Charles Onyango Obbo

From Barry, Dube, MJ, Prince and Wemba - they are who we are

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 27   2016 at  01:00

First, it was the ultimate badass and innovator Fela Kuti in 1997. Barry White, the man with the deepest and most romantic voice, left us in July 2003. Then South African reggae star Lucky Dube was shot to death in October 2007. Not too long after, it was the - King of Pop- who died in June, 2009. Then last week, it was Prince Rogers Nelson, known simply as Prince. And this week, the DR Congolese musician Papa Wemba.

These people mean something to Uganda’s ‘Amin Children’, those who became teenagers during the trying years of our diabolical, but also fascinating President for Life, Field Marshal Al Haji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire.

We became serious men and women in the 1980s and also left for exile in large numbers; got married from the mid-80s and were done by the 1990s, we started making a bit of money - and those of us who were still around died in record numbers from HIV/Aids - and started paying serious school fees, greying and giving up on daily exercise in the 2000s.

By just so there is outrage, I have to acknowledge that there was, of course, the death of the great man Bob Marley in 1981; Tupac in 1996; and Ray Charles in 2004. And we have not even touched the wonderful female singers who defined those times.
But if we were to talk about all of them, things would get too heavy and thick and we would still be here by the time of the next rigged election in 2021. It’s therefore prudent to leave them here.

So what did the five musicians mean for ‘Amin’s Children’? In an age where there was fear, death, and deprivation all around, Barry White was like the guy who watered the heart. He sang love songs, and really that was it.

And he was born with a voice that would deliver few others. But with Barry White, we retreated to the privacy of our homes, and inner selves, and friends.

Michael Jackson took out there. His talent was prodigious, and his aesthestisation of his insecurities, and exploration of individuality delightfully outrageous. But, especially in his videos and dance, he defied all known convention and laws of physics.

I was studying and living in Cairo in 1983 when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Today, it might not seem a big deal. But we gathered, a group of friends, with coffee, pop corn, and strong drinks and played it over and over, in total wonderment. We had never seen - or conceived - of such dramatisation.

Michael Jackson transported us to a parallel universe. We could actually leave Uganda to Amin - and later Obote - and their armed men.

Bob Marley, though, that was the spoiler. He was the rebel. He was saying to us: don’t go into the house and look in the eyes of the girls with cornrows and a flower in her hair; go out there and break it down.

Fela Kuti broke stuff. He was awe-inspiring because he did it all while staring some of the most dangerous military rulers in the world in Nigeria - without a gun. Bare chest. With only a microphone and his musical instruments.

And he also went against the rules of the Church, and society, amassing 27 wives along the way. He went further than the rest, and Michael Jackson and Bob Marley, and actually built a model of what his ideal earthly domain, filled with marijuana, booze, free sex, a study of history, and a love of things African. He gave us the Kalakuta Republic.

Over those two decades, Prince kind of dialed it down. He brought eccentricity, and a very purified Miles Davis - like form to musical expression. But most of all, he became one of the first musicians of colour whom you couldn’t classify. It was an age when identity politics was beginning to get troubled, and Prince was an ambassador of its futility.

Lucky Dube was, like Fela, a homegrown rebel. But of a different variety. Apartheid had ended. Mandela had been freed. It was possible to look upon ourselves, without the constant reminder of failure, which every day’s existence of apartheid spoke to us.

The big conversation about Africa’s place in the world could begin. Papa Wemba led the celebration of Africa’s coming out party. Lucky Dube was the bloke who kept it real, reminding us after the hangover tomorrow, there will be the mess to clean up, bills to pay.
We took small bits of what we are, from them all.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

If you think the Uganda pipeline is about a pipeline, you are dead wrong

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 20   2016 at  01:00

In Summary

For Tanzania, everything changed last October with the election of John Magufuli. Magufuli is a guy from the Lake Victoria shores, so to speak, and brought a more west-facing attitude. He moved to repair relations with Rwanda, which gave it a more definite Uganda-Rwanda cluster, and the ability to build a rival case to LAPSSET.

