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

Wednesday September 13 2017

Still dealing with the Kenya court shock, but the clouds are clearing

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The September 1 decision by the Kenya Supreme Court to overturn the August 8 presidential elections, the first in Africa based on an opposition petition, continues to reverberate.
The New York Times, which had written a stinging editorial against opposition candidate Raila Odinga after the vote, retracted it and noted that something huge had just happened in Kenya.

It was interesting to read the comments from a debate on the implications of the Kenyan Supreme Court decision on Uganda’s and the region’s democracy. Honestly, I don’t think there will be any direct impact, because that is not how these things happen.
You see, there are those who argue that President Paul Kagame’s anti-crusading ways, and Rwanda’s state efficiency, is because they do not want to end up like Uganda.

President Daniel arap Moi used to be wary of the NRM government and President Yoweri Museveni’s “revolutionary” ways. Museveni used to be a sensation in Kenya in those days. Some comrades in Kenya even talk of carrying out a “people’s war”.
There was no rebellion, and Moi learnt from Uganda to gradually liberalise the politics, but most set on security sector reform.

While in Uganda Museveni and team learnt that you need to have control of the army, Moi took the view that the best path to stability was to professionalise and make it less partisan. At its core, therefore, Kenya has the region’s most professional intelligence and military service.
The evidence then suggests that while East African countries respond to developments in the neighbourhood, they usually don’t follow them.

On the specific case of the Kenya Supreme Court ruling on presidential elections, we can brace for extreme responses. In a couple of African countries, it could lead to a setback to judicial reforms.

In others, as we have seen in countries like Senegal where President Macky Sall actually faced opposition when he wanted to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years, it could lead to dramatic electoral reforms.

What no one is talking much about is the case’s likely impact in Kenya itself. Right now, the focus is whether there will be violence. Well, there was violence already after the results in the August vote were announced, as there was that deadly wave in 2008 that killed nearly 1,400 and, for the first time, sent Kenyans fleeing as refugees to eastern Uganda.

The true effects are likely to be seen after both Uhuru and Raila Odinga have left the active political scene.
I got a taste of it last Friday. Former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga organised a dinner for a small group of friends at an upmarket restaurant in a leafy Nairobi suburb.

I was the first to arrive. The place was chock-a-block. Additional tables and chairs were being rushed to the verandah.
I called him to ask if he booked a table for our group. He said; “No. I don’t think that restaurant takes bookings.
For all the years I have been going there, I have never found it so full that there are no open tables”.

When he arrived, he was shocked. At some of the tables for five, they had squeezed in a sixth chair. This is supposed to be the “period of uncertainty” after the Supreme Court ruling, and posh restaurants are supposed to be half-empty, not overflowing.
Part of the reason was in the crowd. A good chunk of it was foreigners.
It would seem that while, for most Kenyans, the court had heightened uncertainty, outsiders who generally work on low expectations of Africa and its institutions, had been buoyed by its ruling.

If you have an African country where a court can overturn a presidential election, then if you are an international company, your confidence that the same country’s court can rule in your favour if you are in a business dispute with a minister or president, increases.
While many foreign firms have been headquartering their Africa operations in Nairobi in recent years, expect that to turn into a flood over the next four years.

Raising business confidence was probably the one thing that the Kenya Supreme Court justices never had in mind. It might end up being the most enduring legacy of their decision.
Here is the second ironical thing. While the decision did not go in favour of Uhuru, because his family has extensive business, he could actually turn out to be one of the biggest beneficiaries in the end.

For East Africa, then, the first major impact of the case could be far away from the elections. Kenya might just have a leg up in business competitiveness.
Looking 10 years ahead, those fundamentals won’t change much, even if violence follows the repeat vote on October 17. Until a court somewhere else in Africa overturns a presidential vote.

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

Wednesday September 6 2017

How Kenya’s Supreme Court became first in Africa to overturn presidential election


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On September 1, Kenya’s Supreme Court overturned the August 8 election of President Uhuru Kenyatta, and ordered that a new vote be held within 60 days.
Following the August 8 election, opposition leader Raila Odinga filed a challenge in the Supreme Court, alleged the vote had been rigged. The court, however, ruled that President Kenyatta’s hands were largely clean.

