Wednesday February 15 2017

Technology will kill jobs, but the smart people will not go hungry

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I read in the Daily Monitor the other day, my good friend NSSF chief Richard Byarugaba talking about the future of work/jobs.
With, especially, Ugandan youth facing unprecedented levels of unemployment, Byarugaba said the future will not necessarily bring jobs, because they will be eaten by technological advances.

“We are already complaining about high levels of unemployment in the country especially among university graduates, but this is set to be even acute in the foreseeable future if the current trend of technological advancement continues,” Byarugaba said.
It will.

“There are also people in Uganda today whose jobs will be extinct in the next 20 years. Artificial intelligence is becoming more pronounced and all jobs that perform the task of a repetitive nature will be replaced by automation…,” he said.

There is a sobering book, “The Industries of the Future” by Alec Ross. Actually the picture the book paints is scary – 10 times worse than anything Byarugaba said. Ross was senior advisor for Innovation to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State and his book is partly based on stuff he saw travelling to over three dozen countries. Based on what he writes about the changes, and destruction, wrought by technology in the US, I suspect he knew Donald Trump would exploit the pain to beat Hillary.

So, we have 20 years, and an opportunity to milk the old economy and technology – though I think 20 years is too long.
In South Africa, a giant tractor company has been hiring out hundreds of tractors - without drivers. They send the things out to peoples’ farms and control them from a giant screen at their operational headquarters.

I visited with a security firm in Nairobi, which is basically helping many companies get rid of guards – easily the largest private employer outside government in most of East Africa now.
They run sensors around your factory or home (where they can programme in the physical profile of family members so that they are excluded from setting off the alarm).

Suspicious strangers will be warned by an “invisible” voice to get away, and if they persist a rapid response team will arrive quickly. One giant industrial establishment with sprawling grounds, was hiring a security service that deployed hundreds of guards. When they moved to the system they cut the numbers to under 40, security improved, and pilferage was almost wiped out!

So, what is to be done? As former prime minister Amama Mbabazi once said, Ugandans need to stop “breeding like rabbits”. But you can’t exhort or force people to have fewer children. Make them rich, and problem solved. Before the party ends, some cashing can be done. Let us give an example. Recently Kenya released some figures showing remittances from the diaspora had risen sharply.

You couldn’t argue with the numbers. Rather the question was what they meant. A chap who knows a thing about these things said the numbers counted money that people abroad send to Kenyans who help them with stuff like researching their term papers and all that.
Say you are a lecturer, researcher, or PhD student at a top African Studies department at an American university and you want to find out how Ugandans survived during the difficult economic times of our man Idi Amin.

There is some material online, books in libraries, but the best stuff is in the Makerere University Library in newspapers and journal articles that haven’t been digitised. Those that are digitised are in unfriendly PDFs. You get someone in Kampala to do it for you.

In Kenya, there are hundreds of young people who do that kind of “dirty” digital work. They are a mini industry, and make a little fortune for themselves. There is a suburb in Nairobi which is populated by a myriad of new apartments virtually all of them occupied by these digital workhorses.

Others have got into networks to test products. In Kenya, with its reputation for long distance running, several chaps test shoes for sports companies. The results are tracked online.

So while technology will kill jobs, it will also create them. A recent report surprised many people. It said the technology firms in Silicon Valley were hiring nearly as many social scientists and arts graduates, as they were taking on engineers and scientists.

The reason is artificial intelligence has created market for non-technology. The question of whether a driverless car should, in an accident, kill a mother and her child, or a 75-year-old man and his wife, is a disturbing issue to be settled by moral philosophers, not computer engineers.

So the opportunity in a technology future is to be found in asking a very old question. A good Ugandan would sit back and ask; “where do I eat in all this?” Those who figure it out, won’t go hungry.

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

Wednesday February 8 2017

Ear To the Ground. If Eala aspirants have to bribe MPs for votes, what’s left?

Charles Onyango Obbo

Managing Editor,

Charles Onyango Obbo Managing Editor, Convergence & New Products 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

