I have noted, with great regret and deep concern, derisive comments about the ministerial delegation we sent to Quebec, Canada, to receive our consignment of aircraft that will soon become Uganda Airlines.
These derisive comments are, no doubt, from enemies of our economic development. In our culture when someone has a baby you visit with them, offer gifts, make perfunctory remarks about the baby’s cuteness – even if they look like an overgrown cassava tuber – all the while trying to confirm whether the baby looks like the father at all.
If we can do that for a mere baby what about an airplane that comes ready, not just to crawl, but also fly!? Down with the charlatans, I say.
Of course, the plane could have been delivered to us in Entebbe so that we do not spend money on the delegation. But what if they changed the baby in the hospital and, instead of a Bombardier we got a Cessna? Wouldn’t the same people go around nyef nyeffing about government incompetence?
We have qualified engineers on the team who can look at the baby and tell that it is from our clan, and not the neighbours’. How dare they question our excitement? Where were they when other airlines were delaying flights or refusing to pick us up from the village?
We shall go fetch our plane if we want! In fact, I hope the fetching team had the presence of mind to find a dormitory or lavatory somewhere to etch ‘Never Forget Uganda Airlines 2019” somewhere on the walls. Viva arrivalisme! I hope the dancers are ready for when the aircraft finally land at Entebbe.
After the traditional water jet welcome, a couple of boys from that car wash Sacco we gave money should be at hand to dry off our plane, wash the footrest carpets and dry them bulungi.
Then we should organise a week of prayer and fasting climaxing in an inter-denominational thanksgiving service at Kololo Airstrip to put the plane in the hands of the gods and to pray for journey mercies.
To satisfy the Doubting Thomas’s in Parliament and prove that “the bird has come for real real”, we should hold a special sitting of the House to pass a congratulatory resolution, followed, immediately after, by a supplementary budget to cover the first tranche of losses. Since the plane is too big to fit in the chamber we could remove one of the tyres and pass it around for MPs to touch, smell and feel.
Since it might take us a few weeks to obtain the necessary permits for commercial operations, we should take advantage of this lull and bus in school children to marvel at our birds from a distance. A small fee can be charged to make up from the income we will miss from not managing baggage and ground handling operations.
In the spirit of public-private partnerships a studio owner could be allowed to set up close to the ndege to take photographs of those who want to appear as if they are just climbing down the steps on their way back from ‘outside countries’.
And when we are ready to fly we should make sure we really pimp our rides. More artistically-minded people are free to propose ideas here but I will kick things off by putting two out there: How about hand-knitted white pieces of cloth (bitambala) that we can put over the headrests, in keeping with a long-standing tradition, and with a Ugandan greeting – well done – knitted on?
A presidential portrait prominently displayed in the cabin would be entirely appropriate and, if space allows, we could add some art cryptic enough to engage restless travellers on long journeys (I’d recommend the one of a hapless man caught in a tree between a climbing snake, a crocodile in a nearby river and a hungry lion).
To cap it off, the outside of the plane should have, beyond the usual signage, a fitting epithet, similar to those on the back of trucks and matatus.
Here we can decide to be melancholic and go with ‘Fitina mbaya’, reverential with ‘Obukadde magezi’ or biblical with some chapter and verse.
A straw poll among matatu conductors, if they can find a few minutes away from groping women and throwing admittedly funny barbs, would come in handy here.
There is a lot of resurrection going on this weekend, I tell you, and we shall not let anyone rain on our parade. Down with the charlatans and financial analysts! Vive le visionnaires!
Today is 40 years to the day Idi Amin was driven out of power by Tanzanian soldiers and Ugandan exiled fighters. Yet his eight years in power cast such a dark shadow over the country that it is not uncommon, in foreign lands, for one’s Ugandan identity to immediately trigger inquiries or sympathetic grunts about Amin.
It does not seem to matter that he died a decade and a half ago, or that eight out of every 10 Ugandans alive today were not even born when he was ousted; Amin is a stubborn stain in our socio-political fabric.
Surprisingly for someone who had so much impact on the country, there is very little original scholarship or literature on Idi Amin. A lot of what exists, certainly in the popular media, is written, created or curated by foreigners, often with embellishments.
So apart from the myths (the human head in the refrigerator, a taste for human flesh, et cetera), other important questions, such as the exact number of people killed under this hand and regime, remain answered inconclusively.
Even basics, such as whether compensation was paid to departing Asians for their properties remains unsettled.
