Charles Onyango Obbo

We are witnessing two Ugandas: One from 1890, the other from 2016

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, September 2  2015 at  01:00

I just got that strange sensation that Uganda is three, possibly, four different countries in one. We will look at two of these.
For days, several “concerned citizens” were sharing videos and photos of the training and pass out ceremony of “Major” Kakooza Mutale’s militia, someone called it a “death squad”. This, the story went, was a playback of Mutale’s 2001 militia, that was working for President Yoweri Museveni’s presidential campaign, and went around the country, led by a band, terrorising Kizza Besigye’s and other Opposition candidates’ supporters.

Even in 2001, the militia looked like some primitive thing from the 19th Century, and I for one never found a single Museveni supporter or even official, who was willing to support it in private conversations.

I thought nothing about Ugandan politics was capable of surprising me, but the fact that anyone would even contemplate dredging up a “Kiboko Squad” kind of organisation from the sewer blindsided me.

Hopefully, it is something else. I have always been of the view that a leader who appoints his country’s Electoral Commission, really doesn’t need to beat people for votes. After all, technically, he is the one who counts the votes, and it is well within his power to allocate himself the margin he needs to win without breaking a hapless citizen’s leg.

At about the same time, that snazzy “Go Forward” campaign video for the Amama Mbabazi was also doing the rounds. It is derivative, alright, but still a world-class piece of computer-generated material channeling Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

It is probably as clever a piece of work as the most tech savvy campaign anywhere in the world would pull off, and you could say it’s ahead of its time in Africa. That Mbabazi “Billie Jean” video, one could argue, is 2016/2017 material.

So you have an election where one of the camps is putting together a militia from 1890, and another one is creating a video that is 126 years ahead. All these people are Ugandans, living in 2015, and using these vastly different approaches to appeal to and shape the behaviour of voters today, who will go to the ballot in seven months. One group is not living on Mars and the other Earth. They are in this land we call Uganda.

Then over the weekend, there was that debate on NTV between Mugisha Muntu and Kizza Besigye, both of who are seeking the nomination of their party, the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) to be presidential flag bearer in the upcoming elections.

FDC has had its problems, but in recent months, it has found it in itself to conduct its matters in a fairly even-handed and dignified way, ahead of what any Ugandan party, ruling or Opposition, has managed so far.

I have watched clips of the debate, and for our purposes, it is not material who won it. Many people have written, or have told me, that the debate was civilised and respectful beyond what they had expected. Someone even got carried away enough to suggest that the American Republican party could learn a few things from Muntu and Besigye.

We should not forget that in East Africa, competitions in Opposition parties end in death. But beyond that, a few weeks ago Besigye and Mbabazi were being jailed and roughed up for trying to campaign. Indeed, Mbabazi was sacked as prime minister, and run out of office as secretary general of the ruling NRM for “harbouring presidential ambitions”.

Again, how is it possible that FDC big wigs can conduct themselves like democrats living in 2015, but then hardline elements in NRM – and the police – treat rivals to the President like they were brutal colonial officials putting “natives” in their place in 1935?

I think where Ugandan politics is, the good guys will still be finishing last next year. But it’s reassuring to see that there is a part of us that acts like it should in the 21st Century in which we live.

There is also a lesson in there on leadership that shouldn’t be lost on us. Leaders like Museveni, Mbabazi, and Besigye have it in them to invoke more passion than Muntu. They are simply better politicians. He is too professional.

Muntu is neither a retail politician, nor even a particularly good platform rubble rouser. I have spoken to a couple of people who think Besigye will trounce him. And they are probably right.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Ah, the bleeding Shilling, and a footnote to Bank of Uganda Governor Mutebile

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, August 26  2015 at  01:00

As the latest African saviour China reels, African assets are tumbling amid a global markets rout and commodities fell to a 16-year low this week.

Kenya’s shilling depreciated by 0.3 per cent, the lowest on a closing basis since October 2011, while Uganda’s shilling fell by 1.8 per cent to a record 3,644 on Monday at the writing of this column.

A Kampala friend for whom I usually buy some small hi-tech parts in Nairobi, was on the phone the other day trying to make sense of all this and asked me what it means. He is unhappy, as his Uganda Shillings buy very few Kenyan notes these days, and I really feel for him.

