Wednesday May 24 2017

Yes, the gods love Uganda…and the evidence is in a forest somewhere


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It can be difficult to be optimistic about Uganda these days. The stories of corruption, Medieval cruelty by the police, rampant crime, and skyrocketing prices have left many in a bad way.

I just read something on minimum wages in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The contrasts were outrageous.
The minimum wage in Uganda is Shs6,000. In Tanzania it is equivalent to Shs166,284, and in Kenya Shs262,188.
Fortunately, no one in their right mind in Uganda would pay someone Sh6,000 a month. But the fact that it is still that low, tells a lot.

And then there is the politics... Which brings us back to a favourite theme: if the state/politics has failed us, where is hope?

Many people don’t think there is enough muscle and spirit in private society to build new spaces, or create capacities to build a civic society.

However, I believe, naye, know, that there are a lot of great things happening out there and we don’t have to despair.
We have written before on some private sources of innovation and industry that give great hope about this fair land. But sometimes, you think it can’t get better – until it does. So this is a story of friends, actually relatives if you take all family marriage links seriously as every good Ugandan should, into account.

It starts some years ago, when they go to rural Uganda and buy several acres of land.
There was a small forest on it, most of it having been eaten away by neighbouring villages that harvested it for wood.
It borders a lake, so the shores had been harvested heavily for sand.

Slowly, they started the battle to restore most of the forest and secured it and the strip of land along the lake, and stopped sand harvesting.

The communities around drifted into the next forest, which is state forest. Years later, if you search their estate on Google Earth, it is a dense green of forest, surrounded by largely barren land. The people around have finished the taxpayers’ forests.

They now have one of the healthiest 65 acres of forest that you will find in this republic. But it is what followed next that makes this story worth telling.

Seeing the forest as a living thing, and holding the secrets of our history and future, they decided they would document every plant in it. So for some years now they have got botanists who have done exactly that.

You can get misty-eyed reading the trove of records they have generated. They have listed all the common English, scientific, and Ugandan names of the trees. They have written their history. They have yielded the research on the stories of the trees, and what cultural purposes they were put to.

They photographed each tree from several angles. And to cap it, they have cut a specimen from each of the trees and saved them.
Even in the colonial days, where the occasional eccentric and mad scientist Briton would get up to these kinds of things, they rarely went to this depth.

Now you would think this would end there, but no. They have identified all the 110 species of birds in their forest, and now they are going through the same thing.

Photographing them, referencing them to their local and scientific names, and telling their stories.
And to put icing on the cake, when that is done, they will take on the most unAfrican part of the project.
They will identify all the snakes in the forest, photograph them, get their local and mzungu names, and map where they live.

I asked what they plan to do about the insects. Well, “you never know”, they said.
They didn’t allow me to say anything about the plans they have for the place, but they are alive to the fact that they can’t sustainably live in an ecological “oasis” when around them the communities have destroyed all forest and are struggling for fuelwood.

So they are planning to set up a nursery and push a reforestation and greening in the areas around them.
None of these people have ever stood for office, or seek it. They hide from the public eye, and outside of their circle of friends and family, few other Ugandans know them. Yet, they have a care for these lands, and its peoples, only few can muster.

I was having coffee with a leading global conservation figure when I told him about their work. I then said, half-seriously, “I don’t know of any other African who has taken it as far as they have”.He looked at me without saying anything for a few seconds, and said; “Actually I don’t know any private individuals in the world who have either.”

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

Wednesday May 17 2017

Why do Ugandan regimes love to torture? It is complicated


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Governments and times change in Uganda, but the one thing all of them have had in common is the appalling reliance on primitive torture of suspects. You can trace this in varying forms from British colonial rule to the NRM regime today. Why is this so?
First, to the distressing case of Kamwenge Town Council and area NRM chairman Geoffrey Byamukama that was reported in Daily Monitor.

Byamukama, who was visiting Kampala, was seized on what has turned out to be a cock and bull story about having links to the March assassination of former police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi.
So many people have been held in connection with the Kaweesi murder, it is likely to turn out to be the biggest conspiracy in Uganda, even bigger than any of the country’s past coups. Already right there, one begins to see the possibility that some chiefs up there just don’t know what they are doing.
Anyway, Byamukama and others were driven to what the Daily Monitor described as the “dreaded Nalufenya detention facility in the eastern Jinja District”, the NRM government security’s latest torture dungeons of choice. When he eventually emerged there, he was in a horrifying state. He was not the first, and won’t be the last. Many people who go to Nalufenya and don’t emerge from there a whole one piece.
The choice of Nalufenya is not accidental.

