Charles Onyango Obbo

Election 2016: Where God boils his yam, is where the devil roasts his fish

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, February 10   2016 at  02:00

I don’t think I have missed watching more than five episodes of Fareed Zakaria’s “GPS” (Global Public Square) since it was launched on CNN in 2008.

Many times, as the young people say, I “don’t feel it” but I keep the faith. The “What in the World?” is often wonderfully wacky, but it is the one-liners and sometimes casually offered insights that can be a gem.

In the weekend episode, a panelist said something that got me thinking different seriously about the Ugandan election.
She said one of the most unusual things about the 2016 US presidential elections is that two things that generally don’t happen at the same time are actually taking place.

On the one hand, there is a surge of right wing populism with the disagreeable loud-mouthed billionaire and reality TV man Donald Trump leading it on the Republican side.

On the other, is a swirl of left wing populism led on the Democratic side by mzee Bernie Sanders. Here is a 74-year-old man and he is the candidate of young people who are fed up with business as usual politics.

That is not the way stuff is supposed to happen ordinarily. When revolutionaries are on the rise, usually it is because the factors favour them and the ground is not fertile for counter-revolutionaries.

And when the reactionary forces win, it’s because the revolutionary and progressive forces are in disarray or decline.
But maybe it’s not so strange, after all. In Uganda, we are fairly used to the phenomenon when our man kick boxer Moses Golola fights. When he loses, he wins. And when he wins, he loses.

African elders too were aware of this possibility, so they came up with that “Where God boils his yam, that is exactly where the devil roasts his fish.”

In our current politics that is like the popularity of FDC’s presidential candidate Kizza Besigye rising to new heights, while Museveni’s is also doing exactly the same.
It doesn’t make sense when put that way, so a better question is to ask what it means.

Clearly, it is all informed by how we are accustomed to how change happens – political, economic, and social – happens.
Usually, those who are alert, can “see” it coming. That kind of change produces neither surprises nor unusual things.

Thus in 1985, it was obvious to all that Milton Obote’s rule was collapsing and the army leadership had usurped power from him.
Today, there is a sense that something is going to, or has to, give in Ugandan politics. It might be at this election, and the way Museveni sees it, it’s going to come via an Opposition uprising following the result, hence the “crime preventers” and ordering of some very mean anti-riot equipment.

On the Opposition side, there is a reading that Museveni’s number is up, and he has never been more electorally weak and his campaign, shorn of the shrewd NRM veteran hands that used to “deliver” victory, is shambolic.

The possibility of victory, and Besigye’s own notable improvement as a candidate, has energised them.
But many people also think the election will just be the start of “that something” and it will play out between now and 2021. They don’t know what.

The sense that the Opposition is highly mobilised, and the uncertainty about what will come next, would have the effect of rallying the pro-Museveni constituencies, and result in a large turn out and significant vote for the status quo.

But the same exact factors, leaving the strong scent of a very high possibility in the noses of the Opposition about a victory, could actually get a larger turn out by its supporters.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Besigye, ‘Moses love’ and another election battle of the Museveni era

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, February 3   2016 at  02:00

There is something familiar about the attitude of Ugandans toward Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) presidential candidate Kizza Besigye’s campaign.

In a fairly new development in Ugandan politics, thousands of people are making small donations to his campaign much like happened with US president Barack Obama in 2008. And there is a heartfelt enthusiasm one sees from his rally, that is very different.

This column has argued before that there is more an element of celebration, than a political movement, around his rallies. It’s no wonder that the “Towa basi yako” song (with its thinly veiled messianic undertones) became the soundtrack to his campaign.

Late last year, my reading was that it didn’t seem that the crowds were turning out for Besigye in the genuine belief that he was going to be their next president.

Rather, that they were finally thanking him for having stood up to the Museveni machine, and endured beatings, endless trips to jail, and a house arrest that lasted nearly five years, broken only when he became a candidate for the upcoming election.

You have to give it to the man. Unlike most Opposition figures, Besigye hasn’t wavered, dithered, or even rumoured to have been sneaked into State House through a backdoor at night to cut a deal.
Today, with the election days away, I still hold to my reading of the “Besigye factor”, but I have to update it slightly.

How shall I put it? There is a sense in which Besigye is like the boy whom the nice girl down the street could have married, but didn’t. She now regrets, but try as hard as she can, she can no longer marry him.

