Charles Onyango Obbo

Ebola and religion: Be warned, some ideas here have not been intelligently thought out

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo Ear To the Ground

Posted  Wednesday, October 15  2014 at  01:00

In Summary

So, looking at our disease future, as long as Muslims continue burying their dead quickly and washing incessantly, and the Asian-African Hindus continue cremating, they still have a better shot than Christians in dealing with viruses if they continue cuddling their dead irrespective of what killed them

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The other day I passed through Entebbe airport. I have got the Ebola screening treatment at Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos, and Jomo Kenyatta International in Nairobi.
Without doubt Entebbe’s is the most aggressive of the three, complete with hand sanitiser – the only ones who do that bit. Clearly, as many observers have noted, because twice Ebola has struck Uganda, the country has gotten smarter at dealing with medical crises, and has got a cupboard full of donor-funded experts.
This, despite functioning in an environment where public health facilities have gone to the dogs, was evident in the handling of the latest outbreak of Marburg, that equally deadly stepbrother of Ebola. Clearly, some lessons were learnt in the October 2012 Marburg that killed 10 people.

Like Ebola, the Marburg virus is also transmitted via contact with bodily fluids and fatality rates range from 25 to 80 per cent.
The Ebola epidemic that has been raging in west Africa has so far claimed over 4,000 lives, with Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone worst hit.
But as we reflect on that, there is one case that is worth examining – Nigeria. Though parts of Nigeria are efficient, others are messy and the Goodluck Jonathan’s government is utterly incompetent at best.
Yet Nigeria all but stopped Ebola in its tracks, and other countries in the world, including the US, are sending their experts to learn the tricks. For me, one of the most striking photographs of the West African Ebola is probably, on the face of it, the least interesting. It shows the special Ebola hospital set up in Nigeria’s capital Lagos spanking clean, beds neatly laid out…and totally empty. It had no “customers”.
One might say it is not surprising in Uber governor Babatunde Fashola’s Lagos, where Ebola first landed in Nigeria. And, also, Nigeria won a geography lottery on this one – it doesn’t share a border with worst-hit Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone. Yes, but in the case of Lagos, it is a city of nearly 20 million people. Containing a disease like Ebola in such a place would be a nightmare for the most efficient African governor.
On geography, Cote d’Ivore shares a border with Liberia and Guinea, but it even suffered less Ebola than Nigeria and acted equally firmly. So did Senegal, which shares a border with Guinea.

I have a politically incorrect, and still shaky, theory. I think to understand diseases like Ebola in Africa; we need to look at the role of religion.
I first came to this view with HIV/Aids. Generally, Muslim or Muslim-majority countries were ravaged less by Aids. Striking, because Muslims – doctrinally – have a more generous view of polygamy than monogamy-preaching Christendom.
One possible explanation of this is something that I disagree with in orthodox Islam – the practice of controlling, especially, women’s sexuality. If a hardline cleric is going to sentence you to be stoned to death for sleeping around, as happened recently in al-Shabaab-held Somalia, you are likely to think twice about rolling in the hay casually.
However, that is probably the least contributing factor. The more critical ones are that good Muslims fast long and hard during Ramadan. I think that makes African Muslims more capable of discipline than Christians.
Secondly, the many rituals of washing and cleanliness associated with Islamic prayer means on the whole Muslims have higher hygiene than Christians.
But the biggest thing Muslims have going for them, is the practice of burying the dead quickly within 24 hours, without hanging around with the body for days, as we Christians do, with wailing mourners falling on it.
The only problem here is the numbers contradict my theory. For what they are worth, some Nigerian counts say Muslims are 50 per cent of the population, and Christians 40 per cent.