It is out of Kampala where most of the media, the international community, lawyers, human rights activists, and other prying eyes, are based. Most people who are arrested in Uganda are also more likely to have family and relatives in Kampala, as the capital, than in Jinja or other towns.
This practice of transporting suspects across the country over long distances from the place where they were arrested started in the colonial period, and in the Museveni years, it has become an elaborate exercise.
And so back to that question of why from Obote governments, Idi Amin, and the Okello generals, to Museveni’s rule, torture has continued to deface this fair land.
The first reason is the normalisation of relative morality in our politics.

For example, after Obote and UPC returned to power after the disputed 1980 election, with the rebellion of the NRA/NRM, UFM, Fedemo raging in the south, the gruesome torture of the Amin years just continued.
But because the UPC government had been elected, however controversially, and there was an opposition in Parliament, the Obote government felt it was far better than Amin’s, and its atrocities were, therefore, “better”.
And thus, in a remarkable case, on one of the occasions that Obote came to Parliament, he took on the opposition DP’s accusations that the “UPC government was as murderous as Amin’s.”
It wasn’t, Obote argued.

There is Parliament, he said, that didn’t exist during Amin’s time, and in a bizarre pushback, said that under his government, the relatives of people who are arrested and die in detention are able to get their bodies and give them a dignified funeral. In Amin’s time, he said, people just disappeared! It’s like someone saying you should thank them for killing your loved one quickly with a single bullet to the head, rather than bludgeoning him to death for an hour.
Same today. Savagely tortured people are produced in court, and the security men don’t think their wounds should be shown. They should be somehow grateful that they got their day in court. The Obote II and NRM mindsets are pretty much the same in this regard.
So why does this national disgrace continue? That is where it gets even more troubling. It seems there is a part of this that governments want the public to see, because somehow they believe it has a deterrent value.

The fear of facing so much pain will discourage a government opponent from taking to the street; instill the fear in the hearts of a prospective plotter; or get the population to accept the “lesser” abuses by the State (e.g. arbitrary arrest, or tear gas) as a “fair” settlement. One could ask why the government needs this at all.
Well, because, like the colonialists, Amin, and Obote, the government is facing a legitimacy deficit.

For a plot to kill a senior police officer to succeed, you need an environment where it can be hatched and carried out successfully without a government-loving citizen or co-conspirator having a change of heart and rushing to leak it to security authorities or the LC1 chair.
If you asked me, it was very difficult for such plots to take place in the Kampala of the 1990s. Today, from the rampant insecurity and heavy-handedness of the security forces, they are par for the course.
This will get worse before it gets better – if at all.

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

Wednesday May 10 2017

New French leader Macron’s wife 24 years older than him – why’s that the future


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The 39-year- old political newbie Emmanuel Macron just won the weekend election in France to become the country’s youngest leader in more than 100 years.

But to many people, that fact has been eclipsed by the “novelty” of the fact that his wife, Brigitte Marie-Claude Macron, is 64-years-old (though she looks nearly eight years younger and is very stylish), 24 years younger than him.

In a patriarchal world where it is old men who marry younger women, many have been left agog. The story gets juicier, because he first met Brigitte as a 15-year-old schoolboy and she was his teacher. They started an affair. Brigitte was married then.

The fact that the difference in age between 70-year-old US president Donald Trump and his wife Melanie, who is 47, is nearly 24 years, didn’t raise eyebrows because, well, again, men get to marry younger women.
I am not a priest, so will not speak about Brigitte’s affair with her student decades ago. Nor will we canvass the sexist issue here.

Our interest today is the evolutionary necessity and the economics of love and marriage.

Younger women are more likely to have healthier children than older women, and (at least in the past) they were also less at risk of dying during childbirth. Younger men are also more likely to father healthier children than older ones, but the cut off age for men is much higher than for women.

The evolutionary success of humans then, needed older men to marry younger women. The argument of course, is how young.

But it is really economics and politics that set this norm in stone. Centuries after we left the cave (never mind that African politicians still behave like cavemen) and with social progress, things changed.

In those days, roles that fell to men like defending the family meant fighting off animals that would eat them; feeding them meant chasing down a gazelle in a hunt; and fighting off invading chieftains who would capture them.

Those roles, among other things, evolved into male privilege.

Anyhow, since lately providing for the family means a trip to the supermarket, and protecting them requires you to hire a security firm, things that require money, in patriarchal societies where men monopolised wealth, those with money, ability to earn, or land, were better providers.

Now, assuming honest work and commerce, a 50-year-old man is more likely to have more money and land, than a 24-year-old recent college graduate.

Of course it is important to marry for love, first, but next the most sensible thing a woman should do is to consider a man’s ability to provide, either in his future earning potential, or current wealth. This scenario inevitably ended in older men marrying younger woman.