“How do you explain this in a way I can understand?” he asked.
I am not an economist, so I couldn’t give him a clever answer.
So I offered him a man-on-the-street half-educated one, the kind you would give in a kafunda in Kamwokya when no one is sober enough to catch you out. Turns out, it worked for him.
I told him it was like your landlord reading in the paper that you had lost your job. Luckily, your rent is paid for the next two months.

He will probably decide not to renew your tenancy agreement when the two months run out because he doesn’t think you will afford to pay it, not to mention afford the increase he was planning. Those were the kind of “long-term” decisions people are making but on a bigger scale.

The woman who owns the kiosk around the corner, who also read the story, will take the most immediate decision. Because she is working with smaller margins, she can’t risk giving you the monthly credit she used to. She will insist that you pay cash.
But, if you are also a wise man, I said, you might decide on your own to move to a cheaper house until your income stabilises, so while the landlord is plotting not to renew your lease, you are also scheming to leave his house.

As for the kiosk woman, she will not know you were also planning to stop buying two packets of milk, and going for only one – or stopping all together.

“So, just imagine Uganda is the bloke who has lost his job”, I said, adding that “it’s not exactly a good example, but…”
He cut me short. “You have spoken well”, he said.
But for me, the pummeling Shilling is taking reminds of seven, six years ago during the global financial crisis.

Around Africa, many smart economists and bankers whom I respect, said the continent had been spared the worst effects because we were not sufficiently globalised.
To use Musevenispeak, we had benefitted from being “backward”. It is like if there is a flood and you are living in a tree, the water below will not affect your house. But it will sweep away the house of the rich farmer in the valley and leave him homeless.

Everything said, you would be “better off” in your tree after the floods than the rich farmer, but I am sure you see the problem with that.

So, recent events while hurting the digital media trade I am in, and also many friends’ businesses, still have their benefits because they really demonstrate why we should pay attention to global developments, in ways that we didn’t do six years ago.

As a Ugandan, as an African, in practical terms, I hope we can look beyond the exchange rate crisis to draw two important lessons.

First, the recent boom in Africa driven by China’s seemingly endless demand for resources, made us lazy and unimaginative.
We all seemed to have laid back, scratching our bellies, and mouthing off about how “China is a better trade partner than the West, and we shall grow rich together”. We really didn’t do much on our own.

Secondly, the fact that the Shilling is being hammered by the dollar and other currencies is not itself a terrible thing. What is that we can’t take advantage of it.

If we were making much-sought-after mountain bicycles that are popular in international markets, with the Shilling where it is we would be selling double the amount to Kenya, the US and the UK. Or if we were producing top end semiconductors.
Or, indeed, just imagine, we had the best hospital in Africa for plastic surgery.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Music and the madness in South Sudan; plus the surprise awaiting Uganda there

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By  Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, August 19  2015 at  01:00

Looking at the strange on-off signed-not-signed peace South Sudan peace talks between president Salva Kiir’s faction and his former VP turned rebel Riek Machar’s, I am reminded of a quip by celebrated Somali writer Nuruddin Farah.

I don’t know how much of this applies to Uganda too, but for now, let us focus on Somalia and South Sudan, two countries where Uganda has its army keeping the peace in the former, and propping the strongman in power in the latter.

At a recent talk in Nairobi on Somalia, Nuruddin said there were cultural and historical elements to the crisis in his home country, which those who want to contribute to bringing peace in Somalia need to understand.

It had to do with the difference with its nomadic pastoralists mostly in the north, and its farmers, mostly in the south.
Nomad pastoralists, because they (and still in some countries) moved with their cattle or camels, tended to travel light.
They did not, therefore, carry much in the way of musical instruments.

The pastoralist’s musical instrument therefore was his mouth. They were good singers, and great at reciting poetry.
It is a skill, though vanishing, that we see in Uganda, with people like President Yoweri Museveni, being fairly adept. With elections around the corner, we all remember Museveni recital, which eventually was cut and mixed in the studio, and became the soundtrack of his 2011 campaign rap, “You want another rap?”

The more settled farmers in south Somalia (or in Uganda’s case central Buganda), because they were not on the move, and had the off-season when they were not farming or harvesting, had time.

They developed musical instruments, and sometimes-elaborate dance. They were good with the “written” word, but not great singers.

