Charles Onyango Obbo

Finally, in Uganda, change that you can believe in – but won’t like

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 25   2015 at  02:00

As former South African president Thabo Mbeki might say, “I am a child of Africa”. And I am a child of Africa, because I am a child of Uganda.

These days, however, I mostly tend to Africa’s calls and no longer encounter Uganda’s matters as much as I used to. Thus after an absence of months, I returned and went straight to The Rock to pay homage and to be renewed by its stoic spirit.

But that absence also enables one to see immediately some of the things that had obviously changed since the last encounter. There are many, but we speak of four today.

In the middle of the campaigns, a couple of things struck me.
1. This is the least programmatic Ugandan election ever. None of the candidates is painting a grand picture of the kind of Ugandan society they seek in, say, 10 years. It’s understandable. For the Opposition candidates, because injustice and inequality are a big issue today, their campaigns are either about restitution (giving national goods to those who have been left out), restoration (returning Uganda to a promising path from which it has been derailed), and redistribution (taking from the thieving few and rewarding the labour of the honest many, via better salaries, etc). And for incumbent Yoweri Museveni it’s all about maintenance.

Part of it, especially on the part of Museveni, might be down to what we might call the “oil chill”. That oil lottery we thought we had won hasn’t yet materialised.

The last two campaigns were driven by a vision of oil dollars fuelling an economic take-off. For the Opposition, they seem aware of something that is all too apparent – public expectations of leaders is probably at its lowest ever. You are more believable if you don’t promise to build a new Uganda.
2. An article in the Daily Monitor asked a provocative question; whether Uganda’s old parties, the Democratic Party (DP) and Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) are dead. In this election, none of them is fielding a candidate. The Monitor said they had become “bridesmaids”.

I think there is something more intriguing. The DP and UPC are weaker parties today after 10 years of multiparty politics when they can organise fairly freely, than between 1986 and 2005 when Uganda was a one-party state and they were forced to be creative in their defiance of the state.
Some political parties, it seems, need a mortal enemy to thrive.

3. Having noted the fate of the old parties, there is the story of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which is fielding Kizza Besigye. Including its first version as Reform Agenda, which morphed into FDC, this is the fourth straight time that FDC has fielded a presidential candidate.

There are many shortcomings with FDC, but first the positives. No party has the choice FDC has between its leader Mugisha Muntu and Besigye for flag bearer. And right through to the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament Wafula Oguttu, down to young fairly new entrants like MP Ibrahim Ssemuju, no party either has an equal potential line-up as national leaders and none, possibly, matches them intellectually.

FDC is also probably the most cosmopolitan party in the country. These advantages, however, make it a lousy electoral party.

While it has grown its support among the urban working class, its peasant and rural stock is marginal.

This means FDC begins every election cycle with a lower “for granted” vote because it’s not based on very emotional unchangeable issues (region etc) and is not entrenched where the majority of Ugandan voters live. It’s better able to convert its support into wins for parliamentary seats, but is a distance away from winning a “theft proof” margin vote for its presidential candidate.

3. Whatever your political leanings, you have to admit that the mix of Museveni’s “Another rap” was a big hit, and became the soundtrack of the 2011 election.

This election, there has been a big backlash against top musicians getting in bed with Museveni, and the related Tubonga Nawe, which is a campaign plug for the President. For this election, no song looks set to capture the imagination.
This happens at a time when the market for “neutrals” is huge. This is set to be the best elections for independents in Uganda’s history. How did we get here?

4. State decay and corruption are finally being mirrored fully in wider society. There are many things one can point to but perhaps one of the best is traffic. Traffic has always been a nightmare, and Ugandan drivers as inconsiderate as any others elsewhere.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

A small letter to Museveni, Besigye, Mbabazi and the rest on 2016 vote

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 18   2015 at  02:00

Now that the Uganda presidential campaigns for 2016 are fully on, and the candidates are roaming the land, we are beginning to get some interesting insights into the state of the republic.

For example, there have been those photographs of the makeshift bridges that wananchi had to build for Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate Kizza Besigye’s convoy to be able to drive through.

Some have said this symbolises the “wasted” years of President Museveni’s rule if that is all he has to show for 30 years in power.

