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

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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 (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3


Charles Onyango Obbo

Flashback: Will Amama survive 2012? Yes, but he is now damaged goods (now he owes me coffee)

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 8  2014 at  01:00
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Then prime minister Amama Mbabazi offered a good-natured response to this article when it was first published on January 4, 2012. He said: “Obbo’s analysis is right, but the conclusion is wrong” and, if I remember well, kind of put a bet on it. I think he owes me coffee, which I will be collecting on one of these days:
Amama Mbabazi survived a concerted onslaught for allegedly eating an oil bribe in 2011. Others like former Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa, and minister of State for Labour Mwesigwa Rukutana cut their losses and “stepped aside” to allow the storm to blow over.
Minister for the Presidency Kabakumba Masiko bit the dust over allegations that she used the transmitters of the State broadcaster UBC to profit her private FM station, and did not pay for the services.
The real prize in this long drama, will of course be Mbabazi. Interestingly, the action against Mbabazi is based on a claim by someone, who was told by someone, that Mbabazi was “eyeing a bribe” in the now murky oil business. That is like trying to censure someone for dreaming about a bribe!
So to understand what is really happening around Mbabazi, we need to look beyond the bribe allegation. Mbabazi is a shrewd and formidable political operative, but I sense that he has been sucker-punched this time.
First, I think a narrative that Mbabazi is a “divisive figure in the NRM” has now been well established. There was the sale of his Temangalo land to NSSF, which caused uproar in the NRM and the country, because many felt the price NSSF paid was too high. The issue divided NRM in the middle, and Amama survived in part because President Museveni backed him.
This “divisive Mbabazi”, who first truly emerged in the NRM conventions of 2005, continued through 2010, when he was forced into winning the Secretary-Generalship of the party for a second time in very acrimonious circumstances. That continued into the shambolic NRM 2010 grassroots elections in which he again emerged as the villain.
There is a widespread, and correct view that the kerfuffle around Mbabazi is all about the Museveni succession. Mbabazi is seen as now having fought his way to the top of the succession queue. Probably, but that is a pyrrhic victory because imagine the moment comes when a Museveni successor will be chosen. How do you think it will be done?
Everyone, including Museveni himself, will argue that what is required is a candidate who is not divisive, one who is a uniter, because it is the only way the NRM can win the next election (whenever that is). So every bruising battle Mbabazi has won in the last 12 years has been necessary for him to be disqualified as a Museveni successor.
In short, for the last so many years, Mbabazi has been played. And the support Museveni has given him at every turn was also necessary to raise jealousy and resentment against him as the President’s blue-eyed boy. Museveni is many things; the one thing he is not, is a fool. He is an adept political chess player.
But even without this, history is not in Mbabazi’s favour. Look at all the NRM politicians and UPDF officers who have been censured, survived attempts to censure them, or been embroiled in controversies or scandals —Jim Muhwezi, Sam Kutesa, Gen Salim Saleh, Kahinda Otafiire, and so forth.
They will return to Parliament, be reappointed ministers (Muhwezi, Kutesa, Saleh) or presidential advisers. The one thing that happens is that their star never again rises to the level of its heyday, and they will always be tripped up by another scandal or controversy (Muhwezi on GAVI, Kutesa on Chogm).
In Muhwezi’s case, we now know that while Museveni would defend him stoutly by day, by night State House would huddle with some of the MPs who were leading the censure motion against him in Parliament, and provide them with the ammunition for the next day’s assault.
This history is important because it reminds us that though the NRM government has bred the worst corruption Uganda has seen, and even if Museveni defends you, a corruption scandal is a kiss of death, because it is a tool that is used to sort out the political pecking order. If you survive it, you remain wounded forever.
There is something else about Mbabazi’s case. The political grapevine has it that after the elections [in 2011], he asked Museveni to be rewarded for the years of his unswerving loyalty to the President…