This is because where they were failed for words they could cover it up with a fancy drum beat, for example.
Nomadic pastoralists, tended to be more adventurous, and made for good warriors and generals. And, by extension, they “tended to stick their fingers in other people’s eyes” too, Nuruddin said.

They were not really great builders of states, the more settled farmers were better at that, a fact hinted at by the history of Buganda, and the fact that the bureaucrats who built the most enduring post-colonial institutions in Uganda tended to have agricultural roots.

To the nomadic pastoralists, words were not just poetry and musical instruments, but weapons too. It is difficult to negotiate with them, because they are less likely to keep their word, unlike your southern farmer who would say things like “my word is my honour”.

These traits are both a strength, and a weakness. In Somalia, Nuruddin said, though more temperamental than the farmers, nomads tend to have one foot in the old world and the other in the new, but also are very enterprising.

However, you need stability and institutions, and the regularity of harvests, and the farmers give us that. They are also more open to new ideas and likely to negotiate more seriously, so they help us advance science.

You could postulate, then, that missionaries in Uganda wouldn’t have had much success, if they had come in through Karamoja.
So back to South Sudan. The war there has taken a deadly ethnic turn between two pastoralists groups with a long history of cattle rustling against each other - Kiir’s very deadly Dinka chauvinists, against Machar’s ruthless Nuer’s chauvinists. A battle between the wider historic Bor and Bahr el Ghazal and the broader Greater Upper Nile.

So recently over fine dinner, a researcher who’s travelled the villages and towns of South Sudan gave me his “Nuruddin moment”, a loaded light-hearted comment over dessert.
You know if the pastoralists in the north don’t end this war quickly, they will “lose the Equatoria regions in the south bordering your country [Uganda]”, he said.

For, while the Dinka are the largest community in South Sudan, and the Nuer second, the third largest are the Azande in Equatoria. The Azande, he told me (I didn’t know) are Bantu.
The people in south of South Sudan, he said, have a more “even temperament” and are more settled farmers.
They don’t have oil, but have some of the best-known trees for teak and other timber.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

I watched Philly Lutaaya’s ‘Born in Africa’ again after 20 years; here is what I learnt

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, August 12  2015 at  01:00

I was chatting with some colleagues last week, and the conversation drifted to how diseases have reorganised African societies – consider how the Ebola outbreak in West Africa changed burial practices.

Neither of them is 30 yet, and they revealed something that intrigued me – that at their ages, they had no sense of what a society without HIV/Aids looks like!

In other words, when they were born, HIV/Aids was around. For them, it was like for us older folks, who grew up when malaria had been around for centuries. Thus while the ultimate goal is still to eliminate malaria as the world did with polio, we meanwhile are happy to treat it and continue working on a vaccine.

HIV/Aids is almost like that. It is still a big threat, but we are more knowledgeable and have more ways to treat and manage it, thanks to anti-retroviral therapies (ARVs).

I told them about the chaos, fear, ignorance, and total disruption HIV/Aids brought to Uganda, and I recommended the 1990 documentary “Born in Africa” on that wonderful man, musician Philly Bongoley Lutaaya’s brave struggle with the disease. It eventually felled him in December 1989. Lutaaya is thought to have been only the second person in the world to go public with his disease after he was diagnosed. It was a gigantic leap of courage at that time.

Many of the things I said about HIV/Aids and Lutaaya did not make sense to them. But, again, thanks to changed times; “Born in Africa” is free on YouTube. They watched it and were, to put it mildly, shocked.

First, at how that very recent history of HIV/Africa in Africa is little known by younger people today.
Secondly, by how destructive the disease was – it nearly wiped out Rakai, by the way.

Third, by how deep prejudices and stigma ran then.
But perhaps most interestingly, by how progressive some people in public life and political leadership who are shown or referenced in the documentary, were then. They were ahead of their time.

Compare Misaeri Kauma, who was Bishop of the Church of Uganda’s Namirembe Diocese. When he broke the mould and invited Lutaaya to sing with the choir, he was 60 years old. And at that point, he is still 20 years ahead of some 40-something old right wing pastors and priests in Uganda today in his views about diversity and tolerance.

I watched the documentary too, for the first time in nearly 20 years. With the benefit of the passage of time, emotional, physical, and intellectual distance, I had the luxury to look at that painful period differently.
I concluded that to understand wider Ugandan society today, and its politics in particular, you need to take account of how HIV/Aids shaped it all.