Uganda media report that the decision on the pipeline has been made. It will be built from Kabale to Tanga in Tanzania. The Kabaale-Lamu route to Kenya, has lost out. The cost argument seems to be clearly in favour of the Tanga option, with the economies of scale case (especially for oil firm Tullow that has also hit finds in northern Kenya).

But we would be missing something bigger, if we focused on oil. For with current prices, and the failure of OPEC to rig the market and cut supply at their weekend meeting in Doha, one cannot say 100 per cent that the pipeline will be built. It’s important to recognise that the oil pipeline is part of a wider reorganisation of East Africa.
First, oil discoveries in the African hinterland generally have changed the balance of power for landlocked countries like Uganda. Until now, the landlocked countries have mostly played second fiddle to their coastal neighbours, dependent on their generosity and reasonableness to keep the routes to the sea open. Oil has changed that.

In East Africa, the announcement in 2006 of - actually a long-known - oil discovery in Uganda, was critical. But equally important was the independence of South Sudan in 2011. With that, South Sudan became landlocked. But in the process, with its vast oil and with Uganda, it formed a lucrative oil cluster. Any of its coastal neighbours, who could transport the oil to ships at port, would in the process of creating the infrastructure for it (railway and/or pipeline) propel itself to new economic heights.

However, the Uganda oil “discovery” and South Sudan independence, got their added value from something that happened 20 years earlier – the independence (some call it separation) of Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1991.
Like South Sudan, Ethiopia too became landlocked when Eritrea walked off with the coast. However, that development changed many dynamics, because for the first time the second most populous African country (and therefore potential market) was landlocked.

The next clever thing was for someone to aggregate these oil-rich and populous eastern African nations on a commercial pipeline to the coast. Kenya came up with the response first in the form of the Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project, to which Uganda and Rwanda were eventually to be looped.
Historically, Kenya had played a neutralist foreign policy hand, which allowed it to project most of its business interests quite successfully. But a new generation of securocrats arose in the wake of the massive bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998 that started to change that, because they saw it as a long-term weakness.

In 2011, it did something that was unthinkable 10 years earlier: it sent its army into Somalia.
Some have argued that one reason the Kabale-Lamu pipeline became less attractive was because of the threat posed by Somali terrorists. Maybe, but that is to look 5-10 years ahead. In Kenya, there are those who are looking beyond 15 years, and who don’t think Somalia’s chaos is permanent.
Tanzania was held back in this geopolitical poker game by president Jakaya Kikwete and his inner circle. Excluding its Southern African Development Community interests, in East Africa Tanzania was not able to aggregate markets the way Kenya had. It had Burundi, which is not just small, but the poorest nation in the EAC.

Partly because of its nearly-hostile position toward RPF-led Rwanda, and events in eastern DR Congo, it forced Rwanda into the Uganda-Kenya axis and, more spectacularly, toward the Ethiopia-Djibouti node that was growing very rapidly. Djibouti even gave Rwanda a coastal strip for a port.
It makes sense, if you consider that the Djibouti-Ethiopia railway, and soon-to-be pipeline, is part of a railway the two countries plan to push to the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa.
For Tanzania, everything changed last October with the election of John Magufuli. Magufuli is a guy from the Lake Victoria shores, so to speak, and brought a more west-facing attitude. He moved to repair relations with Rwanda, which gave it a more definite Uganda-Rwanda cluster, and the ability to build a rival case to LAPSSET.

So let us look at the map. To use the word loosely, we have two “co-prosperity” and security spheres emerging in the wider east Africa. A more northern one based around Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti (and possibly Uganda); and a southern one around Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, DR Congo (and possibly Uganda).
Uganda is the only country that could end up in either of the spheres. But if the pipeline to Tanga is built, that might lock it firmly in the south.
If you are a 25-years-and-younger Ugandan, therefore, this pull and shove over the pipeline, could determine whether you grow old rich or poor.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

That Uganda ‘cancer’ machine: Can’t we natives run world-class healthcare?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 13   2016 at  01:00

In Summary

In fact, he added that even good private hospital of years gone by – Nsambya, Mengo - were not started by Ugandans, but “mzungu Catholic and Protestant missionaries”. Ever since the “natives took over at Nsambya and Mengo”, he said, “you can see for yourself what has happened”.

