Wednesday April 26 2017

The inconvenient politics of the current Uganda crime wave


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Every day Ugandans are posting on social media photographs of broken windows, doors, and ransacked homes in the wave of crime that has hit the country in recent times.

This week, suspects were paraded before police chief Kale Kaihura, and said they get protection from the police. There is no surprise there. Everyone knows that for the type of crime we are witnessing, police collusion is critical.

And, it is not just in Uganda where it happens. It happens all over the world. There are some common reasons why this happens. Police officers in most countries are poorly paid.
At the same time, they protect rich business people, companies, corrupt politicians, and others who live a life they cannot even dream of.

To make matters worse, police work can be hard and unglamorous. They endure scorching sun, rain, and long hours on their feet. And it is dangerous.

For men and women to do that work without paying themselves something extra through corruption and crime, they need to be very patriotic and honest.

For them to be very patriotic and honest, they need to see the leaders above them being equally patriotic and scrupulous. If, as in Uganda, they are not, the deal is off.

But even where the leaders are patriotic and honest, inequality can lead to breach of trust. A recent Oxfam report noted that in Uganda, the richest 10 per cent of the population enjoy 35.7 per cent of national income; while the poorest 10 per cent claim a meagre 2.5 per cent, and the poorest 20 per cent have only 5.8 per cent.

Also, inequality between the regions had grown sharply.
A law enforcement officer from a deprived region, sitting in Kampala, might act out of grievance at that fact, and either steal directly, or find a “sub-contractor” thief whom he protects.

However, if this was all, then crime would be largely a law and order and economic opportunity issue for which some quick fixes could be found.

But it is not. It touches on what you might call the “three pillars” that form the pact between President Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the Ugandan people.

When the NRM took power in 1986 after a five-year bush war, even with areas, parties and individuals that opposed them, at a deeper level, there was a contract upon which the acceptance of their rule was based.

It was simple. The first (and many people scorned the idea later) was that in exchange for acquiescing to Museveni/NRM’s rule, they would guarantee you safety in your home, so you would not be attacked and robbed—and easily killed—as had been the case the previous 15 years. This later came to be known simply as “Otulo”.

The second, that the sweat of your labour would not be squirrelled away by high inflation or confiscated by the state, and so anti-inflation policy became and remains a central plank of Museveni policy. Corruption was a big issue, but it was never part of this contract.

The third was that at the village level, you would not be ruled by people whom you had not elected. And so the appointed chief went. That is partly how Resistance Council 1, and later Local Council 1, evolved differently from the higher levels of LC, because at that level you were not elected on the basis of your party or even nationality, but your community bona fides.

So while you could steal the presidential or parliamentary vote, the RC1 and LC1 ones for the longest time were largely honest.
The election mandate that Museveni “wangles” every five years or so, I believe, has never been the abiding basis of his power.
He could steal all the votes, lead a notoriously corrupt government, and string Kizza Besigye upside down from a tree in Kansagati, but as long as he did not mess with those things who could hang on somehow.

The elites and towns got worked up over those things, for sure, but “down there” those were not the mostly deeply felt matters.
Remember, because of rebellion and so on, in nearly all the north and northeast, some of those three-pillars were denied.
But in the wider political south, Museveni’s subjective social base, they were always secured.

Not any more. The present wave of crime has hit, especially the south, particularly hard. In some of the previously war-affected areas, someone remarked that crime is slightly lower because there is little to steal.

These home invasions take away two things. First, security of person in the home. Secondly, they are stealing the sweat of people’s labour – either money or property.
It is therefore a bigger political problem than even an election fiasco, because it is tearing apart the real compact on which the consent (not legitimacy) of Ugandans to Museveni’s and NRM’s rule is based.

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

Wednesday April 19 2017

A ‘pair of buttocks’ and the big silent war over the Museveni years


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

And just like that, at least according to Mr Google, Dr Stella Nyanzi became the most reported and commented-on Africa story in world media of the last 10 days.

We shall not return to the wider political meaning of the arrest of the outspoken feminist Makerere University academic and social media provocateur.

Rather we shall focus on the power of the three words that have captured everyone’s attention.

The Nyanzi story took off at a specific point—when it gained salt of the Earth simplicity. If you read most headlines, they are saying she was arrested for calling President Yoweri Museveni a “pair of buttocks”.

What is it about bottoms/bums and their appendages that evoke so much emotion?

In fact, Nyanzi is an amateur when it comes to spinning catchy and dramatic lines about the nether regions. The master is her present adversary—President Museveni himself.

A story is told about one day when Dr Suleiman Kiggundu (RIP), who was then Governor of the Bank of Uganda (1986-1990) went to State House to meet Museveni.

State House was then in Entebbe, before it made its long move to Nakasero, and then returning there again in recent years.

Museveni had a long list of visitors, and Kiggundu had business to do in Kampala. Kiggundu sat and waited for most of the day.

