Charles Onyango Obbo

Uganda has a bad dictatorship, and a bad democracy. This will not do

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 29  2015 at  01:00

There is something strange in Ugandan politics.
It happens in the main Opposition parties – Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC), Democratic Party (DP), Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – but we see it at its worst in the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Leadership contests are never straightforward. At some point, you will have a meeting between the sitting party president, and those who are trying to unseat him.

In the DP, in the past, there have been meetings, usually called by some sort of party elders group, between Norbert Mao and the people who were challenging him.

Kizza Besigye didn’t seem to face any major contests to his authority while he was leader of FDC, but as soon as he stepped down and Mugisha Muntu was elected, there were several meetings with the Nandala Mafabi faction – although admittedly it was after Muntu had bagged the job. The ones in the UPC are the ones I find most difficult to follow; with Olara Otunnu having to fight all the time to protect his flank from Jimmy Akena and other claimants to the throne.

The one hogging the headlines right now is the one in the NRM. Former prime minister and party secretary-general Amama Mbabazi, and former vice president Gilbert Bukenya are challenging President Museveni’s leadership and seeking nomination to stand as NRM presidential candidate. Museveni and Mbabazi have met, with the amiable current Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda at hand, to resolve their “differences” a couple of times.

Now the party Central Executive Committee has got involved, and reports say at the last meeting, Museveni stormed out. Museveni wants Mbabazi and Bukenya to drop out of the race. Museveni, it would seem, is seeking a coronation, not a nomination. Why the President has developed these monarchist ways the longer he stays in power, should be cause for worry.

You heard it here first. If things don’t change, in 2021, after that time when the small matter of the age limit in the Constitution is changed to allow a 77-year-old Museveni stand for an eighth term, the NRM will seek to have him serve his “last term” by popular acclamation, and there will be no election. Museveni would then rule, to all intents and purposes, as king.

It is the height of absurdity to have Museveni decide whether or not Mbabazi should run against him. However, it is probably even more ridiculous that Mbabazi should think that these meetings are worth going to.

How do you go to meet someone whom you are competing against, whose job you want to take away, to discuss the terms on which you should race against him?

It is not just that Museveni asks for meetings with those who want to unseat him that is problematic (the same happened with Besigye in late 2000 after he threw the gauntlet down, with a posse of elders from Rukungiri in attendance), but that his rivals take them seriously enough.

In many ways, it is an indirect acceptance that the President can tell them how they should compete against him. At a wider level, it speaks to an essentially undemocratic strain in Ugandan politics shared by the State and Opposition parties equally.

There is an element of opportunism in it too. If you don’t like a party you leave it, start your own, test the strength of your persuasion, and take on the big man’s party.

But starting a party is hard; so many politicians want the historical inheritance of the party they are leaving.
What complicates it in Uganda is that even if they were to leave, Museveni will not give them peace. As in the case of Besigye and Mbabazi, they will be “free” to campaign, but be harassed, tear-gassed, and jailed when they do. This is because, unable to also accept a clean break, Museveni always seems to be holding out for a last minute change of heart and a return to the fold by party dissidents.

The result is that we end up with the one thing that is worse than repression – an incompetent and confused dictatorship.
If Museveni fears Besigye and Mbabazi, there would be greater clarity if he just imprisoned them. When they are in prison, we know who is responsible, and they are less likely to be harmed by a stray police bullet when their rallies are being broken up, because then we would have a real big mess on our hands.
But the president thinks, and rightly so, that imprisoning them long-term would make them larger-than-life martyrs, so we end up with this you-are-free-you-aren’t-free approach.
So the other thing that Museveni needs to do, is to definitively become either a dictator or a democrat. He can’t be both.
Either way, the country would actually be better served by the clarity.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

Long, long, long ago, Ugandans were champions. Where did we lose our mojo?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 22  2015 at  01:00

