Charles Onyango Obbo

Why Ugandans think we are headed in the right direction; the case for a rethink

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, March 25  2015 at  02:00

Last week, Daily Monitor reported that there were “mixed reactions” to an opinion poll by the American firm International Republican Institute (IRI) that about 69 per cent of 2,402 respondents in the survey said Uganda is headed in the right direction.
The Opposition groups were dismissive, suggesting it was a two-penny piece of pro-government propaganda, and government folks were happy, saying it proved that President Yoweri Museveni is doing a good job.
But there was one striking finding - 69 per cent of respondents said the government was not doing a good job fighting corruption – exactly the same percentage as those who thought the country was headed in the right direction.
Like in many other things, the best thing about an opinion poll is not what it says, but what it doesn’t. The IRI opinion poll points to what might be a fundamental problem in the way we have analysed Ugandan politics, especially Museveni’s never-ending rule.
This analysis has been informed by many premises, one of the more dominant of them being that older Ugandans who lived through the terrible years of Idi Amin, the Milton Obote II period, and the disastrous few months of the Military Council of the Okello generals, were the core support of Museveni. And that all he had to do to maintain their support was not to be as bad as Amin, for example.
However, the premises went, younger Ugandans would respond differently. As older Ugandans died off, and young people born or who grew up under Museveni and didn’t have the experience and memories of the 1970s and early 1980s came into their own, they would not be hostage to that history.

They would demand more political space, insist on honest elections, be impatient with corruption, and would not tolerate a president for life. In short, they would have higher demands and expectations than their parents and grandparents. And that when they became the majority of the population, as they now are, Museveni would be in trouble.
If I may wear my dispassionate part-time intellectual’s hat here, there was no evidence for this. They were premises based on conventional wisdom. Let us even take the argument often made by Museveni himself, that his National Resistance Movement (NRM) and National Resistance Army (NRA), was a movement of “young people”.
Museveni was born in 1944 (I say that fully aware that Ugandan Opposition think he was born earlier), it means when he went to the bush in 1981 he was 37. That is young, yes, but he wasn’t spring chicken either. Several figures in the NRM and NRA were, in fact, far much older than Museveni.
So young people were followers, yes, but not leaders of the NRM/NRA.
Earlier, in 1980, the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) claimed the mantle of being the youth party. Again, several idealistic young people were drawn to it, but its leadership was generally over 35 years old.
Therefore, the notion that young people are the sharp end of the revolutionary spear in Uganda, is generally not borne out by evidence.
It was, therefore, dogmatic to assume that young people would seek a better Uganda than their parents. The evidence suggests that they might actually have lower standards.

But even that shouldn’t be misunderstood, because it only tells us the context they use to judge the performance of the NRM government.
Older Ugandans’ view of what Uganda should be was based partly on the independence nationalist ethos, shaped by the tail end of the colonial experience, and more universally, some pan-African aspirations.
The nationalist ethos was that we would build a good society, and the colonial and pan-African element inclined us to prove the racist Europeans wrong, and show we were equals and would craft prosperous democratic societies. On the whole, that became a failed project.
Young people are driven by different forces –digital technologies (mobile phones and the Internet), and ubiquitous satellite TV.
My sense is that today, Ugandan youth make their broader political decisions in a highly relativist context, not in absolutist idealistic ways like their parents did.

Whether or not local media report it, they are able to follow stories about the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Boko Haram insanity in Nigeria, Libya, Islamic State’s mayhem in Iraq and Syria on the Internet or via CNN or BBC.
Their parents and grandparents didn’t have that luxury. My reading, following young people’s blogs and social media posts, is that they then compare this with what is happening at home; and as long as things are better, they will give the Museveni regime a passing mark.
While some years ago Museveni had to be better than Amin and Obote, now he has to be better than the worst of the villains in the rest the world. His job has gotten easier, because there are some really terrible fellows out there.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

Kampala the city of garbage: 18 things – a few smart, many silly – we can do to change that

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, March 18  2015 at  02:00

So Kampala is being taken over by garbage, and the city in a few years will turn into a vast slum, a Brazilian style favela.
At this point, one would denounce the Kampala Capital City Authority, the government, selfish and dirty Kampalanites.
But as someone who believes in the free market and the force of enlightened and innovative law, I will give some 18 things that might help. Some are crazy, yes, but here we go:
1. Pass a law removing taxes on imported (and indeed locally Katwe-made, if there are any) garbage trucks.
2. The same law, or a separate one, should also give tax exemption to imported incinerators, as long as they are of giant size.
3. KCCA should buy several plots of land outside the city and concession them to garbage incineration companies, and for landfills to bury trash.
4. Incineration and garbage collection companies should be exempt from all income taxes, but to qualify for it, they must regularly pay a certain amount of money into a National Recycling and Environmental Fund.

5. A law be passed to establish a National Recycling and Environmental Fund, managed by an independent Board of Trustees with only one member appointed by the government. The rest shall be appointed by consumer organisations, departments of environmental studies at universities that have the course, and to bring in dollar sense, by organisations like the bankers association. The law shall ban the Fund from using more than 10 per cent of its money on salaries and other staff costs.
6. The Fund shall invest in recycling activities, and give financial support to up-country towns to create landfills and other anti-garbage activities.