So in many ways it is not the things that we know about Amin that matter most, but those that we don’t know or can’t bring ourselves to ask. When joyous crowds poured into the streets in 1971 after the coup that brought Amin to power were they celebrating him or Obote’s departure?
Were there voices that, having condemned Obote for his unconstitutional power grab in 1965/66, and his use of the military to resolve political disputes, celebrated the coup – itself the highest form of using the military to resolve political disputes?
Did the political class at the time see the coup as a necessary evil to reboot the post-independence Uganda Project and rebuild it on firmer democratic foundations or merely good riddance to Obote?
How long did it take for people to notice a pattern in the disappearances or the bodies that started turning up in different places?
One might argue, with some merit, that some people did, indeed, see the worrying signs and called them out but then paid with their lives or had to escape into exile. Fair enough. But how come that very generation of Amin’s survivors, including some who fought against him, would go on to act in similar brutally cavalier fashion and with impunity in the regimes that followed?
When future historians examine the Nakulabye massacres of 1963, the murders in 1971-9, the blood-letting in 1981-5, and the massacres that followed the Kayunga riots of 2009 what fundamental differences will they find, particularly in holding those responsible accountable?
It is said that some societies get the leaders they deserve but some societies also deserve the leaders they get!
There must be certain material conditions present within a society to produce an Amin, a Mobutu or a Bokassa.
Even adjusting for the agency of external actors, a society that gets rid of a Patrice Lumumba and entertains Mobutu, or allows Blaise Compaoré to kill Thomas Sankara and carry on for decades, reflects, in its action or inaction, its collective ambitions and aspirations.
Simply put, Amin ruled us for eight years because we let him, and aspects of Aminism linger because we let them. Maybe we are not better than that; maybe we are that!
Some of those aspects become chronic. One of the enduring legacies of Idi Amin is the hollowing out of the middle-class and professional cadre, and creating conditions in which a culture of cutting corners or surviving at all costs emerged.
Thus we are a society where people are middle class by income, not lifestyle. A society where 10 people would rather jostle than queue up to enter an empty 14-seater matatu.
Where many rich aren’t innovators or smart entrepreneurs but simply mafuta-mingi tenderpreneurs, land grabbers, carpetbaggers and polished smugglers and tax cheats.
Many, although not all, of these things can be traced to the dislocation and crisis of the Amin years; 40 years later they are the way things work, not the way they fail. It is as if of all the things that Amin (and subsequent leaders) did and do, those that don’t kill us only make us stronger. Amin is long dead and gone, Aminism lives.
A seven-year-old musician, Fresh Kid, has found the kind of publicity upcoming artistes like Vampino, Zuena, Qute Kaye and my friend KS Alpha would kill for. A lot of it is down to his age, streetwise lingo and ability to deliver a sharp political barb with porridge-on-the-upper lip innocence.
In video clips of his interviews, Fresh Kid does not float like a butterfly – he is closer to the caterpillar end of the locomotion spectrum, strutting around in wannabe hip-hop paraphernalia – but some of his lyrics sting like bees in a ghetto-anthem style.
He caught the eye of Child Affairs minister Nakiwala Kiyingi who convened a meeting with her top brass and the kid’s entourage to lay down the law. In response to pleas by the lad’s father to let him work longer hours, including some weekdays, to support the family instead of being in school, the minister was unequivocal.
“As the custodian of the law I cannot allow that to happen,” she reportedly said. “The child must not be given the burden of looking after the family.”
Many, pointing to thousands of same-age kids begging in the streets, have accused the minister of cherry picking. Others, of classism: would we have the same reaction if Fresh Kid was missing school to play the violin at the Cape Town waterfront or the Victoria and Albert? Clearly not. Your columnist is inclined to give the minister the benefit of the doubt, adjusting for every politician’s penchant for populism, but there is a lot more going on here.
Around 1998, your columnist spent many weeks traversing the country looking at the after-shocks of the HIV epidemic. Anti-retroviral treatment was expensive and out of reach; thus villages were riddled with mounds of freshly dug graves.
Then there was the sight of young boys and girls, some no bigger than this young boy, forced into early adulthood by the premature death of parents and guardians. I saw small prepubescent girls turn into mothers, comforting siblings over parents who would never return, or wandering out in search for the next family meal.
At least two revolutionary forces at play in the 90s would have far-reaching consequences: The structural adjustment programmes dislocated many families and, in the absence of social safety nets, fed fuel to the corruption fire that continues to this day. The HIV epidemic wiped out, in the worst-hit areas, an entire generation of guardians. Often the former stoked the embers of the latter.