Finally, toward 8pm, he plucked courage and pressured a Museveni aide to tell the President he was still waiting.

Museveni, according to one of the people who was with him, told the aide (in Runyankole), “Tell him to wait. Are there ants in his anus?”

That is deep stuff, and you do not have to be a student of African philosophy to understand it.

In December 2015, Museveni, this time publicly, again drew inspiration from the derriere region to issue a memorable warning following clashes between former prime minister Amama Mbabazi’s fans and NRM supporters in Ntungamo.

“If you put your finger in the anus of a leopard, you are in trouble”, Museveni said, as he warned in a televised statement that the Amama supporters would pay dearly. And from there, he earned the nickname the “leopard”.

And, indeed, one of the most powerful African proverbs on action, consequences and obligation, is again derived from the same place. “If the throat can swallow a knife, the anus must find a way of expelling it”, it says.

The bottoms and their neighbourhoods are among the most contested spaces all over the world, but evoke more emotion in peasant societies because they are still imbued with an existential element.

Thus, in many societies, women who are well-endowed will find themselves receiving a lot of both wanted and unwanted attention from men.

Careers are made from it. Perhaps one of the most successful global brands built around a generous rear is the American reality star Kim Kardashian.
Though talented in their own right, musicians like Jennifer Lopez, and more notably the beloved Beyoncé, have got a lot of bonus points from what their rear views offer.

And anyone who has even a passing interest in African pop culture, will know that these days there are women who have become rich from, as our African American brothers and sisters say, “using what their momma gave them” well.

Being well-endowed gets you a well-paid appearance on music videos and high society parties, because you attract photographers, and your pictures will go viral on celebrity-obsessed social media and thus give publicity to the event that you attended.

In African culture, ample backsides are also associated with fertility, and therefore evolutionary success.

But while the derriere is a premium sexual objective and procreative advertisement, it is also where we get rid of the waste in our bodies, and the most stinging sources of African insult. Nyanzi drew from the latter.

However, Museveni (and Kahinda Otafiire and Amanya Mushenga) among Uganda’s politicians is the master of this visceral cultural form.

In 1996, we saw him deploy it with deadly effect with his “Olubimbi” (grinding stone) imagery against Paul Ssemwogerere in that year’s election, allowing him to speak to rural voters in a language his opponents did not have an answer to.

He returned to it with the “Another Rap” song in his 2011 campaign, perhaps the best-run vote hunt of his career. And lately, another admittedly catchy video, “Kwezi, Kwezi”, a spoken traditional poetry offering.
And that is the other point that needs to be made. Nyanzi actually stole a page from the Museveni playbook.

I have always held that there are two battles in Uganda. One is the broader political one. The second, and more critical, one is over the narrative about the Museveni years, culture, and idioms.
A “pair of buttocks” has just opened the floodgates on the latter.

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

Wednesday April 12 2017

120 years ago, what Apollo Kaggwa teaches us about Uganda today


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

For many years, President Yoweri Museveni has argued that for Uganda to become a rich and industrialised nation, it has to focus more of its education resources on the study of science and technology, and less on poetry, psychology, politics (the arts and social sciences, generally).

His government’s policy has, therefore, over the years shifted more and more state scholarships away from the arts and social sciences, to the pure sciences and technology.

The president is wrong, of course, but it is an argument that is not worth getting bogged down with today. Where a Museveni would have a point is in HOW the arts and social sciences are taught.

The irony is that a better study of the arts and social science, would argue be good for Museveni because some of what critics present as the more cynical and devious elements of his rule become more understandable.

Let us take the case of SirApollo Kaggwa, who has been described as a “major intellectual” of his time, an author, Buganda’s and “foremost ethnographer”. Kaggwa is more famous as regent Buganda Katikkiro (prime minister) for most of the period between 1890 and 1926.

Let’s take two episodes. Between 1885 and 1887, there was the so-called “religious war”, mainly in Buganda, with Protestants, Catholics, and Muslim factions vying for control.

Kaggwa, came to be seen as the leader what scholars have called the “Protestant faction.”

Beside being a man of letter, Kaggwa, we are told, was also a “good rifleman”, in many ways a Museveni of that time, and he fought in the religious war.
The Muslims had the early upper hand and scattered the Christians.

King Mwanga was deposed briefly, and Kaggwa and other Protestants fled into “exile”. Well, they didnot go too far. They fled to the neighbouring Ankole Kingdom, where King Ntare V Rugingiza gave them asylum.

The Protesants eventually prevailed. Mwanga got back his kingdom in 1890, and a triumphant Kaggwa became Katikkiro.

The thing about this event of nearly 130 years ago today, is that it should have been a useful reference point when Museveni took his bush war to Luwero in 1981.

The UPC used to argue that Museveni had been so rejected in the 1980 elections – he lost his shirt, coming third in Nyabushozi – so he could only opportunistically base his war in Buganda where anti-Obote sentiment ran very deep.