But there is something illogical. Not everyone marries to have children. If you are not marrying to have children, issues of “child bearing age” become irrelevant. So the case for marrying a younger woman begins to disappear. On average, women live five per cent longer than men – which translates to about four years.

So the only “socially necessary” age difference between couples is four years – in favour of women. In other words, if couples want to die at around the same time, the woman should always be four years older! It no longer makes rational sense for men to marry younger women.

Macron, you would say, married in a direction supported by science.

Even if they wanted to have children, the advancement of science has reduced the risks of older women giving birth, as the increasing number who are having their first children at 50 are showing us.

Despite persisting discrimination against women, the shift to service industries and technology are significantly eroding the disadvantages women face in the economy.

However, one thing hasn’t changed. Just like older men are likely to be richer than young ones, older women are also likely to be richer than younger ones. Now we said earlier that it’s important to think about your partner’s ability to provide.

In a changing world, given that women have a longevity edge, it’s only right that men consider their future wive’s ability to provide.

If you are 28-year-old man, have a modest-paying job, and want to start a family, the best chance of your family’s success is to marry a 32-40 old woman, because she will probably have more money than your high school sweetheart.

But we know that matters of the heart are not governed by grand philosophy, and social and cultural attitudes usually run anything between 25 to 100 years behind that required by technological progress.

Therefore, I doubt that in Uganda, there will be any followers in Macron’s more enlightened and scientific path.
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday May 3 2017

It was Labour Day, but the workers are going, going, gone


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Monday was Labour (May) Day, the occasion when they honour the hard working people and toiling masses of the world. The thing with Labour Day, is that it could be the first one to become irrelevant, because of technological change.

Most workers whom we honour on May Day, are the ones most likely to lose their jobs to automation. There tends to be a lot of comfort in Uganda, and most of Africa, where agriculture/farming employs the most people, that it will take many more decades before workers begin to lose jobs to robots. Kenyan tea pickers used to think that way. How wrong they were.

In recent months, they have been protesting against the introduction of mechanical tea pickers. This will soon be the fate of the tea pickers – and sugarcane cutters - in Lugazi.
Just over a year ago, Creativity versus Robots, a report by Oxford University academics and UK-based non-profit research and innovation group Nesta, said growing of cereals and fibre crops are near-certainties to be taken over by robots.
The two occupations are among the least creative, and are therefore prime candidates for automation.

The two jobs had a computerisation probability of 100 per cent and 91.2 per cent respectively. Another Ugandan occupational mainstay, raising dairy cattle, was also up there, with an 89.3 per cent chance of computerisation. Mixed farming was also on the hit list.

As this column noted before, in South Africa, a giant company is already deploying driverless tractors, run from control rooms far away, to work fields. There is no human to take a lunch break, or whom the neigbhour can bribe to dig for him too on the side.

Precisely because we have to contend with issues like corruption, and a cultural context where if you are a good citizen you have to take off days to go for funerals, automation is particularly tempting.

Early this year, there was report of a Chinese factory that replaced 90 per cent of its human workers with robots.
The result was mind-blowing. Production rose by 250 per cent and, defects dropped by 80 per cent.

The factory used to be run by 650 employees, and had gone down to just 60 people. In the future, they expect only 20 people, working with robots, to be doing the work of the previous 630!
The reason these things should exercise our planners and policy makers, is that they are not driven solely by investors seeking higher returns.

First, because wages have generally stagnated, the lives of most citizens aren’t going to improve through income growth. It will come from reduced cost of living, which will come from availability of cheaper quality products, which in turn can only come from greater productivity and efficiencies from industry and farming.

That level of productivity is not going to come from more deployment of human labour, but automation.
Secondly, resources like land are getting limited and very expensive with growing populations. To get more out of the limited land, we need to throw technology at it.

Recently there was a report on farming robots. You unleash them on a vast field when you are going to sleep. They work through the night, and when you wake up, all your fields have been planted with seed, or weeded.

Overnight, the job for which you would have hired 30 casual labourers to do for a week would be done! That means you are able to bring produce cheaper and quicker to the market.
Unfortunately, for us, our solutions would also be the things that kill us. What will happen to the millions of people who make their livelihoods on the land?
That should be our big issue.

There seems to be some serious moves this time to hold talks between Museveni and FDC opposition politician Kizza Besigye (or is it between NRM and FDC?).
But one senses it will mostly be political dialogue if it happens, and at best it could end in a lukewarm power-sharing pact.
While that is important for lowering the political temperature, the more defining national dialogue should be about Uganda’s future and the challenge of technology.

Such dialogue could agree on the education reforms for the times, how to fund innovation, worker retraining, how to pay for transition, and how to help the few small creative pockets in various sectors that we have (yes, they are there), to grow into bigger things.

Because, if I had $2 million to invest in a farm in Tororo today, believe me, if you visited you wouldn’t find any heroic human workers on it.