Last week, it was reported, Uganda’s only radiotherapy machine used for treating cancer at Mulago Hospital finally gave up the ghost.
That would not be big news of itself; things break down routinely in Uganda’s public sector. And during the campaigns ahead of the February elections, we got treated to very shocking scenes of the decayed state of the country’s State-run health centres.
However, this story made international headlines because it was the country’s only working radiotherapy machine! Now thousands of Ugandans are unable to get life-saving cancer treatment at home.
But there was another sub-text to the story, with one report suggesting that it was not only Ugandan cancer patients in peril. Even many patients from countries like South Sudan, and Burundi who used to travel to Mulago for cancer treatment, were now stranded.

So the machine breakdown was not just a statement about affairs in Uganda, but in the sub-region.
There are many Ugandans, friends and relatives, who have passed through Nairobi for cancer treatment, so I do have a good sense of what is available. Now, while the government-run side of public social services are generally crappy everywhere (there are a few of sterling exceptions), what is more intriguing for me is why we cannot in the private medical sector have anything remotely close to the gleaming Oncology and Cancer Centre at Nairobi Hospital, for example.

Now the talent of Ugandan teachers, like that of its doctors, is proverbial. In parts of Kenya, songs have been composed about the Ugandan teachers who fled Idi Amin’s rule in the 1970s and went to teach in Kenya. In southern Africa, our doctors who went there in that period the following years were glorified.
But somehow, forgetting the government mess, when it comes to converting that into decent hospitals, we fall flat. A leading Ugandan doctor, whose views on such things I respect, told me that the problem is that the “confluence” between good medicine and the private sector in Uganda to make for good independent medical practices is “impossible at scale” these days.

In fact, he added that even good private hospitals of years gone by – Nsambya, Mengo - were not started by Ugandans, but “mzungu Catholic and Protestant missionaries”. Ever since the “natives took over at Nsambya and Mengo”, he said, “you can see for yourself what has happened”.
However, he argued, there are excellent clinics, because you can have a clinic of one very good doctor, which becomes an expression of his character and talent, the way a book can for an author.

Therefore, you can no longer establish a large (private) hospital, which is really the only way you can aggregate enough patients, to make a return on a fully-fledged oncology and cancer unit in Kampala. The best we can expect is first class small clinics.
And it’s just not in health. There is no businessperson in Uganda, for example, who has three successful business (or example hotels) in more than two towns. As soon as he or she expands, things begin falling apart.
Outsiders, who are not a product of our local culture, have less of that problem. One can, therefore, conceive of a quality Serena Hotel chain in the country, but none of the other Ugandan hotel businesses can do even a half-decent chain at home.

So why has our private sector – health, education, and trade - failed to professionalise, impersonalise (making it less dependent on the owner, his/her relatives and tribe) and scale?
It’s possible that our violent past politics, and the cruelty of recent years, have shaped our view of risk in ways that are very damaging.
Let’s assume you are a medical entrepreneur, and can invest in a hospital the size of Mulago with all the fancy equipment top medical facilities have these days.
First, you need to feel confident that it will operate in stable market conditions for the 25-35 years to return the investment.

Now once it’s that size, you can’t run it with your family. You professionalise and impersonalise it, and bring in experts. But to invest in professionalising the business, you need to be sure that there will be a return on the social capital.
It seems then in Uganda, there is no faith in the long-term possibility that market and political conditions 30 years out will be favourable, and no private money goes into the kind of projects that require that time frame.
The only such projects are the ones where the risk can be underwritten by the government – like a dam. So now you know why you will have a Bujagali size dam, but not even get one-tenth of its private sector investment in health.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

The killing fields of Kasese: What are we seeing, and what are we missing?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, April 6   2016 at  01:00

In Summary

Given that the 1980 vote was so flawed, the fact that Kiyonga’s victory was upheld proved something else: the people of Kasese were able to protect their vote then. Because the folks from Kasese collectively are, actually, marginalised in national politics, and live at the border, it’s easy to forget that they are an independent-spirited lot, and also profoundly patriotic.