Museveni, the story goes, rewarded him with the prime ministership. Mbabazi thus became the first person appointed PM (or VP) by Museveni as a right, not a favour. Mbabazi cashed in a cheque he wasn’t supposed to. With that, he was handed a poison chalice to drink from.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Elders say Amama ‘treated like a chicken thief’. What would a chicken thief say?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 1  2014 at  01:00
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Ever since Amama Mbabazi was sacked as prime minister about two weeks ago, it is only right that the privileges he was enjoying as such be withdrawn.
But the way it is being done is small-minded petty vindictiveness. Taking pick-ups full of soldiers to disarm and withdraw, and calling journalists to witness it was designed to do nothing more than humiliate him. It was something that could have been accomplished by a phone call from the soldiers’ commanders. The people of Kanungu, from where Amama hails, have complained that he is being “treated like a chicken thief”.
Some of these things are, to use the expression, “unAfrican”. As President Yoweri Museveni never used to tire telling the nation, it is cowardly to attack a man from the back.
But, secondly, when you have thrown a man – or a woman – for that matter, you don’t follow them to the ground and bite them.
Former minister and East African Community secretary-general Amanya Mushega more than once gave me a good example of why it is good sense not to burn all of one’s boats, and common decency not to make your adversary desperate.
He and former Obote II minister Dr Adonia Tiberondwa, were on the opposite sides of a bitter political divide. Amanya was a member of Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) in the late 70s and start of 80s. Tiberondwa was a diehard UPC. The two men had married into the same family, so while they were bitter political rivals, they maintained a civilised decorum between them.
At the start of 1981, especially after Museveni started his bush war, a manhunt and crackdown of UPM luminaries started. Amanya was on the hit list. Feeling cornered, he sneaked and managed to get into Tiberondwa’s office.
As a good UPC man, Tiberondwa would have accumulated great favour by handing Amanya over. But he didn’t. He rushed him to the basement, put him in his ministerial Benz, and got him safely to the border. If Amanya had been foolish enough to burn all his bridges with Ado, he might not be alive today.
If Uganda’s history – and indeed even Amama’s own story - is anything to go by, no one stays up all the time. They eventually come down. And not everyone, whose odds look poor, stays down forever.
When the UPC came to power in that controversial 1980 election, and Museveni and his band went to the bush, they liked to dismiss him derisively as “a wobbly-legged, milk-drinking cattle herder who would be killed by mosquitoes in the bush”. Look who had the last laugh.
Now one time a Museveni minister who was fed with the corrosive political battles between the ruling NRM and the Uganda Opposition, asked me; “how do the Kenyans do it”. I gave her the “Kenyan formula”, the short of which is to always leave a big window open for the Opposition and not drive them into extremes; and not to interfere with their businesses.
A real example will suffice. The current opposition leader Raila Odinga was PM in the quarrelsome Mwai Kibaki-led Grand Coalition government whose life ended with the March 2013 election. Though Raila had been criticising the Uhuru Kenyatta government, last year when Kenya was marking its 50th anniversary of independence, his government asked Raila and former president Daniel arap Moi to inaugurate separate high profile development projects to mark the occasion.
Then there was a story in the Kenyan media that Ugandans might find bewildering. Raila’s officials claimed that he had been denied “VIP access” due to an opposition leader and former PM at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Government explained that that wasn’t true. One, that Raila still had full access to the VIP longue. Secondly, that what was at issue was that Raila wanted to drive in his convoy to the foot of the plane at the airport apron the way he used to when he was PM.
They said he could indeed drive to the apron, but in a single car.
Pose for a second, and think of what would happen if Amama tried to drive his car to the apron at Entebbe tomorrow.
One of the good things that has come out of this sordid, is a vindication of the policy to get rid of “government housing” for the big men.
If Amama were living in the official residence of the PM, they would also have thrown out his saucepans and mattresses on the street in the ultimate act of humiliation.
It’s interesting then the only person who would be thrown out of a government house if he were to lose, is the President.
So, we say to the Kanungu elders—even a chicken thief deserves to be treated fairly, according to the law.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Museveni sacked Amama as PM for the strangest of reasons - seriously