However, Muslims comprise about 85 per cent of the Guinea population. It should, if Muslim itself alone were a factor, have done better than Nigeria in fighting Ebola but, no, it has been a total disaster. So should Sierra Leone, where 60 to 70 per cent are Muslims.
Liberia, maybe, Muslims are 12 per cent, almost same as Uganda.
So what is going on? One, I think is a “West African problem” where there is what religious purists might call a “pagan” Islam, which dips its toes into superstition the way Christianity tends to do in some parts of Africa.
However, if we flip this, things looks bleak for Christianity because some of the new fundamentalist Born Again religions in Africa are even worse; they are against medicine, science, and prey financially on their flock.
So, looking at our disease future, as long as Muslims continue burying their dead quickly and washing incessantly, and the Asian-African Hindus continue cremating, they still have a better shot than Christians in dealing with viruses if they continue cuddling their dead irrespective of what killed them.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

After NRM meet Museveni is ‘king’ - making sense of it all from a pan-African context

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, December 17  2014 at  02:00

In Summary

When the same big man is at the top for long, and was not the party founder, it seems he needs more patronage to entrench himself, and his long stay at the top means graft networks are not interrupted

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Almost a week to the day Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF congress gave its long-ruling 90-year-old President Robert Mugabe sweeping powers to handpick its top officials, in Kampala Uganda’s long-ruling NRM gave 70-year-old President Yoweri Museveni similar powers to appoint the party’s secretary general.
When things like this happen, we tend to resort to the usual TIA! (this/that is Africa!). However, it is also an opportune moment to step back, take our focus off the trees, and look at the forest.
Both Mugabe’s ZANU-PF (it went through many changes and evolution, but we won’t go into that for now), and NRM have a lot of things in common: First, they both came to power as liberation movements. Secondly, their leaders have ruled quite long and have the same bare-knuckled approach toward electoral rivals. Mugabe for 34 years, Museveni for 28.
However, neither of them either founded or led their parties in their formative early period in the bush. Herbert Chitepo was the first leader of ZANU, and later Ndabaningi Sithole, who was ousted in a party coup by Mugabe.
Yusuf Lule was the first chairman of NRM.
That is important, because it turns out to be a useful predictor of African presidential behaviour and how they will fashion the politics of their countries.
Let us look at a few more countries where liberation parties came to power. In Namibia, Sam Nujoma founded SWAPO and was one of the very few to then lead it to power in 1990.
In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi was chairman of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which then became a coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Liberation Democratic Front (EPDRF) upon taking power in 1991.
Meles died in August 2012, passing things to Hailemariam Desalegn.
In Angola, Agostinho Neto led the MPLA to power in 1975. He died in 1979 and Jose Eduardo dos Santos took over. He has not allowed anyone else to even peep at it since.
In Mozambique’s case, Eduardo Mondlane was president of Frelimo from 1962, when it was founded in Tanzania, until his assassination in 1969. A triumvirate was appointed to lead Frelimo but shortly after Samora Machel emerged chief in a power struggle, leading Mozambique to freedom in 1975.
He died in a suspicious plane crash in 1986, and Joaquim Chissano took over.
In South Africa Nelson was elected president of ANC in 1991 a year after his release, taking over from his ailing comrade Oliver Thambo.
In Rwanda, Alexis Kanyarengwe was chairman during the RPF war, then until 1998 when president Paul Kagame was elected to the position.
I list all this to see if, even if superficially, there are any elements in the liberation/bush war stories of these countries that might give some tentative insights about how their rule will turn out.
First, it seems that it does not really matter for a country whether its bush war chairman dies before victory, or leads it to power. Both Neto, Nujoma and Meles led their liberation parties to power, but Namibia is a freer country (with presidential term limits) than Angola and Ethiopia today.
Only Nujoma and Mandela of this liberation group handed over power to their successors while they were alive in an internal party democratic process after they had been national presidents. Though Kagame took over from a living Kanyarengwe, Kanyarengwe was not national president.
Chissano took over after Machel died; Desalegn after Meles died; dos Santos after Neto died; Museveni after Lule died; Mugabe in a party coup.
Again, difficult to see commonalties, except some coincidences. Countries that have had at least one post-liberation party chairmanship change either as a result of a voluntary power handover or death tend to be either better placed on Freedom House’s freedom index (South Africa, Namibia), or to be in the top half of most honest African countries in Transparency International’s corruption index - and sometimes both for some - (Rwanda, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Ethiopia).
The ones that have not gone through either of those experiences score poorly in the corruption index (Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe), though not necessarily in the freedom index (Uganda is ranked better than Ethiopia).
We can therefore say, in a general sort of way, that it seems that frequency of transition inside parties affects government corruption. When the same big man is at the top for long, and was not the party founder, it seems he needs more patronage to entrench himself, and his long stay at the top means graft networks are not interrupted.
Therefore after Namboole, there are a few things you can bet on. Uganda under NRM cannot become a Namibia or a South Africa. More a Zimbabwe or Angola. I hope you can take some comfort from that. I doubt though.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

