Wednesday November 22 2017

Museveni won’t end like Mugabe, but Uganda can end up like Zimbabwe

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  


Not too long ago, now-93-year-old strongman Robert Mugabe thought he had finally conquered Zimbabwe.
He had stood up to his “imperialist” enemies, defied sanctions, scattered the opposition, and seemingly broken his country’s spirit to resist him. In triumph, he declared that only God could remove him from power.

He was right. As Oprah would say, God showed up, and showed out. But he didn’t come in his more familiar form of the old man with long hair, beard, flowing robes, and a stick. God came to Mugabe in the form of the army with tanks, and guns.
They put him under house arrest. Then the masses came out in their hundreds of thousands to demonstrate against him.
The central committee of his own party Zanu-PF, which he had privatised and from which he purged all pretenders to the throne so he could hand power to his nefarious wife Grace (DisGrace the First Shopper), voted to kick him out as its leader and sacked him from the party. In came Emmerson Mnangagwa as Zanu-PF leader, the man he had bundled out barely two weeks previously as vice president, a ruthless chap, but hero of the liberation struggle.By the time you read this, the parliamentary party that once did Mugabe’s every bidding might already have voted to impeach him.

The whole world has been transfixed by events in Zimbabwe, and now the debates rage about what Uncle Bob’s political demise portends for other members of the president-for-life club, including Uganda.
There are those who are positing that our own good Yoweri Museveni will go the same way. Others are saying, no. Unlike Mugabe, they argue, Museveni has disbanded all the old NRM and NRA historical figures, and removed all those with a historical claim to NRM leadership. That the successor of the NRA, the UPDF is a totally new army beholden to Museveni in ways that Zimbabwe’s wasn’t. There is no Gen. Constantino Chiwenga in the UPDF, no Mnangagwa in NRM (the last figure near that status being Amama Mbabazi who was hounded out in 2015). Actually, that view is correct.
Where it, and those who see Museveni ending like Mugabe, are wrong is that they both think that the “Harare Option” is the only way. No, there are possibly 10 different ways this can go down, including surprisingly even through an election.

Last year in The Gambia, despot Yahya Jammeh, who was also secure and had a feared presidential guard protecting him, lost an election to Adama Barrow. First, he conceded, then changed his mind and decided to cling to power. There were protests, then as his base deserted him, the regional bloc ECOWAS intervened and booted him out.
The late election theft, a rapid loss of support, and regional dynamics cost Jammeh.
In Tunisia and Egypt in the 2011 Arab Spring, the masses turned out in their millions. The Police hammered them but the ultimate power, the army, did nothing.
By doing nothing in both countries, the balance of power tilted against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. However, the Tunisian military left and stayed away. In Egypt, they eventually came back, hence setting off the series of events that brought Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

In 2014, in Burkina Faso, youth took to the streets against Thomas Sankara-killer and strongman Blaise Compaore. The army didn’t stand aside, nor was it united against him as in Zimbabwe. It was divided. Then, in a powerful symbolism that added some dramatic fuel to the events, the women of Ouagadougou took to the streets with wooden cooking spoons!
Compaore suffered a cultural, as much as a political collapse. So it’s difficult to know how Museveni, who clearly is going nowhere soon, might retire to Nyabushozi – or how he will stay in power. However, Zimbabwe and all the cases above have one thing in common that analysts don’t focus on – the behaviour of the people. It seems that it’s not ultimately important what the army does, but rather what the people do.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Burkina Faso, the people put their necks on the line first, then the armies responded. In Zimbabwe, the army took the initiative this time, and the people followed. If Mugabe’s support in Zanu-PF was still solid, and without the massive show of civilian support on the weekend, the Zimbabwe army, reluctant to declare its putsch a coup, would have been in crisis. What Museveni therefore should worry about is not the army. It’s the masses. Ultimately it is they whom the soldiers fear the most. Power is like a club. Once the patrons stop coming, the club will close. And the bouncers will go away, and leave the gate unguarded.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday November 15 2017

Yawn, yawn! Uganda and Rwanda are feuding again

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The East African Community is not at ease. Tanzania and Kenya are having a tiff. Uganda and Rwanda are scuffling. Rwanda and Burundi have had a stand-off over the crisis in the latter for the last two years.
And Kenya and Uganda are again squabbling over fish around that mystical tiny island of Migingo in Lake Victoria.
Of these, the clearest to understand is the rift between Tanzania and Kenya. It has been on and off for the last 45 years, when in a famous mid-1970s verbal ideological fight, Ujaama (socialist) Tanzania said “capitalist” Kenya was a predatory “man eat man society”. Nairobi replied that then much poorer Tanzania, was a “man eat nothing society”.

