Charles Onyango Obbo

A bit of everything: History, Mandela, and Uganda’s children down south

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, September 10  2014 at  01:00
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This week, we have been at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, for the Highway Africa conference.
Highway Africa is the largest gathering of journalists on the continent, now in its 18th year. It was my third trip to the event.
Several Ugandan journalists have studied at Rhodes. It is the place that has been home for nearly 12 years to one of my favourite people, Simwogerere (Sim) Kyazze, who was at one point Sunday Monitor editor.
Sim came to Rhodes as a PhD student, and now teaches graduate students. He is thriving. He married a beautiful (Ugandan) doctor, and they have two wonderful little ones. And it was good to see that some old aspects of him haven’t changed – his disheveled Bohemian look, and a chaotic office desk.
Inevitably, as we always do, beside politics, we talked history (Ugandan, South Africa) and the joys of living and raising a family in a quiet university town like Grahamstown. I can think of two towns in Uganda that might look like Grahamstown if they had a world class university, and were a bit more elegant -- Soroti and Fort Portal.
It’s in that, and the broader matter of history, that I found the story.
I stayed in Cock House, an old style guesthouse full of history. A booklet in the room has a folder with its history, dating from May 1826. It is a very interesting tale of its various owners and their families, to date, and the famous and mighty that passed through over nearly two centuries are listed.
Nelson Mandela stayed there thrice. His successor Thabo Mbeki once. The Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney spent nights there in 2002.
The Cock House has that feel of the Makerere University Guest House (the place with the best fruit platter in Kampala, I believe). And if Makerere were to write the story of the intellectuals of the world who came to the university – especially in its past glory years – and stayed there, it would be a sub-history of its own. Or the history of its dormitories; In which room did former Tanzania president Ben Mkapa or Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki live when they were in Makerere?
Imagine we did. It would be easy to know who designed the first State House in Entebbe. Which was the first road to be tarmacked in Uganda, and in what state it is in today.
Why does the “small”, second-tier history matter? Because it is democratic. It enables more people to participate in writing it. Because we have confined ourselves too much to the political history, when times are dangerous, few dare write. But also because of that, it gets left to the few “experts”. And if those historians are lazy or unmotivated – because they cannot earn enough from selling history books to make a living – nothing gets written. (Bless Lwanga Lunyigo, he keeps doing his bit).
Thirdly, there is a lot of offline knowledge to be gained from the small history as I found out early this year when our old man passed on. The family decided to put together a quick book on his life and times.
Everyone contributed his or her bit. They asked me as editor to put the bits together and find the information to fill the gaps. One of my best sources was my uncle who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the family history.
He regaled me with details about grandfather and grandmothers, our great grandfathers and grandmothers, and even our great great great grand parents.
It felt really strange and yet so awesome writing it all down. But at one point, he realised I was quite confused. Imagine, for example’s sake, you are writing a story and you have 10 women in it called only ‘Abbo’. How do you tell them apart?
My uncle came to the rescue, but not in a way I was expecting.
“You know, those were the days before Christianity came,” he said, “so they were ‘pagans’”. So those days a village could be full of women called ‘Abbo’, for example. So you differentiated by identifying them with parents of husbands, the village they came from, some physical marker (a gap in the teeth or a big head) or how they walked.
There was no Immaculate Mary Abbo. I pride myself in having read a lot of Ugandan history. However, I didn’t know, nor had I given much thought to such a simple and powerful fact. Yet, in a few minutes, my uncle was able not just to give me a remarkable account not just of the family, but also one of the most revealing insights about African history.
As I left, I doubted that we would see Sim relocating back to Uganda any day soon. He’s simply soaked in too much Grahamstown history to leave it easily.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Al Shabaab, Boko Haram’s madness could ‘save’ Africa in the end