7. All residents in permanent dwellings in cities be compelled to have a garbage collection contract.
8. Like other countries, a law be passed requiring residents to sort out their garbage into plastics, metal, paper, and the irredeemable stuff – banana peels and so forth.
9. A law to establish powerful resident associations be made. Among other things, it shall empower resident associations to expel residents who litter and don’t pack their trash properly.
10. There is no reason why meat should be sold with bones. Bones shall be banned, and only fillet meat (and ribs) be permitted for sale in the cities. Any butcher found selling meat with bone, or a customer found buying it, shall be fined. On repetition of the offence, the butcher shall lose his licence.
11. A plan to phase out unpeeled bananas, cassava, and potatoes within five years and from Kampala and its suburbs be put in place. Taxes shall be removed on domestic deep freezers, so that people can keep their peeled bananas.
12. An environmental police be created to enforce the ban on kaveeras. Within five years, no packaging that is not of biodegradable shall be allowed in the country.

13. The National Recycling and Environmental Fund and other organisations shall have a national civic service for high school and university students. Students who enroll shall help clean towns and cities, and shall be paid a generous sum of money. The money shall be paid into a school/university fees plan for the students, and also a savings scheme. Students from poor families shall get priority.
During national civic service, undertaken during the holidays, the students shall teach environmental coping skills and hygiene to the people.
14. Long-horned cattle shall to be phased out of the country within 10 years, despite protests by Museveni and other keepers of the long-horned animal. The horns are an environmental nightmare once the animals have been slaughtered.
15. People shall require permits to bring, brew, and consume ajono (millet beer) in towns. An “ajono dregs disposal law” shall be passed. It will make criminal the brewing of ajono in bathtubs.

16. Revive and reform the Local Council system, especially the LC1. The new LCs will now have a chair, secretary for defence, secretary for environmental affairs, a secretary for economic affairs/statistics, a secretary for citizen affairs, and a secretary for education and industry. The LC1 shall be also the agents of Nema, the Fund, among others. They shall also oversee local drainage.
17. Name all roads, and have signposts on all of them. You cannot run a modern garbage collection without a street map. Residents along a street shall, once a year, pay a small fee for the maintenance of street signage. All houses shall have plot numbers on a metal plate or other background at the gate or entrance.
18. Enforce pet licences in urban areas, and those who fail to pick up after their pets shall be fined or chased from the city.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

Some think Besigye should return to face Museveni in 2016. Yes, it has come to that

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, March 11  2015 at  02:00

Recently, a good Ugandan told me he was in despair. He had looked around and he didn’t see the Opposition parties – including the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – giving President Yoweri Museveni a run for his money in the 2016 elections.
In fact, he said, Museveni might have the easiest election of his never-ending presidential life. He didn’t see a Museveni rival who could stand up, and not fall flat on his face immediately.
His solution? Retired FDC president Dr Kizza Besigye should jump back into the ring and take on Museveni! One can understand the necessity of a real and lively presidential race, but is the problem only with a weak Opposition?
I think we need to look again at the 2001, 2006 elections in which Besigye breathed a threatening air on Museveni’s neck. Then in 2011, Museveni seemed to finally land a cleanish big winning punch on Besigye.
There has been a lot of argument about what Museveni did wrong in 2001 and 2006, and what Besigye did right; and then what Museveni got right in 2011 and how Besigye then dropped the ball. But maybe Museveni’s and Besigye’s tactics didn’t matter; what did was the country and the environment in which the elections took place.
My sense is that even with rigging and intimidation, an election is tight because the voters think the outcomes will make a difference. In 2001 and 2006, the races were close, because Besigye winning and becoming president, or Museveni losing, would make a difference.
By 2011, Museveni had it easier not just because he dramatically changed his approach. I think the faith in change had died down considerably, because voters were aware it wouldn’t make a big difference.
Because of two decades of corrupt and nepotistic rule, the government no longer directly affects the lives of most people. Apart from the clientilist section of Ugandan business, most people have found success and been able to make a living despite the government, not because of it.
Look at two things Ugandans have always cherished, and once had the best of them - education and health. Which Ugandan, even if a poor one, wakes up in the morning thinking that he will get the best education for his children, and medical care for his family, in a government school or hospital? Very few.
Which young man or woman who is looking for a house, looks either to government schemes or policy to make that possible? None.
I think people also realise that after 30 years of such governance, a lot of people are driven out of public service, and the bureaucracy becomes a dead mass that cannot be reformed easily if there is a change.
In other words, the ability of politics to dramatically change things for the better is almost zero. It can make things worse, yes, but innovate? No.
As a distinguished Ugandan told me late last year, international investors – and diplomats – now take the view that the “Museveni government has got a lot of capacity to block things, but it is virtually incapable of getting any initiatives to happen”, except perhaps the brick and mortar things like building roads.
I think this situation favours the incumbent, because if a change or continuation will not make an important difference, then the only thing voters have to consider is the cost of voting Museveni out i.e. the price of regime change.
That has a price, because a new president will come in with his or her own Cabinet and hangers on, and the range of costs will include things like buying new curtains and sofa seats for State House suited to the taste of the new First Lady (or Ladies if the new man is a polygamist).
And, Uganda being Uganda, there could also be some violence around that change. We are not known for handing over the keys to State House gracefully.
So if the only thing the voters are going to get are high transition costs, without having a reformed government, why pay the price? It makes better dollar sense to keep the government of the day, complete with it gallery of rogues, in place.
This is a good thing, though. It sets the stage for a better politics in future, because it will take fairly good political parties and credible leaders to inspire honest enthusiasm and Ugandan’s faith in politics.
Our politics has become like our kwanjulas. We go to great lengths, wear the best of busuti, kanzu and suits on this side of the Earth, and put on a great show. However, these days everyone at the kwanjula knows that they are there only because the parents of the girl have already agreed to give her hand away in marriage.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

