Charles Onyango Obbo

What Kawa Kawomera coffee of Amin’s days tells you about Uganda today

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 16  2014 at  01:00

A few days when I was contending with the early onslaught of a cough, a good man introduced me to a medicine that he said was “homemade” (i.e. made in Uganda).

He said it was “highly effective”. The bottle is not elegant, and the taste had a rough edge, but he was right. The damn thing worked miracles.
The medicine filled me with nostalgia about “homemade” Ugandan things that are no longer famous, or are little known, and the special story they tell about our country.

Older Ugandans will remember a coffee called “Kawa Kawomera”. I think it is no longer in production, or if it is, you won’t find it in a self-respecting shop or supermarket. These are stylish times, so the old Kawa Kawomera package could frighten a rich Ugandan child who is more used to fancy sights.
Kawa Kawomera, was the most available and affordable coffee during the rule of Field Marshal Idi Amin. It was the age of scarcity and some of the most difficult times in Uganda’s history.

But it took a lot of learning to make the best of it. If you just put some in a mug and poured hot water into it, the tiny coffee balls would float to the surface and you would have to do a lot of spitting as you drank it.
If you used a coffee blender, you would get a result that was five times better--but it would still be ordinary. Having to conquer Kawa Kawomera turned some of us into coffee aficionados at a very early age.
First, we discovered that you needed to brew in an airtight container, for example, a Thermos flask.

Those days there was not much to do. There was only one TV channel, no European football on TV, no silly soaps, nothing. We had time.
Thus one day during vacation, we brewed Kawomera in a metal kettle, then covered it with a tea cosy-- and forgot. Nearly eight hours later, we remembered. We decided that we would just chuck the coffee because, surely, it would be useless.

Before doing so, we decided to taste to confirm just how messed up it was. What we discovered blew the slippers off our feet. The Kawomera had brewed to a point where it had turned into an instant coffee. There was hardly any fine dregs at the bottom of the kettle.

However, the taste and aroma that was nothing like we had encountered. And to truly savour it, you needed to drink it without sugar – which was scarce.
Back at Makerere University, we would all share the little breakthroughs we had made in making life bearable in the scarcities of the Amin age.
We developed some perfect rituals around the six to eight hours needed for Kawomera to brew. It was dangerous to be out after 7pm those days, so most things – including night clubbing – took place during the day.
We would brew the Kawomera, then walk to downtown Kampala in a large group to watch a 12 O’clock Bruce Lee film. After that, we would walk to Nakivubo Stadium to watch a football match or motorcycle race, then hoof it back to the Hill. It would be coffee time, and the aroma of a transformed Kawomera would waft through the halls.

We learnt many things. One we survived during Amin’s days by mastering the art of patience – eight hours to brew a coffee. Secondly, that we couldn’t give up. We would never have learnt how to turn a crudely thrown up coffee into something magical, if we had.
Finally, that you should not read the Bible superficially. The good book says you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. You can’t, unless you let your imagination fly.

Now Helen Epstein, that wonderful writer on health issues, has authored a stinker on Uganda in the New York Book Review, “Murder in Uganda” ( The article is causing quite a buzz in cyberspace.
The article suggests, among other things, that MP Cerinah Nebanda’s death in December 2012 was an assassination. It then examines why, and says the corruption and shambolic state of the health sector, over which the MP agitated a lot about, was one reason she was killed.

Epstein notes that; “In 2012, women were seven times more likely to die in childbirth at Mulago Hospital than when Idi Amin was president 40 years earlier”, and also adds that “Uganda loses one child to malaria every seven minutes, the highest death rate from that disease in the world.”
I would add that one of the reasons fewer Ugandans died in hospitals, and other diseases, compared to today, was that the parents – and doctors – of that period were forced to do what we did with Kawomera. They were infinitely more creative. & twitter:cobbo3

Charles Onyango Obbo

Beyond small-time politics: Where Uganda’s money will be in 2025

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 9  2014 at  20:50

There is too much noise in Africa, and Uganda currently is as good an example as you can get. There are fights in the ruling NRM for pork; the government is distracted with passing Amin-era laws covering everything from the hem lengths of women’s dresses to where groups of like-minded Ugandans can have lunch.

However, if one steps back a bit, you see events in Uganda differently. First, a few years ago, Uganda liked to picture itself as a shaker and mover in Africa. Seeing the country in that context was important for our local politics, because it is the only way President Yoweri Museveni and his men and women could present themselves as something bigger than tribal chiefs.

Indeed, among other things, the UPDF’s role in the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia Amisom; the recent intervention in South Sudan; and our role in the Central African Republic (CAR) was to make the point that the government is relevant in a global context. So while it might be corrupt at home and public services are falling apart around it, it was serving a higher African purpose. And there is, indeed, some value to that.