I would automate the damn thing from the start. I know of at least 10 upcoming Ugandan entrepreneurs who have even more radical views about the deployment of technology on the land and everywhere else.

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

Wednesday April 26 2017

The inconvenient politics of the current Uganda crime wave


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Every day Ugandans are posting on social media photographs of broken windows, doors, and ransacked homes in the wave of crime that has hit the country in recent times.

This week, suspects were paraded before police chief Kale Kaihura, and said they get protection from the police. There is no surprise there. Everyone knows that for the type of crime we are witnessing, police collusion is critical.

And, it is not just in Uganda where it happens. It happens all over the world. There are some common reasons why this happens. Police officers in most countries are poorly paid.
At the same time, they protect rich business people, companies, corrupt politicians, and others who live a life they cannot even dream of.

To make matters worse, police work can be hard and unglamorous. They endure scorching sun, rain, and long hours on their feet. And it is dangerous.

For men and women to do that work without paying themselves something extra through corruption and crime, they need to be very patriotic and honest.

For them to be very patriotic and honest, they need to see the leaders above them being equally patriotic and scrupulous. If, as in Uganda, they are not, the deal is off.

But even where the leaders are patriotic and honest, inequality can lead to breach of trust. A recent Oxfam report noted that in Uganda, the richest 10 per cent of the population enjoy 35.7 per cent of national income; while the poorest 10 per cent claim a meagre 2.5 per cent, and the poorest 20 per cent have only 5.8 per cent.

Also, inequality between the regions had grown sharply.
A law enforcement officer from a deprived region, sitting in Kampala, might act out of grievance at that fact, and either steal directly, or find a “sub-contractor” thief whom he protects.

However, if this was all, then crime would be largely a law and order and economic opportunity issue for which some quick fixes could be found.

But it is not. It touches on what you might call the “three pillars” that form the pact between President Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the Ugandan people.

When the NRM took power in 1986 after a five-year bush war, even with areas, parties and individuals that opposed them, at a deeper level, there was a contract upon which the acceptance of their rule was based.

It was simple. The first (and many people scorned the idea later) was that in exchange for acquiescing to Museveni/NRM’s rule, they would guarantee you safety in your home, so you would not be attacked and robbed—and easily killed—as had been the case the previous 15 years. This later came to be known simply as “Otulo”.

The second, that the sweat of your labour would not be squirrelled away by high inflation or confiscated by the state, and so anti-inflation policy became and remains a central plank of Museveni policy. Corruption was a big issue, but it was never part of this contract.

The third was that at the village level, you would not be ruled by people whom you had not elected. And so the appointed chief went. That is partly how Resistance Council 1, and later Local Council 1, evolved differently from the higher levels of LC, because at that level you were not elected on the basis of your party or even nationality, but your community bona fides.

So while you could steal the presidential or parliamentary vote, the RC1 and LC1 ones for the longest time were largely honest.
The election mandate that Museveni “wangles” every five years or so, I believe, has never been the abiding basis of his power.
He could steal all the votes, lead a notoriously corrupt government, and string Kizza Besigye upside down from a tree in Kansagati, but as long as he did not mess with those things who could hang on somehow.

The elites and towns got worked up over those things, for sure, but “down there” those were not the mostly deeply felt matters.
Remember, because of rebellion and so on, in nearly all the north and northeast, some of those three-pillars were denied.
But in the wider political south, Museveni’s subjective social base, they were always secured.

Not any more. The present wave of crime has hit, especially the south, particularly hard. In some of the previously war-affected areas, someone remarked that crime is slightly lower because there is little to steal.

These home invasions take away two things. First, security of person in the home. Secondly, they are stealing the sweat of people’s labour – either money or property.
It is therefore a bigger political problem than even an election fiasco, because it is tearing apart the real compact on which the consent (not legitimacy) of Ugandans to Museveni’s and NRM’s rule is based.

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

Wednesday April 19 2017

A ‘pair of buttocks’ and the big silent war over the Museveni years


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

And just like that, at least according to Mr Google, Dr Stella Nyanzi became the most reported and commented-on Africa story in world media of the last 10 days.

We shall not return to the wider political meaning of the arrest of the outspoken feminist Makerere University academic and social media provocateur.

Rather we shall focus on the power of the three words that have captured everyone’s attention.

The Nyanzi story took off at a specific point—when it gained salt of the Earth simplicity. If you read most headlines, they are saying she was arrested for calling President Yoweri Museveni a “pair of buttocks”.

What is it about bottoms/bums and their appendages that evoke so much emotion?

In fact, Nyanzi is an amateur when it comes to spinning catchy and dramatic lines about the nether regions. The master is her present adversary—President Museveni himself.