Today, it is over milk, beef, and chicken. Recently, Tanzania burnt 6,400 chicks imported from Kenya, allegedly for fear of bird flu. It also auctioned 1,300 head of cattle belonging to Kenyan herders after they were confiscated for grazing in Tanzania.
Tanzania has seized about 6,600 heads of cattle from Uganda too.
Of all these regional feuds, which some now say threaten the East African Community, the most frustrating to understand is the one between Uganda and Rwanda, because it involves even obscure family and personality conflicts.

This happens, ironically, for very good reason – the connections between the people of the two countries are deep. Because of old historical dynamics, and the fact that thousands of Rwandans lived in Uganda for nearly half a century as refugees before many (not all), returned to Rwanda after the Rwanda Patriotic Front’s (RPF) victory in 1994, many Rwandan families integrated in Ugandan society, and many families in Uganda became partly Rwandese.
So our quarrels can come across as nauseating petty. The reception that former Ugandan and Rwandan war hero Fred Rwigyema’s wife receives at Entebbe becomes a big diplomatic incident. The arrest of a police officer in Kampala thought to be friendly to some people in Rwanda becomes a big deal. It is a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt.

Still, after the rapprochement between Kigali and Kampala that started in 2011, following their disastrous fallout in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2000, it was always clear that it would be tested again.
For the Museveni State House, the pivotal event seems to have been what Paul Kagame would do when his second term ended. For Kenya, it was clear that the two-term presidential limit would hold, so Mwai Kibaki would step down after his two terms. The same was certain about Jakaya Kikwete in Tanzania.
It didn’t matter what happened in Burundi or South Sudan, as Kampala sees itself in competition primarily with Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania, the “rivalry” with Kigali being the most emotional one. As this column noted in 2016, if Kagame had left office in August, Museveni would have been left as the “political leper” in the region, the last president for life standing.

The constitution amendment in Rwanda, which allowed Kagame to run for a third seven-year term, and for two five-year terms in 2024, should he so wish, dramatically altered the political ground – favourably - for Museveni.
He was no longer lonely in his long-rulers East African club, and no longer felt the burden of moral deficit, allowing him to launch the current bid to scrap the age limit for president in the Constitution with greater ease as there would be no embarrassing contrasts with events across the western border.
With Kagame’s re-election, Rwanda had served its political purpose, and it was time to move on. Kampala is now focused on other fronts, with Museveni offering to beef up UPDF’s presence in AMISOM by 5,000 when the appetite for the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia is waning.
Museveni is very good at those kinds of moves, as we saw in 2007 when UPDF became the first contingent to put its neck on the line in Mogadishu, at a time when everyone thought it was an insane enterprise.

The good thing is that these sparring matches between East African palaces really don’t affect the fundamental relations between the region’s people in the long-term.
Recently, I was having a conversation with someone who tracks East African regional trade. He said western Kenya rarely suffers from food shortages and hunger, even at the worst of times.
It is not because it does not have vulnerabilities, or that it is a rich region (it is not), but “because it is integrated with Uganda as a single food market”, he said.
He then went on to describe the remarkable range of food products that Kenyan trucks to Uganda return with, and how they are distributed in Eldoret, Nakuru, and other towns.
You really can never stop the fish business over Lake Victoria, or the movement of chicken, cows, matooke, or milk across East Africa’s borders.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday November 8 2017

To bribe or not bribe MPs to lift age limit? that’s the question

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

One of the things many Ugandans find disgusting in the on-going project to lift the age limit, and effectively make President Yoweri Museveni president-for-life, is that MPs have been paid to support it.
In 2005, in order to get MPs’ support for scrapping presidential term limits, the Museveni government again paid them. These payments are the more intriguing given that NRM has an overwhelming majority.

While this is corruption, it is not the only thing going on. The reason why Museveni won the bush war, and has hang on to the presidency for 31 years now, is because he has a very keen understanding of Ugandans.
Of all the peoples of East Africa, perhaps it’s Ugandans for whom it’s never sufficient that they are members of your party, religion, or tribe. You must put something extra on the table.

Museveni understood that grievances against Milton Obote and his Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) run very deep in many parts of the country when he started his bush war in 1981. He could have started the war in Ankole or Busoga, but chose Luweero. He probably understood that in Buganda, he could sell something more than freedom and the end of Obote and UPC rule – the return of the Kabaka and the kingdom.
The fact that MPs had to be paid to end term limits and now to get rid of the 75-year age limit, means they cannot support it if only their conscience was at work. I guess it is like paying for sex. The man who buys it is under no illusions that the woman loves him.
So, in a messed up sort of way, it is a good sign that the age limit removal is being bought.