But that same Africa might soon delegitimise the NRM government at home. Someone crunched the numbers recently and noted that Africa is indeed growing richer, but just 19 countries together hold $2.052 trillion - or 76 per cent – of the continent’s total wealth. The remaining 35 control only $648 billion.

Even, of the 19 countries, 14 of them accounted for 90 per cent of Africa’s GDP! Those 14 countries are South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Algeria, Mozambique, Angola, Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Cote d’Ivore and Tanzania. Towards the close of the 1990s, Uganda had not just the fastest growth in Africa, but the world. If it had stayed on that trajectory, it would have cracked that list of the top 14 because one time, it had a leg up on Tanzania. Then we fell off the wagon.

If a country like Uganda whose leadership drew some of its legitimacy from beyond its borders become irrelevant in shaping the continental economy and its citizens see other Africans who were “behind” 15 years go galloping ahead, the regime could face a loss of credibility as big as anything it is dealing with now. It cannot be enough for us to be Africa’s (and for a while in Afghanistan and Iraq America’s) security guards.

Still, if you flip that, it might not matter where Uganda as a country stands in Africa’s economic pecking order. I was struck by reality recently when I was in South Africa and sat in on a presentation by McKinsey on Africa’s future prospects.

They introduced a very delightful subversion idea, i.e. that if one looks 10 years ahead it might not matter where countries as such stand. African cities, McKinsey suggested, might be more important than countries.

By 2025 nearly 40 per cent of Africa’s GDP will be driven by cities. Up there will be Luanda, turning in $118 billion, followed by Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Lagos (though Lagos will probably rise), Durban, Accra, Huambo (a provincial city in Angola), Port Harcourt and Ibadan in Nigeria, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and other cities in South Africa. Kampala is in the mix, but it will be notching less than $10 billion.

However, if you dig deeper into the data, to look for households that will be earning more than $7,500 (Shs19.2 m?) the picture looks different. Lagos is top, with 1.5m households earning $7,500, followed by Johannesburg (1.3m), Luanda and (890,000), Dar es Salaam, Accra, Nairobi, Cape Town, Kumasi, Durban, and Ibadan and Kampala level at 400,000 households making that by 2025. So here Kampala gets to 11th position—not bad!

That tells us, echoing the words of Bank of Uganda Governor Tumusime Mutebile sometime back, that Kampala is actually becoming the Ugandan economy. Little is happening elsewhere. Which is not a disaster, except that Kampala or Uganda, is hardly anywhere in the countries where innovations and investments in digital technology is driving growth (what McKinsey calls iGDP).

Of the many companies creating new age jobs and wealth in Africa, not a single one is from Kampala (or at least not yet). My sense is part of the reason is the dismal level of investment in IT infrastructure by both the State and private sector.

Clearly, then, a lot of the politics we are seeing today is largely irrelevant to the ways the future economy of Uganda is headed, where Kampala will be like a city state if it followed the path of others on the continent. The only worry is that with the current government and its neglect of investment in “I” infrastructure, Kampala will not be a city state. It will be a village state. Imagine for a second, what the rest of Uganda will be like, then. & twitter:cobbo3

Charles Onyango Obbo

The 2016 Uganda election has lost the will to live…let it die

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 2  2014 at  01:00

And so, not surprisingly, some ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party MPs want to postpone the 2016 election.

I must confess that I was a little impressed with their forward planning, a whole two years ahead. We must remember that the constitutional amendment that returned Uganda to multi-partyism, and scrapped presidential term limits as the price for that, happened in 2005 – less than a year to the February 2006 election.

The MPs say this is to allow for electoral and related reforms that the Opposition and others have demanded. The Opposition has called the suggestion madness. Commentators have suggested the NRM is in crisis, as President Yoweri Museveni and his supporters plot the best way to throw Prime Minister and party Secretary-General Amama Mbabazi off the succession train, without causing turmoil in the ranks.

However, there are factors that are at play that we might miss if we focus too narrowly on the personal ambitions of Mr Museveni and his concerns about rivals in the succession.

There are some things that will usually happen when a leader has been in power for over 28 years in Africa or elsewhere, and not held a reasonably fair general election or opened up his party to internal renewal.
This is because the thing with elections is that if they are held and repeatedly stolen (as happens in Uganda), there comes a point when the dynamics for holding another rigged poll are no longer present.

Elections, even fraudulent ones, make sense if they confer some kind of legitimacy. Take Singapore’s ‘founding father’ Lee Kuan Yew, the strongman who modernised the country and made it rich. He ruled for nearly 30 years, and led his People’s Action Party (PAP) to seven electoral victories that rival parties just had no chance of winning – much like the case with Museveni and NRM in Uganda.
Though autocratic, Lee was actually liberal on many issues – e.g. gay rights. However, though his PAP monopolised power and made it impossible for rivals to challenge them in any meaningful way, he drew legitimacy from the end result – he was building a rich modern nation from scratch. Flawed elections seemed like the “right price” to play for prosperity.