When I read in Daily Monitor that money was changing hands in the campaigns for what it called “the much coveted East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) seats”, I wondered why it took so long.
The report said “votes in Parliament are up to the highest bidder with legislators demanding cash and other inducements in exchange for their vote.”
That is what corruption and transactional politics leads to. People in power and influential positions steal elections and money, buy votes, bribe opponents to cross to their side, and when they are caught, they pay off the police and courts.
When the government or ruling party wants support for, especially, an unpopular measure, it bribes MPs.
These monies come from funds that would have improved schools, health, infrastructure, or been invested to create jobs and all sorts of economic opportunities.
The result is that the voters get nothing after elections. So they wisen up. With every other election, they demand to be paid upfront by the politicians, before they can vote for them.
The politicians now need even more money to win, so they borrow heavily, sell their precious property, and by the time they get to Parliament they are broke, and need to pay back their debts, build up funds to keep paying voters to remain behind them, and to run the next election.
If to pass every contentious Bill, and to amend the Constitution to give the President some president-for-life pass, MPs charge, it is not surprising that they would levy a fee on an Eala vote.
The matter, Daily Monitor reported, is so serious that it has reached the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), prompting the party’s electoral commission chairman, Tanga Odoi, to wag a warning finger.
Though Tanga didn’t say it, he must know the wider political dangers of money entering into such things. Political parties have ideological goals, and use these positions in Eala to reward key constituencies, or to appease aggrieved groups, so that they can preserve the alliance that enables to win the next election.
Money, messes all that up. The Eala member or parliamentarian with the money to buy votes, might not be the one who helps the party’s cause most.
For example, after the Rwenzururu “massacre”, the government might want to take a candidate from the area to Arusha as a peace gesture, but he could be broke. However, the one from Fort Portal, where it has no major political problem it needs to solve, might be the one with the money, and could win if you don’t force him to stand down (and make an enemy of him and his supporters), or raid State coffers and outspend him.
The result is that you are spending money you never intended to, but also ensured that at the next vote in five years, the price of the Eala vote will go up.
The cure to all this is not to commit the original sin. Not to eat the forbidden fruit, in the first place. For the NRM, that was 31 years ago.
But all these corrupt goings on, should worry the leaders because it affects them the most, and perhaps in ways they didn’t expect.
Consider this. When the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro died last November, one of the stories that got so much play was that he survived more than 600 assassinations and coup attempts, most of them engineered by the US. That’s more than any leader in human history, some claimed.
How was that possible? Broadly, because though Cuba was a poor country, and people needed money, their ideological and national commitments to the revolution were higher.
If Castro had driven around in gold-plated cars and had six luxury jets, he wouldn’t have survived long.
The thing is that when corruption is rampant like in Uganda, and money can reach the most unlikely places, national duty, loyalty, patriotism, and political commitment all soon come with a price.
Anyone entrusted with the safety of MPs, ministers, and even the President can easily betray or harm them, if their adversary pays enough.
Soldiers guarding a critical dam, can look the other way if a terrorist wants to blow it up, as long as he pays them enough to make it worthwhile.
That is the final stage in which corruption, becomes a national security threat.
A country cannot be led by demons (figuratively speaking), and expect that its gates be guarded by saints, and its citizens will forever remain angels.
The only question now is whether Uganda still has time to turn back, and avoid that final fall over the cliff.
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday February 1 2017

To give or not give a ‘golden handshake’: Here’s how to do it

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

For a long time now, there has been no cross-party anger in Uganda, like there was over President Yoweri Museveni’s Shs6 billion “golden handshake” cash reward to 42 government officials for the settlement of an oil tax dispute in a London court.

Each of the 42 officials pocketed, on average, Shs200 million each.

I am a fan of big bonus pay-outs, which is why I have never been able to get really angry at those fat cheques CEOs around the world are getting. There are whole NGOs these days dedicated to fighting the “injustice”, though. As long as they are based on achieving real profits and set targets, let the money flow.

The problem with the Museveni “handshake” was not really the principle. It was that it was secret. Secondly, it was too narrowly shared. Thirdly, it was too specific to oil. It should be a general policy of reward.

Whenever I go astray and dream of becoming president, I think that in Africa such bonus schemes is what would help us reduce corruption.

We need to shift incentives toward getting public servants to save, not to steal or squander the taxpayers’ money. And we will do that through sharing the loot more democratically, and putting a premium on transparency.

Take the pension fund, billions of which were stolen. I would say, okay, there are 250,000 pensioners, for example’s sake. If you can ensure that 80 per cent of them get their payments on time in a year, then the people at the ministry of Public Service will get 15 per cent of the total pension pot as their bonus.

They would have to submit a report to Parliament, and there would be a public hearing. If the Parliament committee can finish studying and make recommendations before the end of January of every year, they also get a cut of the pot.

If I were president, I would have made public that I would give an oil-cash “golden handshake” and also publish a list of 120 people – maybe even including myself, by way of nominating charities who get my share – who’d get a cut of the oil money if we won. I would have made the purse bigger – Shs8 billion. I would lower the average pay a little.

I would then have submitted it to Parliament for approval. Then we win, and we share things openly.
I think Uganda Revenue Authority still gives rewards for people who give information on tax cheats.

My problem is that the reward is small. The fellow was not going to pay tax anyway, so if some whistleblower brings you information, why give him or her only 10 per cent? I would push a law to give whistleblowers 50 per cent, then sit back and smile.

