As many of you are aware, some of the fiercest current public debates in Uganda have emigrated online.
Debates about politics, healthcare, economics and even popular culture are happening on social media. In fact, mainstream media lately relies on social media for leads on top breaking stories.
As German communication scholar Jurgen Habermas long predicted, online space has morphed into the new “public sphere.”
The new public sphere has brought together Ugandans who physically live within the country, and those in the diaspora. A new era in access to media and a nightmare in media regulation has arrived.
One interesting online debate that has been going on for some time is the need to rename some of Kampala’s streets.
The debate was sparked by the Cambridge University-educated Kampala lawyer Apollo Nelson Makubuya right after the publication of his well-written book, Protection, patronage, or plunder? British machinations and (B)uganda’s struggle for independence. His views have already attracted local and international media, including the Voice of America. He has also addressed Kampala City Council Authority about the same issue.
Makubuya’s campaign is focused on “decolonising” Uganda’s streets that still carry names of colonialists and colonial agents.
His primary arguments are framed around colonial legacies, the need for patriotism, and the need to redeem Uganda’s cultural heritage. While the campaign appeared to have foundered at some point, the death of African American George Floyd in the US at the hands of white police officers and the ensuing toppling or removal of statues of problematic historical figures, has stoked anew a fire in Makubuya’s campaign.
As many of us know, this is not a new debate. It has been around since the day Uganda got her independence. President Idi Amin made the most dramatic show of it with the renaming of Lakes George and Edward in Kasese to Lake Idi Amin Dada and Lake Mobutu Seseko. Some Kampala streets were also renamed after African leaders of the time such as Jean Bedel Bokassa of Central African Republic, and Siad Barre of Somalia. The renaming was all done in a spirit of Pan Africanism or Afro-centrism.
I partly share the sentiments of Mr Makubuya about the need to deal with our past as a country. We need to discern better what we want to do with our history especially parts of it that have been tragic as we work on a different future. Names have power, symbols have power; and public symbols such as statues can actually colonise public space and influence public imagination.
What I find disappointing, however, about the renaming and toppling campaigns in some places is that they tend to be merely performative.
The campaigns focus much energies on the performative act without addressing the complex systems of exploitation, violence, and cultural oppression that the symbols represent.
In some instances, the very agents behind the renaming and the dramatic iconoclasm end up as embodiments of the very systems they appeared to oppose.
Merely renaming streets and moving statues around without creating an accompanying pedagogy to educate the public about the historical systems of exploitation and oppression represented by the said names and statues, misses an important element. The public needs to be educated about the past, while heightening its awareness of how such complex systems continue on operating in other forms.
The renaming of streets and destroying of statues is much easier as politics, but a lot more difficult as intellectual and moral work. Kudos though to Counsel Makubuya for sparking this conversation.
Fr Jenga is a Catholic priest and doctoral student of the University of Texas at Austin.