By the early 2000s, Uganda had one of the highest number of orphans and orphan-headed households in the world. Official data from the time showed almost a quarter of a million children in marriages; more than 150,000 girls aged 12 to 17 with babies; and a one-in-four chance of becoming a mother by the age of 17.
As a result, almost 90,000 children lived in child-headed households; 1.8 million in homes headed by elderly people and 2.75 million in female-headed households. Twenty somethings who grew up in two-parent households where hands were held and grace said at dinner please clap for yourselves.
This generation has since come of age and is now having its own children, including those ghetto kids dreaming of becoming the next big thing. Depending on many factors, some are grateful for the opportunities they made the most of – poor but free education, basic primary healthcare, security, et cetera; others are resentful of the things they did not have then (including hugs from their parents) and the things they do not have now.
Nevertheless, this generation shares at least two realities. One, it has a wider world view than that before it; the promise of ‘go to school, read hard, get a good job and retire to the village’ makes no sense to people who see university graduates working as night guards while talented people make millions, or to people with no villages to retire to, for that matter.
Secondly, those in this generation – contrary to what minister Kiyingi says – already have the burden of looking after their families. In fact, with only a few exceptional cases of old money and nouveau riche types, this is the generation that has to look after itself, its parents, its children and its extended families – regardless of whether one works in an air-conditioned office or pushes handcarts in the sweltering heat.
Parents who send their kids out to perform in dingy bars in Nansana on weekday nights do not do so out of a dereliction of duty, but out of a mixture of hope and desperation. They’ve never heard of ‘net present value’ but they know they’d better have the rent when the landlord comes a-knocking ina de yard ina da morning!
An installation of a disco-light edifice of a cow’s head – or somesuch – at a key roundabout in Mbarara Town has drawn howls of protest, and a social media campaign to return the original; a steel-and-concrete statue of a long-horned Ankole bull.
One ungovernable wag online said the new installation resembled fallopian tubes and supplied a picture montage for illustration. The resemblance is uncanny.
A phone company with a branded street clock in the middle of the roundabout said it had nothing to do with the disco-light-powered ‘tubes’.
Local officials jumped in and said the old concrete mass, which, in my humble opinion was the kind of thing that appealed to those who find a lump of fresh dung artistic, would soon be back as the only bull in the roundabout kraal.
It is not only in Mbarara. In Nairobi, residents sobbed into their warm beers after a statue – allegedly of a lion but which, with its faux fur and cartoonish features more resembled an overfed diabetic wild cat – was installed at a key city roundabout. Mercifully, it was just a dummy and a more realistic statue has since been installed.
What is going on? The most obvious is that people long conditioned to being described by others are increasingly keen to represent themselves, even in caricature.
This is but just the start. In both cases above, the discussion has been mostly about form, not substance. It was about how real the lion or the bull looked, not about whether either animal is a true and fitting representation – or what it is, exactly, it is supposed to represent.
This is where things get problematic, and interesting. A bull’s head in a cattle-keeping region and a resting lion a few kilometres away from a national park with plenty of prides are plain vanilla, even perhaps boring and stereotypical.
Yet if the Mayor of Mbarara had decided to erect a statue of a person, there are hardly any uncontroversial choices. Pick the President, as a son-of-the-soil, and the Opposition would be up in arms. Pick Winnie Byanyima as a flag-flying daughter-of-the-soil and her detractors would probably deface it. Put a bust of the last Ankole king on a plinth and the republicans will spit on it. It is easier to lionise lions.
We see this selective fight for identity and memory in many post-colonial societies, including in Uganda. Many of those engaged in the #BringBackOurCow campaign might have done so in Kampala, a city whose streets are a daily potholed reminder of victors’ justice.
It was unsurprising that the colonisers and occupiers would raise their flag and rename things, the way lions urinate on landmarks to mark territory. That is why Queen Victoria, Prince Philip, Princess Anne, Prince Charles, Col Ternan, Maj Owen, Maj Gen Colvile, the Rev Pilkington are all memorised in streets and public places across Uganda while there is no Kabalega Lane or Mwanga Drive in London – and only one or two nondescript roads in Kampala.
What is surprising – and interesting – is that more than half a century after independence we have been reluctant to revise this history. Dictator Idi Amin attempted to revise and rewrite some of this history and renamed the country’s largest national park after Kabalega, the king of Bunyoro whose resistance against colonial rule was fought in the area, his kingdom.