So that’s another area I would attack based on this principle.
If the government budgets to build valley dams for Shs250 million, and the officials at the ministry of Agriculture or whatever deliver each dam for Shs180 million, and it’s the same quality, I think, after due process, we would share half-half the Shs70 million they saved on each dam. The government would still be Shs35 million better off on each dam.

The same process would happen on tenders. If the chief at UNRA can deliver a road for Shs100 billion, on schedule, and to the same quality, instead of the Shs200 billion budgeted for, I would have no problem letting them keep Shs50 billion, and return Shs50 billion to the Treasury.

Headmasters would get the same incentives, and I would give Makerere University the same, though more sophisticated because they are supposed to be cleverer than the rest of us. Pass a law that if your department comes up with and patents an innovation that goes to market, Shs100 million is yours. If you can save Shs500 million on fees from private students, and deliver a certain quality of student, you can have Shs400 million to share among yourselves.
Then you spread as far across the country as possible, deep into the villages.

The problem with these things is if only a few are “eating”, and appointments to big positions are not on merit, and skewed toward some political groups and regions, and not others. Because then, even if there are open incentive policies, politics will mean certain Ugandans will never chop, as the west Africans say.

These kinds of policies, and big pay days, would begin to attract a lot more talented people to public service than Uganda is able to do today. The benefits would be massive.

If President Museveni had in a past New Year message, or the URA in its budget, made a provision for the “golden handshake” there would have been less controversy.

It is amazing what shining light in darkness can achieve, when it comes to slicing the national cake.

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

Wednesday January 25 2017

Keep calm and love Trump: History tells us good could come from this

US president Donald Trump

US president Donald Trump 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

So last week, that obnoxious man Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president, and one of its suavest and most intellectual leaders exited the scene. Sometimes I felt Obama was a genetically modified politician, engineered to commit no social fault. As one article noted, in the week preceding Trump’s inauguration, he was enveloped in more scandals than Obama had over eight years.

The world is worried that Trump will take it, and indeed America, to hell. I think even if that happens, it would still be a good thing. In other words, Trump is not aberration, a cancer upon a less racist, less misogynist, more scientific environment-loving, caring world.
He might just be what we need to progress. To begin with, to worry too much about the damage Trump will do is to take a narrow, American-centric view of the world.

So while Trump might be regressive in nearly all respects, it serves to remember almost exactly a year to the day Trump was elected in November last year, next door in Canada they elected one of the world’s most progressive and liberal leader in Justin Trudeau.

The two are in contradiction, they are essential to each other. The forces that produce a leader for a bold new world (a Trudeau), also produce a leader (Trump) who embodies the fear about the unknown, and a movement to cling to the uncertainties of a dying past.
Historically, the world had seen great powers rise and fall through war – hot or cold.

We are in strange times. China is set to overtake the US as the world’s undisputed economic (and surely political) power without first defeating it in a military battlefield.

The fact that Trump really doesn’t care much about the Asian allies previous American governments had heavily backed, means without Washington’s military umbrella, they could sue for accommodation with Beijing. This would grant China a bloodless hegemony.

Trump’s “Only America First” and isolationist streak, means China will rise to the top without a world war, to fill the vacuum.

As a good Ugandan who I will not name said, for a deal to happen, you need to have a good offer. But for the best deal to happen, you need to have a fool on the other side of the table.

In other words, if some African country drives a hard bargain and grants a licence on an oil well on which you will make 25 per cent profit, that is good business. But a far better would be to have an ignorant and greedy government that doesn’t appreciate the value of its oil wells, and gives you a licence on which your profit is 55 per cent.

Let us see how these things play out in Africa. While in Uganda last year we had another violent fraud-plagued election as President Yoweri Museveni sought to extend his rule beyond 30 years, last month in the same Africa, Ghana’s president John Mahama graciously conceded defeat to the opposition Nana Akufo-Addo. He became a rare creature in Africa –an incumbent who accepted defeat after only one term in office.

Not too far away, last December the brutal crank Yahya Jammeh lost an election to the opposition’s Adama Barrow. To everyone’s surprise, he conceded defeat, but a week later changed his mind, and said he was not leaving. Last week, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS sent in troops and chased him.

But how come ECOWAS can do that, but our own East African Community (EAC) can’t crack heads in Burundi and South Sudan?
One reason is that West Africa and the Sahel faces the threat of terrorism, in ways East Africa doesn’t. In Uganda, in recent elections Museveni and the NRM have faced the threat of losing power to Kizza Besigye and the FDC.

In Nigeria, as 2014 closed, it looked like Boko Haram could overrun the government. Boko Haram would basically burn the place down. The threat of terrorism, and lately climate change, has pushed the West African countries to pursue the kind of internal consensus politics, and for governments to seek levels of legitimacy, which no regime in East Africa needs to survive.