In Uganda’s case, flawed elections have only led to more corrupt government, a virtual collapse in public services, and national drift. Unlike countries like Singapore and Malaysia, there is no longer any dividend from the NRM’s and Museveni’s monopoly of power.
It must be acknowledged that in 2011, the election was relatively fair (by Ugandan standards). Ballot boxes were stuffed less, and voters were spared violence. The election was bought, and in these times there is only so much you can quarrel with a candidate who has enough money to buy victory.

But there was no dividend either from that election, because it was squandered quickly in the extreme violence which with the Opposition Walk-to-Work protests that followed were dealt with, and the raft of repressive laws against the media, civil society, and a roll back of civil liberties that came next.

The reason why a relatively free election didn’t give the government a new dose of legitimacy is because the ruling party was decomposed. And it was decomposed because it had not and still hasn’t renewed its leadership.
The fellows who figured that out are the Chinese and, in our region, the Tanzanians.

The Chinese Communist Party has ruled China like forever. There are no competitive elections in China, and certainly no general elections. After 1976, following 33 years of Mao Zedong, China understood that the Communist Party could no longer govern based only on the pedigree of the revolution that brought it to power.

It had, like the PAP of Lee did in Singapore, to modernise China and make it richer. Secondly, that the party could no longer do a Mao. Though it wouldn’t hold free general elections, it would renew its leadership by adopting term limits and pick up more legitimacy from offering periodic change. It is not a freewheeling multiparty democracy, but China has the rituals and processes that bring leadership change.

Where a leadership is in power but is not overseeing Malaysian or Chinese transformation; when it is not holding free elections; when it holds free elections but doesn’t transform; or is neither modernising an economy or a country’s politics, soon the case of holding another rigged ballot falls away.

Looking at these objective factors, the reason why an election shouldn’t be held is that the election itself doesn’t want to be held. Electoral politics in Uganda has lost the will to live. If it is not killed off, it might just commit suicide.
My own views are different. Even with all that, it should still be held. A stolen or useless election is still better than none. & twitter:cobbo3

Charles Onyango Obbo

For us Africans, there was deeper meaning in Arsenal’s 0-6 loss to Chelsea

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, March 26  2014 at  02:00

These are politically charged days in Uganda.
We have the continuing attempt to throw ruling NRM party secretary-general Amama Mbabazi under the bus; the tear-gassing of Opposition leaders in Mbale; that small matter of the anti-gays law and the token aid cuts by donors that followed…the list is long.

Then, on the weekend, in the English Premier League (EPL) Arsenal was walloped 0-6 by Chelsea. I was in Johannesburg on the day of the game, and you didn’t have to ask who was an Arsenal fan. Back in Nairobi, when you get those kinds of results in the EPL, someone usually dies. Killed either by rivals fans or suicide. This time, fortunately, there was no death. The taunting of Arsenal fans, however, lit up the Internet.

I believe that if you want to understand African politics in general today, follow its football passions, not its politics.

Here is why: A few days ago, the communications agency Portland released its second “How Africa Tweets” report.
The report said that the most Twitter-active African cities are, in descending order, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni (a town 34 kilometres from Johannesburg), Cairo, Durban, Alexandria, and then Nairobi.

The report said that “football is the most-discussed topic on Twitter in Africa. During Q4 2013, football was discussed more than any other topic, including the death of Nelson Mandela”.

The subject of why football, whether local or foreign, is such a profound part of societies, provides unending discussion. In our part of the world, I think football, not nationalism, is what keeps our countries together.
Last year in Kenya, Gor Mahia FC won the Kenya Premier League – for the first time in 18 years. To the casual observer, that news would have come as a surprise, because every day for years, Gor Mahia acted like it was a champion, not a loser.

Gor Mahia is a religion in the Lake Victoria belt of Kenya, which is also the political stronghold of Kenya’s equivalent of Kizza Besigye, Raila Odinga (except Raila was prime minister for five years following a violent post-election period in 2008 in which he alleged he had been cheated out of victory, and a grand coalition government was formed to save the country).

The Lake region is full out of highly educated outspoken folks, who think time is overdue for a son – or daughter – from the area to provide a Kenyan president. It is burdened with a high sense of victimhood.

It would seem that football helps them construct a world in which being Kenyan makes sense. It was thus cathartic for them, and possibly even poetic, that in the year Raila lost an election, Gor Mahia finally won the championship again.

There was a time when Arsenal, at the height of Thierry Henry’s blossom, was so dominant, they almost made the EPL boring. Early this season, it seemed they might take the silver.

Their humiliation seems less, if one considers that they inflicted the same pain on others in the past. And that is why the game appeals to Africans in very different ways than to, say, a European.

