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

Wednesday July 5 2017

Bobi Wine and his sensational victory: What did Museveni lose?

Bobi Wine.

Bobi Wine. 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

As it should, the victory of musician Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) in the Kyadondo East by-election has caused a lot of excitement. Running as an Independent, Bobi Wine, the president of the ‘Ghetto Republic’, beat the ruling NRM juggernaut, and the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which tends to be the political powerhouse in and around Kampala.
It was remarkable, really. The NRM poured in a lot of resources, especially of the security variety. Looking at the TV footage and media photos, it seemed at one point there were more police and soldiers in Kyadondo East than voters. Energised youth weren’t intimidated. They guarded Bobi Wine’s votes with their lives, turning it into an “unstealable” election. Some have declared that the Museveni era is over. That we are seeing the beginnings of the end for the old NRM-FDC Political Establishment. That angry jobless youth have finally arisen and a new movement is about to sweep Ugandan politics. I think we can all agree that something dramatic happened in Kyadondo East, though what exactly it is, we still don’t know.
But a little bit of history might help us. Was there a political wave and spontaneous mobilisation that brought rank outsider Bobi Wine, or was, therefore, a structural shift? And, most importantly, how will it end? There are many examples, but we shall pick two from the 1996 elections – in Mbarara Municipality, that was won by Winnie Byanyima after the NRM threw everything at her, and in Gulu Municipality, that was won by Norbert Mao. Again, the NRM threw everything that wasn’t nailed down at Mao, but he prevailed.
Clearly, their running in urban constituencies helped. Like Kyadondo East, Bobi Wine’s victory is easier in urban and peri-urban constituencies, so the change that makes it possible might not necessarily be purely political, but more demographic and economic.
However, Byanyima and Mao in 1996 still represented very different and intriguing political realities. Byanyima was a prodigal daughter, the first “internal dissident” in the NRM, who went against the leadership. Mao was contesting in a Gulu that was still bearing the brunt of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion on one hand, and an NRM that ruled the place like a penal colony, on the other. The region was in thrall to a visceral and grievance politics that had made it all but impossible to run a centrist campaign as Mao did. The election of the cosmopolitan and urbane Mao was, therefore, a big surprise.
Byanyima and Mao won and came to Parliament. Power responded in very different ways. In Byanyima’s case, the decision seems to have been to end “progressive contagion” in the NRM. Her victory kicked off a process that, eventually, ironically, led to Col Kizza Besigye’s dissent, and to the near complete purge of moderates/progressives in the party.
Today, there are barely a handful of moderate voices in NRM: Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, although some say he is mild mannered, not moderate; and Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Kahinda Otafiire, whom many argue, is too immoderate and intemperate to be a progressive.
In Mao’s case, the strategy was that of co-option. Not co-opting Mao the MP, but appropriating his political posture.
In response to the meaning of his victory, the NRM actually moved from the reactionary position it had dug itself into in Acholi, and shifted to a more balanced and enlightened approach in the region. The unintended outcome was that Mao pushed NRM into a position that made it easier for it to defeat the LRA! We have had a kind of détente in the north since, in which the Mao’s remain in power, but the NRM has also grown its electoral support as Kony stays away. In the ripples set off by Byanyima, while Besigye became leader of FDC, there was a turning point in 2011. Fighting the NRM on its terms, it was felt that Besigye had edged himself and FDC into a hardline position that was alienating the middle class.
In 2011, a bunch of young people were given a key role in Museveni’s campaign, and they played to the youthful digital-savvy constituency that rallied to Bobi Wine last week. Besigye’s loss in that election got FDC worried that Museveni was now able to steal the youthful and more elite vote that they had banked on.
It was felt that FDC needed to be softer, and move back to the middle. Besigye stepped down as party leader and “gentle” Gen Mugisha Muntu was elected to lead it. In many ways, there is now a prolonged stalemate between NRM and FDC.
Bobi Wine broke through it. But as 2011 taught us, what he represents is important, but it can still be co-opted. In the Kyadondo East chess game, Museveni lost a queen, not a king.