But what, deep down, is it about Ugandans that makes this necessary? For reasons of history, geography, and how they shape our loyalties to politics, and how we view ourselves, we take our individual sovereignty much more seriously than most people on the continent.
There is a Ugandan expression, “you don’t feed me”, or often stated as a question, “do you feed me?”. It is the ultimate statement of pride, to mean that if you don’t put food on my table, you have no business telling me what to do. Very few other African cultures have a similar expression.
Let’s see how this plays out. From pre-independence, every election in Uganda has been stolen. It got worse from the December 1980, which Obote’s UPC won controversially, and sent Museveni to the bush.

However, in 1980 UPC won 75 per cent of the vote. In 1996, Museveni enjoyed the hallowed status in Uganda that Rwanda’s Paul Kagame has in recent years. In 1993, Kagame won with 93 per cent of the vote. In the recent election in August, Kagame won by 99 per cent.
By contrast in what some saw as Museveni’s “coronation” in 1996, he got 75.5 per cent. That margin was “stunning” for Ugandans. In 1962, UPC won with 52.4 per cent.
In the October 26 repeat presidential poll in Kenya, boycotted by president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta’s main opposition rival Raila Odinga, he got 98 per cent of the vote. However, there were six other candidates on the ballot.

If it had been Uganda, Uhuru would have won perhaps with 78 per cent of the vote. The result of this is that Uganda is now the only country in East Africa where neither the ruling party or an incumbent has won by more than 80 per cent in a national election.
Consider this, former Deputy Governor of Bank of Uganda, and Finance minister Ezra Suruma, is a very serious man. He is also a socialist intellectual, who believes in collective things.

Dr Suruma built a nice home in the outskirts of Kampala some years back where he lived. A relative bought a plot near him, and that is when I found out he was an early adopter who ran his house on solar, off the national grid! A very individual sovereign approach.
I used to be a big dogs man. I was introduced to a wonderful Ugandan who had held big international jobs, trying to save the world. He had a rare breed of puppies.
Before I could get his puppy, he wanted to interview me to see whether I was the “right fit”. I went to his home, with its vast compound and finely manicured lawn.
Tea was served in elegant crockery, with home-baked scones, and vintage cutlery. I passed the test, and got the puppy.
He lived off the grid, including providing his own vast underground water tank. He didn’t want State employees wandering into his ground. I have rarely admired a man more. Unless you are the Kabaka, in Uganda you have to add a “ka-something” to get something.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday November 1 2017

The ways of our people are mysterious - for good reason

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  


They are the kinds of stories some might ignore, but I have always been fascinated by them because I think they held the key to making a success of projects in Uganda, as indeed elsewhere in Africa.
‘Buvuma residents don’t want pit-latrines’, said the story in Monday’s Daily Monitor.
‘About 55,180 (62 per cent) of the population in Buvuma Islands do not have pit-latrines at their homes, a new survey by Buvuma District authorities has revealed’, it said.

‘A total of 56,960 (64 per cent) of residents lack access to safe water.’
Dr Baker Kanyike, the district health officer, says the problem has been exacerbated by carelessness of islanders, who consider visiting pit-latrines as a taboo and many view the island as an open defection area.
“This situation has exposed many locals to hygiene-related diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery”.
You must feel for Dr Kanyinke, he has a tough job on his hands. But why would the good people of Buvuma consider visiting pit-latrines a taboo, and instead turn the island into an “open defection area”, bringing diseases upon themselves?

The answer has to be that they consider getting cholera and typhoid a lower risk than what would they suffer using pit-latrines.
I too used to be puzzled by this kind, on the face of it, irrational and dangerous behaviour. Fortunately, I learnt to ask people, who know better. On several occasions, help has not been too far. I have many sources who know a lot about these kinds of “strange” behaviours.

Not too long ago, I shared with one of them an article in Kenya’s Daily Nation, which examined this phenomenon. Titled Medical campaigns that failed to gain acceptance among the beneficiaries by a promising young journalist Verah Okeyo, it looked at why “instead of embracing scientific ideas with open arms, the targets reject them without a second glance”.

One of the examples she gave was why Kenyans at the Coast and in Nyanza regions, where malaria is rampant, refused totally to sleep under mosquito nets, which were given free. Yes, people used the nets instead for fishing, wedding veils and to protect their vegetable gardens against hail stones, but why would that be more important than keeping malaria at bay?
The scientists figured out that at the Coast, residents rejected the white bed nets because they were like the shrouds used to cover the dead, so they felt that they were being prepared for death!

‘Dr Bernhards Ogutu was among the malaria scientists who learnt the hard way that the science cannot be proved without taking into account social and cultural factors that may turn a breakthrough into a breakdown’, the story said.
“So we did not use white mosquito nets there again”, he said. That was it. The colour! Blue, pink nets, but not white please. And so my source told me a story from Karamoja a few years back, which is akin to the one in Buvuma.

