it showed, was dominated by East Africans. But the one area where they were really big was the number of regional visitors who occupied camp sites.

Most of the Africans who go to another country and stay in camp sites do not drive there in their four wheels, or fly. They come on buses, trains, are young, adventurous – and probably have photo or blog sites, and use the experiences to generate content for their Instagram pages.

They are the innovators. It seems, one of the things Kenya is seeking to do is to convert this traffic of innovators travelling on the new infrastructure in the region, into a resident visitor enterprise class.

And, of course, it wants to corner the bureaucratic capital and rents in East Africa through security of residency.

Which brings us back to Uganda, and to the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA). One of these days when you are sitting frustrated in a Kampala restaurant because your date is late, visit the UNRA Twitter page and spend some time on it. There are very interesting posts about what people in Kampala might find in places where UNRA is building wonderful roads.

There are the likes of Fort Portal-Kamwenge, of course, but my favourite is Moroto-Nakapiripirit road. These are nearly world class roads.

If you think about how immigration policy, and infrastructure investment is shifting the centre of the regional economy, it becomes clear that Uganda needs a response to Rwanda and Kenya to protect its future economic interests. That response does not have to be via immigration policy.

It can learn the lessons of having become a leading mobile phone exporter (to South Sudan), follow the UNRA roads, and turn them into a potent weapon of regional trade competitiveness.

Just one policy, around food, would do it. It could turn all the towns near the border where those UNRA roads run into food tax-free export zones - with the bigger ones hosting commodity exchanges.

All the money that is being spent inefficiently in “Operation Wealth Creation” could be given to the building of just two things in food export zones – food silos, and cold storage. This is really cheap, because that is all Kampala would need to do, then sit back, and watch miracles happen. It is something that it can do, at least in announcing the policy, before Christmas.

It would upend the wider Eastern African economy, and change the dynamics of Uganda’s own national economy, boost the return on its infrastructure, and stop its strategic drift to the edge of the East and Central African political-economy.

The advantage is that for reasons of geography, ideology, and history, it is the only East African country that can do that – for the next 10 years or so. After that, the bets are off.

Africa will be a different place, and the rest will have closed the window through innovation.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of africadata visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday November 29 2017

Obasanjo letter’ to Museveni and Africa’s President-For-Life Club


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

More pathetic stories about Zimbabwe-wrecker Robert Mugabe continue to come out, after the army and his ruling Zanu-PF forced him to resign as president last week after nearly 40 years in power.

You would think that frail, and at age 94, Mugabe would have been more willing to accept his fate, but no. It has emerged that he broke down and wept uncontrollably when the end came.

He was so desperate to cling to power that he offered to exile his disagreeable wife Grace – the very woman he had tried to manoeuvre into a position to succeed him, and thus caused the coup against him. Yet, there was Mugabe throwing her under the bus.

In Uganda, meanwhile, our own good Yoweri Museveni is following in the footsteps of Mugabe, and continues to do his president-for-life dance, after nearly 32 years in State House.

Museveni looks set to equal, or beat the record of Buganda’s Kabaka Cwa II, the longest ruling king anywhere in what is today Uganda, since some reasonably good records started being kept in the late 1300s. Cwa was on the throne for 42 years.

Inevitably we have to again ask the question we have asked a million times before: What is it about the African presidency that many leaders find so hard to leave?

It would have been fine if Mugabe no longer loved Grace, but apparently he did, and was willing to do everything to enable her succeed him, despite the popular view that she was easily the most unqualified Zimbabwean for the job. But as soon as he had to choose between her and his office, he traded her for the big chair.

One school of thought holds that (in addition to fearing prosecution for their sins) life after the presidency is too miserable for African leaders, and they become “nothing”. So those that cannot find something meaty to do were they to retire, cling on.

Well, Nelson Mandela became possibly more revered after he retired. Who can forget all those global supermodels and celebrities crying with emotion just being in Madiba’s presence?

In the drama of presidents changing constitutions so they can rule forever (and now Mugabe’s fall), we did not pay sufficient attention to a powerful counter-development elsewhere in Africa – Nigeria to be precise.

In March, the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, founded by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, opened not in Lagos or Abuja, but Abeokuta, in his home Ogun State.

Now we know how these things go. You’d think it was not a library but a tiny little in his village. You’d be wrong.

It is a massive affair, developed over nearly 10 years as an archive and academic centre. It houses documents and archival materials, including the former president’s primary school uniform, shoes, military uniform, his first car and other personal belongings. It holds a mind-blowing, by African standards, 42 million books! Now it has also become a tourist attraction.

Obasanjo is serious like that. In 2014 when he published his memoirs, My Watch, we in the media focused a lot on how he had dissed (then) president Goodluck Jonathan.

A friend in Lagos then couriered me a copy. When it arrived, there were three copies. I was wondering why he had sent me three, when I noticed that they were actually three volumes! There we were fidgeting to write our first serious books, and an 80-year-old former general had thrown down a three-volume set.