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

Wednesday June 28 2017

Coffee and bananas: The end of Buganda, rise of Kampala City State

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Since the column last week “Ahead of big refugee meet, we go back to old Buganda and Ankole”, I have been inundated by questions about Uganda’s past – and future. Made me realise that there is a lot, an incredible lot, of interest in both our history and future, but we need to find new sources of knowledge and answers for it.
We had planned to move on and say something about the “new world order”, but an unrelated question on social media about bananas (matooke) in Uganda, and Buganda in particular, by a Kenyan friend convinced me to return to the soil. He wanted to know whether coffee will displace bananas as the main cash crop in Buganda. Of course the bulk of both Ugandan coffee and bananas were grown in Buganda, but that started changing dramatically from about 35 years ago.
Most of the bananas, at least those eaten in Kampala, now come from the wider Ankole region. I am aware that this matter is a point of despair for some Buganda nationalists and some of my friends, who see it as a sign of “decline”, and even “sabotage”.
However, if I were Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi (thankfully I am not and you will soon see clearly why), I would tell Baganda farmers to stop thinking of bananas and begin dreaming of other things.
That is because, given the price of land in Buganda, it does not make much economic sense to grow bananas, except for those farmers who can do it to scale and as part of an expansive mixed farm.
But the deeper reason has to do with why the price of land in rural Buganda is skyrocketing. It is because of urbanisation. Uganda’s urban population, which was 6 million in 2013, is projected to increase to more than 20 million in 2040. Most of them will live in and around Kampala. And “around Kampala” means virtually most of Buganda.
The change can be very rapid as the last 10 years in Kenya have shown. Indeed look at what happened when the Northern By-pass was constructed. Within five years, sleepy villages became overrun by apartment blocks.
There is now a race to build these by-passes and roads to cope with Kampala’s exploding population and its traffic, but every time a by-pass is built, the “villages” 15 kilometres from it become part of the city, effectively. Wait and see what dramatic changes the Entebbe Expressway will bring by just 2020. Then more expressways and by-passes will be built.
Basically, there is a giant cross that cuts through the heart of Buganda, beginning from Kampala. First eastwards to Owen Falls Dam. Then northwards to Karuma. Westwards to just beyond Masaka. And southwards to Entebbe. Already, we are close to a point where these are just streets with continuous settlements, not highways. Apart from a few wetlands, and forests, all these are built corridors. Very soon Mabira will not be a forest. It will be a city park.
So what is the REAL thing that’s happening in Buganda? Well, Buganda is becoming a city-state, in much the same way Nairobi is transforming into one. Like in most of Africa, we don’t have the enlightened vision that matches this new reality. It would begin with redistricting and creating new constituencies.
Ideally 20 per cent of constituencies in Uganda should soon be in and around Kampala by the 2026 election. Also, to ease transport – including to Entebbe – the government should be concessioning new private small airports around Kampala. And, finally, seriously thinking of licencing an express rail to Jinja and Entebbe.
If President Yoweri Museveni’s government doesn’t do, it will be the first thing that the next leadership will do. And so you see where this is leading. If you live 150 kilometres away from Kampala, now is the time to begin planning and properly titling your land and building a road – and if you can - a water dam on it.
But look ahead 10 years, and imagine the government will come wanting to build a by-pass or express train line through, or a developer seeking to buy it to erect apartments, or some investors wanting it for an airstrip.
If you take your interests and your family’s and grandchildren’s seriously, you should think of land like it were on a stock exchange. You are likely to get more money for it if it has a basic road on it, than if you have it all enveloped by a banana plantation.
Now imagine you also have some straight proud trees standing tall on it. The price more than doubles right there.
There is the downside; the social and cultural price Buganda will pay. But also, if it transforms in interesting dynamic ways, it could be a source of new forces that refashion Uganda. Whatever happens, Buganda as we knew it, is in its last days.