A story is told about one day when Dr Suleiman Kiggundu (RIP), who was then Governor of the Bank of Uganda (1986-1990) went to State House to meet Museveni.

State House was then in Entebbe, before it made its long move to Nakasero, and then returning there again in recent years.

Museveni had a long list of visitors, and Kiggundu had business to do in Kampala. Kiggundu sat and waited for most of the day.

Finally, toward 8pm, he plucked courage and pressured a Museveni aide to tell the President he was still waiting.

Museveni, according to one of the people who was with him, told the aide (in Runyankole), “Tell him to wait. Are there ants in his anus?”

That is deep stuff, and you do not have to be a student of African philosophy to understand it.

In December 2015, Museveni, this time publicly, again drew inspiration from the derriere region to issue a memorable warning following clashes between former prime minister Amama Mbabazi’s fans and NRM supporters in Ntungamo.

“If you put your finger in the anus of a leopard, you are in trouble”, Museveni said, as he warned in a televised statement that the Amama supporters would pay dearly. And from there, he earned the nickname the “leopard”.

And, indeed, one of the most powerful African proverbs on action, consequences and obligation, is again derived from the same place. “If the throat can swallow a knife, the anus must find a way of expelling it”, it says.

The bottoms and their neighbourhoods are among the most contested spaces all over the world, but evoke more emotion in peasant societies because they are still imbued with an existential element.

Thus, in many societies, women who are well-endowed will find themselves receiving a lot of both wanted and unwanted attention from men.

Careers are made from it. Perhaps one of the most successful global brands built around a generous rear is the American reality star Kim Kardashian.
Though talented in their own right, musicians like Jennifer Lopez, and more notably the beloved Beyoncé, have got a lot of bonus points from what their rear views offer.

And anyone who has even a passing interest in African pop culture, will know that these days there are women who have become rich from, as our African American brothers and sisters say, “using what their momma gave them” well.

Being well-endowed gets you a well-paid appearance on music videos and high society parties, because you attract photographers, and your pictures will go viral on celebrity-obsessed social media and thus give publicity to the event that you attended.

In African culture, ample backsides are also associated with fertility, and therefore evolutionary success.

But while the derriere is a premium sexual objective and procreative advertisement, it is also where we get rid of the waste in our bodies, and the most stinging sources of African insult. Nyanzi drew from the latter.

However, Museveni (and Kahinda Otafiire and Amanya Mushenga) among Uganda’s politicians is the master of this visceral cultural form.

In 1996, we saw him deploy it with deadly effect with his “Olubimbi” (grinding stone) imagery against Paul Ssemwogerere in that year’s election, allowing him to speak to rural voters in a language his opponents did not have an answer to.

He returned to it with the “Another Rap” song in his 2011 campaign, perhaps the best-run vote hunt of his career. And lately, another admittedly catchy video, “Kwezi, Kwezi”, a spoken traditional poetry offering.
And that is the other point that needs to be made. Nyanzi actually stole a page from the Museveni playbook.

I have always held that there are two battles in Uganda. One is the broader political one. The second, and more critical, one is over the narrative about the Museveni years, culture, and idioms.
A “pair of buttocks” has just opened the floodgates on the latter.

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

Wednesday April 12 2017

120 years ago, what Apollo Kaggwa teaches us about Uganda today


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

For many years, President Yoweri Museveni has argued that for Uganda to become a rich and industrialised nation, it has to focus more of its education resources on the study of science and technology, and less on poetry, psychology, politics (the arts and social sciences, generally).

His government’s policy has, therefore, over the years shifted more and more state scholarships away from the arts and social sciences, to the pure sciences and technology.

The president is wrong, of course, but it is an argument that is not worth getting bogged down with today. Where a Museveni would have a point is in HOW the arts and social sciences are taught.

The irony is that a better study of the arts and social science, would argue be good for Museveni because some of what critics present as the more cynical and devious elements of his rule become more understandable.

Let us take the case of SirApollo Kaggwa, who has been described as a “major intellectual” of his time, an author, Buganda’s and “foremost ethnographer”. Kaggwa is more famous as regent Buganda Katikkiro (prime minister) for most of the period between 1890 and 1926.

Let’s take two episodes. Between 1885 and 1887, there was the so-called “religious war”, mainly in Buganda, with Protestants, Catholics, and Muslim factions vying for control.

Kaggwa, came to be seen as the leader what scholars have called the “Protestant faction.”

Beside being a man of letter, Kaggwa, we are told, was also a “good rifleman”, in many ways a Museveni of that time, and he fought in the religious war.
The Muslims had the early upper hand and scattered the Christians.

King Mwanga was deposed briefly, and Kaggwa and other Protestants fled into “exile”. Well, they didnot go too far. They fled to the neighbouring Ankole Kingdom, where King Ntare V Rugingiza gave them asylum.

