Charles Onyango Obbo

Talking Uganda with South African ‘comrades’ and other African stories

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 23  2014 at  01:00

In Summary

What is happening in the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan today is, if you think of it, simply murder on a grand scale. There is no high-sounding ideological story there. There is no redemptive subtext anywhere in the madness. You can only count bodies so many times. It gets tiring after a while

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Since last Sunday evening, a conference themed “History didn’t end in Africa: Ideas and ideologies shaping Africa’s future”, has been taking place at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Villa la Collina, Lake Como, outside Milan, Italy’s fashion capital.

There are lakes, and there is Lake Como as those who have been to this neck of the woods will testify. And last time we were across the lake from la Collina at the Rockefeller Foundation’s retreat, there were a couple of clever Ugandans there.
The conference this time was organised by South Africa’s Brenthurst Foundation which, again I am aware, is very popular with Ugandans who are enamoured of the geopolitical stuff they put out.

Not surprisingly, therefore, there were a couple of South African “comrades” in the house. The most quiet and mild-mannered of them, if not in the whole conference, was the one who otherwise shouldn’t have been – former (acting) president Kgalema Motlanthe, who stepped in when Thabo Mbeki resigned following a (now President) Jacob Zuma-engineered party coup against him in September of 2008.

Now I shall only dwell on this briefly and then move on. If you want to be blown away with the dramatic behind-the-scenes story of what happened in that Mbeki ouster, then you must read Frank Chikane’s book “Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki”. Chikane, who was a cleric, was a loyal Mbeki, so it is remarkable that he was still able to tell a good story without groveling too much to Mbeki.

Anyway, when you have many South African “comrades” around, and there is fine wine at dinner, you know that the story will eventually drift to the days when the African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe relocated to Uganda in 1988. So we traded those Uganda stories with the “comrades”.
Mbeki was not in Umkhonto, but Motlanthe was. When the apartheid regime nabbed him, he spent 10 years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

And this is what makes an encounter with Motlanthe remarkable. He is modest and humble to a fault, to a point that you think to yourself, “there is something wrong here, this is not real”.
So it was that at a dinner speech, Motlanthe was asked a question that suggested that South Africa had something to teach the rest of Africa. His answer was that we should not forget that South Africa is Africa’s youngest independent nation (South Sudan is the newest, but it was already part of an independent Sudan and broke away because of the “bad politics” of Khartoum).
Therefore, he said, maybe it’s the rest of Africa that has something to teach South Africa, not the way round. I was caught off balance by the humbleness of the reply, but it said a lot about Motlanthe.

And it was also at that point that it struck what is really different about Africa today. It is really the first time since the late 1960s that we don’t have a classical liberation movement active anywhere on the continent.

Yes, there are the Sahrawis, but the Organisation of African Union (OAU), now rebranded African Union, long ago recognised them (prompting Morocco to walk out of the OAU).

There are the Casamance militants in Cameroon, but their issue is really nothing that can’t be resolved by an enlightened government in Yaounde when strongman Paul Biya eventually leaves and there is someone willing to offer them decentralisation. The Touaregs in northern Mali got a little excited last year, but blew it when they allowed al-Qaeda-linked religious extremist to hijack their cause, and thus created an existential threat for French neocolonial interests in the region, and Paris sent in its troops and they got hammered. And then there are the chaps in Darfur.

But none of these are Frelimo, National Resistance Movement (NRM), Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), Robert Mugabe’s Zanu, or even the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Africa is actually becoming quiet and, for a journalist used to the big resistance story, boring.

What is happening in the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan today is, if you think of it, simply murder on a grand scale. There is no high-sounding ideological story there. There is no redemptive subtext anywhere in the madness. You can only count bodies so many times. It gets tiring after a while.

So it comes down to this: South Africa may no longer be Africa’s largest economy, but it remains its richest nation by far. That a man who led it can sit quietly in a corner in a small conference, and only draw attention when he is called upon tells us, if I may tweak the title of the wonderful Letta Mbulu song, that there is something in the air. We just have to put our noses up and smell what it is.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Why have NRM heavy-hands finally seen ‘tribal gunmen’ in the Rwenzoris?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 16  2014 at  01:00

In Summary

Why have NRM heavy-hands finally seen ‘tribal gunmen’ in the Rwenzoris?