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

Wednesday June 21 2017

Ahead of big refugee meet, we go back to old Buganda and Ankole

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Tomorrow, the world gathers in Kampala for the Solidarity Summit on Refugees. The summit isn’t happening in Uganda by accident. Today Uganda’s generous refugee policy is being hailed all over the world.
However, it is not a new thing. Since independence, Uganda has generally been generous to refugees. And before that to migration, and no societies were more accepting – and profited from it - than Buganda and Ankole.
It is easy to forget this in the episodes of, especially, anti-Banyarwanda outbursts, that break out from time to time in these regions these days.
Today, as we approach the big refugee meet next week, we shall reflect on how these refugees impacted this country. For starters, though I am probably in the distinct minority on this, I don’t believe that the fact that Buganda and Ankole are the “most developed” parts of Uganda has to do with the privileges of past and present politics.
In fact I think having a president from your area, is a kind of moral hazard and usually damages the competitiveness of the next generation.
Because they use blood connections to get jobs, which are usually in the State sector, they could lose the hard work ethic, and spend less energy in the areas that require hard work, but create durable wealth in families – productive farming, and other back breaking work, e.g. being builders.
Yes, a president might privilege a small elite from his district, but that rarely translates into development for their area. It is not just Uganda. It’s the same all over Africa.
In Kenya, for example, you will hear that the reason the central part of the country is the richest (a fact which is changing) is because its first president Jomo Kenyatta was a Kikuyu from the area, and after Daniel arap Moi the next leader, Mwai Kibaki, etc.
But then many years ago, a clever World Bank economist, Robert H. Bates, came and worked in East Africa, and all these stories didn’t add up.
He wrote a book titled Beyond the Miracle of the Market: The Political Economy of Agrarian Development in Kenya. It is a book that shatters many myths about Kenya, and should come with the warning “only the most open minded people should read”.
Of the many brilliant insights he offers is that to fight the Mau Mau rebellion, the British colonialists built a very elaborate infrastructure of roads, telephone lines, and so forth to fight the revolutionaries. But then the war ended, and the “peace” came.
Now what was built for war, gave Kikuyuland an economic infrastructure that would take more than decades for the rest of the country to catch up with.
Same with Uganda. Without understanding migration of labour from Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo of the early 20th Century, and the refugee influx that started from Rwanda in 1959, you cannot fully comprehend what happened in Buganda and Ankole.
There are many things that could be said, but we shall focus on two. First, most refugees over time don’t stay in camps in Uganda.
They move and become part of the wider society, which makes Ugandan attitudes to this matter different.
But in this transition, two opportunities present. First, they provide cheap labour that areas without refugees don’t get, allowing local entrepreneurs to grow richer faster.
But also because for most of their first years, they would not have made enough money to move and set up independently and live off their own land, they will be a captive market that buys almost everything they use and eat. Again, it enables local small business people to make money and accumulate more capital than those in the “refugeeless” parts.
Ankole did benefit more from the second wave of refugees in the 1960s, than Buganda, which was now growing from the influx of Ugandans from other parts of the country, who created a different dynamic all together, and that we have commented on in the past.
The second element of this refugee influx is a very politically incorrect one that scholars steer away, so you might read it first here.
It has to do with its impact on the market marriage, and how it remakes families. Basically, a kulak (a kind of rich peasant) in Sheema or Mbarara, could now marry a refugee, who was a princess back home, but had now fallen on hard times with her family.
Such refugee women were educated, and marrying local peasants, where these peasants would previously have had to settle for the illiterate girl from the next village, raised the parenting knowledge in their households and changed the prospects for their children dramatically.
This might be an uncomfortable issue, so perhaps the wise thing is to leave it here for now.

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

Wednesday June 14 2017

When boda boda made it into the Oxford Dictionary: The untold story

A woman grips a baby as the boda boda rides

A woman grips a baby as the boda boda rides through a flooded Jinja road highway. High levels of floods sometimes cause the boda boda's difficulty to move or even fall. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa. 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