If there is a single word that is true about this campaign, it is “change”, but the change Uganda is hankering for is perhaps not even being provided by the party that has the word in its name, FDC.

Look at this way. The Ugandans who were born the year the NRM and Museveni came to power are 30 years old. The majority of them are parents, and if they had their first children when they were 25, their kids are five and just started or are in kindergarten.

They became of majority age in 2004 and cast their first votes in the 2006. In that election, they were voting about their future - whether they would have a job, and so on. Most of them made a choice between Museveni and Besigye. They were faced with much the same choice at the next one of 2011, with that election again being a battle between Museveni and Besigye.

However, between 2008 and 2012, many of them become first time parents. And that is what makes the 2016 election very different for them than 2006 and 2011. It is the first time they (and remember young people represent a the largest chunk of the Uganda population) are voting in an election where they are thinking about the future of their children.

To be honest, even for the ones who truly love Museveni, he represents the status quo. And they are not going to look at their five-year-old children, and think that their future is in the hands of a 71-year-old man like the President.

At 59, Besigye is much younger, but he has been so part of the current politics. One of his most important roles for them, though, has been to keep alive the argument for an alternative to Museveni’s Uganda.

Amama Mbabazi is older than Besigye, and perhaps needs another election to put the right kind of distance between himself and the Museveni government which he served as a consummate insider until he wandered onto the road to Damascus over a year ago.

Of course, there are younger candidates, like Abed Bwanika, Joseph Mabirizi, Venansius Baryamureeba, and Maureen Kyalya.
However, in an election with so many young people in a transition state, all these much younger candidates are less progressive in their social views and world outlook than Besigye and Mbabazi; and even Museveni.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

30 years of NRM; the real spirit of the struggle is still buried in Luweero

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 27   2016 at  02:00

In Summary

The NRM’s Luweero struggle was important. But now we can conclude that the people who took power in its name were not the representatives of its spirit. They were the survivors. The real spirit of Luweero, is still buried in its grounds with the bones of those who paid the ultimate price.


Yesterday, President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) marked its 30th year in power.
But I have always found the story of January 26, 1986 fascinating as a moment in Uganda’s age.
We were, really, young journalists then. The day before Augustine Ruzindana, Wafula Oguttu (now Leader of the Opposition in Parliament), and I went to several places to meet the freshly victorious NRM/NRA figures, and to wrap our heads around the events that were to follow.
Wafula and I then worked with the then recently-restarted Weekly Topic, which had been banned in 1981. Ruzindana knew people in NRM/NRA, he himself and other people who were “above ground” in Kampala having dabbled secretly in subversive activities in support of the rebels.

We went to Lubiri Palace. There were soldiers all over, and we chatted with a couple of commanders.
Then we headed to the Uganda Club. There were more senior soldiers there. In the compound now - General Salim Saleh, with a handful of others, lying on the grass. Saleh really has changed much in character, although his circumstances have altered dramatically.

That week, we had covered a very different type of military victory in Uganda, and it’s important to reflect a little about it.
Files upon file of young men and women, many barefoot, in tattered clothes from the long tough life in the bush, had walked into Kampala. The crowds gathered to cheer them, but many just looked at them in wonderment – and even in awe. They were nothing the men of uniform and guns whom Ugandans had seen before. Just looking at them, there was a sense that they had pulled off something extraordinary – conjured victory from very meagre means.

At that point, if you went back 100 years (i.e. to 1886) into the corpus of arms and politics of Uganda, there were four broad trends. And they are very apt metaphors of Ugandan politics.
The first group of people who took power by force of arms and imposed political domination over what became modern day Uganda were the British colonialists.

They came from the East, having alighted mostly at Mombasa port in Kenya.
If you take 1894 as the formal beginning of the British rule, it took 78 years before guns resulted in another regime change in Uganda, with the 1971 Idi Amin coup that ousted the first Milton Obote and UPC government.
Amin was the first man of arms who took power in Kampala without having to cross a river. His coup erupted mostly from the military barracks of Kampala.

His rule ended eight years later in 1979, when he was ousted by a combined force of the Tanzanian army and Ugandan dissident groups.
The British colonialists and their forces were in neat khakis. So were Amin’s soldiers, complete with shiny vehicles and guns.
The Tanzanians were also in proper camouflage, so were most of the Ugandan dissidents with them, though there was a small rag tag element to the latter.