Others, working on the assumption that a sectarian president will always look after his backyard better, say if Museveni’s Ankole can be such a shambles, imagine how the rest of the country, especially areas where he doesn’t enjoy much support, look like.

Powerful emotional arguments, but in the end, they don’t tell us much. Former minister and East African Community (EAC) secretary-general Amanya Mushega used to make the argument that those who argued that “westerners were the ones eating”, forgot that the region also had the highest percentage of stunted children. Surely, it can’t be that the adults were eating and not feeding their children, Amanya would say.

The point to take away from that is that Uganda’s problems are systemic, and the broken (or absent) bridges in the west should be an opportunity for deeper reflection.

If a government is corrupt, its officials steal from everyone. In fact they are more likely to cheat their people than the rest.

For various social and political reasons, Museveni is more likely to get votes from the west, even if their roads have gone to hell, than in Buganda or the north.

So what do you think a clever corrupt official will do? Steal money meant for a bridge outside Lira or the one for the bridge in Rushere? He would steal the money for the Rushere bridge, because the people are still likely to vote Museveni anyway.

We are not hearing a lot of discussion about these systemic issues. I think the biggest loss Uganda has suffered in recent years is the rolling back of local government, and the over-politicisation of the Local Councils (LC), which neutered them.
The solution to these broken bridges, and wretched health services in Uganda, lies in reimagining local government.
First, scrap the LCs and replace them with county and districts councils elected by universal suffrage.

Second, can borrow a leaf from Kenya and have a constitutional amendment that locks in a certain percentage of the national budget for local governments – say 18 per cent.
Third, pass laws for very intrusive oversight by an independent authority, and high standards of accountability to district voters.

Kenya is as corrupt, and possibly even more corrupt, than Uganda. Many of their highly devolved “county” governments are also rotten.

But in spite of that, those structural reforms have still done wonders. There are marginalised parts of the country where some estimates have it that in less than three years, more small rural bridges have been built in Kenya than had in the previous 75 years!

Also, because specially arid areas are vast, populations sparse, and infrastructure rudimentary, in areas like Garissa in the north, they started developing small basic maternity wards, of between six and 10 beds, from their county grants.

They are so cheap to build, dozens have been constructed. Together, they became a network that caused a sharp drop in maternal and child mortality in this poor region - and people are beginning to say Africa needs to study what just happened there.

Also, because the region has a limited grid, solar has expanded as a solution, including solar streetlights. Another happy accidental outcome of this has been a drop from snakebites, previously a plague of the region.

The revelation here is that when local communities have budgets, some will steal it, but others will innovate like the people of Garissa.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Listen, there is never only one election in Uganda. There are also two or three others

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 11   2015 at  02:00

The upcoming Uganda election has become, among other things, a battle of the crowds. If one ignores all the many doctored photos of the rival candidates’ rallies that are flying over the Internet and social media, it seems Forum Democratic Change clearly beat President Yoweri Museveni and Go Forward’s Amama Mbabazi with his nomination crowd.

I am one of those who wasn’t sure, given that he is trying for a fourth time, that Kizza Besigye’s candidacy would receive the kind of enthusiasm it’s getting today.

In many respects the elections of, especially 2001 and 2006, were deeply flawed. Despite all the enthusiasm, Besigye and Mbabazi’s supporters must know that the person who wins elections in Uganda is not the one with the most votes.

It is he with the people who counts the votes. The current unreformed Electoral Commission is, well, not about to bite Museveni’s hand.

So why isn’t Opposition enthusiasm diminished? Indeed, there seems to be even greater excitement about the Besigye campaign.
I have some theories. At the very basic level, even if they expect he will be cheated, it seems the people are thanking Besigye for having stuck his neck out for the last 15 years, and not giving up.

Museveni got a similar thank you for having fought the Bush War and succeeded, in 1996. After the election results were announced, Museveni flew from Rwakitura to Entebbe and had a triumphant march into Kampala.

The crowds that turned out to receive him were big, and some friends, who are otherwise calm and balanced, were out there along Entebbe Road with banana leaves tied around their waists.
So, this election is Besigye’s parade, irrespective of how the final outcome turns out.

