Charles Onyango Obbo

Being smart about Ugandan schooling; a sad story from Tanzania and a winner from Mexico

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, February 25  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

Instead, UPE was indiscriminate, riddled with corruption, and many government schools, even once very good ones, went to the dogs. But all was not lost. UPE sparked off the largest wave of investment in elite private schools that attracted students from allover the region

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You might have heard, you might not, but Tanzania has moved to end the use of English as a medium of instruction in secondary schools. It has also abolished national examinations for primary school leavers. Students will now take examinations after Senior Four.

I love the way our Tanzanian brothers and sisters do their things. First, they ended toying with English, and gone back to teaching in Kiswahili only. A system that largely failed, and they abandoned it.

But the most remarkable thing they did was how they handled the problem of failing students. In 2013, the country was shocked when 60 per cent of students sitting their Senior Four failed. The Tanzanian authorities came up with a very creative solution – they lowered the pass mark!

You would think I am criticising here. No, I am not. I am just saying that there is a new opportunity here. If I had sackfulls of money, I would buy a large tract of land near the Uganda-Tanzania border, build a top class school there, bring in the very good teachers who can work in English, and wait for the Tanzanians.

Already, thousands of Tanzanian students come to study in Ugandan (and Kenyan) schools, because the legacy issues with the education system means there are still not enough schools that prepare the kids to compete outside their country.

Just as they were beginning to take shape, boom, comes this policy. What has been a mass student movement from Tanzania, will now turn into a deluge.

One can only hope that Uganda doesn’t again make more bad policies like it has with education (and health) in the past. The motive of Universal Primary Education (UPE) was noble, but it was hopelessly executed.

It should have been available only to students from poor families, not to everyone. And it would better have been given out as vouchers, a kind of cheque, and then schools should have competed for parents to spend their vouchers with them.

Instead, UPE was indiscriminate, riddled with corruption, and many government schools, even once very good ones, went to the dogs. But all was not lost. UPE sparked off the largest wave of investment in elite private schools that attracted students from allover the region.

It also caused a change in pattern of how the proceeds of corruption were spent. Many corrupt officials, now no longer just spent their loot on consumption and concrete and mortar, but on the education of their children in private schools.

And as the gap between private schools and government ones grow, as long as public servants are paid peanuts, they come under more pressure to steal in order to give their kids a good private education.

It is interesting the unintended effects of policies. I detect some common sense is beginning to return to education policy. Some months ago, President Yoweri Museveni announced that UPE money will no longer go to private schools. That was a daft policy because it was a double subsidy.

Why do we say that?
First, because UPE resulted in an explosion of private schools; fees, while high, actually have still risen more slowly than if there were only a few of them competing against good government schools. In many ways that was the first subsidy for those who could afford.

Then giving UPE money to private schools participating in the programme, improved their student enrolments and financial turnover, so the schools could afford to keep their fees lower. That was the second subsidy for the “rich”.

Going forward, again, we hope Ugandan authorities will realise what the Tanzanians missed; that the language of basic education these days should be decided by what language educational materials are most commonly available in on the Internet.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Should MPs be paid Shs300m to remove the presidential age limit? Yes and no

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, February 18  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

Here though it is our two cents worth on this matter. We presume that Shs300 million is merely a wild negotiating price that MPs have thrown out there and, going by the Shs5 million they collected in 2005 to vote to scrap term limits, the final price for the age thing will settle somewhere between Shs15 million and Shs30 million

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So, reports claim Ugandan MPs have asked basically to be bribed with Shs300m in order to scrap the 75 years presidential age limit.

That would allow Museveni to achieve his goal of ruling into perpetuity without violating the Constitution. Today, we are not concerned with the merits or demerits of the presidency for life project.

Rather, I think what the MPs are doing, more than anything else, give us some of the best insight into why our country is a mess. Here, again, it is not so much that the MPs are asking to be paid for their vote, that is regular business.

What is troublesome is the pricing of the vote. We know that many MPs are in financial dire straits, bankrupted by the last campaign and the need to keep bribing their key constituents while keeping up the lifestyle of “honourables”.

We also know that the Budget is a mess, with institutions like State House getting supplementary budgets that are larger than their regular budget.
Part of these problems can all be traced to bad pricing of politics.

To start with, MPs are broke because they priced the cost of bribing voters higher than they should have. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be broke.
Newspapers are usually full of stories bemoaning the fact that voters accept cigarettes, Shs100 and half a glass of “nguli” worth about the same to “sell” their vote.