She said while First Lady Janet Museveni was minister for Karamoja, she pushed through and built a low-end estate in Moroto. She did her bit, but the estate remained empty.
The citizens of Moroto just couldn’t move into them. What went wrong?
For the Karamoja population that was targeted, their idea of living involved living in a place surrounded by family, clansmen and women, “not strangers who might kill you in the night and steal your cows”, she told me.

And, equally, like the people of Buvuma, most of them couldn’t use the pit-latrines that had been built there and around Moroto Town, and continued to relieve themselves in the open.
It was because of witchcraft. Using a pit-latrine, they believed, made it easier for your enemy to know exactly the place where you left your waste, take it away, and bewitch you.
However, if you did your thing along the road where 100 other Karimojong warriors had done the same thing, your enemy would be confused, unable to pin-point precisely which pile of mischief was yours. Clearly, there is cold method to the madness.

Defecating in the open was a defence strategy. Probably the pit-latrine sceptics of Buvuma think they can get treatment for cholera, but they won’t have a cure against the witch doctor who uses their waste, and throws them mad, or capsises their boat during a fishing expedition.
And to the brothers in Karamoja, any risks is worth taking to prevent some misfortune befalling their cattle herd.

This is no reason to give up. As it is, science has an answer for us here. It is called the incinerating toilet. It is probably not that the people of Buvuma don’t want pit-latrines. They do, but of a different type. Just like the people of coastal Kenya with mosquito nets.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia. com and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday October 25 2017

An African president’s journey: From Commander-in-Chief to Tribalist-in-Chief

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  


André Guichaoua is a professor at the prestigious Faculty of Economics at Panthéon-Sorbonne University, France.
In a recent syndicated article on elections in Africa, he argued that most votes are largely a ritual, with results known before the vote, oppositions suppressed, and most incumbents enjoying too big an advantage to be defeated.
He lists leaders who, through all sorts of shenanigans and amending constitutions, have prolonged their life in office - from Congo’s Denis Sassou-Nguesso, to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and beyond.

Despite that, he argues, elections are still important for a couple of reasons. First, they point to the skills of the Big Men in being able to keep power, and orchestrate the affection of the people. An inept autocrat will invariably lose power. Which leads to the second point - that every election poses a risk to even the most entrenched Big Man. However, we have heard these arguments before and some of us have made them too.
The interesting and fresh argument that Guichaoua makes, though it still highly debatable, is when he writes that: ‘At every stage of wealth creation, profits are essentially redistributed according to private interests (emphasis mine).

It is, therefore, easy to understand why each head of state believes themselves best placed to serve both national and personal interests, and the interests of the political-ethnic groups they represent’. He doesn’t dwell much on it, but it is a very intriguing point for several reasons. For starters, the argument has been made that the more Uganda and other countries become richer and expand their middle class, the more democratic they will become.

Whether this democracy be liberal democracy or “African democracy”, the two sides tend to argue that with education and prosperity, the possibility of citizens to make freerer election and governance choices will improve.
What Guichaoua’s point suggests, is that the expansion of the African middle class could result in a shrinking of the democratic space. Thus what is happening in Uganda today, might not necessarily be rolling back the democratic clock, but actually a taste of an inevitable future. Scary, right?

That is because “every stage of wealth creation”, throws up dynamics for the Big Man to stay, not leave. And it comes from the dual role of the president and Commander-in-Chief. The president is often national leader, but also patron of vested private interests that leech off the system and/or tribal chief of his people, Guichaoua intimates.
In practical political terms, in the first role he is Distributor-in-Chief or (I think the Baganda might call him “Omugabuzi omukulu”) of public goods. In the latter role, he is Tribalist-in-Chief, The Man who brings the bacon home to his ethnic mates.

Uganda has loosely had two broad stages of wealth creation. The first, driven by massive donor-funded reconstruction and economic reforms, happened from 1987 to 2001. The second, from the reduction of conflict in the country, especially the north, increased foreign direct investment (FDI), the benefits from East African integration, and peace in South Sudan from 2002 to 2011. The third wave, has been built on hope and oil, and we are still sitting in the waiting room, expecting it to happen in the days ahead.

Our democratic future, then, might well hang on who will be the best distributor of oil proceeds. Note that Guichaoua is implying that the president for life doesn’t have to be corrupt, or be in it for the sole reason of stuffing his stomach, although that is a powerful incentive. He might be short-fingered and clean, as we have seen elsewhere in Africa, but still seek to cling to power and beat down or jail the Opposition.
One complication of this is that some could argue that if a country is poor, and there is no wealth being created, then it has a better chance at free elections and democracy – the very opposite of the conventional view on this subject.

The second point from this, is probably less problematic. It suggests that the more partisan and parochial base of the president – the insiders in his party and also tribe or region – need to be persuaded that if he departs, a new leader from within the party, or outside will not take food out of their mouths or persecute them.