Thus, one popular view – which I too share – is that the longevity of President Yoweri Musevenis’ and the NRM’s rule, are down to the fact that they monopolise the levers of the state, and steal elections.

They do all that, but it is probably not the whole story. Watching “Born in Africa” I realised that unlike Kenya, for example, the biggest political mobilisations in Uganda of recent years have not been done for democracy or regime change, but against disease.

Thus between 1987 to about 2000, Uganda’s biggest engagement with the world and internally at the level of private society, was against HIV/Aids. It was always the existential issue, not politics or even the threat of rebels in the north.

The biggest scare from the northern regions was not the Lord’s Resistance Army but the Ebola outbreak of 2000. And the most enduring hero of that time remains Matthew Lukwiya, the Lacor Hospital physician who died on the frontline of the battle against Ebola that year.

In terms of private behaviour, for example, Kampala never had to change its lifestyle out of the fear of LRA, and it didn’t either when its predecessor Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirt Movement came as far as the outskirts of Jinja in late 1987. We didn’t lose sleep in the capital, and there were no roadblocks.

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Charles Onyango Obbo

Oil is Uganda’s moon landing. Here’s how it will shape our politics into 2041

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, August 5  2015 at  01:00

A Bloomberg News story last week said; “Former Ugandan prime minister Amama Mbabazi will run as an independent in presidential polls scheduled for early 2016 after dropping plans to challenge President Yoweri Museveni for the ruling party’s nomination.

“Mbabazi scrapped his bid for the National Resistance Movement’s ticket after his declaration was met with “great hostility by the top party leadership,” he said Friday.
“The ex-premier’s withdrawal leaves Museveni, who’s ruled Uganda for almost three decades, as the only contender for the NRM endorsement.

“Uganda, which is Africa’s biggest coffee exporter [2nd, actually] is on the cusp of becoming an oil producer, with companies….jointly developing the nation’s estimated 6.5 billion barrels of crude.

“Museveni is one of Africa’s longest serving presidents, alongside Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He ruled for his first 10 years without elections…”

We have quoted at length because, if you are a foreign investor looking to sink millions of dollars in Uganda, or a Ugandan starting a family and you are wondering what kind of country you will be raising your young family for the next 20 years, all you need to know about the future is all hidden in that story. You just need to draw the right conclusions from it.

First, there will be a lot of oil for the first few years when it comes online commercially. It might not be a lot in global terms, but in the Ugandan context, it will be a lot of cash.
The 2016 election, therefore, will be partly about what, in his self-indulgent moments, President Museveni refers to as “my oil”. That is the patronage pot of the future.

Oil money for Uganda, is like the race in outer space between America and Russia (the Soviet Union then) was, in the late 1960s. It is Uganda’s moon landing, the big one.

It will intensify the race for State House further in future, and because the petrodollars are not yet flowing, the networks that control it have also likewise not yet established themselves.

If Uganda’s oil had been flowing say, for the last 10 years, the cartels would have cornered the market and divided it among themselves, reducing the race for entry. Look at it this way; it is like supplying food and uniforms to the UPDF. Those deals are no longer fought over because they were done and sealed long ago.

What this means, is that the shape of Uganda over the next 20 years is uncertain. We could become a messy dysfunctional state like the DR Congo, or calcify into a centralised authoritarian oil kleptocracy such as Angola.

This fluidity about the shape of a future Uganda was not there in the pre-oil era when Museveni and Kizza Besigye first tangled in 2001. So write that in your risk analysis.

The other is Museveni’s longevity. If his camp can do its “usual” thing and deliver him victory, the case for future constitutional reform will become even more desperate.

It means that we shall go back to 1986, where Museveni started.
A new constitution will be the easiest and also most lucrative source of political legitimacy, whether it’s an NRM, Opposition, or even military, figure who succeeds Museveni.
The restoration of term limits will be an emotional issue, and we will probably go through another circle where the politically dominant big man of the day supports them, without any intention of observing them in the future.

In any event, if like me you believe that term limits bring a certain level of predictability in developing world politics, then prepare for a post-Museveni heartbreak on the issue.
A new constitution, if our past approach is anything to go by, will take us 10 years to complete.

Assume Museveni “wins” next year and miraculously leaves in 2021 when he is 76, between that year and 2031 we shall be caught in a constitutional reform loop.

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