Some Buganda nativists and Museveni critics, on the other hand, hold that it was a cynical move to “destroy” Buganda through war, while preserving his own Ankole.

You can see that to argue this way, one has to ignore history. Even before we talk of the alliance that was to form between Bunyoro’s King Kabalega and Buganda’s Mwanga a few years later against British colonialism, the history of (later)-Ugandans seeking common cause and support for their local struggles from neighbours is older than modern day Uganda.

If anyone came to understand that, it was Apollo Kaggwa. Thus in his history of Buganda, he included pages on the neighbouring kingdoms of Bunyoro and Ankole.

Some of these things are politically inconvenient, especially if they offer a nuanced understanding of a president or government you despise, but yet we would deny ourselves usual tools for navigating the present and predicting how the next few years in Uganda’s politics might play out, if we bury them.

Taking this further, my grown up re-acquaintance with Apollo Kaggwa, led me to re-evaluate another commonly held view from our history.

Kaggwa was, by the standards of time, a visionary and moderniser. He was a big proponent of modern education.

From a citation from C.W. Hattersley’s “The Baganda at Home”, we learn that Kaggwa was “appalled by what he saw as a tendency of the sons of the nation’s leaders to grow up spoiled, in contrast to the spartan upbringing his generation received from the palace apprenticeship system.

He worked with British missionaries to establish boarding schools, notably King’s College Budo, explicitly to keep young noblemen from growing up spoiled.”

In our popular commentary and radical scholarship, Budo was established to entrench the privileges of Buganda­—and Uganda’s—royalty and chiefly houses.

Though it was never created for peasant’s children, but to people like Kaggwa, you could say, Budo was supposed to “proletariatise the upper class”.

And the corollary, controversial, argument could be made that he thought boarding school made sense school only for the privileged children and was, essentially, bad for the poor.

Seeing the crisis that Uganda’s middle class is battling with its children today, it is truly remarkable that a man like Kaggwa was so strategically engaged with these issues 100 years ago.
Yet, if there was only government-funded education today under Museveni, very few would have the possibility to study anything new about him.

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

Wednesday April 5 2017

Beyond Stella Nyanzi: Power, privilege, and discontent in Uganda


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

For the first time, this column will write about Ms Stella Nyanzi, researcher, feminist, and tree-shaker.
It is not about her boldly strong and flowery language, or her wielding nudity for protest. Rather about what her social activism, and the response of the State to them, tell us about how the times are a changing.

There are two people who set Ugandan social media ablaze and upset those in power.

The first, and really the pioneer of social media combat, is Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, or TVO.

The other is Stella Nyanzi.
We have had earlier digital warriors, more memorably “Radio Katwe”, but that was a blog, so it didn’t have the possibility of feeding the frenzy that social media provides.

No one is sure who TVO is, nor who was behind “Radio Katwe”. But we know they were/are men. Secondly, they were anonymous.
Ms Nyanzi is, therefore, our first neck-on-the-chopping-block female social media combatant. But even more remarkable, the first to do this kind of battle without being anonymous.
That is truly noteworthy. And it also speaks to how gender politics and power are shifting in Uganda.

To borrow an unfortunate expression from the locker room, Ms Nyanzi is the first Ugandan “man” of social media activism. Where others hide in pseudonyms, she fights her wars fearless in the name that is on her school certificates.

But where Nyanzi has been most shrewd, is the issue she used to build her latest campaign on – sanitary pads for the poorer school girls in Uganda.

The people who really have to learn a lesson here, on how to take an issue that is seemingly on the margins of politics and then mainstreaming it, are the Ugandan Opposition.

Despite President Museveni promising to have a sanitary pads programme for school girls as he campaigned last year, the government now says it doesn’t have the money for it. A crowd-sourcing effort launched by Nyanzi, who argued that billions of shillings are stolen daily in corruption and spent on dubious projects, quickly raised millions of shillings for sanitary towels.

But that exactly is the rub. If the government responds by funding the programme, it will be seen to have lost out to Nyanzi. By making the “no money” argument, Museveni comes across as your typical politician who makes promises he doesn’t intend to keep during campaigns.

The third has been an attempt to suppress Nyanzi, first by summoning her to record a statement with the police about her controversial social comments; then preventing her from flying to a conference in Europe; and finally suspending her from her job at Makerere University. In any event, the effect of all this is that the First Lady Janet Museveni, who is Minister of Education, soon got embroiled in an unusually direct duel with Nyanzi, who had cast her as a privileged princess out of touch with the daily suffering of ordinary Ugandans after decades behind the walls of the presidential palace.

Even more significant, through her language and framing of the issue around sanitary towels, Nyanzi achieved something hardly anyone else has before. She managed to marginalise Museveni from what has become a major national conversation about power, its abuse, privilege and inequality of access to resources.

Ms Museveni has seemed to squirm in the spotlight Nyanzi has put on her, trapped between the message, which she probably has sympathy with, and the messenger, whom she detests.
However, we have got a very good insight into the inability of the Museveni House to deal with “new age” and on-the-edge soft social issues.