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, September 24  2014 at  01:00
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Last week, President Yoweri Museveni dropped Amama Mbabazi, making him the shortest serving Prime Minister of the NRM era.
Amama was almost tied with George Adyebo, who was dropped on November 18, 1994 after three years and 300 days in the job (someone calculated it in an article on Wikipedia!). By contrast, Amama served three years and 117 days, just 183 shy of Adyebo’s.
However, as PMs come and go, Amama’s wasn’t the shortest in Ugandan history. That honour belongs to Paulo Muwanga, former VP to Milton Obote II, who was PM for 24 days after the July 1985 coup against Obote. Abraham Waligo succeeded him, and held the position for 154 days.
All this is important, because it means the fact that Amama exited just over three years is itself not significant.
PMs in Uganda serve three functions. One, they are used as a buffer and bridge between contending factions, usually between the hardliners and moderates or the left and right wings of ruling parties/coalitions in Uganda (broadly speaking).
The PM who most fit that role was Otema Allimadi during Obote II. Kintu Musoke also played that role between 1994 and 1999, although only partially.
The second role they play is to be a holding entity, as the Big Man plans his next move. The choice can be of an ineffectual individual without his own social base, as in the case of Adyebo. Alternatively, it can be someone with a social base – as Apollo Nsibambi, who logged the most years at 12 – but who has no power ambitions and brings a certain technocratic competence.
Amama’s successor, Dr Ruhakana Ruganda, is also partly in this mould, but he brings something else; good public relations and feel-good factor, because many sides of the Ugandan political divide generally like him. However, he is not considered power hungry. Waligo also brought the same currency to the Military Council government.
The third role is the more complicated, and dangerous one. Either a PM is appointed to be the president’s sledgehammer, or to represent a powerful faction that needs to be wooed or appeased. Dr Samson Kisekka, who was PM for nearly five years after Museveni took power in 1986, was a factional chief. He represented both the southern Uganda right wing, and critical Buganda constituencies that had backed the Museveni bush war.
Amama, on the other hand, was the sledgehammer. A workaholic and lethal political operator, he did a lot to smooth Museveni’s victory in the 2011 elections. Partly because that was the one election in which Museveni’s reputation was not tarnished by egregious vote-stealing, it looks like he was seeking to go into “statesmanlike” mode, leaving Amama to take care of the messy business, while he kept his nose clean and stayed above the fray.
All that was thrown out of the window when runner-up, and stubborn Dr Kizza Besigye and other opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) took to their Walk-to-Work protests, and rattled the regime. Museveni went native on Besigye & Co., and let out the dogs.
In other words, he was doing the dirty job himself. Then there was another wrinkle; the sentiment around a succession grew inside the party, which increased his vulnerability.
If one were to compare Amama to anyone, it would have to be to Muwanga. Both brought experience from intelligence and heading security services to the job. Both were consummate insiders, and had amassed power inside government. Muwanga had been UPC vice president, and Defence minister in Obote II. But he had also been a shrewd player in UPC in the 1960s and an influential diplomat. Amama, beside his security leadership, was now secretary general of NRM party.
So what happened? One pointer is in the appointment of Rugunda. Rugunda is a good friend of Amama, but most importantly, he is from the same far-west political geography Amama came from. It is the first PM reshuffle in which Museveni has appointed a successor from both the same political and social pool. The near-status quo appointment suggests that Museveni acted out of weakness.
One place to look is an article by Monitor journalist Ivan Okuda “Palace politics at State House” (September 7). The article suggested a bitter factional fight for influence in Museveni’s court.
The fear of Amama had united the State House factions, and it seems it started up again after Amama visibly stepped back into the shadows from late July. His removal, however, ensures that that contest will only heat up, because Rugunda is too mild to frighten them.
Factional fights inside the party and NRM favour Museveni, allowing him to strengthen his hand. Maybe Amama’s ambitions threatened Museveni, but his bigger sin seems to be a strange one – he had united Museveni’s “enemies”, including in the Opposition who disliked him intensely.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