The second thing is that, most of those massive crowds, for all the candidates, are men. So where are the women, because when it comes to voting, men and women vote in nearly the same numbers.

First, women are more wary of violence, so they stay away from events that are likely to be teargassed and pepper-strayed by the police. But the bigger reason is that they are working; they are in the shops, kiosks, gardens, in homes as househelps, doing the jobs that Ugandan men struggle to do.

More bluntly, then, the men are more idle and have time on their hands. This is a big point, because it says something far-reaching.

Partly because of the demise of the old State-driven economy, and the demise of industries (the Jinja industry graveyard will testify to that), plus the rise of informalisation, it has been easier for women to succeed in today’s “kadogo economy” than men.

There are even those who got as far as saying the emasculation of the African man is fully underway. Political rallies, especially the ones that are likely to be broken up by police, become attractive for men as a form of controlled warfare.

There is probably something envigorating, and that revalidates some men in a world that they see slipping away from their patriarchal grip, when they battle riot police.

But more broadly, the crowd turn-out then becomes the real election, not the voting day.

It’s in the turning out for the Besigye rally that the “cheated” can achieve victory, and clearly beat the Museveni side. Otherwise, even if they were more, they wouldn’t beat him at the ballot.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

As 2016 elections draw near, here are some lessons from the 1996 polls

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 4   2015 at  02:00

I was really surprised to learn that Opposition big wigs, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) flag bearer Kizza Besigye and Go Forward’s Amama Mbabazi had met in the UK to try to forge a joint front against President Museveni in the forthcoming elections.

The talks, mediated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, were an attempt to stitch the joint candidate project that had failed in Kampala a few weeks back.

Sure, often it is good when negotiating to bring someone who doesn’t have too vested a local interest. And holding the talks in Manchester gives you more quiet, and proofs them against leaks than if they were done in Kampala.

But the timing was horrible. Not in the heat of an election campaign. In fact we need only go 19 years back to 1996, when both Besigye and Mbabazi were still warmly ensconced in Museveni’s corner, to know why that was a risky move.
In that election, Museveni’s main opponent was Democratic Party leader Paul Ssemogerere, who had resigned from government because the new Constitution didn’t provide for a return to multiparty politics.

There is a USAID assessment of that 1996 election, if you can get your hands on it, it’s a treasure. One thing it noted was that the Museveni campaign fumbled at the start, while Ssemogerere’s got off the blocks smoothly.

It has been a feature of nearly all Museveni’s campaigns – the start is messy, as it is today. But then usually, after some weeks, it gets it rallies, and whether it uses violence, money, charm, it doesn’t matter, it usually finishes strongly.
And toward the tape, it can get very lethal. In 1996, with days to go, in a move some allege was engineered by the cheeky hands of John Nagenda, an advert was unleashed by the Museveni campaign.

It was a doctored photograph showing Ssemogerere meeting with exiled UPC honcho Milton Obote allegedly in a Nairobi hotel to scheme how to win the election.

At that time, anti-Obote hysteria and hatred was sky high, and hadn’t mellowed the way it did in subsequent years. It was a fake photo, but it didn’t matter. Let’s say the Ssemogerere campaign was buried completely, and there was no comeback.

The point is that not just in Uganda, but anywhere in the world, election time is the one time you don’t want to be seen to be opening doors to foreigners to influence the direction of events. It allows your opponent to stoke up the worst nationalist sentiments and conspiracy theories.

Actually, it’s not just politics. We did it in journalism when I was at The Monitor, and the person who pushed this strategy the most was our MD then, and now the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament Wafula Oguttu.

When we started The Monitor the problem was that whenever journalists got into trouble, they would run to some Western embassy, or if they didn’t, they were usually given a scholarship or asylum abroad later.

We decided at The Monitor that we do none of those things. We would stay, take the blows, and establish some rules of engagement with the political and judicial establishment.
First, when we were arrested and taken to court, we needed to prove that when we got bail, we wouldn’t run away. It took a lot of work, but after some years both the prosecutors (and magistrates), no longer even opposed bail.

Then, although very many international rights groups would issue statements and denunciations of our torment, we never ran more than three - and even then buried them in the inside pages. They were fights on our streets, and we intended to keep them that way.