While presidential results have been overturned in Africa before, they have been by military juntas or pro-government courts, egged on by an incumbent refusing to concede defeat to the opposition – for example - in Nigeria in 1993, Madagascar in 2002, and Ivory Coast in 2010. In Madagascar and Ivory Coast, after skirmishes and even war, the initial winners eventually got their crowns.
The September 1 Kenya verdict was therefore historic, as it was the first time in Africa a court ruled against the electoral victory of an incumbent and ordered a new election, based on a court petition by the opposition.

Question then is, how did Kenya get to that point? The common answer being thrown around is that it is because Kenya’s Judiciary is independent in ways most of its African peers, barring South Africa, are not. However, that is like saying eggs come from the supermarket. You might buy your eggs from the supermarket, yes, but they come from a chicken farm somewhere.
To understand the “shocking” Kenya Supreme Court verdict, one needs to go back to the political farm.

First, the political cost of annulling the August 8 election was, in reality, quite low. With the 2010 constitution that created and highly decentralised key functions to 47 counties and powerful governors, there is less of a political crisis and vacuum if the president in Nairobi is hobbled.
Secondly, Kenya has several fall back positions.

A key pillar of the State, the military, in Kenya is fairly professional and non-partisan. While different presidents have always appointed “their men” to the top positions of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), over the last 20 years, at the core it has evolved into a force for stability.
Judges can rule against a president’s election knowing they will not emerge from the court to find a tank pointing its turret at the door, as would happen in quite a few countries.
Still, how did all those things become possible?

Its roots go back to how the pro-democracy movement evolved in Kenya during the Cold War and into the 1990s, heralding the end of one-party rule and a return to multiparty politics.
Partly because of how it has urbanised, the structure of agriculture and land ownership, and the nature of its food market with ugali as its staple, guerrilla war is a much more difficult form of resistance than in Uganda, for one.
But it makes for very effective civil society mobilisation, and Kenyans mastered it like perhaps only two other countries have on the continent.
The fight for reforms and political change in Kenya was thus carried out by a wide front of civil society groups working with opposition parties, while in East Africa in Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, it was via armed struggle.

An armed struggle is destructive, but offers many benefits too. It uproots the old regime and its structures more completely, allowing the victors to start on a clean slate and make far-reaching economic and social reforms, if they are so inclined.
But because in the end it is bullets, not philosophical arguments about the nature of the State, that win, they tend to recreate the old state with a benign face – not a totally different one. Thus presidential power will usually remain quite concentrated at the centre. The path Kenya took is longer, though fewer people die.
Thus by drip, drip civil society-cum-political action, culminating in the 2010 constitution, Kenyan power suffered a level of philosophical attack its African peers have not. The Kenyan presidency has thus been hollowed out substantially, although outwardly it does not appear so. Also, one of the failings of Kenya is its widely panned “tribal politics”. It would be wrong to totally dismiss tribal politics in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, because just because a party is ethnic, doesn’t mean it lacks democratic content.
Nevertheless, because in the last two decades Kenya’s parties have tended to be largely ethnic or regional, they remain mainly unable while in power to totally dominate the State and the country the way the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) does in Uganda, SWAPO in Namibia, or UNITA in Angola, to name a few. That weakness, on the plus sides, has allowed state institutions greater wiggle room for independence. The ethnicised nature of Kenya politics is, therefore, both a curse and a blessing.
•This is an abridged version of a longer commentary published on

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

Wednesday August 30 2017

Across the border and here at home, strange-good in schools


By Charles Onyango-obbo

Every now and then, you run into stories that mess your head about Africa. When it comes to education, the latest from Rwanda nearly yanked my head off my shoulders. According to a recent report in the regional weekly The East African, public (government) schools in Rwanda have improved so much, students are abandoning private schools in large numbers. The exodus is so huge, private schools are closing.
The story said that private schools had appealed to the government to pay and send students to them, so they can survive. Thankfully, the government said no. That is not the way the free market in education works. I never thought I would read a headline like that in an African newspaper for a long time.

That story is up there with one I read about Uganda some years ago. It said Uganda had the highest rate of “home schooling” in East Africa and possibly in Africa! I haven’t seen the latest data, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the trend held. I personally know a couple in Kenya who home school their kids. I know three in Uganda.
The Rwanda case is unusual, because in nearly all of Africa, whenever the government announces that it is introducing [free] Universal Primary Education (UPE) or Universal Secondary Education (USE) private investors rush to buy land and build schools.