It’s not too late; designer peasants can still make Uganda very rich

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, December 10  2014 at  02:00

In Summary

Things like ensuring that corrupt traffic cops don’t steal from truckers; shaking up rules about the tonnage of lorries and taxes on them; insisting that farm produce shall be sold by auction at markets and banning the middlemen who hover around places like Nakasero Market could cause a near-economic revolution in Uganda

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Uganda is in campaign mode, clearly, with party congresses and elections, and President Yoweri Museveni appearing on talk shows and canvassing around the country.
In the past, candidates have not flogged the issues, choosing to play up emotions and attack and burn opponents. But in case any of them is interested, one source to look for insights that can really make a difference is in the reports of the Africa Progress Panel.
A colleague, Twitter:@chris_mungai, likes to delve into these reports, and pull out the gems hidden in the dense text. A recent one that looked at African agriculture is particularly relevant to Uganda.
Once she was done, she researched more into some of the matters flagged by the report, and her story is one for the ages. It would be remiss of me not to share it.
The point the Africa Progress Panel report makes is that while African cities are growing (more than 50 per cent of Africans will live in cities by 2030), and they are getting richer, our farmers will not benefit by selling food to these future big cities. One reason is that in most places in Africa, productivity on the farms remains low, and is even declining.
African cities (and nations for that matter) spend vast amounts on food imports – in 2011, they spent $35 billion on food imports. The amount of that that was imported from other African countries was only a miserable 5 per cent.
Just 14 years ago, Africa exported more food than it imported. Today, the picture is different; it imports far more than it produces. Thus West Africa accounts for 20 per cent of global rice imports, with Nigeria’s rice importation bill alone standing at more than $2 billion per year. Rice production levels in Nigeria have remained the same since 1990, so rice imports have been growing at a rate of 11 per cent a year to fill the gap.
My colleague, however, found that you can’t blame Africa for all the problems. History must also be ostracised. One reason is that because we are the cradle of mankind, there is a penalty we are paying - Africa’s soils are among the oldest in the world, because the continent has been stable geologically for much longer than the rest of the world – with a few exceptions in the east and central African Rift Valley system.
As a result, African soils have been subjected to weathering and erosion for longer.
All is not lost, Mother Africa still gains something from soil erosion because it benefits Egypt. This because equally important for Egypt’s survival has been the rich soil that the river’s flow would deposit on the banks of the Nile, stripped from the Ethiopian highlands by torrential rainfall and carried by the Blue Nile. You could argue that Egypt needs soil erosion to happen upstream of the Nile!
Egypt’s boon aside, some accounts suggest that as much as 65 per cent of arable land in Africa has been damaged. Scary stuff.
The numbers are staggering. In sub-Saharan Africa, the economic loss of land degradation is estimated at $68 billion per year.
In Ethiopia, the annual losses from land degradation reach an estimated 4 per cent of GDP, and in Malawi the costs could be as high as 11 per cent of GDP.
And, says the Africa Progress Panel, as if that is not bad enough, it is difficult to get the little produced to market because of bad roads and Stone Age distribution networks (that is me, not Africa Progress Panel, using the word Stone Age).
The trucking mafia and middle men have captured distribution, to drive up profit margins that the Panel says are “exceptionally high”, particularly in Central and West Africa where these cartels help maintain profits at 60 per cent–160 per cent.
One result is that imported food is often cheaper. One of the most heartening things the Panel says is that if governments are bold enough to take on the cartels, the benefits to the people and economies are massive.
Thus when Rwanda reformed its trucking rules in the mid-1990s, prices fell by 75 per cent in real terms!
Things like ensuring that corrupt traffic cops don’t steal from truckers; shaking up rules about the tonnage of lorries and taxes on them; insisting that farm produce shall be sold by auction at markets and banning the middlemen who hover around places like Nakasero Market could cause a near-economic revolution in Uganda.
Prices of food would drop, inflation would come down further, demand for food would increase and farmers would move incredible volumes, and Museveni will find out that if he had done these kinds of things, and not set up a patronage-laden Naads, he would have won all his past elections without having to fiddle the vote or getting Kalangala Action Plan to cane the electorate.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

