Charles Onyango Obbo

29 years of NRM: How Museveni and Kony are ‘similar’, and how they are different

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 28  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

Ongwen was well scrubbed and in a sharp suit. Museveni was beaming like a Siamese cat, licking his chops, and prepping to make a run for his seventh run at the presidency in the new year. That is life. Not everyone wins. Not every boy gets the girl. Not every cat catches a rat; some make do with lizards

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Dominic Ongwen, the top rebel commander of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) appeared in the dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to face war crimes charges on Monday, January 26.
Ongwen, who was in the bushes of the Central African Republic (CAR), surrendered to Seleka rebels. They then handed him to the US Special Forces who together with units of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) are hunting his boss there. The Seleka rebels are now claiming the $5 million bounty the US had put on his head.
What struck me was the coincidence of his appearing at The Hague dock on January 26. It was the 29th anniversary of the ruling NRM and President Yoweri Museveni’s ascension to power.
It was not the only one. There are a few uncanny similarities between Museveni and Kony (this is not to say they are alike). Rather the similarities show that LRA is not just murderous, but it is actually a quintessentially African and Ugandan organisation, and Kony is a typical African and Uganda leader in the same way Museveni is, although they come from the opposite sides of our political divide.
•To begin with, Kony and Museveni are the longest serving post-1986 leaders of their respective organisations. Counting from when he came to power, Museveni has been leader of NRM, president and commander-in-chief for 29 years.
Kony effectively became leader of the LRA in 1988, after cobbling it together from the remnants and other dregs of Alice Lakwena’s defeated Holy Spirit Movement.
Kony has, therefore, led LRA for 26 years, the only rebel leader of the Museveni era who comes close to The Chief. When it comes to military and political survival, therefore, Museveni and Kony are in a class of their own.
I think Museveni will outlast Kony, but strange things happen in our neck of the woods so I wouldn’t place a bet on it.
We must make honorary mention here of the good Ndugu Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda. He has been minister longest in the Museveni administration, right?
•Though perhaps not exactly out of his choice, Kony has the same mindset as Museveni on pan-African rebellion. Museveni talks and acts pan-East African and pan-African. He joined the liberation of Mozambique, based his Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) in Tanzania, and the NRM and its branches in Kenya, UK, and Sweden.
He sent his army to the DR Congo, to South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic (CAR), and God knows where else.
The LRA became the most transnational African rebel group, fighting – but mostly murdering, raping and pillaging – in northern Uganda, South Sudan, DR Congo, and CAR. At bottom, both Kony and Museveni are militant transnationalists.
But that is where the similarities end. Kony beats Museveni in that he has had a record-breaking documentary, KONY2012 by the US children’s charity Invisible Children, made about his grim handiwork. Within days, it had been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube, and became the most viral video at that point.
Museveni hasn’t got a worthy documentary made of him yet. We wait.
Then, Museveni led the NRA out of their Luweero base on a long march to Fort Portal and eventually the Rwenzori Mountains. With the benefit of hindsight and fortuitous circumstances, the story is that it was to reorganise, and they were not defeated as the other side of this story by Milton Obote’s UPC government functionaries of the time goes.
In any event, Museveni went and came back as a conqueror and eventually, in January 1986, a victor.
Kony left for Sudan (then), hang around South Sudan after it won its freedom from the north, then high-tailed it to DR Congo where, faced with pursuit by the UPDF, he diversified into CAR.
Museveni didn’t find his way back to Kampala from the mountains because he was a better map-reader than Kony. It was partly because NRA/NRM did try, with some success too, to do what the LRA didn’t – to make friends. That made a big difference. It meant that for Kony, once he left he could only keep going.
So this week, as he sat under a tree in the bushes of eastern DRC or CAR and listened on radio to news of Ongwen’s day at the ICC and Museveni toasting to 29 years, he must have felt like the cursed twin.
Ongwen was well scrubbed and in a sharp suit. Museveni was beaming like a Siamese cat, licking his chops, and prepping to make a run for his seventh run at the presidency in the new year.
That is life. Not everyone wins. Not every boy gets the girl. Not every cat catches a rat; some make do with lizards.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Why this is the worst possible time to be a Ugandan newspaper editor