So recently the word “boda boda” created a lot of noise on social media, after it made it into the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary.
On my Twitter page, the post on it was “retweeted” or “liked” nearly a mouth-watering 5,000 times! Before long, there was a squabble between Ugandans and Kenyans over the ownership of the origin of “boda boda” word. People felt strongly.
We shall return to these issues shortly. I am told in Britain, the Oxford Dictionary watched “boda boda” go viral in East Africa both with great interest and a little amusement.
It was not the only East African word that had found its way into the dictionary. But more intriguing, “boda boda” made it into the dictionary two years ago! The primary reason it created a wave today, is that that’s when the people in the region of its origin tweeted it. While more people use dictionaries today, very few use the hard paper one. They use the online versions.
I go through the rituals of buying updates of the Oxford Dictionary, especially those with gorgeous covers, every few years. But that is driven by habit, not need. In the last five years, I have opened a paper dictionary less than 10 times.
The “boda boda” buzz, two years after it went into the pages of the Oxford Dictionary, therefore, was another dramatic illustration of just how much the learning (and reference) action has gone digital.
What interested me personally more though, was the debate over “boda boda’s” territorial origin.
The dictionary categorises it as an East African word, defining it as “a type of motorcycle or bicycle with a space for a passenger or for carrying goods, often used as a taxi”.
For example, of usage, it offers “boys on boba bodas riding on Kampala’s streets”. That example was seen to be privileging Uganda’s claim to the word, and some euphoric citizens of the Pearl claimed it would “boost tourism”. Not sure how, but it would be good if it did.
The Wikipedia entry on boda boda says the word originated in Busia, Kenya. While the rest of the history is largely accurate, locating its birthplace there is only half accurate.
It illustrates a specific failing with what we shall loosely call “hinterland people”, i.e. folks who are not from border communities. The Kenya side of Busia, only makes sense because of the Uganda side of the same border. Likewise the Uganda side of Busia, only has complete context when you factor in the Kenya side.
The movements to the border, for trade, to visit across the map line, which gave rise to “boba boda” were partly because in the Idi Amin days when it started as bicycle traffic, the Uganda side was an economic wreck plagued by fuel shortages.
There were also very backward border and trade controls then, which are long gone today. That is when the second factor kicked in. Transportation on bicycle represented a “miniaturisation” of the load that you could carry without being inconvenienced too much by customs officials and border police.
And for those who chose to take the “panya routes”, it was better to do it on a bicycle, and later, motorcycle, than car.
The third, and enduring factor, is that even if there were no economic drivers, the border at Busia divides a common people, the Samia. The Samia social support networks would still have fuelled the emergence of boda boda. Therefore, the accurate birthplace of boda boda is the “Uganda-Kenya border area”.
Timing is everything here, though. If boda boda had waited until today, would it still have come about? Yes. But its birthplace wouldn’t have been Busia region, and therefore, it would have been called something else.
So why does Kampala become an obvious example for usage of boda boda? Because, according to some accounts, it is the East African city with the most boda bodas. Numbers range from 200,000 to 500,000.
Like several other African cities, boda bodas have exploded in numbers in Kampala in recent years, with the collapse of the State-run public transport system.
But if that was all, we would have less than 25,000. The number of our boda bodas is to do with the land ownership system, and how the construction of housing has responded to that and booming urbanisation.
Though they are a menace in other ways, boda bodas have democratised housing and helped keep rents “reasonable”. That’s because you can build flats where cars can’t reach, but they will fill up, if there is a small path for boda bodas to get there.
So what will be the next big “boda boda” tweet? I suspect when a university announces a course on “Boda boda-nomics”. And, don’t be surprised if Oxford University introduces it before Makerere.

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

Wednesday May 31 2017

Those whom our land will not kill, it will make very strong


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

They say better late than never. Last week we celebrated Africa Day, but some of us never got to pay proper homage to it. We will do that today. My exploration of some of the off-beat things in Africa history continues, and gets more exciting by the week. We publish some of the findings on Facebook, on a page we baptised the ‘Wall of Great Africans’.
It has been barely eight months, and clearly Mother Africa is an amazing place. I think the generations to come will have a lot of fun with it. In terms of the knowledge about it, we have not even scratched the surface. To illustrate the point, some surprising insights that I gleaned about two months into the project, and have written about them elsewhere.
We all know that women in Africa, and generally all over the world, have been written out of history. Among the things that are unnerving - is the price that those who succeeded have had to pay, and just how much they had to go to rebel against the establishment.
Almost 90 per cent of the leading women in African history - the arts, politics – name that I have researched had to divorce, some as many as 13 times. Today you are still told that “divorce is African”, but as early as the 16th Century, women who succeeded as traders, warriors, had to rebel against or confront patriarchy to move on, and divorce was one of their weapons.
Some took it to extremes. Aminatu, the great Hausa warrior Queen of Zazzau (north west Nigeria), decided not to marry.
She was said to have taken a lover from among the conquered people after each battle, and to have killed or castrated him in the morning following their night together. This was in the late 1500s and early 1600s.
The contradictory side of this is that “traditional” Africa wasn’t as conservative as it is made out to be. Many kings and chieftains took a view about gender equality 220 years ago that would be considered extreme feminism today. Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, who reigned between 1803-1815, had a line on the education and worldliness of his daughters and women that would shock moderate clerics today.
But these battles take their toll. In African societies, suicide is a very difficult and taboo subject. It is one of those “unAfrican” things.
However, of the more than 300 African breakthrough African women I have researched, nearly 20 per cent committed suicide. This goes back centuries. I didn’t imagine that suicide would have been common so far back. And there are regional patterns. Pioneering women writers, actors, and activists from Arab North Africa tended mostly to jump to their deaths from tall buildings. And in southern Africa, they invariably took an overdose of something. The men, especially in recent decades, tend to shoot themselves in the head.
The kings and generals were notoriously polygamous, not surprisingly. Guezo, king of Dahomey, took the biscuit. He had an army of 3,000 women, to each of whom he was married, having sold all the menfolk as slaves.