That the State is looking to charge Nyanzi, not only reveals an Achilles Heel, but also speaks to the second issue – the continuing seepage of conversation-setting power away from mainstream media and the professional commentariat, to people like Nyanzi and TVO.

But that, we already knew. What we weren’t sure, was the institutional form the State’s response to the rise of this social media activism would be.

The job has fallen to the telecoms industry regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), because it is about controlling access and use of the Internet. The UCC is slowly reincarnating as the old long-scrapped and disgraceful Censorship Board.

My friend Godfrey Mutabazi, the executive director of UCC, finds himself having to justify blocking access to the Internet, and delivering regular sermons on responsible social media usage, more than minister of ICT and National Guidance Frank Tumwebaze, whose job it is to deal with such messy issues.

On the other hand, the Civil Aviation Authority has lately found itself blocking more people from travelling than the police (which has only Kizza Besigye to worry about), and Makerere University, if it doesn’t push back, could become the regime’s Thought Police.

I don’t know whether Nyanzi knows how much she has upset the political apple cart.

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

Wednesday March 29 2017

It’s politics stupid: What Museveni needs for security cameras to work

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

After the recent shock assassination of Assistant Inspector General of Police and Force spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi, President Museveni ordered the installation of security cameras around the country.

Some people have said, “This is Uganda, it won’t happen. The money will be eaten”. Others have said it is simply too expensive, and Finance minister Matia Kasaija has already seemed to pour water on it.

A columnist in Daily Monitor noted that even offices that have security cameras, have not been able to prevent crime.
He has a point. Though there are troubling elements to it, the ideal world would be like that in the film “Minority Report”, starring Tom Cruise.

In it there is a precrime unit, which utilises clever technology to arrest murderers before they commit their crime.
But even in the fantasy world of film, “Minority Report” is based on America in 2054. In other words, we are still 37 years away from that.

Reducing crime and catching criminals are good goals, so let us make the overly optimistic assumption that the cameras money can be found, and this time it won’t be stolen. How then can we have something that works.

To which our answer is that for security cameras to work, the second thing you need is police sector reform. The first is political reform. Only after that, should you bother to buy and install cameras.

In many of these African countries, those security cameras put out there by governments might work, but they are useless.
Here is why, and we promise we will only use technical jargon in the following two sentences.

The cameras Museveni is talking about are referred to as “Internet protocol” (IP) cams or “network cameras”. They send and receive data (in this case photographs) over a local area network (LAN) or the Internet.

Because we all have mobile phones with cameras these days, we know that most times we have to make photographs smaller (compress), in order to send them to friends. One reason for that is because we have only a limited amount of bandwidth.

Also, after a while, we have to delete photographs from our phones, because we have only so much memory on both the phone and memory cards.

Security cameras work in the same way. They take photographs, and send them over a network to where they are stored almost like on our cameras and mobile phones.

If you had 100 friends and each of them was taking photos and sending them to your phone, in minutes you would have no space and wouldn’t be able to receive anything either – unless you could get a phone as big as your refrigerator and miraculously shift to a future 6G network.

Therefore, imagine for a second, the cameras at the Clock Tower Roundabout, Jinja Road, and the Shimoni Roundabout at peak hour. Every minute they could take and send more photos than any network in Kampala can carry.

After six hours, they would probably fill any digital storage this country has. Imagine all the cameras around Kampala, and all the towns and highways sending images to one central storage in Kampala at the same time.

Even if you took all the bandwidth in Uganda and dedicated it only to that, I doubt it would still be enough. And you will need Google-level storage to keep the data.

So the figures of under $200m being bandied around are useless. If we spent $2 billion (and most of it on bandwidth and storage), not cameras as such, we might get somewhere.

But that is impossible. The next alternative is to break it down in small pieces. Here different zones of Kampala, every town, and district would have their cameras, networks and data centres.

The national system then comes from networking all these small pieces. If you want information, you go in and query their databases. Even most of those Western countries that are very advanced in these things, like the UK, that is what they do.

But these countries also have strong local and city policy forces, some funded locally, and their leaderships appointed – or elected – at town, city, and state levels.

In Uganda, there is no police leader anywhere in this country who is not appointed either by President Museveni or IGP Kale Kayihura from Kampala.

If we deconcentrate, decentralise, and democratise the police, we shall have a force that is local-facing, and sufficiently accountable at that level to effectively execute things like security cameras. We shouldn’t build a system where everything in Uganda comes to Kayihura’s server room.

His job will be to pick the phone, when a vile crime happens, and ask for footage. That’s a cheaper system and doable.

But, as we said, it is a political question.

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

Wednesday March 22 2017

From Okoya to Kaweesi: The politics of killing uniformed men in Uganda

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The assassination of police spokesperson AIGP Andrew Felix Kaweesi last week, seems to have both saddened and shocked the country in ways few other such killings have done in recent times.