Uganda is not a cycling country, so I won’t bore you with the details. Just to say that two Eritreans became the first black Africans to race in the on-going Tour de France (TDF), the world’s most prestigious professional bicycle race.
They are members of the South African team MTN-Qhubeka, which also made history as the first African team to enter the TDF. It has three white African members. In all, therefore, there are five Africans, and four non-Africans racing in the team.
They have been winning things, with one of the Eritreans conquering the grueling mountains and wearing the King of the Mountains jersey for some days.
Enough of cycling. The thing about this is that Eritrea is Africa’s hermit kingdom, ruled by what some rate as the most cruel dictatorship on the continent. It has compulsory military, and in many cases, labour service. It has some of the worst Internet censorship on Earth, the highest level of repression of religion in Africa, and such things.
But the Eritreans have been stoic. They are a rising long-distance power, and now they have Africa’s best professional cyclists. We also have a big cycling scene rising in Rwanda.
The current leader of the TDF – and 2013 winner – Chris Froome, was born in Kenya but now races as a Briton. His mentor is a charismatic Kenyan cyclist David Kinja, and now the Kenyan cycling scene is beginning to grow wings and companies like telco Safaricom are pouring in millions.
The thing about this is that the Eritreans have found strength from their land; from their hilly and rugged landscapes to run and ride and hone the skills and endurance to be world-beating long-distance champion runners and cyclists.
The Ethiopians have done the same. And so have the Kenyans, which is why the Rift Valley has the world’s largest concentration of world long distance champions and gold medals.
Poor villages get together in the Rift Valley and identify a lad or little girl who can win the Boston or London marathon. They are excused from doing farm work, and the village puts together its savings to feed them, buy them sporting gear, pay their fare to compete in races in Nairobi, and things like the MTN Marathon in Kampala.
They move slowly up the ranks, until they win a big one – Berlin, and then maybe later New York. They get their earnings, buy goats and cows, build a house, and share the rest with the village or clan that supported them for years. It is not unusual for some of them not to race again, and settle back in the village. Their work of going out there and bringing the bacon home will have been done.
In the case of Eritrea, the former colonial power Italy, is a cycling country. So they left the tradition there, and the people took it over and turned it a unique brand that works for them.
Kenyans too, did it with golf, building more golf courses in and around Nairobi alone than the rest of East Africa combined.
So why is it that Ugandans don’t have this same relationship with our lands and history. Why don’t we draw inspiration from it to make something that gives us world domination?
Okay, there is the odd marathon-winning Stephen Kiprotich, a child of the mountains who has put that to good use.
When we were growing up in Fort Portal, where our old man lived and worked for years, Uganda was an athletics powerhouse. We were very good at cross-country, the 800 metres, 400 metres, and 200 metres.
It is not surprising that Akii Bua got for us gold in the 400m hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
We were generally “unAfrican” in that sense, excelling in the short distance races. Many of the stars came to us from Kabale, products of its hills. Then we lost it.
Yes, politics and economic collapse could partly account for it, but the Ethiopians had it worse than us, and the Eritreans are being tormented in ways few modern Ugandans can imagine. But Ethiopia has bounced back, and Eritrea is excelling.
Consider, for example, that the Buganda kings of old had navies and conducted naval warfare on Lake Victoria and other lakes. From there, we partly owe the royal regattas.
If Uganda were Ethiopia or Kenya, therefore, today we would be Africa’s rowing power. But we are not. The Buganda kingdom still does the occasional regatta, but it is primitive and mediocre, really.
Why can’t we row anymore? Why aren’t the Bakiga able to rule the cross-country and 800m? Why is there no new Akii Bua from the Lango lands?
Hard questions. But we can only find answers, and a way, if we work at the answers.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

African nations are in a new beauty contest: Uganda should not miss out

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 8  2015 at  01:00

In Summary

For example, it has a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, one of the highest in the world. And while it might seem to be a shambles, it receives two million tourists a year, making it the seventh – or fifth depending on how you count – leading tourist destination on the continent


I know, I know, the popular view in Uganda is that Sudan (Khartoum) is backward, and has nothing to teach us.
But recent years have taught me that Africa is full of surprises. Thus though Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe wrecked the economy, and from September the country will scrap its worthless currency, the Zim dollar, and adopt the US dollar, South African Rand, and other currencies, the place is still kicking.

For example, it has a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, one of the highest in the world. And while it might seem to be a shambles, it receives two million tourists a year, making it the seventh – or fifth depending on how you count – leading tourist destination on the continent.
Not only does it beat Uganda by far, but Kenya and Tanzania too.