The Tanzania and the Uganda rebel coalition, the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), came from the direction of the west.
The fall of the UNLF’s first president Yusuf Lule, and its second, Godfrey Binaisa, were largely internal power struggles, so we won’t count them.
Then Obote came to power in that controversial December 1980 election, and five years later in July 1985, a faction of the army led by the Okello generals, kicked him out.
But first, they withdrew to the north, and returned from the same north, crossing the River Nile at Karuma, to take power. But they were properly kitted out, with big guns and vehicles.
Barely a year later, they were defeated by Museveni’s National Resistance Army/Movement.

The NRM was the first force to take power from two directions. It too crossed rivers from the west and fought its way to Kampala. But its forces also came from the south. And of all the armies of the previous nearly 100 years, it was the most ragged, giving it a salt of the earth quality and authenticity the others never had.
But despite that, and a generally fruitful first few years, it too has in the end become a cropper – burdening Uganda with a corrupt oligarchy, and a president for life.
There is a lesson right here in what it will take to make Uganda a free, prosperous country. It will need a movement or force that takes power to come from the west, the east, the north, the south, and to also erupt in Kampala’s streets.

The NRM’s Luweero struggle was important. But now we can conclude that the people who took power in its name were not the representatives of its spirit.
They were the survivors. The real spirit of Luweero, is still buried in its grounds with the bones of those who paid the ultimate price.

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

Charles Onyango Obbo

Smart view of the presidential debate - through a Ugandan ‘child’s’ eyes

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 20   2016 at  02:00

And so Uganda’s first presidential debate came and passed last Friday.
The next day, and even as the debate ended, on social media two of the big questions were “who had won” and if candidates’ performances had “changed voters’ minds”.

I was more intrigued by what the debate told us about how Uganda – and the world around it - had changed over the last 30 years. President Yoweri Museveni dodged the debate, as expected. But it was his absence that inspired one of the most pregnant comments of the evening, although probably the author didn’t intend it to be. There is a young journalist who works with Andrew Mwenda’s The Independent magazine. His name is Ian Ortega.

On his Twitter page during the debate, in reference to Museveni’s empty pulpit on the stage, he said: “The #UGDebate16 has been proof that there is life beyond and without Museveni. It is a moment to remember #UgandaDecides”
I read it, and stopped.

Ortega is a bright young man. His father too was. He was Kevin Aliro Ogen. Aliro, an avid a fan of Villa FC as you could have got, was one of the founders of The Monitor, and an editor with the publication until he left it in 2004 to found the Weekly Observer. We lost Aliro in 2005.

Ortega is 23 years old, so was born seven years after Museveni came to power, and he is the only President he has known. But his young mind didn’t miss the symbolism of Museveni’s absence on the stage.
There is a reason why he is called Ortega.

When we were with Aliro at Weekly Topic, the publication we worked at before forming The Monitor, we were quite enarmoured of several radical/revolutionary figures of the time. The two who truly captured our imagination were Burkina Faso’s Capt. Thomas Sankara and Sandinista leader and Nicaragua president Daniel Ortega.

One of our founder colleagues, the late Richard Tebere, also named one of his sons after the Sandinista leader. The Sandinistas became the first modern-day revolutionaries in 1990 to hold a free election, lose it, and accept to hand over power. One of the most beautiful things you will read on that event is the story “Election night in Nicaragua” by Sergio Ramirez. They have since bounced back and won – at the polls, not through the gun as they did the first time.

It’s this transition that fascinates me, if you contrast it to the story of Museveni and NRM’s Uganda. Aliro passed away, and some years later his son has taken up his mantle. In the Museveni years, he graduated from university, worked with Weekly Topic, founded The Monitor, then Weekly Observer.

Ortega didn’t work for Weekly Observer. He works with The Independent, which also has its roots in The Monitor.
We took the energetic and rebellious Mwenda into Monitor the way he has taken Ortega into The Independent.

If you chronicle our journey from Weekly Topic, the first transition of our small group happened with the founding of The Monitor in 1992. The second one and generation leadership shift happened, with the offshoot into Red Pepper first (with Richard Tumusiime and Arinaitwe Rugyendo – yes they were ‘Monitor children’), the third one with Weekly Observer, and the fourth with the offspring of the first generation group as foot soldiers, into The Independent.

These developments reveal better than anything about political change – and hasn’t happened in NRM’s Uganda yet. But it’s possible.

I can’t get my head around how all these things that can fill books, have happened through one political order that has remained unchanged, and even regressed in recent years.