On social media, even some Ugandans who weren’t fans of Kaweesi because of, especially, his statements backing the shoot-to-kill order in the Kasese mayhem late last year, were shaken.
In a bizarre way, part of the answer was presented in plain sight on Monday, when former presidential aspirant, opposition FDC’s Kizza Besigye, was blocked from attending Kaweesi’s requiem mass at Rubaga Cathedral.

In this regard, once a Ugandan minister asked me how come the Kenyan political elite, after they have fought bitterly “still seem to be able to come together in key moments, unlike us?” I told him, “they have funerals and weddings to thank for that”.
Recently, after some very acrimonious campaigning and name-calling, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition rival Raila Odinga, both attended the funeral of a county governor. They were gentlemanly to each other, and made largely the same speeches, and for two days that was the big the story.

The inability of Uganda’s political chiefs to see a tragedy like the death of Kaweesi as an opportunity to dial down, to open the valve, means that this use of very brutal violence (to deal with political rivals, or as some allege in Kaweesi’s case getting rid of him for trying to stop a corrupt deal in the police) has remained a constant in Ugandan politics, now running on to 40 years.
Over these years, violence has been normalised in a very twisted way. Ugandans understand mass murder. You can slaughter people in their hundreds and thousands, as happened during Idi Amin’s rule; during the war in Luweero; the various northern Ugandan rebellions; and recently in Kasese.

Your supporters will think the people killed deserved it because they were opponents, and your support base will rally around you.

However, the same people react differently when individual military and police officers die in suspicious circumstances (as former Internal Affairs minister and army commander Gen Aronda Nyakairima did in 2015), or if they are brutally killed as with former army chief Maj Gen James Kazini in 2009; and now Kaweesi.
And this in turn has a history dating back to 1970, with the cold-blooded assassination of deputy army commander Brig Pierino Yere Okoya (and his wife). Most evidence suggested that his boss, Idi Amin, killed him in a plot.

However, as with Okoya in 1970 and Kazini in 2009, the murders of army officers are usually seen as representing an internal regime crisis working itself out. The killing of police officers, on the other hand, indicates a national crisis.

Okoya’s murder was a precursor to the January 1971 coup by Amin.
Kazini’s killing, likewise, was seen by some as part of the rearrangements of power in the UPDF, the institution that ultimately guarantees Museveni’s presidency and the NRM’s rule. Some regime opponents – and ruling party factions - will even celebrate these upheavals, believing that the government or power clique they dislike is about to end.

The police, even when it’s reviled as it is today in Uganda, however, is a different matter. Many Ugandans still see the police as “innocent”. It is a force that doesn’t play a key role in maintaining the regime in power (that falls to the UPDF and intelligence services). They see it as something used to do the “dirty work”, but that doesn’t have a seat at high table in State House.

Thus even when in 1977 Amin’s security operatives killed former police chief Erinayo Wilson Oryema (Uganda first African Inspector General of Police) – who was then minister of Land, Housing and Physical Planning - along with Archbishop Janani Luwum and Internal Affairs minister Charles Oboth-Ofumbi, it portended ill for the dictator.

So why would the assassination of a military officer be a regime crisis, and that of a police officer be a national crisis?
Because the police officers are not at the hard edge of power, killing them suggests the regime, or as some are suggesting in Kaweesi’s case elements within it, are facing such a deep crisis of keeping control or the ability to extract that they are willing to kill even peripheral players in order not to lose.

Such crimes suggest the house is coming down. It’s that understanding somewhere in the backs of our minds that really terrifies us. One way to explain it to football fans, is if you are a Manchester United supporter and it gets beat by Chelsea, you understand it. But if it gets whacked 4-0 by Bristol Rovers, then it’s time to be very afraid.

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

Wednesday March 15 2017

We hear Museveni is playing chess against himself in State House


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

This was in the story in Daily Monitor, Monday, titled “Officials panic as Tanzania sways Museveni on SGR”.

“President Museveni will this week meet officials from the Works and Finance ministries to discuss progress on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and plans HE CONCEIVED (caps mine) during a recent visit to Tanzania”, Daily Monitor has learnt.

“The President will expect the officials to table a comparative cost analysis of Uganda’s SGR in relation to Kenya and Tanzania’s costs...

“Sources say the officials were thrown into panic after Mr Museveni was told in Tanzania that the country’s planned SGR line was to cost significantly lower per kilometre than Uganda’s.”

It is striking that on all major infrastructure and economic projects, the President is virtually the only voice.

It seems that unless he puts his finger on it, the scale doesn’t shift. The decision, negotiations, and the announcement that Uganda would build its pipeline through Tanzania, not Kenya, came from the Horse’s mouth. That time, again, “Mzee” had travelled to Tanzania and ku-pangad things with president John Magufuli.

Most pronouncements on the SGR, have come from him.
Perhaps the President is a very hardworking man, and it’s good for a president to have such key projects on his checklist.