And so back to Sudan. Not too long ago, Sudan opened the Salam Centre, and almost immediately it was among the elite of Africa’s heart hospitals.
The hospital is run by an Italian medical charity---and offers free treatment.

So those Ugandans who are not lucky enough to be big chiefs in government, or to be married to one of them, and every other month are in the papers fundraising to take a dear relative for heart surgery to India, might want to look closer home to Khartoum.

People are trekking from all over the world to the Salam Centre for heart surgery.
An AFP reported; “…Khartoum…is an unlikely location for a state-of-the-art heart hospital.

“The Salam Centre is an outpost of neat buildings and greenery amid squat mud brick houses and scrubby wasteland covered with litter.”

In other words, it is unlikely candidate for the hospital, yet it still got it.

Uganda’s healthcare is so bad, I have read some respectable health experts say it is even worse than during the worst period of dictator of Idi Amin during the 1970s!
But Sudan teaches us that even if you don’t have money, you can still have a world class hospital by attracting people to come and build it. There is a new generation of billionaires, like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, even much younger ones, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who have lots of money looking for good causes.

In 2011, a similar strikingly state-of-the-art hospital was opened in rural northern Rwanda in Butaro. The 152-bed hospital was set up so that doctors could link up from all over the world to diagnose patients, becoming the first such facility in East Africa.

It was built by the Rwanda government, Partners in Health and the Clinton Health Access Initiative. People thought it was a waste, and that President Paul Kagame had lost his marbles to put such a hospital deep in the village. His argument was that instead of taking it to the city, the city will come to Butaro.

Within weeks, Ugandans in the western part of the country were flocking there in droves. Butaro won’t be a village much longer.

In many ways, it has become a beauty contest for governments. All they have to do is to look beautiful, deserving, or just make it easy for charities to build these things.
But this is not about hospitals, really. It reflects a new development that Uganda should not miss.

Increasingly, countries are doing, or making possible, the establishment of even just one stand-out project, that then creates a buzz or trend that leads to something bigger.

Thus in Ghana, Patrick Awuah, left his rich-paying job at Microsoft, and went home to start a university to create the next generation of critical thinkers and ethical entrepreneurs in Africa. And so he started Ashesi University.

In just over 10 years, it is one of the most international universities in Africa, and it dramatically changed higher education in Ghana and West Africa in general as institutions scrambled to raise standards and to pay lecturers better, in order to keep them. It can be a giant wind farm, as in Ethiopia and Kenya, or solar in Morocco and, soon, Djibouti.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

‘Sitya Loss’ man Kenzo brings the bacon home. Celebrations are in order

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 1  2015 at  01:00

It was a delightful piece of news to have musician Eddy Kenzo running away with the “Viewer’s Choice Best New International Artiste” prize at the 2015 BET Awards held at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles, in the US, on Sunday.

Kenzo, Daily Monitor noted, became the first Ugandan artiste to ever win a Black Entertainment Television (BET) award.

New Vision told us that his world-popular Sitya Loss video, with the happy dancing Ghetto Kids, tipped in at 7 million YouTube views, making it the highest viewed Ugandan video here and fifth in Africa, last year.

I checked again, and the numbers by Monday evening were through the roof. The official video had over 12 million views, and the unofficial nearly 12 million, so right there, it was closing in on 25 million views.

Since it’s the morning of presidential election season in Uganda, it is worth noting how different Kenzo’s achievement is.
He was not “unopposed” or “sole candidate”. He beat out two brilliant African competitors, and three from the UK.

And he did not appoint the judges, the “electoral commission”. It is as fair as a win by a Ugandan as it can ever get.

Which brings us to a big question that this column toyed with briefly before; why has Sitya Loss become such a global hit? And what does it teach us?

I doubt Kenzo himself ever expected it would be so big; otherwise he would have ruined it.
In fact, the official video where Kenzo appears is not as good as the one where we have him singing, and the only thing we see are the kids dancing.

The latter is remarkably authentic; because we get the sense that the Ghetto Kids are just having fun on a dusty street on an average day in the outskirts of Kampala. There are no gimmicks, no dancers with bumping big buttocks in red and blue wigs trying to grab our attention by appealing to our prurient element. In other words, there is something like trying too hard. And it is a bad thing.