That the next Omugabuzi will not distribute the goods unjustly and discriminate against them, as indeed Their Man did with other groups. Without these guarantees, they will feed his worst instincts and mobilise against free elections and any kind of democratic reform.
As we debate, one sad thing is that after a short break, it seems we are back to the past. If you are pessimist about Africa, especially its democratic prospects, you are more likely to turn out to be right today.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia. com and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday October 18 2017

These are trying times in Uganda, but we shall survive - once again

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  


Without doubt, one of the most important developments is the full-speed drive to amend the Constitution and remove the 75-year age limit for president, and open the way for Yoweri Museveni to be president-for-life.
Problematic as it is, it’s not a reason to despair.

Political change comes when there is a critical mass pushing for it and there are enough brave (or desperate) souls willing to put their necks on the line for it (remember how Museveni’s bush war started?); when the resolution of the autocrat to stay is not very strong; when the ground is fertile; and also when the shopping list of needed reforms is long.

The complication is that we often do not see what the ground is fertile for, and the most important changes tend to be those that the people are not demanding – or indeed even oppose. Take just two examples. The opening of the airwaves in 1994 that led to the explosion of private FM stations; and the economic liberalisation and reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Uganda became the first country in Africa to license independent FM stations that were not owned by the church. However, there was no prominent demand for it.

This change, that had a domino effect in Africa, came as a surprise to many. However, the demand for it was there, just that it was not vocalised. The ruling NRM’s victory in 1986, ended 15 years of political chaos and conflict, outside northern Uganda. It mirrored in many ways what happened after independence in 1962.

After years of struggle, each period needed to give avenues to creative forces that had been suppressed; and to offer platforms to celebrate victory and the memories of those who had fallen in the quest for freedom.
But also, there was a third demand, which historically has been a source of conflict with power – to give voice to those who lost, or feel the spirit of liberation has been betrayed – to express themselves.

The early NRM years were a great period for the revival of serious theatre from the hands of people like Alex Mukulu, but also for the lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, and The Ebonies served up a large dose of that.
Afrigo Band rose from the ashes of conflict like a phoenix, and club football rebounded, defined by the rivalry between Express, KCC, and later Villa.

Makerere once again became a lively scene of debate and philosophical contention, anchored loosely on the right around Apolo Nsibambi, on the left around Mahmood Mamdani, and in the middle you had folks like Tarsis Kabwegyere, Samwiri Karugire and Lwanga Lunyigo.
Even if there hadn’t been the restrictions of the “no-party” system, multiparty politics would not have been enough to allow these forces to flourish.

The decision to free the airwaves was therefore a master stroke, mopping up all these currents and creating a thousand new things.
Then there was economic liberalisation. For starters, the Museveni government’s attempt to run a State-controlled economy, and to push barter trade as an alternative to regular international trade, were abysmal failures.

I will never forget a press conference Museveni gave in late 1986, to explain why there was a problem in milk supplies and, I think, salt! For someone who had just won a guerilla war, and had a broken country to lead, he looked painfully small.
The disruptions to imports and exports petty protectionist tiffs with Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, and an unyielding Ujaama era bureaucracy in Tanzania that affected attempts to diversify our trade to Dar es Salaam, were exhausting the country.

Much like Museveni’s own war had been largely fought by the people, it was all too clear that the energy to forge ahead on the economy could not come from civil servants and politicians, but the people. The government threw in the towel. But liberalisation and reform, which meant honouring the Obote II policies to return grabbed Asian property, ending foreign exchange controls, sharply cutting the civil service, and dropping price controls, were deeply unpopular with both the Uganda left and right.
Liberalisation was opposed by a large section of Ugandans, apart from a small section of the landed and business classes in Buganda and Ankole.

I remember one Friday evening going to Bat Valley, where Afrigo used to play, after I had written a column defending the return of Asian property. I was nearly chased away. I only survived because one of my tormentors had the generosity of heart to acknowledge that in the same column, I had also defended the return of Ebyaffe (kingdoms).

Do not lose heart. Reform and change in Uganda have never been linear. What is popularly demanded, is rarely granted. What is opposed, is often what ends up happening. Ironically, to appreciate that, dispassionately study 31 years of soon-to-be “life president” Museveni.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia. com and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday October 11 2017

A letter from the city that drinks most Ugandan coffee

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  

By Charles ONyango-Obbo

Khartoum: Last June a story in the Daily Monitor had a headline that, if it had been published in 2000, the editor would have been committed to Butabika hospital for the mentally ill.
‘Sudan gives Uganda 2 years to comply with coffee standards’, it said. Before the defeat of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which Kampala believed was backed by Khartoum, and before the independence of South Sudan, it seemed inconceivable that Uganda and Sudan would do any business.

Today Sudan is the leading importer of Ugandan coffee in Africa.
This week, the African Union (AU) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) put on a conference on peace and security in the Horn of Africa, and invited a range of experts and a few rabble rousers from the wilderness, like myself, to Khartoum for a lively debate.