But that is not to say these bigger issues don’t play a role. My own sense is that the August 1998 bomb attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam spooked, especially, Kenya so much, it started the security sector reforms and gave impetus to the political shifts that led Daniel arap Moi to retire, and Mwai Kibaki to come to power at the head of a victorious opposition in December 2002.

While terrorism is a horrible thing, a lot of political progress has come from some state’s response to it. It’s always important to keep an eye on the big picture.

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

Wednesday January 18 2017

The Cranes have already won the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations

Cranes midfielder Tony Mawejje (R) takes a shot

Cranes midfielder Tony Mawejje (R) takes a shot during the Ghana-Uganda match that saw Uganda lose their first game on Tuesday. Photo by Aminah Babirye 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

And so this week, finally the Cranes, after nearly a 40-year absence, began their quest to win the Africa Cup of Nations.
In many ways, they don’t actually have to win Afcon. Just making it to the final is enough.

I have a delightful controversial and cantankerous dentist friend in Kampala, and he had an example of this phenomenon.

There was a time, in the Western world at least, when French actress Brigitte Bardot was considered to be the most beautiful on the face of the earth. Now 82, at the height of her career in Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s, my dentist buddy liked to cite a poll taken of the men of the world. They were asked whether they would want to spend a night with Bardot, but no one would know it, or walk down the street hand in hand with her, be photographed, and make the pages of a glossy magazine.

Nearly all the men said they would prefer to be photographed with Bardot, than spend a secret night of passion with her! So be it with the Cranes! But we have discovered many other things in the excitement that has swept the country following their qualification.
One of them is one aspect of patriotism. You can say anything, make all manner of outlandish claims about the Cranes, as long as they are positive and mobilising support.

No one is going to shut you down, or accuse you of having lost your objectivity for claiming they are the most beautiful team in the world.

Today a woman can walk down Kampala Road with the Uganda colours and slogans hailing the Cranes painted on her body and not be arrested.

She will be celebrated as a true patriot. If the same woman walked down the same street the next day with a deadly mini, a mob would pounce upon her and Ethics minister Simon Lokodo would run her out of town. The beauty of the Cranes’ fortunes, therefore, is that they give us the freedom to do the most stupid things in their name, and not be called out. Turns out we actually needed to.

But it has also opened up opportunities to discuss exactly how we bring glory to our countries. I have a rather philistine view. The best way to bring glory to your country is not to specifically set out to do so. It seems the path to making your country proud is to start out working selfishly for yourself and family.
I have never met a footballer or athlete who set out as a little boy, to fly his nation’s flag, although some publicly claim to do so.

Fabulously wealthy Americans like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, today give a fine face to US philanthropy as they spend their billions saving the world. But they had to make the money first. If we want honest rich Ugandans who will also create serious charities, we should encourage people to be enterprising and grow rich for themselves first, not for Uganda.

The same thing should go for football. Very many of, especially, the West African teams, at Afcon have nearly 90 per cent of their players kicking the ball for European and Asian clubs.

If you set out to just play for your country, you might not get even six decent games a year, and you will go hungry. You won’t be paid. But if you are playing for a European club with money, you are pampered, get world-class training, get a fat pay cheque, you become good, and return to play for your country basically as a subsidy. Free national service.

Any African country that wants footballing glory today therefore should encourage their players to go away. The Cranes, and other successful sports people like Stephen Kiprotich, are wonderful because they ennoble our hypocrisy – and even delinquency.
They can spend many lonely hours and days struggling to find excellence, without a penny or care from the taxpayers, government, and even their relatives. Then they make it big on the world stage, and all of a sudden they become a symbol of what is best about our country.

The thing about that is that even if we invested totally nothing in them, they can’t refuse to wear the flag on their vest at Afcon or the Olympics. It is the one time when stealing the sweat of a private citizen is considered not to be corruption, although some bad mannered journalists sometimes like to bring these issues up.
I am rooting for the Cranes to win. But it is not really essential at this point. It will be a bonus. They will not be loved any less.

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

Wednesday January 11 2017

War, peace, and food: Uganda tries, fails to out-run its shadow

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I am going off totally on the deep end and wild speculation here, so you don’t have to come along.

Thirty years ago, two interesting things happened in Uganda. Spirit medium Alice Lakwena, having started her war in late 1986, was defeated in November of 1987.

In the Teso region, former minister of Defence Peter Otai and his comrades, started the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) rebellion.

Both wars produced shocking savagery and violence, and started a series of events, including two years later, the Mukura massacre in Kumi in which 70 people were locked in a train wagon and basically boiled to death. More precisely, they suffocated when a fire was lit by the wagon in which they had been crammed.

What interests us today are the unintended consequences of these two events.