Amin also named a few things after himself and his fellow thugs like Mobutu and Bokassa and when he was ousted, these were renamed, but so was Kabalega National Park. Its ‘new’ name? The colonial ‘Murchison’, after the head of the Royal Geographical Society in Britain!
I have seen some interesting unpublished research, which shows that where we have attempted to change the way we see ourselves and our spaces through renaming, we have: (a) tended to keep the colonial names and legacy as the starting point, rather than the thing to challenge and change; (b) been quick to name and rename post-independence political actors as the political tide has ebbed and flowed; and (c) preferred to pick on uncontroversial external icons (think Mandela) or created new ones (think Lule, Luttamaguzi, Luwum, etc).
Thus the panic over the disco lights at the Mbarara roundabout is just interesting noise; abstract art of the steel-and-concrete type is easier than revising history and present-day geography to reinsert native agency. If we really want to critically re-examine our history and its present-day representation, we must move from form to substance: We must let go of the cow’s fallopian tubes and grab the bull by the horns.
On April 12, 2007, a demonstration in Kampala against plans by the government to carve out part of Mabira Forest, one of the few remaining large tropical forests, and give it to the Mehta family to expand their nearby sugarcane plantation, turned violent.
The Mehta family is originally from India and was part of the early Asian exodus into Uganda initially to work on the railway and then to trade. Knowing our history, it did not take long before what started as a protest by tree-huggers quickly became racial: one Asian man was lynched, while dozens barricaded themselves in their shops and in one city temple; two would-be looters, both natives, were shot dead.
Newspaper reports at the time identified four Opposition Members of Parliament as key leaders of the protest: Jimmy Akena, Beti Kamya, Hussein Kyanjo and Beatrice Anywar, who was so identified with the protest, she would subsequently come to be referred to, honorifically, as ‘Mama Mabira’. Together with Kyanjo and 25 other protestors, she would spend some time in Luzira prison over the Mabira riots.
This week, the newspapers and social media platforms were awash with photographs of Ms Anywar, an Independent Kitgum Municipality MP, attending the NRM retreat that re-endorsed the incumbent as sole party candidate for the 2021 presidential election.
There is a picture montage showing the MP hobnobbing with her original FDC party, then with Amama Mbabazi and the short-lived Go-Forward movement, and now with the NRM. Understandably, the accompanying comments were riddled with ridicule.
A politician unrestrained by moral moorings and lacking an ideological anchor is easy to lambast and Ms Anywar has received it by the bucket load. But anyone interested in understanding contemporary Ugandan (some would say African) politics would do well to study, not just the swinging of the Mama Mabira political pendulum, but where she and the other Opposition MPs in the riot ended up.
Beti Kamya fell out with the FDC, started the Uganda Federal Alliance and lost her way running for president in 2011 (literally; she once unknowingly wandered across the border into a village in northern Tanzania and campaigned in front of a crowd of polite but bemused locals) before throwing her lot in with the NRM. She was rewarded with a Cabinet post as Minister for Kampala Affairs.
Mr Akena fought a bitter war for control of UPC, the party founded by his father, Milton Obote, then, according to his bitter political rivals, ‘handed it over’ to NRM via an unspoken entente cordiale – around the time his wife was appointed to Cabinet as Lands minister. He remains an MP for, and a leader of, what remains of UPC.
Mr Kyanjo, the only MP from the foursome to remain firmly rooted in Opposition, and openly critical of the government, was re-elected in 2011, but forced to leave the House due to ill-health. He was diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological muscular disorder that can be hereditary, caused by trauma or poison.
Mr Kyanjo, who maintains he was poisoned, is now battling cancer.
The problem here is not that people mock Ms Anywar, but that in the survival-for-the-fittest nature of our politics, only a few even remember Mr Kyanjo or would contribute to a fundraiser for his medical bills.
We need not go too far to see this cycle repeat itself. At the time of writing, controversial scholar and rights activist Stella Nyanzi was set to appear in court for a hearing after almost 140 days in the same Luzira prison on charges of abusing the President and his family.
Even those who find her language offensive agree that Ms Nyanzi’s detention before trial is excessive. Yet one suspects her biggest ‘crime’ is not in abusing, but in failing to say sorry and promising to turn her verbal swords into pro-regime ploughs.
At a fundraiser for Ms Anywar in her constituency last year, the President said: “I locked her up in Luzira because she had gone too far for starting a riot in Kampala. I later called her and asked her how Luzira prison was.” Press reports did not indicate her response to the question, but Ms Anywar had earlier complained about being held in filthy conditions without privacy and going without food.