The Protesants eventually prevailed. Mwanga got back his kingdom in 1890, and a triumphant Kaggwa became Katikkiro.

The thing about this event of nearly 130 years ago today, is that it should have been a useful reference point when Museveni took his bush war to Luwero in 1981.

The UPC used to argue that Museveni had been so rejected in the 1980 elections – he lost his shirt, coming third in Nyabushozi – so he could only opportunistically base his war in Buganda where anti-Obote sentiment ran very deep.

Some Buganda nativists and Museveni critics, on the other hand, hold that it was a cynical move to “destroy” Buganda through war, while preserving his own Ankole.

You can see that to argue this way, one has to ignore history. Even before we talk of the alliance that was to form between Bunyoro’s King Kabalega and Buganda’s Mwanga a few years later against British colonialism, the history of (later)-Ugandans seeking common cause and support for their local struggles from neighbours is older than modern day Uganda.

If anyone came to understand that, it was Apollo Kaggwa. Thus in his history of Buganda, he included pages on the neighbouring kingdoms of Bunyoro and Ankole.

Some of these things are politically inconvenient, especially if they offer a nuanced understanding of a president or government you despise, but yet we would deny ourselves usual tools for navigating the present and predicting how the next few years in Uganda’s politics might play out, if we bury them.

Taking this further, my grown up re-acquaintance with Apollo Kaggwa, led me to re-evaluate another commonly held view from our history.

Kaggwa was, by the standards of time, a visionary and moderniser. He was a big proponent of modern education.

From a citation from C.W. Hattersley’s “The Baganda at Home”, we learn that Kaggwa was “appalled by what he saw as a tendency of the sons of the nation’s leaders to grow up spoiled, in contrast to the spartan upbringing his generation received from the palace apprenticeship system.

He worked with British missionaries to establish boarding schools, notably King’s College Budo, explicitly to keep young noblemen from growing up spoiled.”

In our popular commentary and radical scholarship, Budo was established to entrench the privileges of Buganda­—and Uganda’s—royalty and chiefly houses.

Though it was never created for peasant’s children, but to people like Kaggwa, you could say, Budo was supposed to “proletariatise the upper class”.

And the corollary, controversial, argument could be made that he thought boarding school made sense school only for the privileged children and was, essentially, bad for the poor.

Seeing the crisis that Uganda’s middle class is battling with its children today, it is truly remarkable that a man like Kaggwa was so strategically engaged with these issues 100 years ago.
Yet, if there was only government-funded education today under Museveni, very few would have the possibility to study anything new about him.

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

Wednesday April 5 2017

Beyond Stella Nyanzi: Power, privilege, and discontent in Uganda


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

For the first time, this column will write about Ms Stella Nyanzi, researcher, feminist, and tree-shaker.
It is not about her boldly strong and flowery language, or her wielding nudity for protest. Rather about what her social activism, and the response of the State to them, tell us about how the times are a changing.

There are two people who set Ugandan social media ablaze and upset those in power.

The first, and really the pioneer of social media combat, is Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, or TVO.

The other is Stella Nyanzi.
We have had earlier digital warriors, more memorably “Radio Katwe”, but that was a blog, so it didn’t have the possibility of feeding the frenzy that social media provides.

No one is sure who TVO is, nor who was behind “Radio Katwe”. But we know they were/are men. Secondly, they were anonymous.
Ms Nyanzi is, therefore, our first neck-on-the-chopping-block female social media combatant. But even more remarkable, the first to do this kind of battle without being anonymous.
That is truly noteworthy. And it also speaks to how gender politics and power are shifting in Uganda.

To borrow an unfortunate expression from the locker room, Ms Nyanzi is the first Ugandan “man” of social media activism. Where others hide in pseudonyms, she fights her wars fearless in the name that is on her school certificates.

But where Nyanzi has been most shrewd, is the issue she used to build her latest campaign on – sanitary pads for the poorer school girls in Uganda.

The people who really have to learn a lesson here, on how to take an issue that is seemingly on the margins of politics and then mainstreaming it, are the Ugandan Opposition.

Despite President Museveni promising to have a sanitary pads programme for school girls as he campaigned last year, the government now says it doesn’t have the money for it. A crowd-sourcing effort launched by Nyanzi, who argued that billions of shillings are stolen daily in corruption and spent on dubious projects, quickly raised millions of shillings for sanitary towels.

But that exactly is the rub. If the government responds by funding the programme, it will be seen to have lost out to Nyanzi. By making the “no money” argument, Museveni comes across as your typical politician who makes promises he doesn’t intend to keep during campaigns.