Change is painful and uncertain, but you can’t find out how it will turn out if you don’t do it. The move from Weekly Topic to The Monitor, the rise of Weekly Observer, and The Independent, didn’t happen over a wine toast and happy hugs.

They were often acrimonious. But through them new generations of media talent found space, and the Uganda media grew in size and wealth.

Now, I wasn’t in Kampala, but watched the debate on NTV Uganda’s YouTube channel.
It was dizzying to follow the comments. There were like 10 of them - from the profane, hilarious, to the profound - flowing through every second.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Face it; Museveni wins by staying away from the presidential debate

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 13   2016 at  02:00

Will the January 15 Uganda presidential debate take place? On current form, it looks like if it does, the front-runners – President Yoweri Museveni and FDC’s Kizza Besigye - won’t be there.

This after Museveni’s campaign team seemed to indicate that their man was unlikely to attend, and asked if they could send a representative. Now Besigye too has said if Museveni doesn’t surface, he too won’t turn up.
Whatever happens, at least Museveni has been consistent. There was an outfit composed of a cross-section of public-spirited intellectuals and citizens some years back, called the Uganda Think Tank Foundation (I know, today the name is high schoolish, but it was impressive those days), which was perhaps the most serious attempt of the Museveni years to create the proverbial “marketplace of ideas”.

It was well funded by donors, and respected. It tried for a debate in 1996 between Museveni and Paul Ssemwogerere, if my memory serves me well. Ssemwogerere even turned up. As everyone sat waiting on debate night, it emerged that Museveni was somewhere upcountry hobnobbing with peasants for their votes. The debate flopped.
I don’t believe it’s true, as some allege, that Museveni “fears” debate, although probably because he speaks more slowly, he might not put in as many words as Besigye or Amama Mbabazi. However, Museveni has a certain earthiness, and a folksy edge that could be very deadly.

The reason he doesn’t show up, is that for Museveni only two things can happen in a debate – he can maintain his standing, or lose. He cannot win over new converts.
However, beyond these very personal considerations, there are bigger factors about why a presidential debate would or wouldn’t happen in Uganda.

On February 27, 2013, this column entitled “Why Kenya has presidential debates, but in Uganda Museveni won’t show”, examined some of them.

The point was made that the Kenya debate was not about the debate, but a wider democratisation process that has been happening in the country since 2003 and had been dramatically accelerated in 2008 when the December 2007 polls ended in dispute and the worst post-election violence the country had seen since independence in 1964 followed.
That experience frightened Kenya into adopting one of the most liberal constitutions on the continent. It decided that the way to avoid future wars over power was to disperse power to 47 new counties, and guarantee them a share of the national cake (budget). They took away from the president the absolute power to appoint and fire at whim judges, the police chief, and others. There are few jobs, except in his office, that a prospective Kenyan president can promise you and you are 100 per cent sure you will get it when he reaches State House.

Like Uganda, they provided in the new constitution that a president must get at least 50 per cent of the vote to be elected, but in addition must garner 25 per cent of the vote in 24 counties.

In Uganda, though, our political class reached the very opposite conclusion to Kenya’s. It decided that the problem was not that the centre had too much power, but that it was weak and therefore not mighty enough to control power. So from Obote to Museveni, we did things like give the army more power, and brought it to Parliament. Then we concentrated even more power in the hands of the president.

The result is that an incumbent like Museveni has so many advantages, he does not need to debate. If he attended a debate, he would mostly gift his opponents. So, objectively, a Ugandan president in the present political system wins by not debating.

In Kenya, it is the opposite. First, to ensure that a candidate can get that magical 25 percent in 24 counties.
Then Kenyan elections play blocks where a candidate can be totally locked out of a region, so you need a lot more media visibility (especially TV) to improve the chances of getting that 25 per cent.

Thus the candidates who really need the debate are the incumbents and front-runners, because it improves their chances of moving beyond the 20 counties where they are sure of getting 25 per cent, to 24 more, ensuring victory. The weak candidates don’t get much from the debates, the opposite of Uganda.

But also because as Kenyan president, to get your budget, or to be able to get your appointments – in the Judiciary, police, diplomacy, intelligence services, and the army - through Parliament and Senate, you need to have a voting edge, every single seat you get in these chambers matters. Even if your TV appearance will get you one vote, it is worth it.
Presidential debates are a product of democratic make-ups of nations. They don’t make sense in places where there are democratic deficits.

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