It seems the violence in Kasese is not about to end, with six people, including two UPDF soldiers, being killed on Monday.
The arguments about what exactly is happening in Kasese continue, with critics accusing government security forces of carrying out massacres, and some people claiming there is a kind of revolution there, to protest the February election theft.
The government has blamed the violence on criminal elements, the Opposition, and even hinted at links to the DR Congo-based Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels.

Whatever the case, Kasese is an interesting place. It should be remembered that either under pressure, or through deliberate strategic choice, President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) trudged to the Rwenzori Mountains to catch its breath and reorganise during its Luweero-based war against Milton Obote’s UPC government in the early 1980s.
Brig Chefe Ali’s Uganda National Liberation Front Anti-Dictatorship (UNLF-AD) was also based in the Rwenzori at that time, and some parts of Mt. Elgon.
Chefe later joined the NRA. One of the most enigmatic officers of the NRA and later UPDF, Chefe died in 1999.
In the 1980 election that, ironically, was as rigged as the recent February poll, the Museveni-led Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) won only one seat – in Kasese. The victor was Dr Crispus Kiyonga, who lost this time - a loss that his foes say is one of the things informing the post-election unrest in the region.

Given that the 1980 vote was so flawed, the fact that Kiyonga’s victory was upheld proved something else: the people of Kasese were able to protect their vote then.
Because the folk from Kasese collectively are, actually, marginalised in national politics, and live at the border, it’s easy to forget that they are an independent-spirited lot, and also profoundly patriotic. The NRA and UNLF-AD would not have chosen to be based there, if the place was a sea of opportunism.

They are a people whose outlook has been shaped by almost constant struggle; including for the longest time to have the independence of their kingdom as distinct from that of Tooro, in colonial Uganda.
This history can easily be forgotten, because the Rwenzururu King, Charles Wesley Mumbere, did only always conduct himself with the more adept majesty of Buganda’s Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, or even the reclining dignity of, for example, the Tieng Adhola in Tororo (Disclosure – I am his subject, so I may not be 100 per cent objective).

The bigger and more serious point here though, is what Kasese tells about the politics of the periphery in Uganda.
Communities that are located at borders and cut between two countries in Africa are often marginalised. Whether the capital of the country is at the coast, or more in the centre, there is usually a sharp contest over the surrounding real estate and fortunes in the capital, and it is difficult for far-flung groups to organise sufficiently to be able to lay claim at the high table where the national groceries are being divided.

If, like the Samia, part of the community lives in large numbers in the neighbouring country, you tend to see what we might call “nationalist polygamy” – a lot of interest in maintaining ties, and being involved in the lives of the relatives across.
These peripheral communities will get involved in big national politics, often as a result of the wider geopolitical enterprise of the neighour. For example, for years, the people of West Nile and, especially, Acholiland – the LRA rebellion at one point being a case in point – got militantly involved in Ugandan politics as proxies of the war between Omar al-Bashir’s Khartoum and Museveni’s Kampala in the 1990s.

Though there is a deeper land rights issue at play, the small arms problem in Karamoja, and its related bandit element, is part of the wider international cattle smuggling belt encompassing Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, and which feeds the meat markets of the Middle East.
The militant politics of the Mt Elgon region is to be explained by Kenya’s centrality as the key pipeline for movement of people in and out of Uganda.
The Bakonzo, however, have also had a second layer of activism, which is rooted in local dynamics and nativist autonomy, which is detached from events in DRC.

I can’t say what is going on, apart from sensing that it is potentially profound. But Kasese, it seems, is a region that requires a more nuanced approach.
If the powers that be can understand it, then they will get a better sense of how the regime might be blindsided by periphery forces.
And for those seeking democratic change, Kasese might provide insights into how to build democratic coalitions away from the centre, where it is more risky and it’s easier for the incumbent regime to disrupt.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Small can be beautiful: The happy lessons some African journalists are learning

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, March 30   2016 at  01:00

In Summary

A while back a group of Southern African and East African journalists (including Kabushenga) formed the Africa Media Development and Accelerator Fund. We are the “Historicals”. I have been keeping an eye on the bank account, and the $100-$250s are coming in every month without fail.