The problem is that it also seems to confirm the view, prevalent in recent years, that the rest of the Ugandan State has been disemboweled, and what some allege is a “parallel government” in State House has taken over all power.

The downside is that there is no vast meritocratic bureaucracy in State House running things. The “parallel government” is actually the “parallel man” - Museveni.

Take the case of the Shs6 billion “golden handshake” that was approved by the President to officials who helped Uganda fight its oil case in London.

I will not go into the merit of the payment, but the matter went to State House, where Museveni faced off a parliamentary committee that arrived with a head of steam, but unsurprisingly became a little subdued in the President’s presence, to explain why he had authorised the payment.

Shs6 billion is a lot of money, but it was still a bonus, really. I cannot conceive that a parliamentary committee would ever end up in State House Nairobi, to confront President Uhuru Kenyatta, over approving a bonus payment to state officials. With all the faults in Kenyan politics, that would actually be beneath him.

These kinds of things, were they to happen, would be handled at Treasury.

There is something amiss. It’s like oil, you get the impression that the way the President talks so intimately and personally about it as “my oil”, the most comprehensive map of the oil fields is probably locked in his bedside drawer.

We shall even grant the debatable point that some of this could come from Museveni’s determination, as he himself says, to ensure that Uganda gets the best deal from “his” oil.

However, cocooned away in State House, there are murmurs that the President is like one of those people who play a game of chess against themselves.

There is little headline grabbing movement on oil, and even SGR, because they have not been freed so that talented Ugandans are given permission to take some risks, and execute them.

Again let’s look at Kenya. Its SGR project has been dogged by political fights, big ones. Accusations that it has been hopelessly overpriced, and that a lot of fat has been built in for big people to chop, are galore.

Yet, amidst the blows the project has progressed. New world class train stations have been unveiled and are being built. Recently, the trains arrived, and they have done test runs.

With an election coming up, President Kenyatta is mindful to visit and take the publicity photographs with the gleaming new railway build in the background, but I have not read a story where he personally intervened to break a deadlock over the project.

Kenya is also building a new pipeline to Eldoret, and while it is not universally popular, we know work is being done because from time to time photos of pipeline being laid pop in the press.

I am surprised that Museveni only found out that Uganda’s SGR is more expensive than Tanzania’s after he had tea with Magufuli.

Dams, Internet backbone, and most projects are more expensive in Uganda than most other places in Africa. His press aides, who read foreign (and Tanzanian) newspapers and websites, would have told him that because every week there are dozens of stories about the costs of infrastructure around Africa.

But first, the people who know these things need to get a place at his table. Playing chess with someone else is infinitely more rewarding than playing against oneself.

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

Wednesday March 8 2017

On the deaths of Mayanja Nkangi, Maumbe, and why they mattered

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On Monday, Joash Mayanja Nkangi, a good Ugandan, who served his country in dozens of roles, including Buganda Katikkiro in the 1960s, and more lately minister of Finance, died at the age of 85. I liked Nkangi a lot. As a young journalist, he had a lot of time for me and we became friends.
Exactly a week earlier, someone who I also first got to know as a journalist, (Jack) Maumbe Mukhwana died, aged 78. Maumbe too was many things. He was a freedom fighter. Was with (President) Yoweri Museveni in the anti-Amin Front for National Salvation (FRONASA). He served in the post-Amin National Resistance Council, was deputy minister in Obote II, and also Resident District Commissioner after Museveni and NRM took power.
On the face of it, the two men could not be more different. Nkangi was a conservative politician, in the ideological sense. Maumbe was a leftist. Nkangi was gregarious. Maumbe was taciturn. What interests me today, however, is what the two men represented and what their deaths mean.
I had just returned to Uganda a few days when the July 1985 coup d’éta against Obote II government happened. Kampala was dead, so I was sitting around at my brother’s house in Mbuya when now-FDC man Wafula Oguttu arrived. The Sapoba Press supremos (then Bidandi Ssali and Kintu Musoke) were restarting Weekly Topic and they had heard rumours I was back in town. They were rounding up anyone who had had anything to do with Weekly Topic to restart it. I had been involved with it while a student at Makerere University.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Tito Okello regime, seeking to find legitimacy, and faced with an NRA energised by the anti-Obote coup, rushed to appoint several influential political figures in the Military Council government.
Bidandi was appointed minister of Sports and Culture! Nkangi was appointed minister of Labour. And, in what was to be an endless source of scoops for us on the Nairobi peace talks, Sam Kutesa as Attorney General.
The next six months, the NRA slowly closed in on Kampala.
One day Bidandi said I should go and meet Nkangi in his Labour ministry office and talk about how a new Ugandan constitutional order might be crafted. So I did.
Outside everything was falling apart, but a calm Nkangi offered me tea in Victorian chinaware, stirred with gleaming antique teaspoon! He wore a pin-striped three-piece suit, and his whiskers were marvelously coiffured.
My reading of history had left me with the impression that Nkangi was, how shall we put it, a “Buganda nationalist” (i.e. ethnic champion).
My surprise then was to discover that he wasn’t. He was Anglophile and deeply conservative, in the ideological sense.
In a meeting that lasted over two hours, Nkangi lectured me on the virtues of small government and why we should never trust in men, but laws. He explained why decentralisation was what Uganda needed.
And, of course, on how people should work hard, and those who succeeded should enjoy the fruits of their labour without the state overtaxing or seizing it in a socialist binge. Classic conservative orthodoxy.
The thing is that even by 1985, if someone like Nkangi made that argument, many people would hear it as a claim to Buganda privilege not a case for the free market and limited government.
It was only with the liberal economic reforms of 1988, that such argument made by southern landed gentry were freed of their baggage, and seen as legitimate political philosophy in Uganda.
Nkangi, then, was among the last, pure conservative political theoretician in Uganda.
Maumbe, on the other hand, was a statist. He believed that for everyone to enjoy the benefits of citizenship, the State had to put a finger on the scale.
Maumbe believed that the State should be organised to benefit the masses, the peasants, not the owners of small and big capital, as Nkangi would have it.
Still, the two men were not different. Being a fellow from the mountains, Maumbe’s mindset was partly shaped by the arduous labour he witnessed peasants undertaking to produce some of the best coffee in Africa on the slopes of Mt Elgon.
Unlike in the southern plains, on the mountains, you need collective effort to eat. Solo efforts won’t get you far.
It would have been surprising if Maumbe, therefore, didn’t privilege labour. There were other factors at play, but now we partly begin to understand why Maumbe was taciturn, and Bugisu gave us other radicals like late Dani Nabudere, and in the 1960s Mbale was one of the hotspots of Marxist thought in Uganda.
Nkangi and Maumbe represented different faces of a same Ugandan coin. Understandably, then, I was disappointed that there was no Wikipedia entry for either Maumbe or Nkangi when I checked!
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday March 1 2017