The national ID is a terrible thing…and that is exactly why Uganda must have it

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, December 3  2014 at  02:00

In Summary

But, like the hut tax, [the IDs] might be a blow to polygamy. It’s also going to be easier for Fida to help women chase down men who delinquent in paying child support

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This week, the formal issuance of national IDs was launched.
The IDs are being billed, mostly, as a necessary national security measure. For me, if that was all there was to it, then it would be useless.
Also, it is projected that the national IDs will make it easier for the “smaller” people to travel across borders.
Again, if that were the second reason for the IDs, it would be largely useless. The ownership or lack thereof of IDs plays a zero role in the decision for people to cross borders, as anyone who lives near any of our common borders knows.
Still, I am a great supporter of IDs, but mostly for its unintended consequences.
A few years ago the Museveni government scrapped the “poll tax”, which was a primitive, but modestly beneficial, head tax. In other African countries, it was called the “hut tax”.
If you built a hut, it was presumed you had the means to pay a small tax. So what happened?
People, inevitably, started dodging paying the hut tax. And the only way to do that was to build one big hut.
The result was that polygamy – which thrived on each wife having her hut - became expensive for “rich” peasants. So the lasting effect of the hut tax, was to reduce polygamy.
But it also introduced some efficiencies. A man’s children now all shared a hut, and instead of having five wick lamps (tadoba), he only needed one, which reduced his costs.
When Mwai Kibaki was president in Kenya (I kind of liked the chap), Kenya launched one of its biggest street and building-naming programme of over 30 years.
There were many reasons, including making rate collection easy, for it.
However, it created a whole new business that employed hundreds of young people – home and office deliveries. Another result is that Kenya then got the best and most developed Google map in Africa too.
I think that the real pay off of the IDs will come the same way. For small regional newspapers and radio stations, there is going to be a whole new classified business in advertising lost and found IDs.
Usually, these are the kinds of things that do well in small websites, so expect that a place like Kaberamaido could have a local website in the near future.
The most important function of IDs, however, as some African countries have shown, is that they will be collateral…the equivalent of a car log book.
If the project achieves success, it will be the first time so many rural Ugandans will have been photographed.
The job of describing and identifying people in the villages is being taken out of the hands of fickle locals, and being trusted to a replicable record.
Now assume you are Mugisha, a small man in the village in Ruti. You want to borrow ShS100,000 from a local shopkeeper.
He takes your word for it, gives you the money but you disappear. He goes to the police and tries to describe you. He is not sure whether you are 5ft 4in or 5ft 8in. He says you have a square head, but so do a quarter of the men in the village where you allegedly disappeared to.
Alternatively, you could give him a calf – which he doesn’t want – as security. But the calf could die before you pay him back, and the matter becomes complicated.
Or instead of paying him back in a month, you have problems, and turn up nine months later when the calf is now a well-fattened cow that he has spent money and, again, you get into a fight. You can’t take the cow when you gave him a calf, or if you do he will have to add the feeding costs on top of the loan, which would be double interest, and your inclination would be to reject the terms.
With a nationwide ID system, you could leave it with him as security – no calves.
Now if you abscond with the money, with your picture the trader can take it to the police, and doesn’t have to waste time describing the shape of your head.
And, if he is inclined, he can now go to the local newspaper or website, pay a few shillings, and shame you by publishing your photograph.
So the biggest benefit of the national ID is that it will make the enforcement of contracts in the villages and small towns possible, and serve as a new form of collateral.
That could unleash new forms of lending in the countryside, and create a peasant “capital market” to put it loosely.
But, like the hut tax, it might be a blow to polygamy. It’s also going to be easier for FIDA to help women chase down men who delinquent in paying child support.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

