Thursday June 26 2014

Amin, Museveni and the place of populist politics in the rise and fall of Ugandan sport

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

Anyone capable of tying their own shoelaces would have been surprised at the news that our President, through his usual pre-election generosity, is sponsoring the broadcast of the World Cup on national TV.
Surprised, because it is common knowledge that FIFA, the world football governing body, makes these rights available at minimal cost to free-to-air public broadcasters across the world.
If, as rumoured, a large six-figure dollar sum was wrung out of the public purse to pay for these rights then it would be in keeping with the national sentiment of “everyone grab what you can”.
We will not dwell on that today. What should interest us is the place of populist politics in the rise and fall of Ugandan sport. The pinnacle of our sporting success has come under our two most populist leaders – Museveni and Idi Amin.
Stephen Kiprotich’s gold medal in the Olympic marathon in London 2012 came 40 years after John Akii-Bua had won our first and only Olympic gold, in the 400 metre hurdles.
Both men were serenaded and garlanded, a temporary distraction from the vagaries and desolation of ordinary life for the masses although their achievements were, generally speaking, as a result of “individual merit”.
Amin, a boxer and swimmer, quickly understood the populist appeal of sports to power and politics and invested in it, as well as in colour television (in 1975, although this was majorly for the OAU Summit) to bring the magic home.
Thus Museveni, who has himself shown a fondness – if not dexterity – for football, is reading from the Idi Amin book on sporting politics: =eep the masses happy and occupied and you shall rule long.
There is a fundamental difference, however, in the politics of the state and the state of sports. Under Amin, Uganda also flourished in team sports. Our boxing teams were feared worldwide while our football team narrowly lost the final of the 1978 African Cup of Nations.
Today, national team sports have all but collapsed. The Cranes have not qualified again for the top African competition and our boxers have diversified into organised crime either as thugs or bouncers or, usually, both.
The most popular sportsman these days is Golola Moses, the comedian masquerading as a kick-boxer.
Two things seem to have happened here. The first is that as our politics has degenerated into the real of populist comedy, so has our sport. Dress up Golola in an ill-fitting suit and he will fit in nicely in Parliament – although seeing as he claims to eat concrete mix for breakfast, he might break all laws before they are even made.
Secondly and more seriously, though, the rapacious corruption of the last three decades has eaten away not just the infrastructure but also the teamwork and work ethic required for success in team sports.
A young boy or girl in Kawempe with a talent for tennis, rugby, football, or cricket is unlikely to find a free field to play on.
They have all been grabbed and turned into shopping malls or used car lots; the coaches and trainers have either died or turned to crime. And why should they go through the pain and tedium of practice when they can steal like everyone else?
The moral of the story is that our sport teaches us a lot about our politics.
When the state serenades individuals who win in spite of it, and splashes the cash so that citizens can watch foreigners excel, it is probably a distraction from rotten politics. Even Idi Amin knew that.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi.
&Twitter: @Kalinaki