Because the quality of education in the State sector is so lousy, when governments announce that they are increasing enrolment, parents who can get a little money take off with their children like rats from a sinking ship and head to private schools. The private schools are better managed, pay teachers better and on time (some are predators it must be admitted), and tend to have better facilities.
At some of the best and more pricey private primary and secondary schools in Africa, kids get an email on their first day, they have a room to themselves with a small fridge, get their laundry done, and order what they would like to eat ahead from a long menu.
There have been stories of children who finish school at the same time as their once well-paid or rich parents lose their jobs or fall on hard times, and the most luxurious time they ever have is when they were at school.
What is happening in Rwanda, and the fact that many Ugandans home school their children, should tell us that there is something amiss with the private school model.
The problem is not, as some politicians like to argue, that private schools (especially boarding ones) are socially and economically bad.

Rather, private schools should not exist because the government is hopeless at providing good education. Great believer in the free market as I might be, it is really not a good way to spend your money to pay Shs5,000,000 a term for your child to learn exactly the same subject which is being taught for the equivalent of Shs50,000 a term in a government school – albeit badly. Schools should exist as a different academic, social, and philosophical universe. Most parents who home-school their kids are usually the highly educated ones with good jobs and professions, who can afford to set up the infrastructure to do that at home. In Uganda, they can afford to take their kids to the most expensive schools, but they don’t.
They don’t because they think the schools – private and public – wouldn’t impart the right kind of values they would like their children to have. Some want their children to have a highly religious education, which the best public and private schools wouldn’t offer.
One of those I know wanted their children to get a purely “scientific” upbringing, and didn’t want their kids to be taught all that stuff about God creating woman from a man’s ribs, and how he made us from Earth.

In other parts of the world, some schools have abolished homework and think that it, and uniforms, kill children’s imagination and impose a harmful uniformity that is not good for democracy and creativity. Others think children these days are spoilt, and need structure and to be beaten into line. They provide the goods accordingly.
These deeply philosophical alternatives are what make the difference between public and private schools meaningful. Not the fact that a child will get to learn to ride a horse at the expensive private school that teaches the Uneb curriculum, and another one will walk barefoot to a UPE school to study the same thing.
The fact that Rwanda’s private schools are in crisis because the State offering is better is proof that they existed for the wrong reasons. Their Ugandan counterparts need to learn before a smart government takes power in Kampala in I don’t know how many years to come.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data

visualiser and explainer site


Wednesday August 23 2017

Never a dull moment: Why we love Africa and its dictators


By Charles Onyango-obbo

You must just love Africa. I would never give up being an African for anything else in the world. Look what happened a few days. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) held its summit in Pretoria, South Africa’s political capital.
The summit bid farewell to two retiring regional leaders.

First, veteran Angolan big man José Eduardo dos Santos. Dos Santos, the third longest-ruling African leader after Paul Biya of Cameroon, and dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, has “been in things” (to use a good old Ugandan expression) for 38 years.
Angola heads to the polls today, and Dos Santos will step down, though he will still be at the helm of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
They also waved goodbye to Botswana’s Ian Khama, who leaves office in April 2018, after his constitutional two terms.

However, also in attendance was our man, Uncle Bob of Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe has been in power for 37 years, and is officially in campaign mode seeking re-election next year.
Soon turning 94, time has taken its toll on Uncle Bob’s long revolutionary life. He is sickly, and recent videos show him barely able to walk or even wipe his own nose. At this rate, by the time of the Zimbabwe election in July or August 2018, he will probably need help to cast his vote.
But he won’t give up just yet. Dos Santos turns 74 on August 28, 20 years younger than Mugabe.

Uganda is also headed in the same direction, as the lifting of the 75-year age limit to allow President Yoweri Museveni bid for office in 2021 looms larger.
Usually, when presidencies-for-life are discussed, there is a lot of focus on the hunger for power of the Mugabes, Nguemas, Biyas and Musevenis of this world. They are usually the problem.
We never ask what it says about the countries where these men rule. Can it only be that their subjects are too afraid to oppose them, or that they are ruthless in suppressing Opposition? Are their politicians venal, so easy to buy off? Do the peculiarities of the type of colonial rule they endured explain anything?
What do Zimbabwe, Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, Congo, and so on, have in common? It’s hard to see.