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 21  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

The model of the mass general newspaper is dead. There is little to no news the newspapers will beat social media on. I check Museveni’s Twitter handle for most of the routine news on his actions. I don’t have a sure idea about what the future newspaper might look like, but I now have seen data on some surprising changed reader habits. It is a tough time to be a Ugandan newspaper editor

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In a few weeks, two friends at Monitor Publications Ltd, MD Alex Asiimwe and managing editor for reporting Don Wanyama, left employment at the media house.
I have read endless stories, especially in online journals, and received many emails and calls from worried fans of Daily Monitor asking “what is going on at our paper?”
As a funny bloke I know likes to say, there is the story of the beer, and the story of the brewery. To focus on the comings and goings at Monitor is to concentrate on the beer bottles. I am more intrigued by what is happening in the brewery.
Nearly all the things happening at Monitor and other media in Uganda, are a struggle to grapple with how news and information, and especially the consumers, have changed.
Indeed, a few days ago I called New Vision CEO Robert Kabushenga for information on some research I was doing. I chose to ring him on a Sunday when I wouldn’t have to steal his company time. The fellow, having dodged church, was in office working.
He hadn’t slept well the previous night, he said. “The newspaper as we know in Uganda, and indeed the rest of Africa, is broken”, he said, “I am here trying to figure out a new direction.”
He is right. When I edited The Monitor, we actually had a fairly easy time. First, we didn’t have to work too hard to figure out what the news agenda was. All we needed was to have the courage to tell the stories.
Things were clear. To pick a few: There was the war in the north, so the issue was who was killing and raping? Who was winning, and how would the war end – on the battlefield or through a negotiated settlement?
The NRM was a one-party state. How long would it remain so, and when would the country return to multiparty politics, if at all?
There was the question of the return of the kingdoms. Would they return or wouldn’t they? What would the kingdoms get, and what would President Yoweri Museveni keep for himself?
Oh, Kabaka Ronnie Mutebi was an eligible bachelor. Who would be his queen, and when would he put a ring on her finger? We fell over that story and made fools of ourselves more than once.
Then the Rwandans in then the National Resistance Army (NRA) broke off and went to fight to reclaim their statehood. It was a big story, and we feasted on it. That was the age of colourful figures; Salim Saleh was still in his element. There was Fred Rwigyema. The NRM and NRA had all sorts of interesting people.
Winnie Byanyima was still around, and Miria Matembe was setting off fireworks everyday. The late Basoga Nsadhu was a rabblerousing backbencher, spewing more sensational corruption stories than we had space for. A small story about them was all you needed to make budget.
There was a new constitution to make. The first general election of the Museveni era, and then into 2001 the big one – the first internal revolt in the NRM and most credible electoral threat to Museveni in the person of Kizza Besigye.
There were none, then only a few FM stations. The internet hadn’t exploded, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was still in nappies. There was no noise, there were few distractions. In terms of owning public attention, there was a virtual duopoly by Monitor and New Vision.
But most importantly, Ugandans were still hopeful. They hadn’t become as cynical as today, so a corruption story ensured good sales because people expected the thief would be punished. Today, they fully expect the thief to be promoted.
Joseph Kony long ran away to the forests of the DR Congo and Central African Republic.
The UPDF are now international peacekeepers, and goes to foreign countries wearing an African Union or UN beret, so no rogue generals stealing wild animals and peasants’ coffee off trees in foreign countries.
The novelty of a challenge to Museveni is gone. Mutebi was taken long ago. Saleh is semi-retired. Ugandans have had multiparty politics long enough, some have lost faith in its ability to deliver change.
And there are nearly 200 FM stations; there is the Internet, social media, Chimpreports and UgandansAtHeart serving up more lively debate than you can take in – and a country with the youngest population in the world.
The model of the mass general newspaper is dead. There is little to no news the newspapers will beat social media on. I check Museveni’s Twitter handle for most of the routine news on his actions.
I don’t have a sure idea about what the future newspaper might look like, but I now have seen data on some surprising changed reader habits. It is a tough time to be a Ugandan newspaper editor.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