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Nearly 100 people have been killed in the clashes of recent days between “tribal gunmen” and Uganda army troops in the Rwenzori region.
Five soldiers, five policemen and at least 11 civilians were among the casualties.
This is how several international news agencies reported it, and here we quote just the case of the French news agency AFP: “Ugandan police say the attacks are ethnic battles, with the local majority Bakonzo people trying to kill the minority Basongora people because of ‘long-standing differences of culture and over land’,” police spokesman Fred Enanga told AFP.
“There is a tribal conflict. Some of the Bakonzo do not want the minority groups recognised as kingdoms within what they perceive to be the larger ‘Kingdom of Rwenzori’, with Bakonzo the dominant tribe,” Enanga added.
“[President Yoweri] Museveni said cultural groups in the region had been ‘actively fomenting sectarianism and tribal chauvinism – acting and talking as if the only thing that matters are certain tribes to which the respective traditional leaders belong’.”
When I first read these reports, I was taken aback a little. It is unusual for, especially, security people in Museveni’s Uganda to talk of “dominant tribe” and “tribal gunmen”, and the fact that they do shows a striking evolution.
Museveni first kept to the old “politically correct line” by referring to “fomenting sectarianism”, but then fell off the wagon too when he spoke of “tribal chauvinism”.
Compare this to the days of both the Alice Lakwena and Joseph Kony-led rebellions. Those conflicts were ugly, nasty, and brought out the worst in both the NRM operatives and UPDF combatants and the Kony limb-and-lips-hacking brigades.
Privately, some government and military officials would refer to “northern brutes”, but in public the most extreme government people would get was to refer to “backward forces” or “primitive forces”. Otherwise, the conventional phrasing was “reactionary forces”.
These were not just words. They flowed from a philosophical premise that impacted how the conflicts in the north, and elsewhere in the country, would be solved.
First, the idea was that people did not think differently because of their tribe. They did so because of their “material conditions”. If they were poor or hungry, they were likely to steal. Thus tribe X that lives in a district that is hit with famine, is likely to steal from the gardens of tribe Y that lives in the next district which hasn’t had a famine. Yes, tribe Y will come to view tribe A as “thieves”, but that would be because of their low political consciousness. If they were more ideologically advanced, they would see that it is the famine, not tribe to blame.
Now an “advanced” NRM cadre in the area would see that the problem to the food theft is not to arrest the thieves from tribe X, but to reverse the famine conditions through food relief and agricultural support. A “backward” cadre who is not scientific and doesn’t see that and thus insists on arrest, could end up arresting all of tribe X, and create a big political crisis out of a temporary food shortage.
Some years ago, Museveni and NRM leaders would refer to such a cadre as “ideologically confused” or having “regressed”.
The NRM of that time also liked to make a distinction between the “leaders” and “misled”. The former would be punished; the latter would be forgiven and rehabilitated. Lumping everyone together as part of a tribe, means you can’t make this fine distinction and you end up with collective punishment. We are seeing this in South Sudan in the killings between the Dinka (President Salva Kiir’s people) and the Nuer (his rival Riek Machar’s people). They turned an internal political struggle inside the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) over power and groceries, into an ethnic slaughter race.
So how come a contest over land, power, and cultural resources is now cast as the action of “tribal gunmen”? To take the most generous view, I think it tells us that finally the generational shift inside the NRM and its government is gaining critical mass.
What we might call the “Class of 1981-2001”, those whose political views were forged in the NRA bush war, and the first 15 years of the NRM have died, retired, being edged out, or given up. In short, NRM’s ideological intestines have truly changed.
The less generous alternative is that the NRM hasn’t changed much. Rather elements in its top leadership and of the security services, have adopted an awareness of themselves as a tribe(s).
It is that self-consciousness that they are now projecting into their analysis of national problems. You can choose to believe the best - or worst.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Museveni vs Kagame: From ‘What’s Africa’s problem?’ to ‘What is Kaguta’s Problem?’

