Charles Onyango Obbo

Ebola and religion: Be warned, some ideas here have not been intelligently thought out

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo Ear To the Ground

Posted  Wednesday, October 15   2014 at  01:00

In Summary

So, looking at our disease future, as long as Muslims continue burying their dead quickly and washing incessantly, and the Asian-African Hindus continue cremating, they still have a better shot than Christians in dealing with viruses if they continue cuddling their dead irrespective of what killed them


The other day I passed through Entebbe airport. I have got the Ebola screening treatment at Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos, and Jomo Kenyatta International in Nairobi.
Without doubt Entebbe’s is the most aggressive of the three, complete with hand sanitiser – the only ones who do that bit. Clearly, as many observers have noted, because twice Ebola has struck Uganda, the country has gotten smarter at dealing with medical crises, and has got a cupboard full of donor-funded experts.
This, despite functioning in an environment where public health facilities have gone to the dogs, was evident in the handling of the latest outbreak of Marburg, that equally deadly stepbrother of Ebola. Clearly, some lessons were learnt in the October 2012 Marburg that killed 10 people.

Like Ebola, the Marburg virus is also transmitted via contact with bodily fluids and fatality rates range from 25 to 80 per cent.
The Ebola epidemic that has been raging in west Africa has so far claimed over 4,000 lives, with Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone worst hit.
But as we reflect on that, there is one case that is worth examining – Nigeria. Though parts of Nigeria are efficient, others are messy and the Goodluck Jonathan’s government is utterly incompetent at best.
Yet Nigeria all but stopped Ebola in its tracks, and other countries in the world, including the US, are sending their experts to learn the tricks. For me, one of the most striking photographs of the West African Ebola is probably, on the face of it, the least interesting. It shows the special Ebola hospital set up in Nigeria’s capital Lagos spanking clean, beds neatly laid out…and totally empty. It had no “customers”.
One might say it is not surprising in Uber governor Babatunde Fashola’s Lagos, where Ebola first landed in Nigeria. And, also, Nigeria won a geography lottery on this one – it doesn’t share a border with worst-hit Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone. Yes, but in the case of Lagos, it is a city of nearly 20 million people. Containing a disease like Ebola in such a place would be a nightmare for the most efficient African governor.
On geography, Cote d’Ivore shares a border with Liberia and Guinea, but it even suffered less Ebola than Nigeria and acted equally firmly. So did Senegal, which shares a border with Guinea.

I have a politically incorrect, and still shaky, theory. I think to understand diseases like Ebola in Africa; we need to look at the role of religion.
I first came to this view with HIV/Aids. Generally, Muslim or Muslim-majority countries were ravaged less by Aids. Striking, because Muslims – doctrinally – have a more generous view of polygamy than monogamy-preaching Christendom.
One possible explanation of this is something that I disagree with in orthodox Islam – the practice of controlling, especially, women’s sexuality. If a hardline cleric is going to sentence you to be stoned to death for sleeping around, as happened recently in al-Shabaab-held Somalia, you are likely to think twice about rolling in the hay casually.
However, that is probably the least contributing factor. The more critical ones are that good Muslims fast long and hard during Ramadan. I think that makes African Muslims more capable of discipline than Christians.
Secondly, the many rituals of washing and cleanliness associated with Islamic prayer means on the whole Muslims have higher hygiene than Christians.
But the biggest thing Muslims have going for them, is the practice of burying the dead quickly within 24 hours, without hanging around with the body for days, as we Christians do, with wailing mourners falling on it.
The only problem here is the numbers contradict my theory. For what they are worth, some Nigerian counts say Muslims are 50 per cent of the population, and Christians 40 per cent.

However, Muslims comprise about 85 per cent of the Guinea population. It should, if Muslim itself alone were a factor, have done better than Nigeria in fighting Ebola but, no, it has been a total disaster. So should Sierra Leone, where 60 to 70 per cent are Muslims.
Liberia, maybe, Muslims are 12 per cent, almost same as Uganda.
So what is going on? One, I think is a “West African problem” where there is what religious purists might call a “pagan” Islam, which dips its toes into superstition the way Christianity tends to do in some parts of Africa.
However, if we flip this, things looks bleak for Christianity because some of the new fundamentalist Born Again religions in Africa are even worse; they are against medicine, science, and prey financially on their flock.
So, looking at our disease future, as long as Muslims continue burying their dead quickly and washing incessantly, and the Asian-African Hindus continue cremating, they still have a better shot than Christians in dealing with viruses if they continue cuddling their dead irrespective of what killed them.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’; Muhoozi for president?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 19   2014 at  02:00

In Summary

The interesting thing is that Amama never expressly stated that he wants the job. So he has become the first person at his level to be punished for a thought crime


Most readers of this column are clever men and women, so they will be aware of Sun Tzu.
Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who lived between 544BC and 496BC, and author of the delightful little book The Art of War.