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, September 3  2014 at  01:00
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As the Somali militant and extremist group, al-Shabaab, continue to bomb innocent people, and Nigeria’s even more ruthless Boko Haram released video showing them carrying out mass executions and beating their prisoners to death with shovels, it seems like insanity to see any goodness in their actions.
Boko Haram and al-Shabaab are different from previous rebel and anti-establishment insurgents not so much in their brutality, but in their politics. They have moved beyond the demons of Africa’s ethnic and clan politics, and are transnational - both seek in different ways to form caliphates that don’t recognise current borders.
The current civil war in the Central African Republic (CAR), is also different in that sense. It is close to displacing one million people, and thousands of people have been killed, but in pitting the Christian anti-balaka militia and the Muslim Seleka militants, it is a ‘new’ type of conflict that has risen somewhat beyond tribe.
In that sense, the only major conflict on the continent being fought along old ‘backward’ lines, is in South Sudan where the now largely Dinka-dominated regime in Juba led by President Salva Kiir, is in a deadly blood feud with his former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer overlord.
Groups like Boko Haram are still sectarian in that they consider Christians and people from other religions infidels who should be eliminated, and their violence is terrifying, but one hopes they can force a significant change in African politics.
In Africa, religion is still a negotiable identity. Christians can become Muslims, although fewer Muslims become Christians. However, both Christians and Muslims can become ‘bad’ members of their faith, and not practice or violate its tenets. Or they can become atheist, or animist and pray to ancestral graves and hills. Tribe, and clan though, aren’t flexible – you can’t just wiggle out of them.
However, these groups also dramatically challenge the way power and states have been organised, and the spoils of office divided by African politicians and generals in order to keep their supporters loyal and well fed.
So when one party cheats another at elections, is caught, and violence breaks out, peace is sometimes made through sharing power, which means dividing the groceries among rival tribes and regions. Such a formula would not work with al-Shabaab or Boko Haram.
African military, one-party dictatorships, and multiparty despotisms have all developed varying theories of “African democracy” to justify their monopoly of power. Whether a fraud or not, they all invoked democracy. The Shabaabs and Boko Harams reject in absolute terms the concept of democracy in whatever African colours it might be dressed, and adopt a monolithic standard divined by a supreme and only God (Allah).
And like its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), al-Shabaab’s notion of a caliphate, is really a repackaging of a “Greater Somalia” idea that brings back Somali areas of Ethiopia and Kenya. A single state approach to organisations like al-Shabaab, therefore, can only be short-term. Ethiopia, for example, cannot hope to smash al-Shabaab, if it can organise freely in Kenya or Eritrea.
The national military and political elites can still invoke national sovereignty, but they must also embrace transnational solutions as an important ingredient for their survival.
Internally, the advance of extreme Islamic groups can only be beaten back in three ways. Where Christians are feeling imperiled, they can form a broad Christian coalition and fight back - and that will mean they will have to bring together Christians from all tribes and regions.
Secondly, they can form a moderate and ecumenical alliance between Christians, Muslims, Hindus (in East Africa), Jews (in South Africa and parts of North Africa) and confront the Islamic extremists.
That might force a negotiated peace, or possibly end in a fight to the death, but it will have been a different kind of war.
Thirdly, and ideally, they can form a secular democratic alliance, which would subjugate both religion and region, and defeat the extremists because their side is more inclusive and offers a superior model.
It will be bloody and costly, but the changes in Africa that al-Shabaab and Boko Haram would have forced upon the continent’s politics means that while there will continue to be massacres, there will probably no longer be a 1994 Rwanda-style genocide. The regional and tribal alliances that allow strongmen to steal elections will also be difficult.
To hold power in post-extremist Africa, social bribery will have to be more widespread and expensive, ensuring a fairer distribution of national resources.
Those Africans who will survive al-Shabaab and Boko Haram might well secretly thank them for their mayhem. They are likely to live in a far freerer and fairer Africa – with remarkably more graveyards.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com) where a version of this article first appeared. Twitter:@cobbo3


Charles Onyango Obbo

Want first class hospitals in Uganda? Do absolutely nothing with the hospitals!