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By Charles Onyango- Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 9  2014 at  01:00

In Summary

Generally, Museveni is among the African leaders, if not the leading one, who loves statistics. He has always sprinkled his speeches and writings with them, a good practice that allows ideas to be tested without necessary reference to the character of the presenter

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Last week, President Yoweri Museveni was in Rwanda for a regional meeting on the Northern Corridor, to attend the country’s 20th Liberation Day anniversary, and to speak at a pan-African Youth Conference.

He was on form. Though when he is doing local politics in Uganda, or is quarrelling with meddlesome foreigners, the President often sounds unreasonable, when he is in element he is still quite scientific. In Kigali, it was the Museveni of his 1992 book, What is Africa’s Problem? While gung-ho about the future of Africa at that point, well before the “Africa Rising” mantra caught on in the last few years, that book was remarkable for its cold rationality and realistic view of what was keeping Africa backward, so to speak.

Generally, Museveni is among the African leaders, if not the leading one, who loves statistics. He has always sprinkled his speeches and writings with them, a good practice that allows ideas to be tested without necessary reference to the character of the presenter.
He spoke of how industry is what will take Africa forward, and railed against the peasant and subsistence economy. He told the anecdote of when he asked the Uganda Manufacturers’ Association (UMA) how many members (and therefore businesses) it had. They had 700.
Then he visited with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) a short while later, and he asked them the same question. The CBI told him it had 55,000 members. Museveni has a way of keeping it simple. Even the most befuddled person in the audience understood him. And, to signal he wasn’t wooly-eyed, he said people talk of Africa’s great hydroelectric potential. How much was that potential, he asked. Well, 350,000MW he answered his own question. The US alone, which now has just about a third of Africa’s one billion population, has the potential for 1,000,000MW he remarked.

And his trademark folksy engagement with the audience is still intact. The thing is that if you didn’t know the kind of graft-ridden government and chaotic nation the President led back in Uganda, you would think from his performance on the international stage that he was the president of Singapore.
So where does this great disconnect come from? Why did Museveni bake a cake and then step on it with dirty boots? Why is a man who can be so thoughtful when he chooses to, elect to run his country like it were a junkyard in a backwater? How can a man who is so engaging on the stage, choose not to govern by a similar persuasive style?
Ugandans who are seeking understanding shall continue to ask those questions for a long time to come, but there were some hints in Museveni’s body language in Kigali—especially if you compared him to his host Paul Kagame.

Just the way the two men sat told volumes. Museveni came on the stage, and like he often does, leaned back and spread his legs out front and stretched them lazily. Not so Kagame. He sat up straight, put his knees together, and occasionally crossed his legs in a regimented fashion. Kagame is ordered and measured meticulously, and he takes the same approach to running his country. Museveni runs his much like his permissive sitting style.
Museveni had a big notebook with yellow pages that were all over the place, and kept beckoning his aide de camp for one thing or the other. Kagame arrived with a folder, his notes printed on white paper, and neatly stacked in. When Kagame came to the stage, you could see him looking quizzically at the empty moderator’s chair beside him. Later after the moderator occupied it, he said he was concerned that he was going to be on stage with an empty chair beside him.
If Museveni noticed the empty chair beside him, he didn’t seem bothered. Rather than focus on sizing up his immediate neighbourhood, his eyes were quickly reading the audience. So you have a tightly structured Kagame, and a free-spirited Museveni.

These two presidents come from the same National Resistance Army (NRA) bush war military tradition, but it is striking how different they are.
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, watching him, I thought I could finally sense a bit of where the disconnect in Museveni comes from. Though, admittedly a brilliant people person who remembers names and faces remarkably well, he still really doesn’t see the trees when he looks at the forest.