But that little money is still high enough to bankrupt MPs because, one, they should be paying Shs10 not Sh100. Or if they choose to pay Shs100, they shouldn’t give the money to, say, 5,000 people. They should give it to 500.

That said, both Shs10 or Shs100 are still arbitrary, because we don’t know for sure what votes are worth.

Yet this little matter has far-reaching consequences for the national economy, because how can an MP who can’t figure out the right price of a vote in his small constituency, and cannot allocate Shs1,000 intelligently, be trusted to make a credible decision on how to spend Shs500 billion in the Budget?

So, until the MPs get their vote buying right, they cannot oversee the national Budget meaningfully.
Here though it is our two cents worth on this matter. We presume that Shs300 million is merely a wild negotiating price that MPs have thrown out there and, going by the Shs5 million they collected in 2005 to vote to scrap term limits, the final price for the age thing will settle somewhere between Shs15 million and Shs30 million.

Not all the 378 MPs will take the money, of course. However, let us assume 300 do, that is Shs9 billion at most. But let’s even assume they get the Shs300m they are asking for, that is Shs90 billion.

Are both those figures a lot of money? Yes and no. One best reference is to benchmark this not against whether the buyer, assuming it is in Museveni in this case, can afford or is willing to pay it, but to see what he himself would accept as sufficient money to get him to walk away from the presidency.

Clearly, Museveni would reject Shs9 billion outright, if he was offered that sum of money, to get him to forget the age limit tweak and the presidency for life.

Would he accept Shs90 billion? He might think about it for a few minutes, but would still reject that too.

One reason is that, despite what his critics say and foreign magazines have reported – i.e. that he is one of the richest African politicians – he has consistently held that he never went in power for a “job” per se, or money. He claims it is a higher revolutionary calling.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

The strange case of LRA’s Dominic Ongwen, and what it reveals about Kony

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, February 11  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

Since he surrendered, I have been trying to figure out what exactly happened. I didn’t bargain for what I have found out. According to top sources in the multinational force hunting Kony, and who requested to remain anonymous for political reasons, Ongwen ran into trouble with Kony

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The forces of history have a dry sense of humour. Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army top commander Dominic Ongwen surrenders, and lands in the hands of the Americans, who together with the UPDF and multinational African forces, are hunting him and his boss in the Central African Republic.

A few days later, he is handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, and very quickly appears in court.

Ongwen was well scrubbed, his hair looking shampooed, and in a sharp suit. The Hague prison is easily the most comfortable in the world, so basically Ongwen’s accommodation – and probably suit – is better than that of any UPDF soldier and, maybe, officer, who has ever hunted him and Kony!
Apart from a handful of people in power in Uganda, few others have had such a handsome pay-off from murder like Ongwen.

Since he surrendered, I have been trying to figure out what exactly happened. I didn’t bargain for what I have found out. According to top sources in the multinational force hunting Kony, and who requested to remain anonymous for political reasons, Ongwen ran into trouble with Kony.

Kony ordered Ongwen to be arrested, which he was. Next, he was to be executed.

However, Ongwen was quite popular with the rank and file of the LRA, and they just could not let Kony kill him. So they contrived some security laxity that allowed him to escape.

Since it was in the bushes without a regular prison with bar doors and lock, I am speculating that they probably loosened the ropes around his hands and legs, and the wooden plank cover on top of the hole where he was being held was left ajar. Then they went to pee further away in the forest than usual, allowing him to escape.

More seriously, this is a revealing story, because we learn something that we didn’t. For this to happen, there must be a covert mutiny in the LRA against Kony. And if there is a mutiny then the LRA organisation has fallen into disarray. For it is one thing for Ongwen to get loose and climb out of his hole.

But to escape, would require him to perhaps go through two other security paremetres. Thus, the soldiers manning them had to either be complicit in the plot of his escape, or to have sufficiently high levels of loyalty to him to enable his flight and risk Kony’s wrath.

Or maybe Kony’s wrath is no longer feared. That can only be because he has lost a lot of his power, and for him to lose that much power, he must be too physically weak to exercise control. This means that at best, Kony is very sick.

We will skip the complex story of how he ends up in the hands of the Americans. The amazing thing is that when he first landed in the hands of the Seleka rebels, he introduced himself as a “Muslim militant” and span a master tale.