Post-State House life has been good to Obasanjo – and folks like former South African president Thabo Mbeki, Mozambique’s Joachim Chissano, Tanzania’s Benjamin Mkapa, Burundi’s Pierre Buyoya, to name a few.

Their cases tell us that former African presidents can still get the red carpet, police cars with sirens, and arrive late after they leave power. But that VIP treatment depends almost entirely on when and how they leave. Mugabe, for one, will not be getting invitations to speak at Davos or to sit on the Africa Progress Panel.

Strangely, then, to get power, you need to leave it when your time is up. Or to depart with grace and decorum, if you are forced out of it early as happened with Mbeki.
Google the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, and look at the photos, if you not minded to read about it. You will like what you see.
Obasanjo did something no African leader – and indeed very few in the rest of the world - has done. He has moved from being a subject of the Nigerian story, to shaping in very fundamental ways how future generations study it, and what they study about it.

Me thinks that is more power than he had as a president. It was too late for Mugabe. Hopefully, Museveni still has Obasanjo’s number. He could learn a thing or two.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data

visualiser and explainer site


Wednesday November 22 2017

Museveni won’t end like Mugabe, but Uganda can end up like Zimbabwe

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  


Not too long ago, now-93-year-old strongman Robert Mugabe thought he had finally conquered Zimbabwe.
He had stood up to his “imperialist” enemies, defied sanctions, scattered the opposition, and seemingly broken his country’s spirit to resist him. In triumph, he declared that only God could remove him from power.

He was right. As Oprah would say, God showed up, and showed out. But he didn’t come in his more familiar form of the old man with long hair, beard, flowing robes, and a stick. God came to Mugabe in the form of the army with tanks, and guns.
They put him under house arrest. Then the masses came out in their hundreds of thousands to demonstrate against him.
The central committee of his own party Zanu-PF, which he had privatised and from which he purged all pretenders to the throne so he could hand power to his nefarious wife Grace (DisGrace the First Shopper), voted to kick him out as its leader and sacked him from the party. In came Emmerson Mnangagwa as Zanu-PF leader, the man he had bundled out barely two weeks previously as vice president, a ruthless chap, but hero of the liberation struggle.By the time you read this, the parliamentary party that once did Mugabe’s every bidding might already have voted to impeach him.

The whole world has been transfixed by events in Zimbabwe, and now the debates rage about what Uncle Bob’s political demise portends for other members of the president-for-life club, including Uganda.
There are those who are positing that our own good Yoweri Museveni will go the same way. Others are saying, no. Unlike Mugabe, they argue, Museveni has disbanded all the old NRM and NRA historical figures, and removed all those with a historical claim to NRM leadership. That the successor of the NRA, the UPDF is a totally new army beholden to Museveni in ways that Zimbabwe’s wasn’t. There is no Gen. Constantino Chiwenga in the UPDF, no Mnangagwa in NRM (the last figure near that status being Amama Mbabazi who was hounded out in 2015). Actually, that view is correct.
Where it, and those who see Museveni ending like Mugabe, are wrong is that they both think that the “Harare Option” is the only way. No, there are possibly 10 different ways this can go down, including surprisingly even through an election.

Last year in The Gambia, despot Yahya Jammeh, who was also secure and had a feared presidential guard protecting him, lost an election to Adama Barrow. First, he conceded, then changed his mind and decided to cling to power. There were protests, then as his base deserted him, the regional bloc ECOWAS intervened and booted him out.
The late election theft, a rapid loss of support, and regional dynamics cost Jammeh.
In Tunisia and Egypt in the 2011 Arab Spring, the masses turned out in their millions. The Police hammered them but the ultimate power, the army, did nothing.
By doing nothing in both countries, the balance of power tilted against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. However, the Tunisian military left and stayed away. In Egypt, they eventually came back, hence setting off the series of events that brought Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

In 2014, in Burkina Faso, youth took to the streets against Thomas Sankara-killer and strongman Blaise Compaore. The army didn’t stand aside, nor was it united against him as in Zimbabwe. It was divided. Then, in a powerful symbolism that added some dramatic fuel to the events, the women of Ouagadougou took to the streets with wooden cooking spoons!
Compaore suffered a cultural, as much as a political collapse. So it’s difficult to know how Museveni, who clearly is going nowhere soon, might retire to Nyabushozi – or how he will stay in power. However, Zimbabwe and all the cases above have one thing in common that analysts don’t focus on – the behaviour of the people. It seems that it’s not ultimately important what the army does, but rather what the people do.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Burkina Faso, the people put their necks on the line first, then the armies responded. In Zimbabwe, the army took the initiative this time, and the people followed. If Mugabe’s support in Zanu-PF was still solid, and without the massive show of civilian support on the weekend, the Zimbabwe army, reluctant to declare its putsch a coup, would have been in crisis. What Museveni therefore should worry about is not the army. It’s the masses. Ultimately it is they whom the soldiers fear the most. Power is like a club. Once the patrons stop coming, the club will close. And the bouncers will go away, and leave the gate unguarded.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3