Because he seems to have a poor environmental awareness, he probably really doesn’t fully appreciate the criticisms people make of his failures, and the effect (especially hurt) his regime’s actions have on people. It enables him to have a good grasp of the big picture, yes, but it has also made him a flawed leader.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Museveni vs Kagame: From ‘What’s Africa’s problem?’ to ‘What is Kaguta’s Problem?’

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By Charles Onyango- Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, July 9  2014 at  01:00

In Summary

Generally, Museveni is among the African leaders, if not the leading one, who loves statistics. He has always sprinkled his speeches and writings with them, a good practice that allows ideas to be tested without necessary reference to the character of the presenter

SHARE THIS STORY

Last week, President Yoweri Museveni was in Rwanda for a regional meeting on the Northern Corridor, to attend the country’s 20th Liberation Day anniversary, and to speak at a pan-African Youth Conference.

He was on form. Though when he is doing local politics in Uganda, or is quarrelling with meddlesome foreigners, the President often sounds unreasonable, when he is in element he is still quite scientific. In Kigali, it was the Museveni of his 1992 book, What is Africa’s Problem? While gung-ho about the future of Africa at that point, well before the “Africa Rising” mantra caught on in the last few years, that book was remarkable for its cold rationality and realistic view of what was keeping Africa backward, so to speak.

Generally, Museveni is among the African leaders, if not the leading one, who loves statistics. He has always sprinkled his speeches and writings with them, a good practice that allows ideas to be tested without necessary reference to the character of the presenter.
He spoke of how industry is what will take Africa forward, and railed against the peasant and subsistence economy. He told the anecdote of when he asked the Uganda Manufacturers’ Association (UMA) how many members (and therefore businesses) it had. They had 700.
Then he visited with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) a short while later, and he asked them the same question. The CBI told him it had 55,000 members. Museveni has a way of keeping it simple. Even the most befuddled person in the audience understood him. And, to signal he wasn’t wooly-eyed, he said people talk of Africa’s great hydroelectric potential. How much was that potential, he asked. Well, 350,000MW he answered his own question. The US alone, which now has just about a third of Africa’s one billion population, has the potential for 1,000,000MW he remarked.

And his trademark folksy engagement with the audience is still intact. The thing is that if you didn’t know the kind of graft-ridden government and chaotic nation the President led back in Uganda, you would think from his performance on the international stage that he was the president of Singapore.
So where does this great disconnect come from? Why did Museveni bake a cake and then step on it with dirty boots? Why is a man who can be so thoughtful when he chooses to, elect to run his country like it were a junkyard in a backwater? How can a man who is so engaging on the stage, choose not to govern by a similar persuasive style?
Ugandans who are seeking understanding shall continue to ask those questions for a long time to come, but there were some hints in Museveni’s body language in Kigali—especially if you compared him to his host Paul Kagame.

Just the way the two men sat told volumes. Museveni came on the stage, and like he often does, leaned back and spread his legs out front and stretched them lazily. Not so Kagame. He sat up straight, put his knees together, and occasionally crossed his legs in a regimented fashion. Kagame is ordered and measured meticulously, and he takes the same approach to running his country. Museveni runs his much like his permissive sitting style.
Museveni had a big notebook with yellow pages that were all over the place, and kept beckoning his aide de camp for one thing or the other. Kagame arrived with a folder, his notes printed on white paper, and neatly stacked in. When Kagame came to the stage, you could see him looking quizzically at the empty moderator’s chair beside him. Later after the moderator occupied it, he said he was concerned that he was going to be on stage with an empty chair beside him.
If Museveni noticed the empty chair beside him, he didn’t seem bothered. Rather than focus on sizing up his immediate neighbourhood, his eyes were quickly reading the audience. So you have a tightly structured Kagame, and a free-spirited Museveni.

These two presidents come from the same National Resistance Army (NRA) bush war military tradition, but it is striking how different they are.
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, watching him, I thought I could finally sense a bit of where the disconnect in Museveni comes from. Though, admittedly a brilliant people person who remembers names and faces remarkably well, he still really doesn’t see the trees when he looks at the forest.