It is a great meritocracy. Both victory and defeat are earned. A team battles for years, suffering defeat, until it gets to top and claims glory, as Manchester City has done. Another rules the roost for years, as Manchester United did, then endures torrid seasons of failure. Like Arsenal, ManU has earned the right to be beaten.

Our politics, though, is different. The incumbent and ruling party are destined to “win” the election however incompetent and corrupt they have been in power, because they have the ability to fiddle the results. Can you imagine a Manchester United match in the time of the legendary Alex Ferguson, in which his son was a referee? Impossible. Yet that is what happens with elections in Africa.

Football makes so much effort to be fair, even though there are cases where match officials have been bribed, that there is no way a CECAFA match between Kenya and Uganda, would be refereed by either a Ugandan or Kenyan official.

And even when a referee makes a bad call, it happens before thousands of fans. He will be denounced in the media, and these days on Twitter and Facebook. And, indeed, sometimes the fans get opportunity to exact on the spot revenge by pelting the referee with beer cans, stones, or oranges.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Why Uganda and its mobile phone companies could soon ‘disappear’

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, March 19  2014 at  02:00

These have been stomach-filling days for the region’s news junkies.
Before they could get enough of the madness in South Sudan and Central African Republic, Eastern Europe, where a resurgent Russia is slowly swallowing Crimea, hitherto a region of Ukraine, was thrown on their plate.

Then that mysteriously disappeared Malaysian passenger aircraft muscled its way into the headlines. The world today is a turbulent place, and changing dramatically. But what will remake the world as we know it are, not guns, but, well, technology in the broad sense.

A few weeks ago, some people whom I couldn’t say no to asked me to meet an American gentleman in my office…on a Sunday evening. The good man I met was Howard French, formerly an editor with Newsweek, and now an associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, in New York.

After the meeting, Mr French sent me an email with several things, including an article entitled “How Africa’s New Urban Centers Are Shifting Its Old Colonial Boundaries”. You must read it if you haven’t at (

It is a long and fascinating story, in which French makes the point that the way Africa’s cities, led by Lagos, are changing, soon they will totally remake the continent’s borders. From Lagos, Takoradi in Ghana, Lomé in Togo and Cotonou in Benin, a long urban corridor linking exploding cities is growing. Thus to use an East African example, his argument could be that from Mombasa, through to Nairobi, onwards to Jinja, Kampala, Mbarara, Kigali and so on, by the end of this century urban growth will mean you can drive for two days across these countries and never leave a city street or notice that you have crossed from Kenya to Uganda.

Add to that all the communication technologies connecting the cities, borders will collapse.
And that brings us to what might, on the face of it, look like just a regular news item. In Uganda, a new telecom company, Smart Telecom, launched and it offered a low cutthroat call price of only Shs74. Smart Telecom, came to life after buying the Sure Telecom licence.
In Kenya, meanwhile, the giant mobile phone company Safaricom and rival Airtel got together and made a KSh8b (UgShs240b) bid for struggling Yu. They will probably gobble up its pieces and shut it down.

However, we know that Safaricom’s annual revenues are nearly twice as big as Burundi’s budget. What does this mean? My sense is that the Russian type swallowing up of small nations or parts of their territories will happen with the telcos.

In the years to come, I would not be surprised if Safaricom is the sole significant mobile phone company for the whole of East Africa, with perhaps Airtel a further second, providing very niche services.

That is because, first of all, the market for the many mobile phone companies in East Africa could disappear over the next 10 years. Last year alone, according to industry insiders, Kenyan telcos lost a staggering 40 per cent of their data market collectively!

Where did it go? Well, free apps like WhatsApp and Viber, which users can use for a tiny fraction of an SMS, and offers far greater value because they allow one to attach and send photos and videos far better than traditional text, ran away with the market.

Data had become the telcos most lucrative product, because they had slashed prices dramatically on voice. The other thing I do is spend quite a bit of time with wild-eyed techies who are obsessed with new crazy and disruptive technologies.

One of them took me through a new product that is still sailing below the radar, which allows you to set up a closed and independent network over your mobile phone among a close-knit circle of relatives or colleagues. So you can set up a network on which a brother in the US, a sister in the UK, a cousin in South Africa, and yourself in Kampala call each other on special numbers you create for the network - free!

Another explained to me ways in which one can set up a Wi-Fi network, and you and your friends enjoy a free service, undetected by authorities. These technologies will grow, and in the years to come will eat away all the profits of most of the telcos.

Only Safaricom, with the massive investments it is making in fibre, might survive in the region. Then it can pick up the pieces from the East African telco graveyard, and build a regional network. That could give it the kind of power no government has in our part of the world, and make nonsense of borders and cross-border regulation.
You want to make sense of it all? Then I recommend a book. Buy and read George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years” will thank me for it. & twitter:cobbo3