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, August 27  2014 at  01:00

In Summary

A Ugandan with Shs60 million will figure that he can buy three matatus, and with that his wife will educate his children and keep the family fed. He checks out of the Nairobi hospital, goes back to die in Kampala, but leave his family with something

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My good friend, writer and journalism scholar Joachim Buwembo, as usual, wrote a tongue-in-cheek and scathing column in the latest issue of The East African newspaper titled “How Nairobi and Kenyatta became Ugandan hospitals”.
His point was that Ugandans with means and politicians go to Nairobi hospitals in such large numbers for treatment that they are now unofficially Uganda’s referral hospitals. And because our own hospitals are so run down, perhaps the Uganda government should actually allocate money to hospitals like Nairobi and Kenyatta, for the benefit of our citizens who go there in large numbers.

I have spent quite a bit of time trying to understand why hospitals in Nairobi – especially private ones – are years ahead of Uganda. Also why Kenyatta Hospital, which is the government-owned equivalent of Mulago, is much better.
Make no mistake, when you go outside Nairobi things get worse, but upcountry hospitals in Kenya are still not as bad as those in Uganda.
Even some Kenyans still don’t fully comprehend why the private hospitals in Nairobi are, relatively, as good as they are. The real reasons are strange.
To get a hospital like Nairobi or Aga Khan – even the state-owned Kenyatta, Uganda doesn’t have to do anything related to health.
It has to fix, first, medical insurance legislation. Most patients at Nairobi’s private hospitals pay for their treatment with medical insurance.

To understand why this is important, one needs to talk to doctors in Nairobi who treat Ugandan patients. Ugandan patients, they say, many times don’t finish their treatment or opt out of life-saving procedures because they are paying for it directly from their pocket. As one doctor told me, the effect of that is that they “calculate the cost of their treatment, against the benefit that their death would bring for their families”.
Meaning, as one of them put it, a Ugandan with Shs60 million will figure that he can buy three matatus, and with that his wife will educate his children and keep the family fed. He checks out of the Nairobi hospital, goes back to die in Kampala, but leave his family with something. Heroic and admirable, but it’s something he could have avoided.

An iron clad medical insurance means you will always have some money on the card, and that you can’t choose to divert and spend the money buying matatus for your family. The result is that hospitals and doctors don’t depend on whether you have money or are broke before you visit, they have a steady stream of ring-fenced insurance money – and patients - coming in.
But even more important, is the “Doctors Plaza”. Basically, you build private clinics attached to the hospital, and “rent” them to doctors in a complex system. Most doctors in the top hospitals – including Kenyatta, by the way – are technically only partly employed by the hospitals they work at. And some hospitals don’t actually own many of the services, including laboratories, x-ray and MRI units (they are independent, but integrated, businesses).
Because they have all these private clinics and infrastructure, people will come to them…but to see the doctors in the attached private clinics. The doctors take their cut in consultation fees, then send the patients to get medicine, be treated, get surgeries, and so forth in the hospital, and the hospitals get their cut.

Having admitted you, your doctor will come to see you, and charge you. And you will pay the hospital for its services, the pharmacy for its medicine etc.
The doctors need the hospital, and the hospital needs the Doctors Plaza.
The important thing here is an enlightened attitude toward helping each make money, its interface with the insurance industry and yes, something very critical, doctors have nothing to do with pharmacies—unlike in Uganda. Many doctors probably make more money selling you medicine you don’t need from their pharmacies, than from consultations. But that, really, is a matter of law, not medicine.
Finally, to get on a hospital roll or clinic in the lucrative Doctor’s Plaza, you are voted in by the rest of the doctors who have been there long. So, first, you have to be good. Secondly, you have to have some integrity. That would seem strange, because then they would be bringing in competition.