Because he seems to have a poor environmental awareness, he probably really doesn’t fully appreciate the criticisms people make of his failures, and the effect (especially hurt) his regime’s actions have on people. It enables him to have a good grasp of the big picture, yes, but it has also made him a flawed leader.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

The gay issue is back: Both Museveni and donors are living in the 20th Century

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, June 25  2014 at  10:13

In Summary

The Anti-gays Bill was passed in a wave of national hysteria against homosexuals, with a homophobic public cheering President Yoweri Museveni as he signed it

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The Anti-gays Bill controversy made its way back into the headlines a few days when the USA cut off several lines of aid to punish the Uganda government for the law, that it says violates the rights of homosexuals and lesbians.
The Anti-gays Bill was passed in a wave of national hysteria against homosexuals, with a homophobic public cheering President Yoweri Museveni as he signed it.
When you sit back and reflect, there is actually no difference between the donors who are cutting aid, and a homophobic Museveni and his supporters.
It is ignorant and prejudiced to hate gays, but it is narrow-minded to cut aid over it because, in the long run, Uganda can only become more open-minded about gays if it is richer.
The Museveni camp and the donors make a mistake because they are ultimately looking at sex as a biological and choice issue. However, if you look at sex and reproduction as a market and apply cold economic and political logic to it, both heterosexuality and homosexuality are imperfect and extremely inefficient.
Let us begin with the argument that heterosexism is natural, because it ensures reproduction of our species. Now there are things that are natural and necessary for our existence, for example air. However, we all have relatively equal access to air, but we don’t have it to sex. The handsome, beautiful, successful, rich, well-born have more sexual options (and get more of it) than the ugly, poor, unsporting. Handsome, beautiful (lesbians), successful, sporting, hunkish gays have more choice of partners than their poor and ugly colleagues.
If God had engineered heterosexism, then it wouldn’t be so iniquitous. Thus you have the result that we have more laws to regulate competition and avoid monopoly in the banking and telecoms sectors, than we do for the sex and the reproductive market. It is utter madness.
So let us look to the future. In the just-ending global financial crisis, one of the things we found out is that the world economy as it is, is anachronistic. We need to find new ways of increasing productivity, and households where (usually) the man works and the woman stays at home to look after the kids are no longer tenable.
The one thing that future generations must address is what happens when women (who produce the most economically in Africa) are pregnant, and then have to look after the children until they can feed themselves. Also, humans are inefficient creatures. A child basically needs three years to be able to feed itself and find the way to its bed. That is scandalous. And some of the children these days are 40 years and still dependent on their parents! Most other creatures are independent within days.
Therefore, for our species to survive, we must get women out of childbirth, children must grow to be independent faster, and the amount of time parents spend on “raising” their children must reduce. I cannot imagine my life without the opportunity I had to be with our children and spoil them, but I am rational and scientific enough to realise that that model will be over in less than three generations.
Our future therefore is in a place where children are “hatched” outside their mothers wombs, and their genes tweaked so they can grow up faster, and are programmed to grow with less parental involvement, and thus free their parents to be more economically productive and imaginative.
So our future depends on us decoupling sex from reproduction, and when we do that, the issue of natural and unnatural sex shall seize to be relevant. Secondly, we need to detach childbirth from pregnancy. And thirdly we need to re-engineer the dynamics between child upbringing and parentage.
In that future, both the logic of heterosexual and gay unions as they are today will be backward.
I like sci-fi movies and there is one showing on DSTv right now called Abduction. It is partly a story of high-tech sexbots, androids designed for companionship and pleasure.
The drama intrigues me because, with the kind of innovations we see in Abduction (they are happening in real life), pleasure will be a technology on a mass scale, not a human relationship issue.
Think about it, sex is probably the only area we have not allowed technology to take over. Most of the innovation actually goes to reinforcing old modes – fertility and reproduction!
Sex and family, though, still has many elements from the time when we were still living in caves, particularly the notion of a “provider” who enjoys a privileged position in the household. Our great grandchildren will read the history of the current heterosexual vs. gay angry debate, and will be totally puzzled by it.

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