In there, Sun argues that, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.
I invoke Sun because his insights apply very much to Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni called out the dogs on Amama Mbabazi, and then sacked him as prime minister for the alleged crime of eyeing the presidency.

The interesting thing is that Amama never expressly stated that he wants the job. So he has become the first person at his level to be punished for a thought crime.

Ours is a strange country. If you are a Kizza Besigye and you definitively say you want to be president and campaign for it, you are beaten, jailed, slapped with trumped up charges of rape and so forth, and then cheated at the polls. If you are an Amama, you are punished for saying you don’t want the presidency and not campaigning openly!

The point here is that the attempts to remove Museveni as president are getting (or rather have been) frantic over the last 10 years - including what he himself alleges were failed attempts to remove him by rebellion. It is like a war. Yet, after 28 years, Kaguta’s son is still in State House, and is working on being unopposed in 2016 when he will have been eating things for 30 years.
So is there a way of sending Museveni to Rwakitura to tend his cattle peacefully? To subdue him, without fighting as Sun suggests?

Yes, but the solution is so unpalatable to most people, they would rather have Museveni rule into eternity. It is hiss on, Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba, commander of the Special Forces Group.
I am no way saying that Muhoozi should take over from his father: I am intellectualising the possibilities that might offer.

I for one think that Uganda needs a different pair of hands and eyes at the helm other than Museveni’s. He has done his bit. Part of the problem is that many Ugandans want both change, and a successor who is not a Museveni.

It is an understandable loathing of dynastic politics, but it also means that if Muhoozi is the man to bring that change, we shall not have it because he is Museveni’s son.

Now Muhoozi might not make a better president than Museveni…but he will be different. He will bring in a new cast of ministers, dole out jobs to his friends (who are different from his father’s), appoint his relatives (but younger and different ones that his father has done). He will make mistakes, but they will be different ones from his father’s.

The dynamic of a Muhoozi presidency therefore, could give the country some new breath and open up different outcomes that are right now closed by his father’s rule.

Yes, people say he will be his father’s puppet. Maybe. Maybe not. At some point, if he has any pride (and being Museveni’s son he probably has), he will want to be his own man. To do that, he will have to remove his father’s functionaries, and strike out on a different path to make a point. In so doing, some of the apparatus of the older Kaguta regime will be dismantled.

There is a big wrinkle in this, though. There are NRM groups that have already formed to push for Museveni to hand over to Muhoozi in 2021.

There are many problems with this. First, it presumes that though Museveni would then have been in power for 35 years, he would be willing to leave. His record has shown so far that the longer he stays, the less willing to leave he is.

Secondly, at that point the prospect of a Sun Tsu-prescribed defeat would be unlikely, and claimants to the throne will have to fight for it. Not to mention that it would be difficult for a Museveni to take over, because the household brand would have been too damaged.

Thirdly, at the current rate of corruption and decay, one cannot be sure in what state Uganda will be in. It only makes sense to Muhoozi to take power if he has a remote chance of success.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

A strange thing happened: Boda bodas have now become the game changer

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 12   2014 at  02:00

In Summary

The future of Kampala is probably over. Let’s illustrate. A friend in South Africa tells me a story of a relative who flew from Johannesburg to Entebbe. That’s a long journey. However, she had a bad traffic day and it look her longer to get from Entebbe to her home in Luzira, than her journey from South Africa to Uganda


The boda bodas (motorcycle ‘taxis’) have won the battle in Kampala.
And, no, it is not because President Yoweri Museveni is protecting them for cynical electoral reasons – or to preserve the spying/intelligence infrastructure some of them constituted.
The boda bodas have been handed victory by their enemies - the motorists who considered them a menace. Boda bodas have now become the only way Kampala can work, because the city’s maddening traffic jam has made it a hopelessly inefficient city.
Now every car owner has a story to tell about a meeting he/she couldn’t get to because of traffic jams, and some tell tales of flights that they would have missed, but were saved by boda boda.
So we have a situation where car owners cannot do their business without boda bodas. Many years ago, boda bodas carried passengers only. Now their market has diversified.