Thirdly, we never accepted the many much-appreciated offers by foreign press freedom bodies to send international lawyers to our cases – helped in no measure by the deft pair of Alex Rezida and James Nangwala who always warned it would poison the well. “If they have any legal references or readings we might have missed, let them send to you and you forward to us”, Nangwala would say.

It meant they had to do a lot more work than if they had accepted external help, but the big picture was always more important. In that historic case in the Supreme Court in which Andrew Mwenda and I scored a major victory for press freedom, Rezida and Nangwala disappeared to some place at the foot of Mountain Elgon in Mbale area with sacksful of legal books in their boot and emerged a week later.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

250 years of ‘Uganda’: These are the 15 things I would love to bring back to life

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, October 28   2015 at  02:00

Uganda politics is not looking pretty at all, right now, so we won’t touch it today.
Well, the other day our daughter sent me a WhatsApp to go and read about the rare book library at Yale University (The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library as it’s formally known).

If there is one thing you need to do over your coffee or lunch break, I recommend you read it too. The library has no windows. The walls are made of translucent marble, which allow in mild lighting from outside, while providing the rare books with protection against direct sunlight because that would damage them.

The exterior of the building looks drab by day, but at night the stone panels transmit light from the interior, giving the building an amber glow. It’s breathtaking. It looks like one of the sci-tech buildings in a post-apocalyptic movie located in 2084. Remarkable, because the library was actually completed in 1963.

It says something about a people, and their chances of success, that they should apply so much creativity to preserve over one million plus several millions manuscripts from all parts of the world printed before 1851.

I think it was Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his marvellous book The Black Swan, who quotes Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco suggesting that it is good to have books around you, even if you don’t read them. Just being surrounded by them ennobles, or something to that effect.

I guess it true for most things that tell a story that is bigger than themselves. And so I thought, if I could find them, or get a time machine, what are the Ugandan things I would want to have in a collection for future generations to see.
I have 25, but list 15 here:

1. The first copy of the Bible that was brought to Uganda? Who brought it?
2. The first Quran. Who was the first Ugandan to read it?
3. But, mostly, the first book to come to Uganda. What imprint of it can we find on modern Uganda?
4. The first typewriter. What model was it? Who brought it?
5. Who was the first Ugandan to wear a modern shoe?
6. Who was the first Ugandan tailor to make a contemporary busuti (gomesi) on a sewing machine, and which lucky woman was the first to wear his creation?
7. When was the first house built in cement in Uganda? Where was it built? And by who?
8. Some years ago cultural activist and political commentator Kalundi Serumaga showed me a late 1800s map drawn by the Buganda Kingdom for a sewerage system around Mengo and surrounding areas. It was stunning, partly because it was actually more intelligent and forward-looking than anything that has been done since. I will settle for less – where is the first plan of Kampala?
9. We know the contending stories about the first Ugandan to drive a car. What is more intriguing to me is which was the first ever car to be imported into Uganda. If I could lay my hand on it, I would spare no fortune to restore it.
10. Tangentially related to that, we know when the railway arrived in Uganda. But where is the first train engine? No one could have eaten it, so we can only hope that we didn’t make sigiri with it ages ago. And, by the way, who was the first Ugandan train driver?
11. We are a strange country. Ugandan doctors today of recent years are magicians and geniuses when they go to work abroad, but they are duds when they are at home. But there was a glory period of Ugandan medicine, so who was the first Ugandan to perform modern surgery? Where? Who was the patient? And where is the table on which he did it?
12. Where is the first piano that was brought to our country?
13. Where is the first guitar? At least a photo of it?
14. Where was the first Christian church wedding held in Uganda, and when? Who were the couple?
15. And this one is probably the easiest, surely. Who was the first captain of the Kampala Golf Club?
These are not fanciful preoccupations. With advances in 3D printing, we are able to print all these things, except the people. And so we start where we started. All we need are the books that hold the stories, and manuscripts recording the tales of those who saw these things “with their own two eyes”.
Recently, when we were sorting our late mother’s stuff, we found school fees receipts from 45 years ago. Unforgettable. It blows the mind to think that at that point you could go to school in Uganda for Shs2.

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