Wednesday October 18 2017

These are trying times in Uganda, but we shall survive - once again

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  


Without doubt, one of the most important developments is the full-speed drive to amend the Constitution and remove the 75-year age limit for president, and open the way for Yoweri Museveni to be president-for-life.
Problematic as it is, it’s not a reason to despair.

Political change comes when there is a critical mass pushing for it and there are enough brave (or desperate) souls willing to put their necks on the line for it (remember how Museveni’s bush war started?); when the resolution of the autocrat to stay is not very strong; when the ground is fertile; and also when the shopping list of needed reforms is long.

The complication is that we often do not see what the ground is fertile for, and the most important changes tend to be those that the people are not demanding – or indeed even oppose. Take just two examples. The opening of the airwaves in 1994 that led to the explosion of private FM stations; and the economic liberalisation and reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Uganda became the first country in Africa to license independent FM stations that were not owned by the church. However, there was no prominent demand for it.

This change, that had a domino effect in Africa, came as a surprise to many. However, the demand for it was there, just that it was not vocalised. The ruling NRM’s victory in 1986, ended 15 years of political chaos and conflict, outside northern Uganda. It mirrored in many ways what happened after independence in 1962.

After years of struggle, each period needed to give avenues to creative forces that had been suppressed; and to offer platforms to celebrate victory and the memories of those who had fallen in the quest for freedom.
But also, there was a third demand, which historically has been a source of conflict with power – to give voice to those who lost, or feel the spirit of liberation has been betrayed – to express themselves.

The early NRM years were a great period for the revival of serious theatre from the hands of people like Alex Mukulu, but also for the lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, and The Ebonies served up a large dose of that.
Afrigo Band rose from the ashes of conflict like a phoenix, and club football rebounded, defined by the rivalry between Express, KCC, and later Villa.

Makerere once again became a lively scene of debate and philosophical contention, anchored loosely on the right around Apolo Nsibambi, on the left around Mahmood Mamdani, and in the middle you had folks like Tarsis Kabwegyere, Samwiri Karugire and Lwanga Lunyigo.
Even if there hadn’t been the restrictions of the “no-party” system, multiparty politics would not have been enough to allow these forces to flourish.

The decision to free the airwaves was therefore a master stroke, mopping up all these currents and creating a thousand new things.
Then there was economic liberalisation. For starters, the Museveni government’s attempt to run a State-controlled economy, and to push barter trade as an alternative to regular international trade, were abysmal failures.

I will never forget a press conference Museveni gave in late 1986, to explain why there was a problem in milk supplies and, I think, salt! For someone who had just won a guerilla war, and had a broken country to lead, he looked painfully small.
The disruptions to imports and exports petty protectionist tiffs with Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, and an unyielding Ujaama era bureaucracy in Tanzania that affected attempts to diversify our trade to Dar es Salaam, were exhausting the country.

Much like Museveni’s own war had been largely fought by the people, it was all too clear that the energy to forge ahead on the economy could not come from civil servants and politicians, but the people. The government threw in the towel. But liberalisation and reform, which meant honouring the Obote II policies to return grabbed Asian property, ending foreign exchange controls, sharply cutting the civil service, and dropping price controls, were deeply unpopular with both the Uganda left and right.
Liberalisation was opposed by a large section of Ugandans, apart from a small section of the landed and business classes in Buganda and Ankole.

I remember one Friday evening going to Bat Valley, where Afrigo used to play, after I had written a column defending the return of Asian property. I was nearly chased away. I only survived because one of my tormentors had the generosity of heart to acknowledge that in the same column, I had also defended the return of Ebyaffe (kingdoms).

Do not lose heart. Reform and change in Uganda have never been linear. What is popularly demanded, is rarely granted. What is opposed, is often what ends up happening. Ironically, to appreciate that, dispassionately study 31 years of soon-to-be “life president” Museveni.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia. com and explainer site [email protected]