Kampala is getting to be at a point where Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos was not too long ago: Because of traffic jams, delivery of services for everything from groceries to banking and payment services, are now being done by boda boda.
Thus while the boda boda industry has diversified and become more sophisticated, the car industry has remained stagnant.
In the process, the traffic jams and boda bodas have driven innovation, giving rise to the online store. Because the traffic jam mess is not about to be fixed in Kampala, if you are a venture capitalist, put your money in e-commerce. It can only grow.
But even that is not the most dramatic change boda bodas have wrought. The most enduring one is how they have affected settlement patterns, and in turn complicated the task of decongesting Kampala.
The way residential Kampala, and indeed other cities, was built was that homes were established in places that residents could reach. So they were done near a railway, a road along which cars could drive, and near or a walkable distance from a matatu or bus stop.
Boda bodas changed that, because all they needed is a path. So in the outskirts of Kampala, people started building homes for rental in places without roads but that had paths along which bodas could ride.

There was something else beside the path, because such homes were still off the main flow of bodas. There had to be a “call” system for bodas, and that was the cellphone.
The traffic jams and cellphones, plus the lousy public transportation, entrenched the bodas.
Ultimately, the construction of boda-access homes, have used up all the spaces where new roads would have been built. Kampala, therefore, has reached its limit, and can no longer breathe.
I was discussing with some friends where one could build a world-class museum in Kampala. In the end, we agreed that it was not possible.
By contrast even the oldest and most prestigious upmarket suburb in East Africa, Muthaiga in Nairobi, still has a few vacant plots! Kitsuru, in location terms the equivalent of Naguru, has expansion room in more than 30 per cent of its area…yet Nairobi is an older, bigger, and richer city than Kampala.
To be fair, the fact that Kampala is hilly, and the land ownership is very different, are historical and bigger limitations that one cannot blame on the city. That said, the future of Kampala is probably over.

Let’s illustrate. A friend in South Africa tells me a story of a relative who flew from Johannesburg to Entebbe. That’s a long journey. However, she had a bad traffic day and it look her longer to get from Entebbe to her home in Luzira, than her journey from South Africa to Uganda.
Secondly, Kampala to Lugazi is now a traffic crawl. I arranged with a technician to fly in from Nairobi, to Kisumu, get a car, and drive to Busia and cross the border, and then on Tororo where we would meet up.
He set out from Nairobi at about the same time as I did from Kampala. I was sure he would find me in Tororo.
When I was clearing Mabiri, he called. “Where are you?” he asked. It took me nearly another two hours to link up with him.
Gridlock could leave cities like Kampala choking on their vomit if they don’t drastically overhaul the way they work.
Still, from this, we could see a reconfiguration of the regional economies as growth and development is pushed to places where there is room to create new things.

In future, eastern Uganda and the wider western and upper Rift Valley will become a sub-economy; as will northern Tanzania, northern Rwanda and the southwest Uganda and so forth.
That, though, won’t happen tomorrow. For now, reflect on what boda boda have done…and no one wrote the script, or could even have dreamed of it 10 years ago!

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

Many Ugandans would have liked to see Compaore killed, but he escaped. Why?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 5   2014 at  02:00

In Summary

Sankara, known as the “Che Guevara of Africa” was no angel, but God knows he was loved. Because he was killed after barely four years in office, he hadn’t been around long enough to accumulate enough enemies


So after 27 years in the chair, last Friday Burkina Faso strongman Blaise Compoare dropped power like a hot potato and fled to Cote d’Ivoire.

In 1987, Compoare plotted the assassination of the popular and charismatic president of the country, Captain Thomas Sankara. Sankara was returning from a jog when they finished him off.
It was dastardly act, for killing a man who is sweating away in his tracksuit is the equivalent of ambushing a naked chap in his bathroom and doing him in.

Sankara, known as the “Che Guevara of Africa” was no angel, but God knows he was loved. Because he was killed after barely four years in office, he hadn’t been around long enough to accumulate enough enemies.

It helped that he was lean, dark and handsome. But most importantly, his simple lifestyle captured the spirit of the age. He cut his salary to $450 a month, sold off the government’s fleet of luxury vehicles, making the Renault 5, the cheapest car available in the country at the time, the official vehicle for his ministers.

He also banned the use of government chauffeurs and first class airline tickets by his government officials. He rejected air-conditioning as an indulgence in a poor country, redistributed land to the poor, aggressively promoted education and health, environmental and reforestation of the Sahel, but most off, fought against corruption.