The third has been an attempt to suppress Nyanzi, first by summoning her to record a statement with the police about her controversial social comments; then preventing her from flying to a conference in Europe; and finally suspending her from her job at Makerere University. In any event, the effect of all this is that the First Lady Janet Museveni, who is Minister of Education, soon got embroiled in an unusually direct duel with Nyanzi, who had cast her as a privileged princess out of touch with the daily suffering of ordinary Ugandans after decades behind the walls of the presidential palace.

Even more significant, through her language and framing of the issue around sanitary towels, Nyanzi achieved something hardly anyone else has before. She managed to marginalise Museveni from what has become a major national conversation about power, its abuse, privilege and inequality of access to resources.

Ms Museveni has seemed to squirm in the spotlight Nyanzi has put on her, trapped between the message, which she probably has sympathy with, and the messenger, whom she detests.
However, we have got a very good insight into the inability of the Museveni House to deal with “new age” and on-the-edge soft social issues.

That the State is looking to charge Nyanzi, not only reveals an Achilles Heel, but also speaks to the second issue – the continuing seepage of conversation-setting power away from mainstream media and the professional commentariat, to people like Nyanzi and TVO.

But that, we already knew. What we weren’t sure, was the institutional form the State’s response to the rise of this social media activism would be.

The job has fallen to the telecoms industry regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), because it is about controlling access and use of the Internet. The UCC is slowly reincarnating as the old long-scrapped and disgraceful Censorship Board.

My friend Godfrey Mutabazi, the executive director of UCC, finds himself having to justify blocking access to the Internet, and delivering regular sermons on responsible social media usage, more than minister of ICT and National Guidance Frank Tumwebaze, whose job it is to deal with such messy issues.

On the other hand, the Civil Aviation Authority has lately found itself blocking more people from travelling than the police (which has only Kizza Besigye to worry about), and Makerere University, if it doesn’t push back, could become the regime’s Thought Police.

I don’t know whether Nyanzi knows how much she has upset the political apple cart.

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

Wednesday March 29 2017

It’s politics stupid: What Museveni needs for security cameras to work

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

After the recent shock assassination of Assistant Inspector General of Police and Force spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi, President Museveni ordered the installation of security cameras around the country.

Some people have said, “This is Uganda, it won’t happen. The money will be eaten”. Others have said it is simply too expensive, and Finance minister Matia Kasaija has already seemed to pour water on it.

A columnist in Daily Monitor noted that even offices that have security cameras, have not been able to prevent crime.
He has a point. Though there are troubling elements to it, the ideal world would be like that in the film “Minority Report”, starring Tom Cruise.

In it there is a precrime unit, which utilises clever technology to arrest murderers before they commit their crime.
But even in the fantasy world of film, “Minority Report” is based on America in 2054. In other words, we are still 37 years away from that.

Reducing crime and catching criminals are good goals, so let us make the overly optimistic assumption that the cameras money can be found, and this time it won’t be stolen. How then can we have something that works.

To which our answer is that for security cameras to work, the second thing you need is police sector reform. The first is political reform. Only after that, should you bother to buy and install cameras.

In many of these African countries, those security cameras put out there by governments might work, but they are useless.
Here is why, and we promise we will only use technical jargon in the following two sentences.

The cameras Museveni is talking about are referred to as “Internet protocol” (IP) cams or “network cameras”. They send and receive data (in this case photographs) over a local area network (LAN) or the Internet.

Because we all have mobile phones with cameras these days, we know that most times we have to make photographs smaller (compress), in order to send them to friends. One reason for that is because we have only a limited amount of bandwidth.

Also, after a while, we have to delete photographs from our phones, because we have only so much memory on both the phone and memory cards.

Security cameras work in the same way. They take photographs, and send them over a network to where they are stored almost like on our cameras and mobile phones.

If you had 100 friends and each of them was taking photos and sending them to your phone, in minutes you would have no space and wouldn’t be able to receive anything either – unless you could get a phone as big as your refrigerator and miraculously shift to a future 6G network.

Therefore, imagine for a second, the cameras at the Clock Tower Roundabout, Jinja Road, and the Shimoni Roundabout at peak hour. Every minute they could take and send more photos than any network in Kampala can carry.

After six hours, they would probably fill any digital storage this country has. Imagine all the cameras around Kampala, and all the towns and highways sending images to one central storage in Kampala at the same time.

Even if you took all the bandwidth in Uganda and dedicated it only to that, I doubt it would still be enough. And you will need Google-level storage to keep the data.

So the figures of under $200m being bandied around are useless. If we spent $2 billion (and most of it on bandwidth and storage), not cameras as such, we might get somewhere.

But that is impossible. The next alternative is to break it down in small pieces. Here different zones of Kampala, every town, and district would have their cameras, networks and data centres.