When the Americans eventually took delivery of the “package”, they were not expecting Ongwen---and his captors too handed him over without knowing it was him.

That would explain why Seleka claimed the $5 million bounty on Ongwen’s head after they had handed him over to the Americans. If they knew before hand, they would have demanded the money for his direct exchange.

That is not surprising. A good Ugandan friend who was working for an international organisation three years ago when Kony was making news in CAR, told me an incredible story.

He went to Obo where Kony and his gang had just left their deadly calling cards. He came upon several roadblocks manned by the CAR military who were part of the Kony-hunting posse.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Museveni should have ousted Salva Kiir and arrested Machar, not allowed them to eat again

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, February 4  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

It is hard to see how, even if the gods of the River Nile were overseeing the peace deal in South Sudan, the two warriors can work together again

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After 13 months of fighting and six failed ceasefires, diplomats embraced the latest peace proposal to end the war in South Sudan while acknowledging it would return the country to the status quo that precipitated the carnage in the first place, AFP reported.
The latest peace proposal drafted in Addis Ababa by the regional bloc leaves the reputedly whisky-swigging Salva Kiir as president and re-installs fickle rebel leader Riek Machar as his deputy.
Machar was deputy president until July 2013 when his sacking muddied the new nation’s politics, and a bloody ethnic-cleansing war that erupted five months later.
Regional and international peace efforts repeatedly squeezed out promises of peace from Kiir and Machar, but each one has been broken within days, if not hours.
In Addis Ababa, the stories of the Sudanese delegations had echoes of the 2001/2002 DR Congo peace talks in Sun City, South Africa’s theme and gambling haven.
“Earning a reputation as slow talkers and hard drinkers, the South Sudanese delegations at the European Union-funded talks held in luxury hotels in Ethiopia have already cost at least $22 million, according to diplomatic sources, AFP reported.
“Talks were first held at the plush Sheraton Hotel... Delegates could choose from 11 restaurants and bars, bathe in a pool that plays music underwater, visit the spa or simply enjoy the indoor fountains, decorative ponds and mini-palm trees. Rooms cost around $300 a night.
As the bills piled up as fast as the bodies back home and progress proved glacial, the talks were moved to a nearby hotel where rooms are half the price. Delegates continue to claim a $250 per diem for attending”. Basically, [delegates] were being bribed to bring peace to the country!
The war in South Sudan has displaced at least 1.9 million people, and by some estimates killed between 50,000 and 100,000 by November 2014. There were horrifying slaughter of Machar’s Nuer community by Kiir’s Dinka military and hordes, and equally bloody murder and raping of Dinka by Machar’s rebels and goons.
Now the two men have been rewarded, and diplomats say it is the best bad deal possible.
“We have to stop the killing, even if it’s a bad agreement that doesn’t change anything,” a European diplomat told AFP.
Kiir is widely viewed as incompetent, and too booze-addled to come up with something smart that productively works with Machar.
Machar on the other hand is seen as a power-hungry traitor who will be scheming every second to stick a knife in the back of a soporific Kiir.
It is hard to see how, even if the gods of the River Nile were overseeing the peace deal in South Sudan, the two warriors can work together again.
A South Sudan intellectual who has had it up to his nose with both Kiir and Machar summed it up bleakly, saying: “South Sudan will not know peace as long as Kiir and Machar are alive….and when [they] die, as long as their children are alive because they will continue the feud. South Sudan will only settle down when their grandchildren are of age.” If he is right, we are looking at another 50 years of madness.
It is gloomy, but it makes the point that regional and international players should have been harder on Kiir and Machar, and forced both of them out of power.
South Sudan, if truth were told, is still a half-state, staggering to its feet.
Barely two years into independence, the political class is not entrenched. It is extremely corrupt, but hasn’t had enough to establish a vast local network and allied crooked powerful business interests abroad vested in their survival.
The Ethiopians had the right instinct when, at least according to Kiir, they threatened him and Machar with arrest if they didn’t sign the deal mid-last year. A few hours later, Kiir landed in Juba and denounced it.
If Addis Ababa had thrown Kiir and Machar in prison, instead of letting them return home to murder, the situation in South Sudan would not have got worse. Instead the country would have got a new break. And this is where President Yoweri Museveni failed. It was not in sending UPDF troops to back Kiir – from a broader strategic picture that was understandable.
If it had ejected Kiir, but installed another Dinka prince with deep roots in the Sudan People’s Liberation Arm/Movement and interim leader, it would have killed like five birds with a single stone. It would have undermined Machar. It would have pleased its allies like the US and Ethiopia who wanted far-reaching change. It would have given the young Turks in the SPLM/A a leg up. And domestically, it could have sold the South Sudan intervention as a reform.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