They are spread all over Africa, some are landlocked, and some are coastal.
Can these countries, after the Big Men leave, ever be democratic for long periods, or there is something in their soil and air that inevitably breeds despotism?
It is surprising how relatively little study of “these other things” there is. Part of it is understandable. If research suggested that all sorts of natural conditions make democracy impossible in Uganda, for example, then it would mean the country is doomed. It also negates the great possibilities of agency, i.e. that we Ugandans cannot bring about a truly free society however much we tried.
The possibilities of ending up with these “pre-destination” and dead-end kinds of conclusions thus make scholars reluctant to explore the subject.
But since this column is not the Ten Commandments, we shall be naughty and poke a stick in the snake’s hole.

There are many tell tale signs that an African country might struggle with democracy, but the one that I find coincides (it might not necessarily explain) with authoritarianism of some variety nearly 90 per cent of the time is glorious history.
When an African nation has a glorious history, and its fair share of heroic emperors, kings, queens, and generals who fought foreign invaders, or had built great courts and had a tradition of learning, you need to be on a democracy alert. There you have your Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, Angola, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, the Congos, Sudan, Swaziland, and others.
Those days, of course, when these great kings reigned, there were no formal notions of the limitations of a ruler’s power.

If a ruler didn’t die in his sleep, in battle, or was killed in a plot, he or she just ruled on and on.
But if you look at the island states (Mauritius, Cape Verde), and the smaller countries that were territories that weren’t led by larger than life figures (Botswana, Malawi), they have had a better chance of building liberal democracies.
That still leaves us with Ghana, and even Senegal.

How come with the rich history of their rulers, they have fidgeted with modern democracy a little more successfully? It seems the answer is in finding a “right balance” as the Ghanaians have with the asantehenes, and the Nigerians with their chieftaincies.
Likewise, beware of a country that has great monuments (the pyramids in Egypt and Sudan, the Zimbabwe stone carvings), or colourful traditional costumes and rich foods (Egypt). A certain hankering for a glorious past creates fertile ground for a modern day despot to fill the void. More later.

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

Wednesday August 16 2017

I smell future sports glory for Uganda in the air


By Charles Onyango-obbo

The IAAF World Championships ended in London Sunday, and Uganda came off with only one silver, via the legs of Joshua Kiprui Cheptegei in the 10,000 metres. Yet, I think it was Uganda’s best athletics appearance on the world stage since the days of Idi Amin.
Though the women didn’t win anything, I don’t remember there has been a time over this period when there were as many of them running in Ugandan colours as in the London World Championship, despite their being only a handful (we are not counting the Commonwealth Games here).
So what is happening? It’s possible we are seeing the results of the “Kiprotich Effect”, following Stephen Kiprotich’s sensational marathon gold medal in the London 2012 Olympics, when he ended the country’s 40-year gold drought at the Games. These things have a demonstration effect, with Kip’s glory making other young people see that their dreams and hard work can become possible.
We should also not underestimate the impact of the Cranes qualifying for the last Africa Cup of Nations, although they didn’t travel far in the tournament.

These things create a cloud of possibilities, but a few other things also need to happen.
For starters, I sense that there might be an opening in the East African middle and long distance running market. It seems Ethiopia is wobbling, and is producing fewer and fewer dominant athletes.
In the East African Community, Uganda seems to be churning out runners more than Tanzania, Rwanda, or Burundi, in total numbers.

You could say the country is on a mini roll. Part of it is that the Sebei area, from where most of our winning stars come from, is in the same Rift Valley belt that stretches to the eastern part of the Republic. In the Rift Valley, kids wake up early and run before they go to the well or to school. Their ears are full of stories of other children from their villages who made it big, and they all want a piece of the action.
Now Kenya has at least seven training camps and centres, where athletes from allover the world come to train.

A whole economy has developed around these camps, and it’s lucrative business. For them to work, you need a good number of quality runners who can be training partners. We are beginning to get there.
And, of course, the camps need to be in the right places, ie at high altitude somewhere in Sebei.

The government should stay away; this is stuff for private investors…so there. Perhaps the government can concession an international sports training centre, and grant land for it. But for heaven’s sake, it should not try to run it.
If it were done, which rich long distance runner in the world would not write a cheque to come and train with Kip somewhere on the slopes of Mt Elgon?