A fire burns in Uganda, but we see only the smoke. What’s in the fire?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 14  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

Beating up young people who want work doesn’t create jobs. They go home, remain jobless, and get angrier. They are not Besigye who can be invited to the US to address seminars on democracy in Africa

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It was a very busy Monday for heavy-handed Uganda Police. They stopped a meeting by a pro-NRM youth who had gathered at Makerere Guest House to discuss, as Daily Monitor put it, “their ‘dissatisfaction’ with the ruling party over neglect of youths and unfulfilled presidential pledges”.
Then police were off to violently break up a march by unemployed of the National Association of the Unemployed (NAU).
For good measure, they beat up the journalists who were covering the story, one of them, Andrew Lwanga, a WBS TV cameraman, to near death.
Events like this are like watching a big fire from a distance. Most time all you see is the smoke, not the fire itself. But you would be mistaken to focus only on the smoke. The story, ultimately, is the fire that you are not seeing.
So where is the fire? First, protest politics – and politics in general in Uganda – has been changing dramatically but we saw only the smoke.
We shall quickly describe just three changes today.
First, is what has happened with the ruling NRM. First, immediately after it took power, there was one between those who fought holding the gun, those who didn’t and did political work away from the bush, and those whom President Yoweri Museveni wonderfully describes as “sympathisers”. It was a contest over who should decide the future of the NRM.
Then in 1993, over the restoration of the kingdoms. In reality, that is when the matter of “Buganda’s sacrifice” and how it should be rewarded was also settled. It took another 14 years before most people realised it. The issue of what NRM would be was largely sorted.
Then we had the third phase, when the matter of why NRM existed was tackled. That one started from Kizza Besigye rocking the boat with the first public and audacious exchange of Museveni, which then led to the reintroduction of multiparty politics – and scrapping of presidential term limits – the minor fall-out between The Chief and Eriya Kategaya, Bidandi Ssali, etc.
Next it entered into the phase of where NRM is going, and all the succession battles, the internal guerrilla war against former prime minister and NRM secretary-general Amama Mbabazi are all playing out in this phase.
Over the coming years, we shall see the when NRM ends phase, and finally, how.
But that is not about to happen tomorrow.
The thing about all these phases, is that NRM – or shall we more accurately say President Museveni – is that the most notable response to them was through an external and national solution.
What do we mean? In the early phases, the problems of who should decide the future of NRM was partly dealt with through a response to the rebellion in the north; the 1995 Constitution; elections; the military campaigns in South Sudan and the DR Congo; and even the free market reforms of the late 1980s to 1990s (my favourites).
In latter phases, we had the return to multiparty politics; the new battery of laws that restrict media, democratic, and civil society.
That is why the recent amendment to the NRM constitution, that took away from party members the right to freely elect their secretary, to appointing him/her from the president’s shortlist, is significant.
It was the first time the President responded to a phase issue through a formal internal rule change to remake how the NRM works.
And that brings us to the youth job protests. At first the police response looks disproportionate…after all these are NRM youth. However, deplorable as police brutality is, there are some problems that it can make go away. You can beat the “walk-to-work” proponents into submission. You can bribe an outspoken Opposition MP, and you can pass a law banning free assembly and they stop.
But soon, because external regime failure create an internal need to reopen old issues of who is in charge, and where the party and country are going, so you need to change the internal party constitution.
However, beating up young people who want work doesn’t create jobs. They go home, remain jobless, and get angrier. They are not Besigye who can be invited to the US to address seminars on democracy in Africa.
In short, the Museveni presidency has reached a point where it is dealing with problems it can’t beat down, pay off, or legislate away. Not that his government can’t stimulate the economy and create jobs, it can. But it would have to make the kind of reforms, dismantle the current kleptocracy and patronage state, and open up democratic space more, all of which would reduce regime life expectancy. They would bring the issue of when and how the regime ends forward.
That is the whammy Joseph Heller foresaw when he published that most famous of novels, “Catch-22”, in 1961.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Uganda; we are a ‘hermaphrodite nation’ that’s too small – we need Tanzania’s size