The day before we arrived, the US announced the end of its 20-year-long sanctions on Sudan. For these years, you couldn’t use an international credit in Sudan and some international organisations carried bags of hard foreign currency to pay their staff and expenses. The end of sanctions, therefore, provided an interesting backdrop against which to look at President Omar al-Bashir Sudan.
I am not a fan of Bashir at all, and this as far away from being a freewheeling democracy as it can be. But I was more curious about the Sudan story, although I didn’t imagine there would be an encounter with Bashir.

When you land in Khartoum, you understand why they drink a lot of Ugandan coffee. Villagers generally don’t drink much coffee in Africa. It is city folks who do.
At 20,740 square kilometres, Khartoum is just more than 100 times bigger than Kampala. It is a vast city with a long rich history, which has been fuelled by the dynamics of the River Nile.
This size is a blessing for Ugandan coffee.

When I visit an African city, I do a dawn jog (to be honest, walk) for my “Morning Jogger’s Dipstick Index”. You can learn a lot.
First, if a city is too dangerous, the hotel people will stop you from going running. If there is no street lighting, I usually turn back, and mark it down. If the sidewalk is too dangerous, I do it only once, and slap another negative.

Khartoum scores highly on safety. However, clearly, it is a city that does not rise early. By 6.30am, the streets are still desolate. In Nairobi, a vast army of workers hoofing it to work take over the sidewalks as early as 4am.
There is a building boom in Khartoum, but clearly the fall of oil prices, and the low supplies from Sudan’s shared oil with South Sudan, disrupted by the civil war, has hurt Khartoum. Amidst the boom, many stalled building projects stand out.

But for a country under sanctions, they have still splashed out big time. The long street along the Nile has been built out into a dual way. The Sudanese, whatever their other failings, are surprisingly very good at one thing – running railways. The Nile train is a sleek service East Africa can only dream of. A World Bank official tells me he thinks Sudan’s train service “is definitely among the best on the continent!”

On Sunday evening, Bashir invited us to one of his presidential palaces for dinner. It is inside a vast military compound. Bashir lives deep inside like a queen in an anthill.
The dinner was in a hall close to the gate. We got off our vans, and went in. There were no checks, our phones weren’t taken away, our identities weren’t checked.

After some minutes of waiting, Bashir ambled in in white robes, generally serene. We stood, sat down, and ate. The lifting of US sanctions is big news in Sudan. The newspapers are full of congratulatory messages, and Bashir is being hailed for his “leadership.”

We expected he would give a triumphant speech and propose to the “victory of the Sudanese people”. Bashir sat to our left, surrounded by the likes of former president Thabo Mbeki.
Before long, we were done. There was no speech. He stood up, hugged a few big men and women from around Africa, shook hands around, and was off.

For a man who has had two knee surgeries in recent times, Bashir looked in remarkable good cheer. In addition, with his rivals dispatched or sidelined, this is a man who clearly feels he didn’t need to crow about his recent victory.
A few years, no one would have put money on Bashir being in what looks like the sweet spot he is in today. We shall return to examine his fortunes in the future.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday October 4 2017

Idi Amin is dead. Long live ‘Life president’ Amin




Amidst chaotic and violent scenes in the Uganda Parliament last week, a Bill to amend the Constitution and lift the 75 years presidential age limit made its way to Parliament.
As happened in 1966 when Milton Obote overthrew the 1962 Constitution, security forces laid siege to Parliament. This time though, unlike 51 years ago, security officers entered the chamber and bundled out Opposition MPs. The age limit amendment, which would allow President Yoweri Museveni to stand for an eighth term (two of them unelected) in 2021, when he officially will be 77 years, is the last step in his president for life project.
The first key step was the removal of the presidential two-term limit in 2005.

Museveni would thus become Uganda’s second President for Life, after military dictator Field Marshal Idi Amin. That is a very select group, so it is appropriate we go back to Idi to see what set Amin and Museveni apart, and also what unites them on the common path. It might help refresh Amin, and clarify Museveni and the politics of our times – for those without a great sense of history.

Amin was declared “life president”(sic!) in 1976. He had only been in power for five years at that point, so on first impression it was an unnecessary act. Museveni has been in power now for 31 years, six times longer than Amin, so there is more mathematical substance to his quest to be president for life. There is more meat there.

So why would Amin have sought to be “life president” after just five years. It’s important to remember that during the “military coup era” in Africa (late 1960s to start of the 1990s), there was an unofficial term limit in play. Very few generals who seized power ruled for 10 years (two terms).

It was normal for a coup leader to survive just days in office, before he was murdered or ousted by other mutinous soldiers. Amin was largely on the backfoot by 1976. The attack by Uganda exile dissidents from Tanzania, including Museveni’s FRONASA forces, had failed four years earlier, but the amped crackdown had built up greater domestic resistance and the exile forces were regrouping.