For its part, the government and sporting authorities should bring more events like the IAAF World Cross Country Championships that took place in Kololo in March.
Seeing in the flesh glamorous and world-beating athletes whom they had only watched on TV fires up young – and old - minds.

But the rest of what is needed has nothing to do with sports.

I think the biggest explanation for the rise of world-beating African athletes in recent years is economic reforms.
Once very closed economies (like Ethiopia) begun to open up, removed currency controls, and allowed citizens to open foreign currency accounts at home, many good sportsmen and women who could win on the world stage were now motivated to go out and run for money, knowing the State wouldn’t confiscate it, nor would it be squirrelled away through rigged exchange rates set by bureaucrats.
The other second change was the increased ease of obtaining passports.

In the past, passports were the privilege of a few, so good athletes couldn’t travel to compete. All these kids who run well on school sports days should get East African passports and be dispatched to run in marathons in the region.
Third, is the Internet. It has allowed talented athletes to gain knowledge far beyond that available locally on training and races. Kenyan runners, for example, now travel to Nigeria to clean out the Lagos marathon. How would they have known that there’s a marathon in Lagos?
Fourth is television, especially pay services like DSTv, that air a lot of international sports.

These days you win the Kampala marathon, and the whole of Africa - and the world - sees you pulling it off, and immediately there is global interest from sports managers and brands.
Doing more of these things well could unlock sports glory for Uganda again.
Surely, it cannot be that since Akii Bua, Abako has not produced another son or daughter with his racing genes.

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

Wednesday August 9 2017

Why death of UPDF troops in Somalia is very upsetting


By Charles Onyango-obbo

I was extremely upset when I read the stories in Daily Monitor about 12 UPDF soldiers with Amisom who were killed during an al-Shabaab attack on African Union troops in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region recently.
They were deaths that could have been prevented, if they had been travelling in armoured trucks, which they lack.

It was a pathetic moment to read the pleas to the US to provide armoured trucks and helicopters for Amisom.
This is Africa! Our governments will find helicopters and armoured cars to contain protestors on the streets of their capitals, but want someone else to pay for the safety of their troops in a critical pan-African peacekeeping mission.
I am a quasi-pacifist and on-and-off anti-militarist, so ideally, I should not be so upset when soldiers are killed in a military enterprise.

In addition, the UPDF has been the cornerstone of the NRM regimes’ anti-democratic manoeuvres, and its rogue elements have committed atrocities in Kasese, Teso, the north and Karamoja over the years.
Despite all these minuses, I am still unfashionably “pro the boys”. Over the years I have examined this inconsistent attitude, and what could be considered stupidity on my part. Well, it turns out many Ugandans of my generation feel the same way.
They are generally pro-UPDF, and direct their anger at the “rotten apples” and crudely partisan elements in it.

There is a good reason for it. Counting from my secondary school, to high school and university, in virtually every class, there is at least one friend and two classmates who over the last 35 years, have died in war or because they were suspected to be supporting rebels, in the last year of the Idi Amin regime and during Obote II as many had joined the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) that was hounded after Museveni took to the bush.

If they were not classmates, they were playmates in the neighbourhoods where we grew up as kids. In a family that was very close to us, all the boys except one who was away in the US, died fighting in President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) war.

Close friends at university like retired Maj Gen and FDC president Mugisha Muntu and others “disappeared” and those of us who didn’t know, wondered what had happened to them.
On the day before Museveni made his famous “not a change of guard but fundamental change” speech on the steps of Parliament on January 26, 1986, the victorious NRA rebels held their first formal press conference at President’s Office.

It was not an occasion to miss, so we crowded the room. One by one, the commanders as they were called in the pre-hierarchy days, filed in. And with everyone a mystery was solved. In came Jim Muhwezi, then Muntu, and…
Then we also started to learn the stories of the many friends and classmates who didn’t make it out of Luweero alive.

I never got over Muntu. Sitting in his Livingstone Hall room playing Barry White and mulling the times and seasons, I would have eaten my cap if you had told me he would go to the bush and take up a gun.
If you were to seek to blame groups of Ugandans for ruining this fair country, you would have to indict the immediate post-independence generation, and those who threw away the chance to salvage it after Amin’s ouster in 1979.