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 7  2015 at  02:00

In Summary

We have been too consumed by succession politics – first, it was the “Muhoozi project”. That died down and you couldn’t turn anywhere in Uganda without being hit in the face by the tribulations of Amama Mbabazi. Then now we have the General David Sejusa saga

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On Monday, a colleague who was writing an article on the top “man-made” brands in Africa – either companies or products that are famous, or natural features that clever marketing has brought to global attention – asked me to “be honest” and give him one or two Ugandan ones that truly belonged in the top 10 in Africa.
I was tempted to say “mountain gorillas” but then I realised that Rwanda has colonised them. Partly because of things like the gorilla naming ceremony where world figures like Bill Gates and Hollywood actors have “baptised” baby gorillas, plus the big hype they make about them, the average tourist in the world today thinks that the only place you can see mountain gorillas is in Rwanda.
They also know that mountain gorillas exist in DR Congo, but that the Congolese are killing them for their parts and even eating them.
Uganda? Well, we don’t kill the mountain gorillas. But neither do we do any aggressive self-promotion around them. For example, at the 2014 gorilla naming ceremony, there were dozens of unruly Chinese travel photographers and journalists who had been invited for the event. They went delirious when the “fake” mountain gorillas (humans in gorilla costumes) did their parade.
China is the fastest growing source of tourists for the world. The Rwandans are looking for a slice of the Chinese crowd, so what better way to do it than to pamper a bunch of their travel journalists and photographers?
A few years ago, white water rafting at Bujaggali on River Nile was getting a lot of world attention…then we built the dam over it.
In short, we are not doing well. Kenya and Ethiopia have world famous airlines. The Maasai would have been obscure, then they invented their colourful blankets and perfected that high jump dance of theirs.
Today, one out of four times when an international company (cars, mobile phones) do an Africa advert, there is (annoying to some who think its stereotypical) the tall Maasai in his blanket clutching a phone. Kenya here has done to Tanzania what the Rwandans have done to us with the mountain gorillas – many people don’t know that there are nearly as many Maasai in Tanzania with the same culture as in Kenya.
We had the Kasubi Tombs, then burnt them down one dark night. We are the land of the Christian Martyrs but these days only a few diehard Catholics in the world know that.
So what went wrong? There are two ways brands have been built in Africa – through the actions of determined governments as in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Egypt (with the pyramids), or robust private sectors as in Kenya, and South Africa.
Uganda? We have a strong, but ineffective government that can no longer innovate. We have a lively entrepreneurial spirit, but a weakling private sector that still parasites on the State.
If Uganda were a creature, it would be a hermaphrodite – both male and female, but neither wholly male nor female. So we are a hermaphrodite nation that lives in a kind of limbo in which nothing of a national scale is pursued doggedly for years to the end, either by the government or the private sector.
Take Kenya. Ever since the 1968 Mexico Olympics in which Kipchego Keino tore up the form book in the 1500m and heralded the country’s arrival in world long distance running, largely through private money, Kenya’s Rift Valley is dotted with top athletics training camps where many world elite long distance runners come to hone their craft.
Rwanda took advantage of its hills, a few quirk events after the genocide, and is on course to be Africa’s second biggest cycling training and competition scene after South Africa.
You don’t see that happening in Uganda, perhaps because we are too conflicted and easily distracted. For example, over the last two years we have been too consumed by succession politics – first, it was the “Muhoozi project”. That died down and you couldn’t turn anywhere in Uganda without being hit in the face by the tribulations of Amama Mbabazi. Then now we have the General David Sejusa saga.
Also, a belief has taken root among some (not without justification) that Museveni’s rule is toxic and no longer stable enough for business. So some people are actually waiting for a post-Museveni era.
Problem is that it has also become an easy excuse for some to explain their failures, and is breeding an escapist do-nothing mentality in parts of the country.
I think that while countries like Rwanda and Mauritius have taken advantage of their small size, Uganda has been hurt by it. We would have been a more successful and richer country if we were the size of Tanzania, with Kampala being too far away for its noise to intrude in the daily lives of most people.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Sheikh Bahiiga killing: Why Protestant, Catholic chieftains should lose sleep