Actually, no. How many clients doctors get, and how much they can charge you, depends on the quality and collective reputation of the plaza and hospital. The admission of a new doctor, instead of creating competition, actually brings in more money for everyone.
That also works as a constant peer review system, because if you mess up, you lower their margins, and you will be out.
The problems Uganda needs to fix to get quality hospitals, therefore, have nothing to do with medicine or hospitals.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the is editor of the Nairobi-headquartered Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3


Charles Onyango Obbo

From Lagos, I bring greetings and a letter from Fashola to Mayor Lukwago

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, August 20  2014 at  01:00

In Summary

What the case of Fashola and before him, Tinubu, prove is that central governments trying to finish off mayors and governors is not new. The difference is that unlike Fashola, Lukwago just couldn’t figure out a way to dodge the bullet. “This is not an example from America. It is from just here here in Africa”, as a true Ugandan would say

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I just spent a week in the Nigerian commercial capital, Lagos. Now the population of Lagos is estimated to be anything between 18 million to 20 million…no one is sure, they have not counted properly.
If the Uganda population is 38 million today, that means more than half of the citizens of the Pearl of Africa live in Lagos.
Now as we all know, recently, after nearly 20 years, Nigeria re-surveyed its economy (they take forever to count things those Nigerians), and it turned out to be Africa’s largest economy, overtaking South Africa. It has a gross domestic product (GDP) of $510b.

Lagos, it is estimated, contributes at least 25 per cent of that, so its GDP is around $125b. We bring up this matter, first to say that the economy of Lagos State is nearly six times bigger than Uganda’s, which was about $22b when I last checked.
Again, this is not to belittle Uganda’s thing, but to make another point all together – that running Lagos is very complex. Also to add that in running a city that is 52 per cent of Uganda’s population, and an economy that is 600 per cent bigger than Uganda’s, Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola has a more difficult job, at least from an economic perspective, than President Yoweri Museveni has with Uganda.

There is at least one thing he has done better than Museveni…he got rid of boda bodas from especially the upmarket areas and central business district, while our President schmoozes and canoodles with boda bodas.
If nothing else, it makes driving in Lagos a more pleasurable experience than Kampala.
However, it is treasonous to speak of the governor of an African state as having a more demanding job than an African Big Man, so we will leave that matter and compare Fashola with his political equal, the embattled Lord Mayor of Kampala, my friend Erias Lukwago.
Right now, of course the power and money in Kampala is with another (family) friend, Jennifer Musisi, the executive director of Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA).

It is not easy choosing between friends, and the last time I wrote about this Musisi-Lukwago issue, I lost a few invitations to dinner in Kampala because it was felt I had cast my lot with Musisi and thrown Lukwago, the elected representative of the people of Kampala, under the bus.
However, we have to return to this vexing issue because while in the delivery of results here and there, one can say that Fashola is more like Musisi, and in the problems he has had to overcome, Fashola is like Lukwago.
Like Lukwago, Fashola is from the Opposition All Progress Congress (APC), like his predecessor Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The APC does not just carry the name “progress”. Quite a few of its leaders are actually quite progressive, with Fashola among the best of the lot.

Fashola came to office in very difficult times. Then president Olusegun Obasanjo, a roguish chap but likeable nonetheless, had cut off federal funds to the Lagos State in a political dispute.
Even after the courts ruled that Obasanjo was wrong to do so, he ignored them and sat on Lagos’ cheques. In Kampala, similar difficulties proved to be a disaster for Lukwago’s regime.
In Lagos, it turned into a blessing. Fashola just couldn’t fold his agbada and go back home. Essentially, he made a pact with the Lagos business community and people; “give me the money I need to run Lagos, and pay your taxes as Lagosians and I will use it to solve your problems and not steal it”. In addition, “as long as I keep delivering, you will keep the money flowing”, or something to that effect.

Both Fashola and the people of Lagos kept their bargain. He cleaned up the city, brought boda bodas to order, improved schools and health, he has built many apartments for the city they are just falling out of his ears, he is building a cable car, he is constructing the Lagos Rail Mass Transit system (only the second modern rail-based public transport after South Africa’s in sub-Saharan Africa), and such things.
And, again, he is not the president of Nigeria (i.e. the Museveni), he is the Governor (the Lukwago). When Umaru Yar’Adua succeeded Obasanjo, he ended the feud with Lagos.