There was large displacement of people in Teso, and nearly all the cattle in the once cow-happy region were lost. Many were eaten by combatants on both sides, and quite a few were ferried to stock the farms of victors and opportunistic business people in other parts of the country.

Today, there is a hysterical outcry over corruption, but you can’t fully comprehend it without also looking at our history, dating back to the time of military ruler Idi Amin, through the war that ousted him, the Luweero war against Yoweri Museveni’s NRA rebels during the Milton Obote II period, and the subsequent wars in the north and northeast of the NRM era.

These conflicts created war booty. Generals and soldiers looted, and there was a window that allowed it to happen, because they were the spoils of battle. During the Luweero war, some of the sights were dramatic. You would see military UNLA trucks driving through Kampala loaded with mattresses, mabati taken off houses, goats, and occasionally frightened women perched on top of the booty. Among other factors, this watered the seedlings of corruption, creating a permissive culture that treats public and private goods as capture for victors (political and military) and combatants (civilian and military).

However, as has been noted before, the war in Teso left land unused as people fled, in much the same way it had happened in Luweero during the bush war.

Ditto in the north during the long years of conflict there. My suspicion is that these wars take too many farmers off the land, creating greater demand for the food grown by the farmers in peaceful areas.

A lot of the displaced people, many of them previously subsistence farmers, move to urban and peri-urban areas for safety, and have to buy food. For the people in the IDP camps, they get rations from humanitarian agencies, which in turn buy quite a bit of the food from suppliers around the country.

Because demand and prices are high, farmers make a lot more money without doing anything smart on their land. They become richer, but also become bad farmers in the process, corrupted by good fortune.

But then the wars end. There was a small agricultural boom in Teso after the war, with rested fertile land and without cattle, they grew things like potatoes. They flooded the country. Luweero and other previously war-torn areas also saw similar benefits.

With well-fallowed land, the farmers could get high yields and bring produce to market at competitive prices, as happened in Teso, without any innovation.
Now, we have a “problem”. The money earned in the easy times wasn’t ploughed back into farms. It was squandered in alcohol and polygamy, so many farmers didn’t accumulate capital.

Climate change has hit, and many farmers didn’t learn any lessons in hardiness or become innovators from the tough times – because they were either off their land, or were on it making a lot of money from their gardens just by throwing seeds through the window.

And now war, that created the market distortions that some people profited from, has ended. The IDP camps are gone. The displaced people have gone back to their villages.

There are now more farmers on the land. The market shifted in favour of food merchants. Though farming methods haven’t improved, the sheer larger numbers of peasants tilling the land in peacetime brought more food to market.

Farmers became discouraged from investing in new things, but this time because margins were small.

But drought has now caught up with everything, and few know how to respond, or have the knowledge and savings to do so, even if they wanted to.

Some serious research is needed here, which is why this is anecdotal and speculative.

But the food crisis that is creeping on the country suggests that for a country long plagued by war like Uganda, peace is eventually as expensive as conflict – if that makes any sense at all.

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

Wednesday January 4 2017

As we open 2017, Ugandans are unlearning everything they’ve known for 54 years

Christians praying during celebrations to usher

Christians praying during celebrations to usher in the New Year in Wakiso District on January 1, 2017. PHOTO BY JOSEPH KIGGUNDU 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

As 2016 ended, the most serious debate about Ugandan politics was not in the mainstream media. It was on social media and, especially, Facebook.

The gloves were off. It was nasty. But there were also some very valuable insights. Among the things that struck me were two. First, some former NRM supporters are saying things about the government of President Yoweri Museveni that are, almost word for word, the criticisms that NRM hardliners labelled against the “northern regimes” of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 80s.

Secondly, what crudely passes for “class analysis” is once again returning to Ugandan politics.

In all the bitterness, I think something wonderful has happened. We are at a point where, finally, the ground has been laid for a more scientific study of our political problems.

Ugandan politics had historically been framed along two paths. The first, that British colonial “divide and rule” policy had created deep cleavages, underdeveloping the north, and dooming the people there to be in lowly manual labour, and at best the army.

The main south was designated for commerce, agriculture, clerical and high bureaucrat jobs, but without the hard power of the army.

The lines were, of course, not so finely drawn, with the east and west falling somewhere in between.

Then it went horribly wrong, with the north leveraging its domination of the military to grab power. At its best, it resulted into a coalition between the northern elite and the south (like during Milton Obote 1 and early in Idi Amin’s rule).

At its worst, it led to the second path along which politics in our country has been framed. Namely that a northern militariat, having no local commercial base, preyed on the richer south. That took the form of forceful grabbing of property (during Amin’s time), and corruption.

And when it came to politics, faced with the risk that power would slip into southern hands in 1980s, the Military Commission conspired with the UPC to steal the election.