We will take a break from all the conflict and political nastiness and reflect on something more productive.
This is a story about how a small group of African media owners and editors are trying to do something small, which has not been done before, and hopefully can be huge.
But we will get to it in a roundabout way.

Recently, I had a conversation with the director of a regional international organisation (which by the way happens to be led by a Ugandan), which has a programme that tracks African countries’ compliance with African Union protocols.
It’s a surprising niche but, turns out, very revealing. The new-look AU which was reborn in July 2002, and its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), have together adopted 48 protocols and conventions.
Since 2002, there is only one of those 48 protocols that has been ratified by all 54 members. The one setting up the organisation.
The country that has ratified, and given some form of expression in national law, to the most protocols is, surprisingly, now-troubled Mali. It has ratified about 38 protocols.

It is mostly a mixed bag after that, but among the notable relatively good performers are Ethiopia and Rwanda, and the likes of Botswana.
Ethiopia and Rwanda are interesting, she told me, because they don’t just ratify, but are very good at enforcing the protocols.
I asked her why she thought Ethiopia and Rwanda have this record. Her answer wasn’t what I expected. She said it’s because the two countries have a tradition of “not signing things they are not committed to seriously doing something about.”
That took me back to 2002. Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki were among the key drivers of the AU.

One of the key events in reimagining a different Africa, had come in May 2000. In one of the most discussed magazine covers in years, The Economist had its controversial headline describing Africa as “The Hopeless Continent”.
I went to a World Economic Forum conference in Durban a short while later, and during his speech, Mbeki went totally native on The Economist.
It was no surprise then when the AU was birthed, a lot of the discussion was about the “negative portrayal” of Africa by Western media. Everyone agreed that it was futile, in the end, to just whine and mourn about Western media coverage of Africa.
After all, why can’t Africa put money in its own media institutions and tell the world a different story. The African leaders agreed to breathe life in the moribund Pan-African News Agency (PANA).

Members made pledges. Rwanda made the smallest – less than $100,000. It was almost laughed out of the room for offering peanuts. The big boys pledged millions of dollars.
A few weeks later, the small Rwanda pledge arrived in the exact amount it had promised to give. You can guess how this story ends. It was, according to many accounts, the only cheque that ever came.
It is a lesson worth taking to heart.
So last year, there was a big meeting of Africa media chiefs in Johannesburg. It was paid for by donor money.

I chided the organisers and attendees – including New Vision’s CEO Robert Kabushenga – about the event, and suggested we should have taken the money and created an African media venture capital fund instead.
Before I knew it, Kabushenga and Zimbabwe media entrepreneur Trevor Ncube, had gone on Twitter and said we had decided to start a media fund and all those interested should contact me.
They had cornered me. Many people started tagging me on Twitter, wanting to be part of it.
I posted that it would be a hardnosed capitalist fund, which would lend mostly to new media and communication ventures, or take equity. It would be a cooperative open to all African journalists.

Then, I did the Rwanda thing. I said people would contribute monthly, but only small sums. No $1,000s or more. Just anything between $50 and $300. Chaps can get excited, like the AU with PANA, offer $5,000 and you never hear from them.
When envelopes with $100-$300 started arriving in my office, I thought that maybe this time, by being very cautious and starting small, this might work. There was no going back.
The hard work followed, and a while back, a group of Southern African and East African journalists (including Kabushenga) formed the Africa Media Development and Accelerator Fund. We are the “Historicals”.

I have been keeping an eye on the bank account, and the $100-$250s are coming in every month without fail.
Press freedom is important, absolutely. But because of the massive disruptions happening to the media industry are getting to a point where there will soon be no press freedom, if someone cannot pay for it. Not with charity money. But private capital, which forces media managers to be creative and build profitable businesses that pay for the journalism.
Most important, however, small can be beautiful after all.

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


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