Tensions between Tanzania and Uganda were up sharply. In a bid to rouse nationalist sentiment, in February 1976, Amin laid claim to Kenyan territory and it seemed the two countries would go to war. The economy was hollowed out, following the expulsion of Asians in 1972, and the flight of capital and sanctions that followed in the years after. In July Amin was humiliated when the Israelis staged the hostage rescue in Entebbe and blew up his Airforce’s jets.
Museveni faces a very different geopolitical and regional environment. Ever since the defeat of Joseph Kony and his LRA; the independence of South Sudan; the normalisation of relations with Rwanda some years ago; and the return of relative peace in the eastern parts of DR Congo border with Uganda, Kampala doesn’t have to lose sleep over hostile neighbours.

Amin was a loud supporter of the Palestinian cause. Museveni’s Kampala has since shifted and made peace with Israel, and Palestine has disappeared from the government’s language. Amin also had his dramatic moments around the apartheid regime in South Africa.
He would frequently hold mock military exercises of attacks on the racist regime. It didn’t make much practical difference, but at a time when the apartheid regime seemed unbeatable, Amin’s exercises were symbolical significant morale boosters.
Museveni fared much better, being able to do more to support South African liberation, and offered the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and other groups a base in Uganda in the years ahead of the end of apartheid.

Given the perilous nature of being a military leader, an unfavourable international environment, regional threats all around him, an economic crisis and mounting domestic dissent (there was another assassination attempt on Amin early in 1976), Idi needed to project strength and a sense of stability. The presidency for life was politically and geopolitically necessary, if you look at it from his point of view.

There is no equal bigger picture necessity for Museveni to be president for life, but there is from a personal power perspective and the dynamics of dynastic politics in which he is caught. Also, with dramatic demographic shifts, and wider social changes in Uganda as in the rest of the world, it’s not so much that Uganda wants to get rid of Museveni, as that it has moved ahead of him. The presidency for life locks the door so that Uganda doesn’t bolt from under him.
Amin needed to be president for life. Museveni, on the other hand, wants to be president for life. That is what sets them apart most.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday September 27 2017

It’s good for the age limit to be removed at gun point

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 


Last week in these pages, Makerere University law don Joe Oloka-Onyango writing about the military siege of the Uganda Parliament ahead of an expected move to amend the Constitution and remove the age limit for president noted: “Not since the enactment of the ‘Pigeon Hole’ Constitution in 1966 have we seen government troops amassed at the Legislative Assembly in a bid to intimidate and force through a constitutional change…
“Milton Obote must be laughing his head off.”

He was correct. If you opened Obote’s grave in Akokoro where he was buried, you will find it empty. His spirit is basking in the grounds of Parliament, and in the evenings you can find it knocking back tots of its favourite drink Mateus in the Parliament canteen.
Obote was prime minister in 1966 when he overturned the independence Constitution after the attack on the Lubiri, deposing Buganda’s Kabaka Freddie Muteesa, who was president.

That started the series of events that turned Uganda into a one-party dictatorship; led to the overthrow of Obote the first time in January 1971 and the rise of Idi Amin; the fall of Amin; the chaos in the Uganda National Liberation Front that took over from him; the disputed election of December 1980 that led to Obote’s second ascendance to power; the anger that sent Yoweri Museveni to the bush to fight him, and ultimately his victory in 1986 after a war that based in one of the epicentres of anti-Obote sentiment, Luweero.

Most histories of Uganda, especially from the intellectual right, see the 1966 events as the beginning of the ills in Ugandan politics. And, equally, opposition to what it represents as the root of Museveni’s rise to power and the legitimacy of his rule.
That it happened last week in Museveni’s Uganda is, therefore, a big deal. It represented the final stage of the rehabilitation of Apollo Milton Obote, and the moment when the ruling NRM and Obote’s UPC finally became one.
However, I actually see some good possibilities in soldiers and paramilitary police surrounding Parliament to force MPs to vote to give Museveni a presidency for life.

That very act delegitimises the action, and creates a deep grievance that ensures that he must be overturned in future. If Obote had negotiated the kingdoms out of existence in 1966, and not called on Amin to attack the Lubiri, Uganda would be a very different country today. Different, yes, but would it have been better? Obote possibly would have been president until his death in 2005, a record 40 years plus – which is the target Museveni seems to be aiming for.