But even with that, the greater source of Fashola’s success has been to be governor of everyone in Lagos, and to galvanise the consensus of all the political parties around his leadership.
What the case of Fashola and before him, Tinubu, prove is that central governments trying to finish off mayors and governors is not new. The difference is that unlike Fashola, Lukwago just couldn’t figure out a way to dodge the bullet. “This is not an example from America. It is from just here here in Africa”, as a true Ugandan would say.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

The world is in a mess, but it will not all end badly…someone always wins

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, August 13  2014 at  01:00
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Our world is truly in turmoil.
In the Middle East, the Israelis and Palestinians are at each other’s throats…again. In Israel’s disproportionate bombing of Gaza, we saw a troubling excessiveness often displayed by societies who themselves were forged through pain, as modern Israel was from the World War II holocaust against the Jews.
Syria is a mess, as is Libya, and Iraq. Unspeakable suffering there, then along comes the ultra-extremist Islamist group Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS). They are exterminating all non-Muslim peoples (and “bad” Muslims) in their way, and want to create a hardline Sharia law governed empire covering the Middle East, northern Africa and the Sahel, the Horn, and parts of Asia.
It might be scary, but not new. Other empires, though perhaps not always forged with such brutal means like ISIS’s, have been around before; the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British empire, name it.
Those days, empire-building was different. You killed, conquered, but also bribed and married into your enemies’ families, and cultivated local traitors. Not ISIS.
The Central African Republic (CAR) continues to dance with death, as is South Sudan. Nigeria is gripped by Boko Haram violence. Now, in the biggest such regional wave, Ebola is rampaging in West Africa.
Latin America is not any better. The drug lords and human traffickers are on the ascendance, again, it seems. Death stalks people every hour, and they are fleeing in droves trying to make it to America.
We have this truly strange spectacle where October 2013 to July this year, 63,000 unaccompanied children from down south entered the US illegally. Nearly 50,000 were being held at the US-Mexico border at one point!
In the US itself, gun violence remains rampant. Once thriving cities like Detroit have succumbed to decay. Even China, where the Communist Party otherwise rules with an iron-fist, there is now terrorism. And in Eastern Ukraine, Russia seems intent on gobbling every country or region (Crimea) or destabilising them (Ukraine, Georgia) in its neighbourhood.
This is not to lament, but to argue that head-turning times might be ahead.
First of all, you would think that with all these dramatic events everywhere, everyone in the world would be paying attention. Actually, no. Most citizens in the world are preoccupied with mundane things.
There are days when you turn on the TV or pick up newspapers and the big stories about presidents taking selfies or the state of Jay Z and Beyonce’s marriage.
Not all is lost. It might just be possible that these selfie-obsessed types are the ones keeping our world safe with their distractions. Can you imagine if all of them were trying to craft a caliphate like ISIS, instead of sharing photos on Instagram? We would be in a bigger mess.
But the groups that really interest me are the ones working on things that make possible an alternative “universe”…chaps like Virgin’s Richard Branson, who are pouring money into space travel. I notice that space exploration has increased, and finally human beings are taking very serious interest in what lies deep down in the oceans and seas. And those explorations to the North Pole and Antarctica are not easing up.
I see a future in which some of that post-nuclear world we see in movies, of human zombies roaming a poisoned Earth, of an elite ensconced in paradisal space communities, becoming reality.
As the experience of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan teach us, it is simply no longer possible for a single or multiple powers to dominate the world and bring it to order like the Romans and Turks did.
In the decades and centuries to come, we will probably see more and more crises and social and national breakdowns. The only way for the rich and those with “special” skills or are well born is to separate themselves from the rowdy and lawless mobs, as no army can really keep the “people” at bay.
This lot will keep themselves safe by creating a physical distance that the mob simply has no technology to overcome - living in space stations; setting up communities in cold frigid Antarctica where the rest would perish before they reach.
Or probably deep in a desert where it is easy to defend, and I fully expect that there will be a mushrooming of submarine societies. The proletariat would drown before they reached them.
We are seeing the end of the classical nation state, yes, but new powerful supranational ones will probably not replace it. Darwin was right; the strong will survive.
But even he couldn’t foresee that the good life, in the end, would belong to the rich, nimble, genius, cynical, and dreamers who secede from the strong and create other worlds. A sequel to the District 9 sequel, Elysium, with a more convincing ending. Anyone?

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