Those days they had progressive things you no longer see in these modern times. There were all-female armies, some numbering more than 10,000. There were many times more women generals in Africa between 1600 and 1900 leading armies into battle, than there are in 2017!
Some of Africa’s villains were also quite complex. Take Liberia’s murderous military dictator Samuel Kanyon Doe, who was leader from 1980 to 1990. He died badly. He was seized by rebels, tortured, his ears and genitals cut off (and eaten by superstitious militia).
In 1985, Doe sought to legitimise himself through an election. But, before the election, he murdered more than 50 opposition politicians (Kizza Besigye should consider himself lucky). Then he gathered all the votes, and took them to a secret location, where several personally handpicked officials counted them.
Now you would think having killed rivals, and got his people to count the vote secretly, Doe would give himself 99.9 per cent of the vote. No, he didn’t. He went to that extent only to give himself a victory of 51 per cent – just enough to avoid a run-off!
I may not be a very clever man, but neither am I stupid. So explain to me: Why would a military dictator, who had marched members of the regime he overthrew naked along the streets before having them executed by firing, not steal all of the vote but contend himself with only 51 per cent?
To get the right answer to that, it means you have unlearn everything you know about Africa. Just wonderful. Happy belated Africa Day!

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


Wednesday May 24 2017

Yes, the gods love Uganda…and the evidence is in a forest somewhere


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It can be difficult to be optimistic about Uganda these days. The stories of corruption, Medieval cruelty by the police, rampant crime, and skyrocketing prices have left many in a bad way.

I just read something on minimum wages in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The contrasts were outrageous.
The minimum wage in Uganda is Shs6,000. In Tanzania it is equivalent to Shs166,284, and in Kenya Shs262,188.
Fortunately, no one in their right mind in Uganda would pay someone Sh6,000 a month. But the fact that it is still that low, tells a lot.

And then there is the politics... Which brings us back to a favourite theme: if the state/politics has failed us, where is hope?

Many people don’t think there is enough muscle and spirit in private society to build new spaces, or create capacities to build a civic society.

However, I believe, naye, know, that there are a lot of great things happening out there and we don’t have to despair.
We have written before on some private sources of innovation and industry that give great hope about this fair land. But sometimes, you think it can’t get better – until it does. So this is a story of friends, actually relatives if you take all family marriage links seriously as every good Ugandan should, into account.

It starts some years ago, when they go to rural Uganda and buy several acres of land.
There was a small forest on it, most of it having been eaten away by neighbouring villages that harvested it for wood.
It borders a lake, so the shores had been harvested heavily for sand.

Slowly, they started the battle to restore most of the forest and secured it and the strip of land along the lake, and stopped sand harvesting.

The communities around drifted into the next forest, which is state forest. Years later, if you search their estate on Google Earth, it is a dense green of forest, surrounded by largely barren land. The people around have finished the taxpayers’ forests.

They now have one of the healthiest 65 acres of forest that you will find in this republic. But it is what followed next that makes this story worth telling.

Seeing the forest as a living thing, and holding the secrets of our history and future, they decided they would document every plant in it. So for some years now they have got botanists who have done exactly that.