Why the worst thing about Uganda’s population results is also the best thing

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 26  2014 at  02:00

In Summary

So, well, we could actually have more women, but also more men “grassing”, to use the boyish expression from our university days. Like with the economy, only the relatively few eligible men will be spoilt for choice, not all blokes

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So the provisional results of the Uganda National Population and Census came out last week.
Not surprisingly, the most titillating bit is that there are one million more females than males - 17,921,357 million females to 16,935,456 million males.
On social media, there are amusing posts on Ugandan male adults of the years to come being spoilt for choice of girlfriends and wives, with some people foreseeing a surge in polygamy to sort out the “imbalance”.
Of course, that is not how these things work. The romantic and marriage market is no different from the general market. A few examples will clarify this point: While Africa is growing richer, it is also growing more unequal. The new wealth is ending up in fewer pockets.

Likewise, because there will be far more women than men in Uganda, doesn’t mean it will be easier for men to find partners. In this business, what determines your getting more women is eligibility – first and foremost that you are in good health; do you have agreeable habits; do you have a job; are you handsome, and so forth.
If the Ugandan economy remains on the present trajectory, and eventually the elusive oil dollars begin to flow, the likelihood is that there will be little to no investment in diversification into other areas of the economy, so while the land will grow richer, the number of those without a decent job could increase (a friend recommends a trip to the Republic of Congo’s oil city Pointe Noire for a lesson in this reality).
So, well, we could actually have more women, but also more men “grassing”, to use the boyish expression from our university days. Like with the economy, only the relatively few eligible men will be spoilt for choice, not all blokes.
For me, though, I wanted more, and probably it will come when the full report is released. I also fear I missed something, because I went to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics and I couldn’t find the full provisional report.

With these census reports these days, there is always a gem that, often unintentionally, sums up a country. The last one in South Africa, reported in an obscure part of it about the number of people in various professions.
Not too many people look at those kind of numbers because they are, dull and dry. Some chaps though dug in, and found a beauty – that the number of DJs in South Africa were more than accountants!
Or take the popular, but controversial, indication that the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, is the second largest formal employer in the country. Remarkable if you consider that Nigeria’s population is nearly 170m.
You can look at the South Africa DJs and say the people (code for black South Africans) are not serious, and that the country’s young people are taken up by the small things of life.
Or you can look at it another way and ask what is it about music that is different than an accountant. For one, the barriers to entrance are lower. Being an accountant, like being a lawyer, is to function in a market that is basically rigged by the Old Boys club that cleverly controls how many people are “called to the bar” every year.

And that barrier is not necessarily based on talent. To be a successful DJ, musician, or actor, you have to be talented – like Chameleone who has it all, including an eccentric personality. But you can be employed in a parastatal’s accounts department by your uncle who is the managing director, even though you are not particularly skilled.
So the conclusion in South Africa would be that you need to reform the accountancy business, and bring in more talent at less cost—and thus lower the cost of accounting services.
Still, I didn’t give up. Many comments have raised questions about why the provisional total population is 34.9 million people, lower than the projected 36.6 million. The suggestion is that there is something fishy.
There is. It tells us that the people who made the projections did a terrible job of it.
But that is probably where it ends. More intriguing though, the assumption that Uganda is a country hostage to conservative birth-control-hating evangelical hordes – and that the people seriously listen to President Yoweri Museveni’s more-more-children talk – is wrong.