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, December 31  2014 at  02:00

In Summary

When men are hungry for your land, not even God can be your shield

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After a break of some months, another Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mustafa Bahiiga, was slain on Sunday at the Bwebajja Mosque on Entebbe Road. There was a time in 2012, especially, when Muslim clerics were being killed virtually every two or so months.
This didn’t make sense because Ugandan Muslim leaders, even radical ones, are generally pragmatic and not given to stoking violence. They mostly leave affairs of Allah, and they come to public life and deal with the matters of Caesar and the temptations of the stomach of the flesh. The kind of political assassinations of Muslim clerics we see elsewhere, therefore just didn’t make sense in Uganda.
In early 2013, I was wrestling with this issue, when an expert on “militant Islam”, asked to see me to discuss the region. He particularly wanted to talk about the killing of Muslims in Uganda. I was intrigued, and asked him to come to my office in Nairobi. He said the killings in Uganda were not related to radical Islam but had everything to do with property. He said in the early to mid-1900s, Muslim groups got land in several urban areas. The titles were taken away and kept safely in a Muslim property in Zanzibar Islands.
In recent years, he claimed, some Muslim leaders had pressed and got the titles back. He alleged that most of the Muslim leaders in Uganda were being killed over the titles and land. That, he told me, was the “view of some of the more traditional East African Muslim intellectuals who track these things”.
I got a strange sense of relief, because it confirmed to me what years of observation and of having some of my closest Ugandan friends being Muslims had taught me; that the approach of the majority of them to religion is exactly like that of Uganda Christians – quite flexible. If that is the case, then we might be seeing the beginnings of a crisis over land that could soon engulf Catholic and Protestant churches: There is too much soil in the country held in the name of Allah/God.
In the case of the Muslims, when they faced extreme discrimination in the early colonial periods, as this column has noted before, the only place they could practice their religion was in urban areas which, being cosmopolitan, were more tolerant of religious diversity.
Muslim groups, therefore, didn’t get the thousands of acres that the Protestant and Catholic churches got in the countryside. After some time, that turned into a blessing, but now it is becoming a curse. And to understand it, one has to look at how the churches were built. The Christian elite and European colonialists built churches near where they also set up homes or had based mission stations so that they could walk there without having to pass through neighbourhoods heavily populated by “natives”. And so you had Rubaga, Nakasero, and Namirembe. Or up-country along with a school or a hospital. The mosques were allowed in areas where the African working classes lived – thus Kibuli.
Time and history truly have a cynical sense of humour. You see Kololo, Nakasero, Namirembe and so forth were fairly settled early, so as populations grew and more natives now joined politics, came to town and made money, they couldn’t expand into Nakasero. There was no room. However, because areas around mosques, like Kibuli, were for the working class and, therefore, not built up, that’s where the new and future cities could grow.
Now the places where Muslims had taken refuge a century ago, became the most prized land holdings. While I am not saying my expert was 100 per cent correct about why Muslim clerics in Uganda are being killed, he definitely helped explain why political leaders in government meddle more in Muslim than Catholic affairs.
The other thing is that the Muslim communities are more decentralised than, say, the Catholics where Rome still has a lot of sway. However, both the Protestant and Catholic churches upcountry have seen extensive encroachment on their land, and they don’t have the raw power to protect it. And, anyway, in the face on pressure of land, and shifting settlement patterns, it is futile.
The wise thing is for them to cut their losses early. Sell (or lease if selling is a step too far) what squatters and grabbers have still not overrun and use the money to invest in their schools, hospitals, and community projects. When men are hungry for your land, not even God can be your shield.

Mr Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. Twitter:@cobbo3