The national system then comes from networking all these small pieces. If you want information, you go in and query their databases. Even most of those Western countries that are very advanced in these things, like the UK, that is what they do.

But these countries also have strong local and city policy forces, some funded locally, and their leaderships appointed – or elected – at town, city, and state levels.

In Uganda, there is no police leader anywhere in this country who is not appointed either by President Museveni or IGP Kale Kayihura from Kampala.

If we deconcentrate, decentralise, and democratise the police, we shall have a force that is local-facing, and sufficiently accountable at that level to effectively execute things like security cameras. We shouldn’t build a system where everything in Uganda comes to Kayihura’s server room.

His job will be to pick the phone, when a vile crime happens, and ask for footage. That’s a cheaper system and doable.

But, as we said, it is a political question.

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

Wednesday March 22 2017

From Okoya to Kaweesi: The politics of killing uniformed men in Uganda

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The assassination of police spokesperson AIGP Andrew Felix Kaweesi last week, seems to have both saddened and shocked the country in ways few other such killings have done in recent times.

On social media, even some Ugandans who weren’t fans of Kaweesi because of, especially, his statements backing the shoot-to-kill order in the Kasese mayhem late last year, were shaken.
In a bizarre way, part of the answer was presented in plain sight on Monday, when former presidential aspirant, opposition FDC’s Kizza Besigye, was blocked from attending Kaweesi’s requiem mass at Rubaga Cathedral.

In this regard, once a Ugandan minister asked me how come the Kenyan political elite, after they have fought bitterly “still seem to be able to come together in key moments, unlike us?” I told him, “they have funerals and weddings to thank for that”.
Recently, after some very acrimonious campaigning and name-calling, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition rival Raila Odinga, both attended the funeral of a county governor. They were gentlemanly to each other, and made largely the same speeches, and for two days that was the big the story.

The inability of Uganda’s political chiefs to see a tragedy like the death of Kaweesi as an opportunity to dial down, to open the valve, means that this use of very brutal violence (to deal with political rivals, or as some allege in Kaweesi’s case getting rid of him for trying to stop a corrupt deal in the police) has remained a constant in Ugandan politics, now running on to 40 years.
Over these years, violence has been normalised in a very twisted way. Ugandans understand mass murder. You can slaughter people in their hundreds and thousands, as happened during Idi Amin’s rule; during the war in Luweero; the various northern Ugandan rebellions; and recently in Kasese.

Your supporters will think the people killed deserved it because they were opponents, and your support base will rally around you.

However, the same people react differently when individual military and police officers die in suspicious circumstances (as former Internal Affairs minister and army commander Gen Aronda Nyakairima did in 2015), or if they are brutally killed as with former army chief Maj Gen James Kazini in 2009; and now Kaweesi.
And this in turn has a history dating back to 1970, with the cold-blooded assassination of deputy army commander Brig Pierino Yere Okoya (and his wife). Most evidence suggested that his boss, Idi Amin, killed him in a plot.

However, as with Okoya in 1970 and Kazini in 2009, the murders of army officers are usually seen as representing an internal regime crisis working itself out. The killing of police officers, on the other hand, indicates a national crisis.

Okoya’s murder was a precursor to the January 1971 coup by Amin.
Kazini’s killing, likewise, was seen by some as part of the rearrangements of power in the UPDF, the institution that ultimately guarantees Museveni’s presidency and the NRM’s rule. Some regime opponents – and ruling party factions - will even celebrate these upheavals, believing that the government or power clique they dislike is about to end.

The police, even when it’s reviled as it is today in Uganda, however, is a different matter. Many Ugandans still see the police as “innocent”. It is a force that doesn’t play a key role in maintaining the regime in power (that falls to the UPDF and intelligence services). They see it as something used to do the “dirty work”, but that doesn’t have a seat at high table in State House.

Thus even when in 1977 Amin’s security operatives killed former police chief Erinayo Wilson Oryema (Uganda first African Inspector General of Police) – who was then minister of Land, Housing and Physical Planning - along with Archbishop Janani Luwum and Internal Affairs minister Charles Oboth-Ofumbi, it portended ill for the dictator.

So why would the assassination of a military officer be a regime crisis, and that of a police officer be a national crisis?
Because the police officers are not at the hard edge of power, killing them suggests the regime, or as some are suggesting in Kaweesi’s case elements within it, are facing such a deep crisis of keeping control or the ability to extract that they are willing to kill even peripheral players in order not to lose.

Such crimes suggest the house is coming down. It’s that understanding somewhere in the backs of our minds that really terrifies us. One way to explain it to football fans, is if you are a Manchester United supporter and it gets beat by Chelsea, you understand it. But if it gets whacked 4-0 by Bristol Rovers, then it’s time to be very afraid.

Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site