And southern resistance to extortion and expropriation resulted into savage use of force by the State. The first dispute we saw in that regard was the face off between Obote and Kabaka Mutesa, leading to the 1966 crisis, the storming of the Lubiri Palace, and subsequent abolition of kingdoms.

So we are in 2017. True, one region, the east, has not provided a president. But if you consider a president and vice president as a ticket, the east had Specioza Kazibwe, who was VP from 1994 to 2003. And, indeed, before her between 1963 and 1966 William Wilberforce Kadhumbula Nadiope III, was Obote’s VP. From the conduct of both Nadiope and Kazibwe, we can get a general sense of what a president from eastern Uganda would look like.

So from the south, we had an executive prime minister (Ben Kiwanuka) one titular president (Kabaka Mutesa), two executive presidents (Yusuf Lule and my favourite man Godfrey Binaisa). Actually, make that three, because despite the Presidential Commission of 1980, Paulo Muwanga was the effective president.

We have had three from the north (Milton Obote, Idi Amin, and the duo of the Okello generals Tito and Basilio).
And counting all the VP, prime ministers, 2nd, 3rd, and I don’t know what else prime ministers, every part of the country has had a chance to sit at the table – either at the front or second row.

Except for the short-lived period of Kiwanuka in 1962, the rest of the regimes have had corruption, nepotism, violence, and people have tried to cling to power.

And because Museveni has been there one and a half times longer than everyone else combined, the excesses have been that many times bigger in his time.

We now know that brutality, the use of force to win elections and keep power, and torture and mass murder is not a “northern thing”. It is as much – and to even a greater scale - a southern, western, and eastern thing.
In fact, if it comes to some aspects like clinging to power, the Obotes now seem like angels.

I think this realisation – that tribal exceptionalism or demonisation is bunk - is what is forcing some people to look again at class, and they are right to.

Hopefully the institutionalists will now have the courage to crawl out the corners where they have been hiding in the last 20 years. I am also happy to hear the voices saying Uganda itself is a colonial project that was never supposed to happen, beginning to speak up.

I think all those “past leaders”, Amin, Obote, Lule, the Okellos, must really be smiling in their graves. In the goodness of time, I suspect history will re-evaluate them all more kindly.

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

Wednesday December 28 2016

Coffee man Rugasira, a new world, and the election that disappeared

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

As the strange and laughable events of 2016 come and go in Uganda, the cancellation of the December 16 election for the Uganda National Chamber of Commerce is definitely among the top six.
Trade and Industry minister Amelia Kyambadde scrubbed the event, citing “serious” “national security threats and concerns”, following a letter from the current chair of UNCC Olive Kigongo.
When you read of “national security threats and concerns” you think uprising, violence, terrorism, but no. In reality it was a fear that youthful outsider, author and chief of Good African Coffee was going to win and upset the old UNCC guard.
Rugasira probably unnerved Kigongo and her camp with his sleek social media campaign.

Still the old Chamber of Commerce and Kyambadde were right to worry an uprising, an insurgency. However, it was not of the gun and bomb type. It was of the paradigmatic variety.
Rightly or wrongly, Rugasira represented that shift. Kenya underwent this change a short while back, with the election of a relatively Rugasira-type good man called Kipprono Kittony as its chairman.
Traditionally, chambers of commerce in Uganda have been trade associations. They were organisations that enabled buying and selling of goods, i.e. helping Ugandan maize producers sell the stuff to Kenyan processors.
UNCC is still partly stuck in that mould, and only managed a half successful transition to a business association. What does that mean? A business association is more sophisticated, putting together business people dealing in a more diverse back of goods, including services.

So if government passed a law opening up the energy market to private money, with generous terms, a tech company might want to find local partners for an investment in a solar power plant in West Nile, and a deal to sell the surplus to Umeme.
The current shift is to chambers of commerce as enterprise drivers. This is a highly innovative space, and it is not just sophisticated, but involves positioning for businesses that don’t exist yet. It is here that I think globally-minded and tech savvy people like Rugasira would help our economy.
Even if the powers that be feel threatened by Rugasira the person, a forward-thinking minister or government should still look to bringing people with his profile to the UNCC.

I speak with quite a bit of knowledge on this. When I was leading editorial operations at Mail & Guardian Africa, we did several business, enterprise, and innovation events around Africa either as media partners or conveners and brought some of the richest people on the continent and the world to the room.
We did two Zimbabwe events, Ghana, both focusing on the natural resources investment; we did thought leadership events on cities as economies, with some wonderful convenings in Johannesburg and a blow away day in Lagos with the visionary then-governor Babatunde Fashola.
We did Ethiopia; financial inclusion with several companies, including Samsung and Visa; and a several-times-over subscribed Kenya-South Africa summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg.