Should Museveni and Besigye talk? Yes, and no. Here’s why

Mr Museveni

Mr Museveni 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Daily Monitor reports that talks to craft some sort of political compact between President Museveni and Opposition FDC’s former election rival Kizza Besigye are in the works.
There have been a few doubts whether anything will come out of such talks.
However, more important, the question is why would Museveni accept to talk at all? He “won” the election, though be it controversially, and he holds power. One view says that Museveni is in “legacy mode”.
The image that he and his government have is not rosy. Mostly despite past achievements, they come across as an incompetent and cruel kleptocracy. A man who has an elevated sense of his place in Ugandan history like Museveni does, wouldn’t want that to be his legacy.
He realises, that whether he hangs onto power for five, 10, or more years it is nearly impossible to finish strongly unless he can shape things up and create a new exciting political dynamic. But most importantly, it is critical to shift the FDC narrative that, though out of power, has become extremely adept at deligitimising him, and is a huge distraction.
When Besigye even sneezes loudly, one gets the sense that alarm bells go off in State House. Museveni would benefit from turning that off.
So what is in it for Besigye? That is harder to see, unless Museveni is willing to form a genuine new government of national unity that allows FDC to have sufficient power in it to advance its agenda. And unless you have popped a lot of hallucinogenic pills, that scenario is difficult to see.
That said, a lowering of political temperatures could still benefit the country a lot. And to appreciate how that would happen, we need to look back.
There is virtually no significant reform in Uganda that has emerged from a narrowly partisan enterprise. Though a lot has gone wrong with it, the most important democratisation reform in Uganda of the last 35 years was decentralisation.
It was based on an almost painfully granular report by the Mamdani Commission that came out of 1987. There was a minimum political and intellectual consensus in Uganda then that some power needed to be devolved to the periphery, and the spirit of the age allowed the appointment of a broadly bi-partisan led by Mahmood Mamdani to look into how that might be done.
It was a complex subject, and the Mamdani Commission did quite a good job of it. Today, it would be seen as nothing more than a Museveni presidency-for-life ruse.
Also, as we have witnessed in recent times, FDC or DP people accepting a job in government is ostracised and accused of selling out and looking out for their stomachs and, again. The main reason why that happens is that the possibility of honest bi-partisanship has since died in the fury of political competition and corruption.
I think it is in the economy where a new deal would bring the most benefit. The most exciting – and also controversial – period for economic reform in Uganda was the late 1980s and early 1990s. After the 1995 constitution, and especially the 1996, we stagnated.
I think a key element that is often not fully appreciated in why those NRM reforms happened, was the role of the DP. A junior and long-suffering partner in Museveni’s early “broadbased” government, the DP provided a pragmatic pro-free market antidote to the socialist zeal of the NRM victors.
He died after less than a year on the job, but Museveni’s first Finance minister was staunch DP man Prof Ponsiano Mulema, a generally conservative economist.
He laid the foundation, and fortunately was succeeded by NRM centrist Dr Crispus Kiyonga, who was followed by the marvelous old school Mayanja Nkangi, and then we had DP man Gerald Ssendaula. In the background in Finance, for a long time, there were DP men like the late Kafumbe Mukasa.
Why is this DP factor important? DP was a party of southern medium scale farmers (an activity that tends to make you generally sensible and pragmatic) and the national Catholic petty bourgeoisie.
Locked out of power by the Protestant establishment from colonial times, they espoused the free market as an essentially survival strategy. The ability to sell the produce of their land and their labour outside the state was the surest way they could survive.
By opening its doors to so many DPs in the early years, the NRM also co-opted their platform. We need to be grateful for the result. Imagine if the mess Uganda is in today, the only schools, hospitals, shops, fuel stations, and housing available to us were the ones owned by the government. God forbid.
It is not just who is in State House, but also these kinds of policy re-arrangements, that makes political cohabitation worth the bother?
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