If you are a good dancer, it should be obvious within two or so minutes of you getting on the stage. If you are hopeless, you won’t convince the audience by dancing for one hour. In that sense, it is not very different from politics. If you are good, within 10 years as president, you should have achieved enough. In exceptional circumstances, you might need 15 years.

After that, you should really leave. Of course, there are many leaders who have stayed longer, say 30 years, and still achieved a lot. Still, that is more down to inertia and the difficulty of removing a long-ruling incumbent with a record.

In reality, the last 10 or so years, such a leader is just treading water, because most of the “progress” of those last years will be not from what he is doing, but the foundation he laid in the first 10 to 15 years. In other words, if he had left a competent successor to take over, the progress would still have been made.

One of the best examples of this in Africa today is in Ethiopia, in what is happening in the country’s economy under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a lot of which have their roots in the years of Meles Zenawi, who led the country from 1991 until his death in 2012.
But we have digressed. So back to Kenzo and Sitya Loss.

The video, at another level, is a celebration of something that people relate to – finding moments of joy in adversity. Children in a slum dancing with so much accomplishment and relish couldn’t have told the story better.
But we can’t help going back and ending on a political note.

When one reads the Uganda media today, there are heart-breaking stories of suffering; of wrenching poverty, of desperate struggles to save the lives of loved ones in the worst healthcare situation Uganda has known.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Uganda 2016: If you didn’t know, the real elections never happen on Election Day

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, June 24  2015 at  01:00

In Summary

Recently, I hang out with a Ugandan friend who has lived and worked in London for many years. He told me he had volunteered to help a friend who was running in the previous general election. His job was to distribute election materials. He was told that he couldn’t go posting them on electricity poles, and people’s walls as we do in Uganda


And so the political season has truly started, with former prime minister Amama Mbabazi throwing his hat in the presidential ring.

It was interesting to see that his rival, President Yoweri Museveni, felt it necessary to hold a press conference to push back. And the next thing was fairly predictable, with the state trying to find out if, in declaring his interest “early”, Mbabazi had somehow committed a crime.

Attorney General Fred Ruhindi cleared the air on that one, saying he was within his rights. Next, his posters were taken down, but the President’s remained. And now the ruling party, NRM, will hold a disciplinary hearing to see if a man they kicked out of office for having presidential ambitions without openly declaring so, is now guilty of violating its rules by coming out openly to say he wants the job.

The question can be asked why the powers that be bother to go this far over a man whom they will cheat at the polls, anyway.
There is a good reason, actually. Democracy, contrary to the popular view, is not what happens on election day. It is what happens before, and after.

Look at it like you would your lunch. What makes the food tasty is not you eating it. It is the cooking.

Now during lunch, we can all be nice to the host, telling him or her how the lunch was delicious (sometimes even when it isn’t) and thanking them for the meal. That’s easy. The really difficult part, and the true test of a gentleman or lady, is if you will help them clear the table and wash the dishes.

Let’s illustrate. A lot has been written about last month’s British election. Among other things, the candidates lined up as the election officer declared the winner.

The losers then went and politely congratulated the winner, and even took selfies with the election officer, and went off into the night to lick their wounds.

There was no fistfight. No one was stabbed, shot, or beaten with kiboko. No one even tried to snatch the results paper the election officer was reading from and chew it. A good African couldn’t help but wonder what went wrong with these British.

But there is where democracy happens.
Recently, I hang out with a Ugandan friend who has lived and worked in London for many years. He told me he had volunteered to help a friend who was running in the previous general election. His job was to distribute election materials. He was told that he couldn’t go posting them on electricity poles, and people’s walls as we do in Uganda.

He was to deliver them, packed in a prescribed way, to the Post Office. Basically, because he was working for a politician in the opposition, he was essentially delivering the posters to the government.

Well, he went to the Post Office, and found the appropriate election officials who checked the posters to make sure they were tasteful and didn’t violate any laws.

Sure enough they were delivered to all registered voters in the constituency - at taxpayers’ expense.

He told me that was when he understood how democracy works. “Forget what happens at the ballot box, that was the real stuff.”

The same thing happens with the BBC. As a public broadcaster, the prime minister and leader of the opposition are given equal time. Try and do that at UBC and you will be escorted by armed guards out of the building the next day.

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