The latter was a classic entrepreneurship platform. Kipprono (or simply Kip as he’s known) flew in with a planeload of future-looking business leaders. There were ministers in the room, who mostly sold Kenya’s strategic and anchor position on the edge of the Indian Ocean rim. Safaricom telco CEO Bob Collymore typified this shift with his presentation. He didn’t sell mobile phone services, or even his company’s M-Pesa, the world’s most successful mobile money payment platform.
He spent quite some time speaking about the Safaricom Academy, which hadn’t opened yet. It’s a place even many Kenyans don’t know about yet.

Question is why? As anyone who follows these things knows, the money in voice is over. Half the people who call me do so on WhatsApp, Facetime, or Skype.
The money for mobile phone companies going forward is in data, payment solutions, and the internet of things (IoT). That means more people who develop things like M-Pesa, WhatsApp, Uber, WeChat, the homestay and accommodation app AirBnB, and so on.
And for IoT things like the box that controls the lights and security system, and even sprinklers, at home, that I can manage remotely over my phone. That means in addition to software, smart hardware.

Safaricom is looking to raise a generation of innovators who will create software and hardware that people will control using their phones over their network in the years ahead.
When that will happen, what type of products they will be, no one knows. But it will happen. It’s interest nationally and abroad, is to get people into a creative pipeline that makes that end possible.
Ms Kigongo is probably a wonderful woman, but she’s not the person to conceptualise that world. You may not like him, but this is more like Rugasira’s thing.
The alternative is for Uganda to miss the boat again.
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday December 21 2016

Uganda ‘in outside countries’ – Chameleone, busuuti, kanzu and how others see us

Jose Chameleone. File Photo

Jose Chameleone. File Photo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

There is just about enough time to squeeze in a column before the curtain comes down on 2016. And so time to chew on Uganda 2016.

And my search starts along a Nairobi street.

For a couple of weeks now a huge billboard has come up along the road that I drive to work. It has a huge photograph of some well-groomed folks dressed in Ugandan kanzu and busuuti. It is not advertising Uganda or a Ugandan product.
It is a Kenyan product expressing its East African side.

On the opposite side of town, there is another billboard by the same company. It has elegant Rwandan dancers, balancing those small baskets on their heads.

It is not a Rwandan advertisement. It is a Kenyan company advertising showing its East African feathers.

None of them refer to either Uganda or Rwanda. But most, if not all, people immediately catch the cultural reference to the two countries.

And now away from the road, to music. A Kenyan friend’s son is so madly in love with Chameleone, that when his “Wale, Wale” comes on TV, there must be silence in the house. He stands close to the TV to watch it play out.
It ends, then normal life can resume.

He knows where to find it on her home. When she is dropping him to kindergarten school in the morning, she must play it or else he won’t get out of the car.
And when he is cranky at home, she plays “Wale, Wale” and he calms down.

Consider this against a discussion I had with a friend who is a cultural chronicler. He had recently returned from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and had seen something that had messed with his end.

Once, Congolese music ruled not just Congo, but East Africa, and the world. At home it has deep history, and its stars are iconic.

But in eastern DRC, he told me, “there is more Ugandan music played than Congolese music. It’s the only music that has dethroned the local fare”.

The thing about all these stories, is that in both Rwanda’s and Uganda’s case, what represents the two countries at their best are not what the two governments spend their monies promoting abroad.

In Uganda’s case, if truth be told, even the adoption of the kanzu and busuti have themselves been conflicted, with some ethnic nationalists seeing it as the “dress of Buganda”, not Uganda.

Thus ahead of the Commonwealth (CHOGM) meet of 2007, one could see this in that richly-funded but controversial “Gifted by Nature” campaign which ran globally. This underlying contradiction was evident, with a greater emphasis on mountain gorillas, national parks, and mountains, than the diversity of Ugandan culture as there was a lack of certainty about what it comprised.

So what changed? For starters, there is always the fact that even for Ugandans on the intellectual left who are given to making these arguments, their political heroes – Kabaka Mwanga and King Kabelega – are represented wearing kanzu, giving it a revolutionary pedigree.

But there are really two things about “Buganda culture” that have allowed its elements to become the global face of Ugandanness. First, it is “extensible”, meaning it allows itself to be twisted and re-interpreted endlessly by whoever in whatever way.

Having been domiciled from Victorian times, the busuuti has got the most changes in fashion of any “African dress” I have seen in my wide travels around this fair continent of ours. One hundred women can decide to make their busuuti 100 different ways and it will remain a busuuti or gomesi.
It is that democratic spirit which has allowed it to transcend.

The kanzu, like most men’s dress, lends itself to less imaginativeness, but in the last 20 years, has also evolved considerably.

The second factor is Luganda lends itself to “pidgnisation” more than most Ugandan – and African - languages. That in part is a result of the fact that the language has been changed by geography – the fact that the capital Kampala is located in Buganda.