In several respects, 1994 and 1995 were pivotal years for Uganda and Museveni’s rule. Despite the no-party system, quite a diverse group of Ugandans were elected to the Constituent Assembly to write the new constitution. It was, broadly speaking, quite a progressive Constitution for Africa and world of 1995. The one point of contention was that it perpetuated the one-party (no party system), but many Ugandans were happy to live with the inconvenience. Shortly after, NRM hardliners liked to say the party would rule Uganda for 100 years, and some put it at 600 years. There was a part of me that could see that happening, if the NRM had stuck to the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

One of the biggest blows to the Constitution came in 2005 when, in exchange for removing the presidential term limit, MPs were paid a few million shillings. It was the social equivalent of vomiting over the dinner table. It devalued the Constitution considerably.
The last vestiges of credibility the Constitution had are now being destroyed by the militarisation of its amendment. But as the Obote years taught us, every change of the Constitution that is obtained by bribes or at gun-point, automatically become mandatory points of future reform.

Secondly it ensures that while Museveni will get more bites at the cherry, the NRM will not rule for 100 years. In fact it might not exist for 50 years. The UPC has now been around for 57 years, and the Democratic Party for 63 years.
The price the UPC paid for that was to lose power twice. For DP, the price it has paid is to have never been in power. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, in Uganda to have both the longevity of a president’s rule and long life expectancy for his party.

Those who want the NRM order to definitively end with Museveni should pray that when the vote on the age limit comes, this time the army would enter the Parliament chamber and replace the Speaker’s mace with a machine gun. It will finally render this Constitution so dirty, that a future Uganda can only be built on the basis of something totally different and new.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday September 20 2017

Land: Museveni can have his cake and eat it too


By Charles Onyango-obbo

President Yoweri Museveni has run into some serious headwinds, in his plans to change the Constitution to make it easier, basically, for the government to grab one’s land for “development” for the price of the first stanza of the National Anthem.

The 1995 Constitution was, in several ways, revolutionary when it provided that land belongs to the people. And with that was enshrined the idea that if the government wanted land, it could not acquire it compulsorily without compensation valued at close to the going market rate. I do fully appreciate that there is scalping in land pricing when all of a sudden there is a plan for some high value infrastructure to run through it. Fellows come up with the craziest prices, but there is a smarter way of going around these things than diluting people’s right to their property.
This column has written before that one neat way to do this is to impose a land tax.

The second one is to offer people equity in the project in exchange for land. These market mechanisms that some people like to rail against these days, have their time-tested value.
For every acre of land, say the tax on it is Sh10,000 a year, on average. It can be more than double that near Kampala, and a quarter of that figure in a corner of pristine Koboko.

It can be backdated, say, to five years ago, for purposes of argument. The ka-fellow with a prime 10 acres on Entebbe Road, would have to pony up Sh100,000 a year.
If there is a development on the land, the first 10 acres of a piece would be levy-free. The tax would apply to the rest of the acres after the 10. But if the whole land is covered with maize or cattle, then the tax doesn’t apply. You tax the crops and crops when they are sold.
Now, of course, most Ugandans wouldn’t be able to pay. But that doesn’t mean they would lose their land. No, the system would be such that the tax is debited against them every year.

So, again to our brother on Entebbe Road. If he does nothing and just squats on the land, after 10 years, he would owe the government Sh1 million. If the levy was 10 times higher, he would owe Sh10 million.
If the government decides to build a dual carriageway that passes through his land, the law could be such that he cannot price it more than 50 per cent beyond the Sh10 million he owes. The most he could sell it for, therefore, would be Sh15 million. But the law would be such that the government would net off Sh10 million, so he would get Sh5 million.
Now, there is some land that has deep cultural and spiritual purposes, and there is also that which belongs to churches and mosques.
Cultural land would have a baked in premium.

Thus if the land on Entebbe Road was a sacred burial or worship ground, it would get Sh1 million points on its 10 acres every year. The idea is that when the tax levy applies, its rate becomes zero.

There are some churches in Uganda that have vast lands carried over from the pre-independence period when they were privileged by the colonial order. Today, some of it is leased out by corrupt bishops and priests. The amount of church land that is tax-free needs to be limited to no more than 20 acres, in places where they do not have a school, hospital, or some community project.

This single move would see the tax woman (since it’s Doris Akol) with billions more in revenues pouring out of her ears. It would also entrench cultural property. But it would throw the land completely open and unleash some very disruptive but creative forces.
It would also make it much easier and cheaper for government to get land for “development”. And it would not require a Constitution amendment.

So why isn’t this market-clever and neat option being pursued? Simple, because it would apply to everyone, and right now, the powerful people, including possibly the President himself, hold vast tracts of land.
Part of the spoils of office, and the patronage these landed people enjoy, is that they get to hold on to large pieces of land for speculative purposes without having to pay a penalty for their market-distorting behaviour. Seizing it punishes the smaller powerless men and women.
The other option is equity. If you are building a toll road through the land, give the landowners a share in it. If it is an airport, let them own a piece of it and share in some of its revenue. Since Museveni wants to be on the throne for life, this is the more peaceful path.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data
visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3