UPDF ‘raped’ Somali women, but found Shabaab chief and US killed him. How?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, September 17  2014 at  01:00
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The last few days brought some very contradictory insights about the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).
First, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report alleged that African Union peacekeeping forces in Somalia (Amisom), mainly elements from UPDF and the Burundi army, have gang-raped women and girls as young as 12 and traded food aid for sex in the troubled Horn of Africa nation.
Secondly, was the revelation that Ugandan troops in Amisom provided the intelligence that helped US Special Forces kill al-Shabaab chief Ahmed Godane in a devastating air strike over a fortnight ago.
In the first series of comments about the airstrike on Godane’s convoy, the Americans spoke of it having been the result of years of hard work and sacrifice by its security services, without giving credit to anyone else.
By weekend, though, Uganda claimed its piece of the action, saying it provided the US with “key intelligence” on Godane’s whereabouts. The French also claimed credit.
In the end, the US said nothing about Paris’ role, but in an advisory to its citizens on the weekend counter-terrorism operation in Kampala that is reported to have “countered” an al-Shabaab attack, the US embassy said:
“We…caution US citizens of the possibility of retaliatory attacks in Uganda by al-Shabaab in response to the US and Ugandan military actions in Somalia last week which killed al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane.”
The UPDF and Uganda’s intelligence services are generally good at these kinds of things…but only if they are not distracted by in-fighting, or squandering their energies in local partisan politics chasing around President Museveni’s real and imagined enemies.
It is one reason the country’s security services are usually inefficient a year before election (as in the July 2010 World Cup finals night when two al-Shabaab attacks killed nearly 80 people in Kampala). The 2011 election was seven months away.
In the year after elections, there is usually a fall-out in the security services, as officers and soldiers who showed “disloyalty” to Museveni are neutralised, and resources are poured into ensuring that Kizza Besigye doesn’t start some big trouble to protest the fact that he was robbed at the ballot box.
After a year, things settle down. Thus in August 1998 when al-Qaeda-linked bombings laid waste to the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the Ugandan attack was stopped cold in tracks. Rather ruthlessly too. Why? It was two-and-a-half years after the 1996 election.
What about the rapes? In its first years, especially when it was still the National Resistance Army (NRA), the UPDF punished rape severely – it was not uncommon for firing squads of the offending soldiers to take place near the scenes of the crime.
While, at the policy and rhetorical level, the UPDF leadership still takes a tough line against rape, in reality, the standards on the ground are lax.
One reason could be corruption that, even in otherwise well-run operations like the UPDF has in Somalia, has seen crooked officers stealing rations from troops and selling them and guns to warlords. The military leadership in that way loses moral authority over foot soldiers, who in turn resort to the medieval practices of treating the “enemy’s” womenfolk as part of the bounty of war.
This problem was at its worst in the disastrous DR Congo adventure, which degenerated into plunder and pillage. When the soldiers returned home, nearly half of the “returnees” were Congolese women with the soldiers’ children, chicken, and other domestic animals!
It is also why the kind of operation UPDF ran in DRC would not have been able to pin point the location of a Godane. By contrast, the UPDF contingent in Somalia is far more professionally managed than the DRC adventure was.
One senses that the model the Commander-in-Chief uses have changed. He tried to micro manage DRC and failed miserably.
To avoid the mistakes of DRC, three changes happened. One still has to be loyal to get a top leadership position in the UPDF or intelligence services. This time, however, two other elements were required. One, you need to be trusted by Museveni. Thirdly, you need to be at least averagely competent…and quite a few of the new crop of officers are smart and efficient.
There are no former army cooks running operations in Somalia, but there are still bad apples who create the moral hazard that, in turn, leads to aberrations like the UPDF rape of Somali women.
Though not the subject of this column today, something interesting has been happening. By adding trust, and competence to good old loyalty, Museveni might have created not just a better security machine, but also one that is more beholden to him giving him more control. He is like the man who was thrown down a hole, and found a winning lottery ticket at the bottom.

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