Whatever mistakes were made, and flaws of the NRA, it still represented the point at which the largest cohort of educated and middle class Ugandans took the highest risk to make a better country.
Mahmood Mamdani used to say that whatever one’s political views, we “can’t sit here in Kampala and pretend that something historic and important didn’t happen in Luweero”.
For people born earlier, and those who have come in later years, it might not be the case. But for our generation, even those who didn’t fight or support the war, Luweero was still the grand moment of redemption.

There have been three such moments in Uganda in the last 150 years. In the late 1800s in kings Kabalega and Mwanga’s war against British colonialism; in the independence struggle; and in the early 1980s.

The evolution of the UPDF from several, and ultimately and mainly the NRA in the early 1980s, means that our generation cannot repudiate it without throwing away our moment of redemption.

Former prime minister Kintu Musoke used to say that “the difference between Museveni and his group and all other progressives in Uganda is that everyone talked about revolution. They actually went out and succeeded”.
We are prisoners of the more glorious parts of this history, and to the memory of friends we lost. I guess we are stuck with it.

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


Wednesday August 2 2017

Kenya election could go bad, but it’s still a good story for African politics


By Charles ONyango-Obbo

On August 8, Kenya votes, with opinion polls showing incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta running neck and neck with main Opposition rival Raila Odinga.

It is a grand understatement to say that nerves are on edge. Since Kenya returned to a multiparty system in 1992, every election with an incumbent defending resulted in some violence. The pattern seems to hold so consistently, that some analysts and politics scholars argue that the main predictor for Kenya election violence is whether there is an incumbent running or not.
In 2002, Daniel arap Moi stepped down, and that vote went peacefully. Mwai Kibaki won, and in 2007 he defended his job. The country erupted in its worst political violence. In 2013, Kibaki stepped down, and though there was probably more tension than in 2007, the vote went off peacefully.
But there is more at play, especially if we look at the meaning of this vote in the wider African context.

With Africa’s highest Internet penetration among its most digitally combative citizens, and the freest press in East Africa, it allows for a level of raucous debate and on-edge ethnic sabre rattling that one only occasionally sees in Uganda in this region.
This tends to amplify the fear factor, creating greater unease. In other words, one of the things that makes Kenyan electoral politics scary, is actually good – freedom.

And, despite electoral shenanigans, the vote in Kenya is usually deadly close. In 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta won the election with 50.07 per cent – just 8,000 votes!
Those are the kinds of votes President Yoweri Museveni can afford to lose in a clerical error, and which African leaders in the more tightly controlled “developmental states”, or democratic-dictatorships where presidents still get more than 95 per cent of the vote, can afford to donate to their rivals and no one would notice. So, even if Kenya goes sideways this time, and with election officials being killed that danger is real, something critical to African democracy is still happening here.
First, after many years in which it seemed that Africa’s freerer and more noisy democracies were on the slide, failing to deliver both democracy and economic growth, which has changed.

While South Africa and Nigeria have both floundered, and Zambia is sliding back in the doghouse, Kenya and Senegal, for example, still managed to notch deliver both democracy and impressive growth.

In once-strife-torn Ivory Coast, we nevertheless saw one of the first impressive post-conflict economic recoveries in Africa that was not led by a dictatorship or semi-authoritarian regime.
What countries like Kenya have helped to do is to deliver a powerful alternative narrative to the cute authoritarian model. You can have a freewheeling, noisy, even sectarian, and democratic politics and still post economic growth.

Kenya, and recently Ghana, also masked other far-reaching steps forwards. In Ghana at the elections of last December, where the Opposition’s New Patriotic Party’s (NPP) Nana Akufo-Addo handily defeated President John Mahama and his National Democratic Congress (NDC) after one term, something unthinkable in Uganda happened.

Both the NPP and NDC released their version of the results at hourly press conferences, and no one bothered to stop them. In Uganda, to use an infamous expression from the past, you would “end up 6 feet under the ground” if you were FDC and tried something like that.
At our last elections, the police raided the FDC offices and seized copies of their returning officers’ forms. In previous elections, they raided their vote tally centres.

In Kenya, the Opposition will have its own tally centres. The electoral commission met with them to agree on the ground rules – i.e. they cannot purport to release official results.