Sankara’s photo is, after Nelson Mandela’s, probably the most popular of present or former African leaders as Africans’ profile picture on social media, especially Twitter.

So while some might have felt that Compaore deserved to be killed by the “Black Spring” revolutionaries of Burkina Faso, probably the more deserving punishment for him was to spend 27 years seeing the Sankara fan club remain very alive.

But, the real story in Compaore’s circumstances, is that he was allowed to drive in a large convoy, unmolested, out of the Burkina Faso.

You see, something paradoxical has happened. Africas’ Big Men, who steal elections, are part-time democrats or part-time dictators, power hogs who don’t go away – our own man President Yoweri Museveni fitting most of those categories – have been the biggest beneficiaries of the democracy that they deny to everyone else, even party members like former PM and expiring-secretary general of the NRM, Amama Mbabazi.

Let’s explain. At Mail & Guardian Africa, we do more data journalism than probably any other African media outlet. When we used to be on the “Capital Gang” with Frank Katusiime and Winnie Byanyima, Frank liked to ask an innocent but yet very subversive question; “what do the numbers say?”

There is no time when we have looked at data closely, and not come up with something that messed our heads.

So recently we looked at data on what happened to all the African leaders in the one-party and military dictatorship age in Africa that followed independence in the 1960s. Then we looked at the fate of those in the “second liberation” and “democracy wave” that rode high from the mid-1990s to date.

We found that in the bad old days, between 1960 and 1975, 47 per cent of Africa’s leaders were either exiled, assassinated, executed, killed in a coup or imprisoned. Specifically, five were assassinated, and four executed.

However, if we look at 1999-2014, the semi-democratic and democratic age, there were 0 executions, and just three assassinations. In all, just 14 per cent of African leaders were killed, imprisoned, or exiled. Democracy made power less dangerous for Africa’s rulers. (See “Exile and executions no more - democracy has made Africa a safer place for its Big Men [with revealing graphics]”,

In other words, if we were in 1970s Africa, Compaore would not have got out of Ouagadougou alive. He is safely out of Burkina Faso because of democracy, that he didn’t seriously believe in.
But, even without that, it is actually still a good time to be an autocrat in Africa, and other factors would come in play to ensure safe passage for Compaore.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

How many Ugandan beauty queens does it take to grow rice for export to Nigeria?

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By Charles Onyango Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 29   2014 at  02:00

In Summary

Also, he always has spare trucks on standby to relieve the ones that break down; otherwise if he is late for the flight to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands, he takes a massive hit


First, congratulations to Leah Kalanguka, who tried her hand at growing mushrooms and raising chicken, entered the Miss Uganda contest, and won it.

And a cheer for the organisers of the contest, who themed it “promoting agriculture entrepreneurship among the youth”, a way of making farming glamorous to young people.

It is a noble goal, but is the wrong incentive. The winning formula is to make farming profitable.

I have a few friends who make money farming in both Kenya and Uganda. They are not glamorous. They wear khaki jackets, cargo trousers, heavy boots, curse, drive hardy old Landrovers and weathered pick-ups…but holiday in the Bahamas, and shop on Oxford Street in London.

Farming is not for stilettos, long polished nails, or a place where you can wear your jeans halfway your buttocks.
The reality is that the problem with farming in Uganda is not farming or farmers. The success to commercial farming is not in the gardens.

Some examples. I was on a trip with a top man in the largest meat processing firm in East Africa. Everywhere you go in East Africa, their products are in supermarket freezers.

I told him business must be good, they “own East Africa”. He told me, “no”, on the contrary they were operating barely at 40 per cent of their capacity. I was shocked. But what he told me next truly stunned me. He said if all the cows, chicken, and pigs brought to market in the whole of East Africa on any given day were consolidated and sold to them, their factory would still not be operating at 100 per cent.

Now that was surprising, because in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, farmers get peanuts for their animals because there is no market (and don’t mention the milk they pour away).

The problem, he told me, is that the apparent shortage is caused by infrastructure bottlenecks and the cost of transportation.

Then I had sat next to a flower farmer from the Rift Valley on a flight back from Amsterdam. He told me growing flowers, when you get the hang of it, is easy. It is getting to market that is a nightmare. Because of the state of roads from his farm to the highway to carry his flowers to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for export, he runs through lorry tyres every month.

Also, he always has spare trucks on standby to relieve the ones that break down; otherwise if he is late for the flight to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands, he takes a massive hit.

Also, he gives his drivers a certain amount of money to bribe the policemen along the way. If he doesn’t they will hold up his trucks and they miss the flight.