You can get misty-eyed reading the trove of records they have generated. They have listed all the common English, scientific, and Ugandan names of the trees. They have written their history. They have yielded the research on the stories of the trees, and what cultural purposes they were put to.

They photographed each tree from several angles. And to cap it, they have cut a specimen from each of the trees and saved them.
Even in the colonial days, where the occasional eccentric and mad scientist Briton would get up to these kinds of things, they rarely went to this depth.

Now you would think this would end there, but no. They have identified all the 110 species of birds in their forest, and now they are going through the same thing.

Photographing them, referencing them to their local and scientific names, and telling their stories.
And to put icing on the cake, when that is done, they will take on the most unAfrican part of the project.
They will identify all the snakes in the forest, photograph them, get their local and mzungu names, and map where they live.

I asked what they plan to do about the insects. Well, “you never know”, they said.
They didn’t allow me to say anything about the plans they have for the place, but they are alive to the fact that they can’t sustainably live in an ecological “oasis” when around them the communities have destroyed all forest and are struggling for fuelwood.

So they are planning to set up a nursery and push a reforestation and greening in the areas around them.
None of these people have ever stood for office, or seek it. They hide from the public eye, and outside of their circle of friends and family, few other Ugandans know them. Yet, they have a care for these lands, and its peoples, only few can muster.

I was having coffee with a leading global conservation figure when I told him about their work. I then said, half-seriously, “I don’t know of any other African who has taken it as far as they have”.He looked at me without saying anything for a few seconds, and said; “Actually I don’t know any private individuals in the world who have either.”

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

Wednesday May 17 2017

Why do Ugandan regimes love to torture? It is complicated


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Governments and times change in Uganda, but the one thing all of them have had in common is the appalling reliance on primitive torture of suspects. You can trace this in varying forms from British colonial rule to the NRM regime today. Why is this so?
First, to the distressing case of Kamwenge Town Council and area NRM chairman Geoffrey Byamukama that was reported in Daily Monitor.

Byamukama, who was visiting Kampala, was seized on what has turned out to be a cock and bull story about having links to the March assassination of former police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi.
So many people have been held in connection with the Kaweesi murder, it is likely to turn out to be the biggest conspiracy in Uganda, even bigger than any of the country’s past coups. Already right there, one begins to see the possibility that some chiefs up there just don’t know what they are doing.
Anyway, Byamukama and others were driven to what the Daily Monitor described as the “dreaded Nalufenya detention facility in the eastern Jinja District”, the NRM government security’s latest torture dungeons of choice. When he eventually emerged there, he was in a horrifying state. He was not the first, and won’t be the last. Many people who go to Nalufenya and don’t emerge from there a whole one piece.
The choice of Nalufenya is not accidental.

It is out of Kampala where most of the media, the international community, lawyers, human rights activists, and other prying eyes, are based. Most people who are arrested in Uganda are also more likely to have family and relatives in Kampala, as the capital, than in Jinja or other towns.
This practice of transporting suspects across the country over long distances from the place where they were arrested started in the colonial period, and in the Museveni years, it has become an elaborate exercise.
And so back to that question of why from Obote governments, Idi Amin, and the Okello generals, to Museveni’s rule, torture has continued to deface this fair land.
The first reason is the normalisation of relative morality in our politics.

For example, after Obote and UPC returned to power after the disputed 1980 election, with the rebellion of the NRA/NRM, UFM, Fedemo raging in the south, the gruesome torture of the Amin years just continued.
But because the UPC government had been elected, however controversially, and there was an opposition in Parliament, the Obote government felt it was far better than Amin’s, and its atrocities were, therefore, “better”.
And thus, in a remarkable case, on one of the occasions that Obote came to Parliament, he took on the opposition DP’s accusations that the “UPC government was as murderous as Amin’s.”
It wasn’t, Obote argued.