The numbers are suggesting that the Uganda middle class has the characteristics we see elsewhere in the world. On the whole, when they make more money, they have fewer children but spend more on them, then they invest and give themselves a good time with the rest.
So what is “wrong” with the provisional results is actually the best thing about the population figures. It is perhaps what reveals most what we are becoming.

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


Charles Onyango Obbo

‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’; Muhoozi for president?

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, November 19  2014 at  02:00

In Summary

The interesting thing is that Amama never expressly stated that he wants the job. So he has become the first person at his level to be punished for a thought crime

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Most readers of this column are clever men and women, so they will be aware of Sun Tzu.
Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who lived between 544BC and 496BC, and author of the delightful little book The Art of War.

In there, Sun argues that, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.
I invoke Sun because his insights apply very much to Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni called out the dogs on Amama Mbabazi, and then sacked him as prime minister for the alleged crime of eyeing the presidency.

The interesting thing is that Amama never expressly stated that he wants the job. So he has become the first person at his level to be punished for a thought crime.

Ours is a strange country. If you are a Kizza Besigye and you definitively say you want to be president and campaign for it, you are beaten, jailed, slapped with trumped up charges of rape and so forth, and then cheated at the polls. If you are an Amama, you are punished for saying you don’t want the presidency and not campaigning openly!

The point here is that the attempts to remove Museveni as president are getting (or rather have been) frantic over the last 10 years - including what he himself alleges were failed attempts to remove him by rebellion. It is like a war. Yet, after 28 years, Kaguta’s son is still in State House, and is working on being unopposed in 2016 when he will have been eating things for 30 years.
So is there a way of sending Museveni to Rwakitura to tend his cattle peacefully? To subdue him, without fighting as Sun suggests?

Yes, but the solution is so unpalatable to most people, they would rather have Museveni rule into eternity. It is hiss on, Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba, commander of the Special Forces Group.
I am no way saying that Muhoozi should take over from his father: I am intellectualising the possibilities that might offer.

I for one think that Uganda needs a different pair of hands and eyes at the helm other than Museveni’s. He has done his bit. Part of the problem is that many Ugandans want both change, and a successor who is not a Museveni.

It is an understandable loathing of dynastic politics, but it also means that if Muhoozi is the man to bring that change, we shall not have it because he is Museveni’s son.

Now Muhoozi might not make a better president than Museveni…but he will be different. He will bring in a new cast of ministers, dole out jobs to his friends (who are different from his father’s), appoint his relatives (but younger and different ones that his father has done). He will make mistakes, but they will be different ones from his father’s.

The dynamic of a Muhoozi presidency therefore, could give the country some new breath and open up different outcomes that are right now closed by his father’s rule.

Yes, people say he will be his father’s puppet. Maybe. Maybe not. At some point, if he has any pride (and being Museveni’s son he probably has), he will want to be his own man. To do that, he will have to remove his father’s functionaries, and strike out on a different path to make a point. In so doing, some of the apparatus of the older Kaguta regime will be dismantled.

There is a big wrinkle in this, though. There are NRM groups that have already formed to push for Museveni to hand over to Muhoozi in 2021.

There are many problems with this. First, it presumes that though Museveni would then have been in power for 35 years, he would be willing to leave. His record has shown so far that the longer he stays, the less willing to leave he is.

Secondly, at that point the prospect of a Sun Tsu-prescribed defeat would be unlikely, and claimants to the throne will have to fight for it. Not to mention that it would be difficult for a Museveni to take over, because the household brand would have been too damaged.

Thirdly, at the current rate of corruption and decay, one cannot be sure in what state Uganda will be in. It only makes sense to Muhoozi to take power if he has a remote chance of success.

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