But the Kenyan court has probably made that redundant. It ruled that the results announced at the polling centres will be final, and cannot be altered. In other words, there will be no updates at the national tally centre in Nairobi. It will be at the constituencies, end of story.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission will just announce the final thing. But as the vote comes in, it will among other things, post the forms signed by all party agents to its website, and that will primarily be what goes for updates.

You get the sense that even many Kenyans don’t appreciate how far out of the African world that is, and as a transparency process, how truly ahead it places them. And yes, I would like to assure former Uganda Electoral Commission chairman Badru Kiggundu that I am not making any of this up.
None of this ensures that there won’t be vote fiddling. However, looking five to 10 years ahead, many will see that this year was one of the defining moments for Kenyan democracy and another key inflection point for African electoral politics.

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


Wednesday July 26 2017

25 years ago, The Monitor was born. Drama was unfolding in Uganda


By Charles Onyango-obbo

The Monitor newspaper celebrated its 25th birthday on July 24. It would seem to be the perfect time to reflect on media freedom in Uganda, and the legacy of The Monitor, but I shall resist the urge. Only to say that The Monitor has managed to pull off something hardly any other private Ugandan company – and the DP, UPC, and NRM parties – have succeeded in doing.
After 25 years, through both happy and sometimes unpleasurable means, it is the only organisation at that age which is still thriving, and where neither the founders, their children, or spouses still lead it as chief executive, board chair, or powerful shadowy employees. It is probably the country’s best example of transition (business and political) – and it happened within the space of about 15 years. Very unAfrican. Proud to have been part of it.
The Monitor story, however, makes more sense in the bigger political, economic, and geopolitical backdrop of 1992. When the NRM seized power in 1986, in the first few weeks its leaders said it was supposed to be a “transitional” government, and that there was to be a multiparty election in 1990. President Yoweri Museveni said he didn’t plan to be ruling beyond that point!
Clearly that position was offered by the NRM out of weakness.

By 1992, it was sufficiently entrenched. Though it used methods that will one day come back to haunt it, it had defeated the rebellions in Teso; it had routed the Alice Lakwena Holy Spirit Movement; it had prevailed over the DP in the south; and it had sent UPC in disarray.
It had pulled off very controversial (though necessary) economic liberalisation reforms, started privatisation, partially freed the energy market (fuel); dismantled parasitic State enterprises; overhauled the civil service and old police; and had all but completed the most critical phase of post-war reconstruction outside the political north.
It was now confident enough to harden the “broad-based no-party” system into a one-party State, and with the roadmap clear, it pushed ahead on the making of the new constitution, which was just over two years down the road.
The NRM’s biggest headache was, especially Buganda and its demand for the restoration of the kingdoms (Ebyaffe). After dilly-dallying, and a lot of pulling and shoving, by 1992, it became clear that Ebyaffe would come – the only question was the shape of it. The NRM was entrenched yes, but not strong enough yet to say no to the restoration of the kingdoms in some form.
To be clear, the question of the kingdoms was bigger than Buganda or Bunyoro. It was at another level an issue of restitution, the correction of historical injustices, and the cultural conversation that could no longer be postponed.

The Kampala government felt confident enough to deal with it, because on the whole, the geopolitical factors looked very favourable.
The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), which had launched its campaign from Uganda in 1990, had overcome its disastrous early phase that nearly destroyed it. Paul Kagame had taken over the rebel shop and had restored order and hope of some victory.
In Sudan, Uganda’s intervention on the side of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had stalled the momentum of Khartoum, and forced a stalemate.

Khartoum would support the LRA and all that, but the signs became apparent that it would have to deal.
Not to leave anything to chance, the Museveni government moved to bring new voices that it hoped would not be linked to the old political parties and establishment interests to the fore. And that is how the thinking of freeing the airwaves (radio and TV) started bubbling.
Two years later, Uganda became the first country in Africa to grant independent FM radio licences (the two or so independent radios that existed in Africa then were owned by the church, and broadcast hymns, religious teaching, and updates on God’s news).
Over this period then, Museveni and his people put together a package that turned the 1994-1995 Constitution into a grand Faustian bargain.

The West wanted a settlement in Sudan that gave some power to the SPLA? The international organisations campaigning for women’s rights wanted to entrench them in the Constitution? The Uganda business community and global capital wanted a very free market? The media wanted to do their thing and make money while at it? The monarchists wanted Ebyaffe? You wanted a progress line on land?
Well, they would all have what they wanted, but there was a price - they would have to support the one-party State elements in the 1995 Constitution too.
If you remove the personalities, and particular events, the birth of The Monitor was partly a result of that broader grand bargain. Thus, for many years, internally, we remained sharply divided over the no-party system.