There is Parliament, he said, that didn’t exist during Amin’s time, and in a bizarre pushback, said that under his government, the relatives of people who are arrested and die in detention are able to get their bodies and give them a dignified funeral. In Amin’s time, he said, people just disappeared! It’s like someone saying you should thank them for killing your loved one quickly with a single bullet to the head, rather than bludgeoning him to death for an hour.
Same today. Savagely tortured people are produced in court, and the security men don’t think their wounds should be shown. They should be somehow grateful that they got their day in court. The Obote II and NRM mindsets are pretty much the same in this regard.
So why does this national disgrace continue? That is where it gets even more troubling. It seems there is a part of this that governments want the public to see, because somehow they believe it has a deterrent value.

The fear of facing so much pain will discourage a government opponent from taking to the street; instill the fear in the hearts of a prospective plotter; or get the population to accept the “lesser” abuses by the State (e.g. arbitrary arrest, or tear gas) as a “fair” settlement. One could ask why the government needs this at all.
Well, because, like the colonialists, Amin, and Obote, the government is facing a legitimacy deficit.

For a plot to kill a senior police officer to succeed, you need an environment where it can be hatched and carried out successfully without a government-loving citizen or co-conspirator having a change of heart and rushing to leak it to security authorities or the LC1 chair.
If you asked me, it was very difficult for such plots to take place in the Kampala of the 1990s. Today, from the rampant insecurity and heavy-handedness of the security forces, they are par for the course.
This will get worse before it gets better – if at all.

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

Wednesday May 10 2017

New French leader Macron’s wife 24 years older than him – why’s that the future


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The 39-year- old political newbie Emmanuel Macron just won the weekend election in France to become the country’s youngest leader in more than 100 years.

But to many people, that fact has been eclipsed by the “novelty” of the fact that his wife, Brigitte Marie-Claude Macron, is 64-years-old (though she looks nearly eight years younger and is very stylish), 24 years younger than him.

In a patriarchal world where it is old men who marry younger women, many have been left agog. The story gets juicier, because he first met Brigitte as a 15-year-old schoolboy and she was his teacher. They started an affair. Brigitte was married then.

The fact that the difference in age between 70-year-old US president Donald Trump and his wife Melanie, who is 47, is nearly 24 years, didn’t raise eyebrows because, well, again, men get to marry younger women.
I am not a priest, so will not speak about Brigitte’s affair with her student decades ago. Nor will we canvass the sexist issue here.

Our interest today is the evolutionary necessity and the economics of love and marriage.

Younger women are more likely to have healthier children than older women, and (at least in the past) they were also less at risk of dying during childbirth. Younger men are also more likely to father healthier children than older ones, but the cut off age for men is much higher than for women.

The evolutionary success of humans then, needed older men to marry younger women. The argument of course, is how young.

But it is really economics and politics that set this norm in stone. Centuries after we left the cave (never mind that African politicians still behave like cavemen) and with social progress, things changed.

In those days, roles that fell to men like defending the family meant fighting off animals that would eat them; feeding them meant chasing down a gazelle in a hunt; and fighting off invading chieftains who would capture them.

Those roles, among other things, evolved into male privilege.

Anyhow, since lately providing for the family means a trip to the supermarket, and protecting them requires you to hire a security firm, things that require money, in patriarchal societies where men monopolised wealth, those with money, ability to earn, or land, were better providers.

Now, assuming honest work and commerce, a 50-year-old man is more likely to have more money and land, than a 24-year-old recent college graduate.

Of course it is important to marry for love, first, but next the most sensible thing a woman should do is to consider a man’s ability to provide, either in his future earning potential, or current wealth. This scenario inevitably ended in older men marrying younger woman.

But there is something illogical. Not everyone marries to have children. If you are not marrying to have children, issues of “child bearing age” become irrelevant. So the case for marrying a younger woman begins to disappear. On average, women live five per cent longer than men – which translates to about four years.

So the only “socially necessary” age difference between couples is four years – in favour of women. In other words, if couples want to die at around the same time, the woman should always be four years older! It no longer makes rational sense for men to marry younger women.

Macron, you would say, married in a direction supported by science.

Even if they wanted to have children, the advancement of science has reduced the risks of older women giving birth, as the increasing number who are having their first children at 50 are showing us.

Despite persisting discrimination against women, the shift to service industries and technology are significantly eroding the disadvantages women face in the economy.

However, one thing hasn’t changed. Just like older men are likely to be richer than young ones, older women are also likely to be richer than younger ones. Now we said earlier that it’s important to think about your partner’s ability to provide.

