Thursday July 24 2014

We’ve all become experts in small talk, time to debate the elephants in the room

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

Anyone trying to make sense of the goings-on in Uganda will soon be able to make out an uncomfortable pattern in public discourse; too much debate on the small things, none or very little on the big stuff that matters.
Contemporary debate, as seen with an outsider’s eye, is very transient and revolves around symptoms (think inflated State House salaries, prostitution, which tribe is hacking which tribe, et cetera) rather than causes (think identity, inclusiveness, accountable governance).

Important as the symptoms might be, they are rarely explored beyond their dramatic value. The resultant lack of depth in interrogating the underlying themes threatens to diminish our intellectual space, Ugandans as a people and Uganda as a country.

Let me share five examples of stories that line the road less travelled – billboards advertising the silence of the lambs.
Example 1: Uganda has not had a substantive Chief Justice since March 2013 and no deputy CJ since 2012. One of the three arms of government has gone without leadership because of an attempt by the Executive to bend the rules and reappoint a CJ who would lack the security of tenure and appointment necessary to defend judicial independence.
Example 2: Ugandan troops have now been in South Sudan for eight months and in Central African Republic and Somalia for several years.

With the possible exception of the United States of America, Uganda has one of the largest foreign troop deployment in the world. The South Sudan war alone costs us, according to the Defence Ministry, Shs7 billion a month – equivalent to what the government pays for a million children in primary school per year.
Example 3: Agriculture employs seven out of 10 Ugandans but is growing slower than the population. In a form of political scrabble, the government has launched one programme after another, from PAPSA to PMA to Naads that have all ended in failure. Having run out of letters and playing tiles, it has now played “UPDF” but under what terms, law and mandate? And to what end?

Example 4: We have launched a blitz of infrastructure projects, including highways, hydropower dams, an oil pipeline, an oil refinery and a standard gauge railway, all to be built within the next five years and almost all by the Chinese. Where is the money to pay for it all to come from? Are we getting value for money out of projects awarded secretly? What is the opportunity cost?

Example 5: The Opposition has called for electoral reforms and dialogue with the government. What are the areas we must renegotiate as a country? Should we stick to the simplistic, such as composition of the Electoral Commission, or should we tackle the major themes of justice, equality, fairness and accountability? Are we debating a new social contract between the ruler and the governed, or a power-sharing pact between the rulers?

These examples are not exhaustive but they are indicative of the paucity of public debate, in my view, on the big-ticket issues affecting Ugandans today. Those of us with public platforms obviously carry a big responsibility to shape that debate and the public opinion that ensues.

However, it is a responsibility that must be shared by civil society, politicians, media, but most importantly, by citizens. We have become too comfortable discussing the small issues and regurgitating the small insights we know and think we understand.

It is time for us to tackle and ask questions about the big issues we neither understand nor have ready answers for.

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