“What would happen if those problems were sorted, and fuel was cheaper,” I asked him.

He shifted in his seat, and said, smile on the face: “I wouldn’t be sitting next to you Charles. I would be flying my own private jet.”

Now our Nigerian brothers and sisters are good at many things. The one thing modern Nigerians aren’t good at is farming. Today, Nigeria is the world’s second importer of rice, after China. And it also imports Kenyan and Ethiopian flowers…. from the Netherlands.

Recently, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta travelled to Nigeria, to discuss with the Nigerians whether they could buy Kenyan flowers directly. Kenyans would make a fortune, and Nigerians could actually get fresher flowers cheaper.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Rub out Mbabazi, Uganda, and you get VP Mujuru and Zimbabwe in another African succession war

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 22   2014 at  01:00

In Summary

Mujuru is also vice president of the ruling ZANU-PF. She was in the bush, rising to junior commander of Mugabe’s ZANLA rebel forces, so you can say she fought for her place at the table


It is not only in Uganda where we are having succession battles in Africa. There are quite a few happening on the continent, but the one that has an uncanny resemblance to Uganda’s is Zimbabwe’s.

There, the equivalent of former Uganda prime minister Amama Mbabazi, who was hounded by a political lynch mob, before President Yoweri Museveni dealt him a coup de grace and axed him from the office, is vice president Joice Mujuru.

Mujuru is also vice president of the ruling ZANU-PF. She was in the bush, rising to junior commander of Mugabe’s ZANLA rebel forces, so you can say she fought for her place at the table.
And, to boot, she was married to Solomon Mujuru, who was a commander of ZANLA, and became a powerful politician after he left the army. Before his death in 2011, he was considered one of the likely successors to the 90-year-old Mugabe.

The front woman for the war against Mujuru is First Lady Grace Mugabe. Grace in turn is seen as a patsy for the ruthless Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, himself a veteran of the struggle.

In December, ZANU-PF will have its congress – around the same time our own National Resistance Movement (NRM) is scheduled to hold its own convention. Grace is on course to be elected secretary of women’s affairs of the ruling party – the equivalent of the head of the Women’s League that Mbabazi’s feisty wife Jacqueline holds in the NRM.

Some say Mnangagwa is being naïve if he thinks that Grace, as some speculate, will settle for the vice presidency – Mujuru’s position - in a post-Uncle Bob order, leaving him to be president. They argue that Grace wants the big job itself.

This has echoes, which were once loud but have gone a bit silent, that our own dear First Lady Janet Museveni, is orchestrating most of the succession drama behind the scenes, and wants to be president. As Mbabazi said, every Ugandan has a right to seek to be president, so why not?

Things get more eerily familiar. Mujuru is being accused by Mrs Mugabe of “creating and leading factions” inside the party, exactly the same “crime” that Mbabazi was accused of.

The interesting thing is that the people who make these accusations are themselves part of a faction, and in both Uganda and Zimbabwe, that faction is the First Family – led either by the president himself, or his wife, or his brother, or his son, or his daughter (as in Angola).

And it is this phenomenon that interests us, not who is right or wrong. From Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, we have seen that no party that came from the bush as an armed movement has lost power either through an election (thanks in part to the occasional vote fiddling), or through a counter-armed struggle – Riek Machar almost succeeded in South Sudan against Salva Kiir, but his sail seems to have run out of wind.

And there is the great irony. African liberation movements that are very difficult for the opposition to oust, don’t progressively grow into modern political parties. When the critical time comes for transition, they degenerate into narrow “familiocracies”.

In Ethiopia, where the mighty Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rules, even there, when the steely-fisted Meles Zenawi died in 2012, his powerful wife Azeb Mesfin came close to denying Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn the job.

In South Sudan, the charismatic late John Garang, effectively came into office with his wife Rebecca and sons…and they remain players in the nation’s troubled politics. This after nearly 30 years of struggle.

Even in South Africa, where the comparatively more enlightened African National Congress (ANC) reigns, in what critics see as one of the aberrations of the Jacob Zuma presidency, there is loose talk about him trying to position his ex-wife, African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to succeed him.
Now we have Zimbabwe, and of course Uganda where, if you step back and look beyond the Museveni household, even Mbabazi himself had/has his family up to their necks in NRM politics.

Why does this happen? It is simplistic to say the Big Men are greedy, and that corrupt First Families feel insecure and therefore want to continue in power when the chief passes on or steps down, to protect their wealth.

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