In a changing world, given that women have a longevity edge, it’s only right that men consider their future wive’s ability to provide.

If you are 28-year-old man, have a modest-paying job, and want to start a family, the best chance of your family’s success is to marry a 32-40 old woman, because she will probably have more money than your high school sweetheart.

But we know that matters of the heart are not governed by grand philosophy, and social and cultural attitudes usually run anything between 25 to 100 years behind that required by technological progress.

Therefore, I doubt that in Uganda, there will be any followers in Macron’s more enlightened and scientific path.
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday May 3 2017

It was Labour Day, but the workers are going, going, gone


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Monday was Labour (May) Day, the occasion when they honour the hard working people and toiling masses of the world. The thing with Labour Day, is that it could be the first one to become irrelevant, because of technological change.

Most workers whom we honour on May Day, are the ones most likely to lose their jobs to automation. There tends to be a lot of comfort in Uganda, and most of Africa, where agriculture/farming employs the most people, that it will take many more decades before workers begin to lose jobs to robots. Kenyan tea pickers used to think that way. How wrong they were.

In recent months, they have been protesting against the introduction of mechanical tea pickers. This will soon be the fate of the tea pickers – and sugarcane cutters - in Lugazi.
Just over a year ago, Creativity versus Robots, a report by Oxford University academics and UK-based non-profit research and innovation group Nesta, said growing of cereals and fibre crops are near-certainties to be taken over by robots.
The two occupations are among the least creative, and are therefore prime candidates for automation.

The two jobs had a computerisation probability of 100 per cent and 91.2 per cent respectively. Another Ugandan occupational mainstay, raising dairy cattle, was also up there, with an 89.3 per cent chance of computerisation. Mixed farming was also on the hit list.

As this column noted before, in South Africa, a giant company is already deploying driverless tractors, run from control rooms far away, to work fields. There is no human to take a lunch break, or whom the neigbhour can bribe to dig for him too on the side.

Precisely because we have to contend with issues like corruption, and a cultural context where if you are a good citizen you have to take off days to go for funerals, automation is particularly tempting.

Early this year, there was report of a Chinese factory that replaced 90 per cent of its human workers with robots.
The result was mind-blowing. Production rose by 250 per cent and, defects dropped by 80 per cent.

The factory used to be run by 650 employees, and had gone down to just 60 people. In the future, they expect only 20 people, working with robots, to be doing the work of the previous 630!
The reason these things should exercise our planners and policy makers, is that they are not driven solely by investors seeking higher returns.

First, because wages have generally stagnated, the lives of most citizens aren’t going to improve through income growth. It will come from reduced cost of living, which will come from availability of cheaper quality products, which in turn can only come from greater productivity and efficiencies from industry and farming.

That level of productivity is not going to come from more deployment of human labour, but automation.
Secondly, resources like land are getting limited and very expensive with growing populations. To get more out of the limited land, we need to throw technology at it.

Recently there was a report on farming robots. You unleash them on a vast field when you are going to sleep. They work through the night, and when you wake up, all your fields have been planted with seed, or weeded.

Overnight, the job for which you would have hired 30 casual labourers to do for a week would be done! That means you are able to bring produce cheaper and quicker to the market.
Unfortunately, for us, our solutions would also be the things that kill us. What will happen to the millions of people who make their livelihoods on the land?
That should be our big issue.

There seems to be some serious moves this time to hold talks between Museveni and FDC opposition politician Kizza Besigye (or is it between NRM and FDC?).
But one senses it will mostly be political dialogue if it happens, and at best it could end in a lukewarm power-sharing pact.
While that is important for lowering the political temperature, the more defining national dialogue should be about Uganda’s future and the challenge of technology.

Such dialogue could agree on the education reforms for the times, how to fund innovation, worker retraining, how to pay for transition, and how to help the few small creative pockets in various sectors that we have (yes, they are there), to grow into bigger things.

Because, if I had $2 million to invest in a farm in Tororo today, believe me, if you visited you wouldn’t find any heroic human workers on it.

I would automate the damn thing from the start. I know of at least 10 upcoming Ugandan entrepreneurs who have even more radical views about the deployment of technology on the land and everywhere else.

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