This is unMuseveni-like: From Kiyonga, Nkangi, Ssendaula, Suruma, Bbumba, Kiwanuka to Kasaija?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, March 4  2015 at  02:00

President Yoweri Museveni finally did the much-rumoured and discussed Cabinet reshuffle.
It was a mini-reshuffle, really. We won’t waste your time with all the changes. One seriously merits attention for now: Maria Kiwanuka was moved from Finance, to the non-job of presidential adviser.
Then, minister of State for Finance Matia Kasaija, was elevated to Finance minister.
It is one of the most surprising Cabinet appointments Museveni has ever made, and gives us the best indicator of where the President’s head is.
Thing is, there are a handful of appointments where Museveni has always shown himself alive to global trends and other dynamics.
Ministers of Finance, especially from emerging markets today, are like Central Bank governors. Presidents appoint them with an eye to global investors, and business media that have exploded with the Internet and 24-hour television.
Let’s illustrate. When the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in 1986, they were heady times in Africa and the world. It grappled with some collectivist and socialist experiments, and failed miserably. Then it engaged with the IMF, World Bank, and Western donors on a programme to liberalise and restructure the economy.
For Uganda, that needed someone with the intellectual astuteness to stand his ground against those organisations, but also for international financial institutions, they required a figure that was also an insider enough who could credibly talk for the national leadership. That lot fell to Dr Crispus Kiyonga. He delivered.
By 1992, the shake-up was done, and it needed a less combative pair of hands, a reassuring figure that was unlikely to lurch off the established economic course, and give the vibe that Uganda was comfortable in its post-war skin.
Museveni tapped the marvelously whiskered Jehoash Mayanja-Nkangi, an elderly three-piece suit-wearing erudite lawyer and politician, an Anglophile figure who speaks English with the fineness of a country club gentleman. Mayanja-Nkangi is as far away from the frightening “native” as you can find around Kampala. Essentially, after Kiyonga had done the dirty and difficult work, including establishing the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), Nkangi stabilised the ship.
Then a slight course correction was needed, another round of reforms, especially of the banking sector. It required competence, and someone whom the domestic and global banking world knew and trusted, and had a reputation for not being reckless.
He also needed to be a politician, so he could use some of his political capital to bolster a constituency in favour of the reforms. Museveni called up businessman Gerald Ssendaula, an urbane man with his head firmly screwed on.
But by then, there were too many noises about how Museveni’s policies had decimated local banks, and his government’s initiatives had handed the “economy to foreigners”.
Kizza Besigye had also emerged in 2001 to give Museveni the first real run for his electoral money. The president needed to re-inject a nationalist and Eastward-leaning tone into the conversation about the national economy, and he required someone with links to the broader international leftist scholarship on the economy. In came the bookish Dr Ezra Suruma.
But Suruma’s strength, however, was also his weakness. As the Kenyans would say, he “didn’t have sufficient tribal content”. In other words, he didn’t invoke too much feeling of loyalty from strong local voting blocs.
And for Museveni, particularly now that Uganda had struck, he needed to appoint someone the local business community could identify with, but that was still enlightened.
It was a time when global media and investors were showing they were pleased with the thinking female Finance ministers were bringing to the job, as was evident from Nigerian Finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s first tour on the job between 2003-2006.
And so the President called up Syda Bbumba, a politician, accountant and banker.
But things move on. We were in the digital, stylish era. Investors were rushing to Africa. They needed Finance ministers they could relate too more emotionally. Social media too wanted a wellborn sophisticated name, some stardust. In came Maria Kiwanuka. Stylish, the activist women on social media liked her. Her name made noise; she wore chic African attire (that African women regularly complimented).
An economist, she had worked with the World Bank, and dipped her toes into projects in Burma (Myanmar), Malawi, Swaziland and so on.
Wall Street recognised someone like her.
Now we have Kasaija. Make no mistake, Kasaija is a good man and patriot, and his politics (in the past at least) was progressive.
Still, he is just one of us, a village boy. He has had no international experience. He is no Nkangi, no Ssendaula, no Suruma, nor Kiwanuka. In another time and place, you would say Museveni went down in the basement on this one. Evidence perhaps that he is turning 71 in August?

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

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

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, February 25  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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