I don’t think that Luganda really still belongs to Buganda. It has been broadly appropriated by Ugandan urban culture.
In any event, it has allowed musicians like Chameleone who work with it as a base, to layer on pidgin, English, Kiswahili, and infuse their work with all the undercurrents of urban and cosmopolitan angst, to create a sound that travels well beyond its provincial borders.

All of these currents didn’t happen as a result of the local Buganda or national Ugandan cultural establishments. They are the result of what you might call the Ugandan “cultural creative commons”.

When my friend’s kindergarten son listens to Chameleone, what he hears are really the sounds of his Nairobi neighbourhood.

There are actually two Uganda’s. One is an NRM political kingdom. The other is a people’s cultural republic. We haven’t done too badly.

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

Wednesday December 14 2016

When you see Museveni walking on the road at night…

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The photographs of President Yoweri Museveni walking across Mpologoma swamp bridge on the Mbale-Tirinyi road at dusk, to headline his new “war” on environmental degradation, were a little strange and even comical, but the cause is noble.

A broad daylight event, including a symbolic dredging of the swamp would perhaps have spoken better, but it’s good that the President has shifted the spotlight on the environment.

I was last in that region not too long ago, to visit my good old friend and fellow Ugandan-Nairobian Erich Ogoso. The event itself involved some serious pre-visit discussions over a small but touchy issue. Because I am a vegetarian, a plan had to be hatched to explain to his mother, who was going to host a couple of us friends to lunch, why I wasn’t eating her chicken and beef. And to make matters worse, because I am also a teetotaler, I was not going to drink her ajon.

How do you tell a proud grandmother from eastern (and northern) Uganda that a grown man with a long beard couldn’t eat meat or drink ajon, and that it was not an insult?
In the end, advance warnings and a good long warm hug settled the issue.

But the issue of meat (which at a broader level is one about our cattle economy), and agriculture are playing out into a big environmental issue in ways not many appreciate.

I was shocked by what the combination of population growth and the popularity of rice growing had done in the Pallisa area. The invasion of the wetlands, and the withdrawal of water from the swamps like Mpologoma were alarming.

The problem was not the rice growing per se, but that it was being done unscientifically killing off the wetlands. The sight of the rice extensive rice paddies themselves is impressive, but the environmental cost is high. Within a few years, that area will run out of water.

But Pallisa is a microcosm of what is happening all over Uganda. As this column has noted before, the lower eastern Uganda (as have areas like Masaka and Isingiro) went through their first phase environmental crisis some years ago.

With lands unable to support growing populations and both small scale farming and cattle keeping, families moved to the wetlands of Busoga and Buganda, especially Mukono. They were our first “environmental refugees”, and have exported the crisis to these regions. A similar environmental crisis pushed many people out of Kigezi to, among areas, Bunyoro.

But conflict, and the fact that 30 years of President Yoweri Museveni’s rule, its authoritarian aspects notwithstanding, have also provided the longest period of stability for areas in Uganda outside the north, also have played a role.

The 1978/79 Tanzanian-led war against field marshal Idi Amin, fought mostly in the west and south west Uganda, disrupted the peasant economies there.

Then the NRA/NRM war two years later led to the destruction of the peasant economy in Luweero and surrounding area, and some dislocation in a few areas in the west.

Post-1986 many peasants, and small holders, who were farmers and cattle keepers in these areas were vulnerable.

To survive, they sold their land to a rising middle and money class that arose partly from the corruption of the NRM period, but also from the stability of it that allowed an extended period of capital accumulation unprecedented since independence.

The land sales by small holders, and the rise of a deep-pocketed class has resulted in fencing, closing off once communal water sources, cattle grazing corridors, or new farming methods that have killed off the natural vegetation that allowed peasant-level cattle keeping (e.g. varieties of grasses that removed ticks off cattle) in western Uganda and the southwest.

A lot of these small cattle keepers, Balalo, unable to sustain their way of life were forced to head further into Buganda, but mostly east-northwards. So while some couched the “Balalo invasion” in parts of Buganda, Teso, and the north in political and sectarian terms, the structural reasons for it were environmental and socio-economic.

It was also possible, ironically, because war in Teso and the north had, by accident, created environmental havens, because people weren’t living in and farming many of these areas, allowing them to regenerate and water resources to build up.

So, again, those stories you keep hearing about conspiracies to steal northern land, without understanding it is as partly a response by marginalised groups in the south-west to environmental and economic stress, is simplistic.

However, in recent years the return of peace in these areas, land fencing, and rice farming in some of them, is closing off these escape routes, forcing some of these people further into wetlands!
A scientific understanding of what is going on is important to crafting a solution. We shall return to these in future.

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