Wednesday February 22 2017

Uganda might soon be a ‘strange’ land, and Africa a ‘new’ continent

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The old world order, many people argue, is ending.
One result of it, they say, is the election of Donald Trump as president of the US. And, a little earlier, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

Angry at the present world where, according to Oxfam (that place where our own Winnie Byanyima is chief) says the gap between the super-rich and the poorest half of the global population has grown so stark that just eight men own as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, voters are rejecting the establishment and embracing dangerous demagogues. People are running back to the comfort of their caves, and the certainty of tribe, and so on.

Question then is, what is happening in Africa? One view is that outside West Africa, and pockets of southern Africa, democracy is sharply in decline.
Corruption and state incompetence are deepening. The China-demand fuelled “Africa Rising” story of the years 2003 to 2015, has all but evaporated.

Nigeria and South Africa, the two giants that were supposed to lead Africa to great new prosperity have floundered. Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in a wave of euphoria and optimism in Nigeria’s first opposition victory in 2015, is overwhelmed and is in hiding somewhere in London, recuperating.

A recent report noted that 20 per cent of the Nigerian currency, the naira, that is in circulation, is fake. But it is easy to list the mess, and we can fill this newspaper with that. It’s harder to see the changes and game-changing shifts, and what they mean. Unlike in the US, and Europe, I think the definitive changes in Africa are the positive ones, and forward-looking responses to crises that will unfold over the years. As this column noted before, one of the things strategic-minded people are watching out for in East Africa, is what some think will be the emergence of Tanzania as the largest economy in the East African Community (EAC), displacing Kenya.

What is really important about that is that it could disrupt more than 100 years of a regional economic system that was built around the Kenya-Uganda Railway.
That could happen sooner than five years, according to some crystal ball gazers.

How, you might ask, would that affect the rest of the region? For starters, Lake Victoria would finally begin to rise as a critical economic zone because it would lead to the rise of Kisumu-Mwanza as the most important trade axis in the region.

Historically, Uganda built its trade infrastructure eastwards toward Kenya. With Tanzanian economic hegemony we would have to be western-facing, and gear all our infrastructure toward Bukoba.

Kenya and Uganda have never had to think and make key public and infrastructure investment this way. In re-orienting to these new realities, they will remake the countries they are and possibly unlock new energies. I don’t see nativism as their response.

Further away, at the weekend, Adama Barrow was formally inaugurated as president of The Gambia. He won elections in early December against the erratic and despotic former military Jahya Jammeh.

Jammeh first conceded defeat, then changed his mind a week later and said he wasn’t leaving. A crisis ensued, and neighbouring Senegal led a regional West African (Ecowas) force and chased him away last month. Barrow had been sworn in at the Gambian embassy in the Senegalese capital Dakar, where he had fled to escape the wrath of Jammeh. As soon as that was done, Ecowas moved to help him claim his electoral mandate.

Senegal’s soft-spoken president Macky Sall was the star of the inauguration. There were giant posters of him, with thank you messages, in the capital Banjul.

There was something unprecedented about that. The only time something close to it had happened was Tanzania statesman Julius Nyerere’s role in the ouster of military dictator Idi Amin in 1979.

Typically, all interventions in Africa to oust a toxic ruler by a regional bloc or a leader, have been spearheaded by a soldier-president or former rebel leader-turned civilian (for example Rwanda-Uganda-Angola-Zimbabwe against DR Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko).

Sall was the first democratically elected (former opposition) leader to put his army at the head of an intervention to pressure a strongman to give up power to a democratically elected (former opposition) leader.

It’s the first time a pure civilian democratic leader in Africa has spent his political capital that way, and inserted his country’s military into an external regime change enterprise in that fashion.

The meaning of it shall soon be clear, but it was an intriguing and one of the rarest confluence for democracy we have seen in Africa between securocrats and politicians.
It would seem from tracking social media, that that might have made a deeper impression on several Africans than even the Arab Spring did. What next?

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