29 years of NRM: How Museveni and Kony are ‘similar’, and how they are different

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 28  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

Ongwen was well scrubbed and in a sharp suit. Museveni was beaming like a Siamese cat, licking his chops, and prepping to make a run for his seventh run at the presidency in the new year. That is life. Not everyone wins. Not every boy gets the girl. Not every cat catches a rat; some make do with lizards

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Dominic Ongwen, the top rebel commander of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) appeared in the dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to face war crimes charges on Monday, January 26.
Ongwen, who was in the bushes of the Central African Republic (CAR), surrendered to Seleka rebels. They then handed him to the US Special Forces who together with units of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) are hunting his boss there. The Seleka rebels are now claiming the $5 million bounty the US had put on his head.
What struck me was the coincidence of his appearing at The Hague dock on January 26. It was the 29th anniversary of the ruling NRM and President Yoweri Museveni’s ascension to power.
It was not the only one. There are a few uncanny similarities between Museveni and Kony (this is not to say they are alike). Rather the similarities show that LRA is not just murderous, but it is actually a quintessentially African and Ugandan organisation, and Kony is a typical African and Uganda leader in the same way Museveni is, although they come from the opposite sides of our political divide.
•To begin with, Kony and Museveni are the longest serving post-1986 leaders of their respective organisations. Counting from when he came to power, Museveni has been leader of NRM, president and commander-in-chief for 29 years.
Kony effectively became leader of the LRA in 1988, after cobbling it together from the remnants and other dregs of Alice Lakwena’s defeated Holy Spirit Movement.
Kony has, therefore, led LRA for 26 years, the only rebel leader of the Museveni era who comes close to The Chief. When it comes to military and political survival, therefore, Museveni and Kony are in a class of their own.
I think Museveni will outlast Kony, but strange things happen in our neck of the woods so I wouldn’t place a bet on it.
We must make honorary mention here of the good Ndugu Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda. He has been minister longest in the Museveni administration, right?
•Though perhaps not exactly out of his choice, Kony has the same mindset as Museveni on pan-African rebellion. Museveni talks and acts pan-East African and pan-African. He joined the liberation of Mozambique, based his Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) in Tanzania, and the NRM and its branches in Kenya, UK, and Sweden.
He sent his army to the DR Congo, to South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic (CAR), and God knows where else.
The LRA became the most transnational African rebel group, fighting – but mostly murdering, raping and pillaging – in northern Uganda, South Sudan, DR Congo, and CAR. At bottom, both Kony and Museveni are militant transnationalists.
But that is where the similarities end. Kony beats Museveni in that he has had a record-breaking documentary, KONY2012 by the US children’s charity Invisible Children, made about his grim handiwork. Within days, it had been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube, and became the most viral video at that point.
Museveni hasn’t got a worthy documentary made of him yet. We wait.
Then, Museveni led the NRA out of their Luweero base on a long march to Fort Portal and eventually the Rwenzori Mountains. With the benefit of hindsight and fortuitous circumstances, the story is that it was to reorganise, and they were not defeated as the other side of this story by Milton Obote’s UPC government functionaries of the time goes.
In any event, Museveni went and came back as a conqueror and eventually, in January 1986, a victor.
Kony left for Sudan (then), hang around South Sudan after it won its freedom from the north, then high-tailed it to DR Congo where, faced with pursuit by the UPDF, he diversified into CAR.
Museveni didn’t find his way back to Kampala from the mountains because he was a better map-reader than Kony. It was partly because NRA/NRM did try, with some success too, to do what the LRA didn’t – to make friends. That made a big difference. It meant that for Kony, once he left he could only keep going.
So this week, as he sat under a tree in the bushes of eastern DRC or CAR and listened on radio to news of Ongwen’s day at the ICC and Museveni toasting to 29 years, he must have felt like the cursed twin.
Ongwen was well scrubbed and in a sharp suit. Museveni was beaming like a Siamese cat, licking his chops, and prepping to make a run for his seventh run at the presidency in the new year.
That is life. Not everyone wins. Not every boy gets the girl. Not every cat catches a rat; some make do with lizards.

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