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


Wednesday July 19 2017

President Museveni vs ‘president’ Bobi Wine: Why both got it wrong

President Museveni vs ‘president’ Bobi Wine

President Museveni vs ‘president’ Bobi Wine 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

After all the excitement of [Ghetto Republic president] Bobi Wine’s sensational victory in the Kyadondo East parliamentary race, and all the comments about how it represented an anti-establishment youthful revolution, President Yoweri Museveni finally weighed in. The gist of Museveni’s argument was that youth (biology) is not the big thing in politics, but ideology. Young people (he listed several in Uganda’s history) had come to power and made a mess of it, despite their youth.

Bobi Wine replied, and he made, by far, the more persuasive argument. While conceding some of Museveni’s points, he said ideology itself wasn’t enough. More important was “what kind” of ideology. But he was at his best, when subtly calling out Museveni’s hypocrisy. When Museveni and his very young comrades came to power 31 years ago, he extolled their youthfulness as revolutionary and fresh, as opposed to the regime of oldies they had overthrown.

Now that he himself had grown long in the tooth in office, he was suggesting that we should privilege the supposed wisdom of age over youthfulness. However, both he and Museveni make a mistake in not sufficiently acknowledging biology. Both of them think that jobs and corruption are the biggest issues for the youth. But are they? Some of the best surveys of Ugandan and East African youth attitudes were previously presented in the ‘Holla’ report. I haven’t seen recent ones, but its findings were close to that of another organisation that studies young people in our region, the Centre for Adolescent Studies in Kenya.

A while back, the Centre for Adolescent Studies found that in Kenya, while the politicians and policy people said jobs was the make or break issue for the youth, turned out their biggest fear was crime (and the fear of being murdered by criminals). The next big ones were pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Remarkably, the girls feared pregnancy more than even HIV/Aids. A child needs resources and time to look after, and can bog you down if you can’t get help. Gonorrhoea can be cured.

The Holla study also found that jobs were not the top concern of East African youth. But it also gleaned something else. In all of East Africa, including Uganda, the majority of young people wanted to migrate. Leave all this madness behind. Fundamentally, I think that young people don’t think politicians (in government and the Opposition) are the answer to their problems. They actually do have a strong sense of agency and think they can help themselves.If Museveni wants to be an enabler, he should just light the streets in the low-income areas where they live, and reduce the number of police and security resources dedicated to keeping a check on the Opposition’s Kizza Besigye, and shift them to ensure security in these areas. That would be the best youth policy. Strange? Not exactly.

Crime is a problem because young people feel a greater setback when the little money they have made is stolen from them by muggers. Then, they face a disincentive in making long-term plans, if they think they will be murdered in their youth.
From a health point of view, for youth, the government would have to do the things it is doctrinally opposed to today – have aggressive contraceptive support, legalise abortion, and spend more money on STD treatment!

When it comes to work, the Museveni government has got some of this right, but the policies are unpopular – for ideological reasons.
That plan to send Ugandan doctors to the Caribbean was smart. On the doctors, it’s wrong to argue that because there is a shortage at home, we can’t send doctors abroad.
We need to have a global view of the labour market. If a Ugandan doctor is worth $7,500 a month and we can’t afford to hire her at that price, send her to the Caribbeans where she can get that pay. Then import Pakistani and Bangladesh doctors, and pay them $3,500 if they are happy to take it. When I was last in Qatar, I spoke to a Ugandan who works with Al Jazeera there. She told me the single largest group of Qatari police were Kenyans! A Qatari policeman’s wage is probably higher than what an honest Ugandan MP earns.

Since our young people want to leave, help them do so by setting up agencies that allow them to achieve that safely. Also, reform education to give them the skills to succeed abroad. Museveni’s government would have to support investment in the arts, that he despises for ideological reasons – in centres that teach Spanish, Mandarin, German, Arabic etc. If young Ugandans are going to be cops in Qatar, the odds would be better for them if they spoke Arabic.
If you think biology isn’t as important as ideology in Uganda today, you’ve lost the plot.

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