One would not be surprised were she to turn up in the more comfortable Cabinet room, sandwiched between the ministers of Lands and Kampala Affairs. Mr Kyanjo stood by his principles, but those of us who have remained silent and unsupportive of him during his stoic but eye-wateringly expensive fight for his life have no right to criticise Mama Mabira for jumping into any political bed. Those who want to occupy the moral high ground must first be willing to help their heroes and heroines walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
This newspaper reported on Tuesday that Prof A.B. Kasozi had thrown a cat among the pigeons by calling for some radical reforms in the education system.
Instead of the two-year A-Level, Prof Kasozi wants an extra year added onto the current seven in primary school, and another to university undergraduate courses. Students would therefore have eight years in primary, four in O-Level and four at university, as currently happens in Kenya.
Two things immediately caught the eye. First, the proposal was made at summit on higher education that Makerere conducted in partnership with North Carolina State University. There was a time Makerere was known for robust debates on topical issues and such dialogues, while few and far between, are a reminder that scholarship, debate and research may still flourish at the Hill between the perennial strikes and suspensions.
Secondly, without even going into an in-depth study of how the proposed system is better than what currently exists, it is good to see fairly radical proposals for change emerging as opposed to the usual pussyfooting around over which subject combinations are required, or how many subjects students should take.
Your columnist’s view is that such radical thinking should start at the base of the education tree, not at the top. Our education/life cycle currently runs thus: Get into the nearest/most affordable nursery school; get into primary school and work one’s way to the top; pass exams to get into a good O-Level school; repeat for A-Level and university; graduate with a good course and degree; find a good job; have children; send them off to repeat the cycle; and hope they finish and enter the earning brackets before your pension runs out so that they can buy you dentures.
To break this cycle (which, incidentally measures fish on their ability to climb trees), we should change things from the bottom. A good place to start is not in the classroom, but in the bedroom – by setting up a national sexual offenders’ database.
In a country with such high levels of sexual violence, including rape and defilement, and one that now has national IDs, it is incomprehensible that people can be employed to work with children without such basic checks. For some of the other changes, we need not reinvent the wheel; we only need to copy and localise. Finland, which we have previously mentioned in these pages, and which has one of the best education systems globally, is a good model to study.
Consider this: Finnish children do not start school until they are seven; classes start after 9am and end before 3pm. Class time is relaxed, giving children a chance to be children, and they are encouraged to collaborate, rather than compete.
Children therefore develop, as they should, as individuals with different skills, interests and personalities; it helps that they aren’t subjected to standardised tests (fish, climb tree) until they are much older, and when they are, these aren’t testing rote learning and ability to memorise and regurgitate, but ability to think.
Compulsory classes end when children turn 16; they can then choose to continue on to university, vocational school, or to pursue other interests.
Of course, some of it is informed by other realities: Short daylight hours during winter, for instance, for short school days maybe, or a welfare state that provides a social safety net for the dreamers and drifters. But fundamentally, their model is designed to allow children find themselves while ours is designed to turn out pre-cast models of so-called professionals.
It might be a useful habit to teach children to wake up at 5am, and to be resilient in the face of adversity. But what is the point of subjecting them to 16-hour days, including several hours carrying backpacks that weigh half their body weight? Are we trying to turn them into special force commandos? Plus, if we believe our relative success as adults is because we walked five miles to school in either direction why are we chauffeuring our children instead of setting them off at dawn to do the same?
It was necessary for older generations to have certain skills – say the ability to carry an elderly relative or younger sibling into the forest when war broke out. Such fortitude is still necessary, but upper body strength or the ability to take 50 canes on the buttocks without flinching are not exactly must-have skills in the fourth industrial revolution.
It is endearing to see veteran scholars and experts like Prof Kasozi re-examining the way we impart and manage knowledge and learning. We should stop preparing our children for the world we survive in, and instead prepare them for a world in which they can thrive.
Younger readers might not remember a time when borders opened at 6am, or whenever the bored customs officials sauntered in. They closed just before 6pm. This allowed the tax officials, immigration and security operatives, money changers, smugglers and truck drivers to melt into the nearby loud, shabby and corrugated-iron shanty towns and initiate negotiations over tax exemptions with the ubiquitous and dodgy purveyors of adult conversations.
It isn’t clear how long the practice – closing and opening times, you dirty old bag, not the negotiations! – had gone on, but that was the rule. Even as planes landed and took off late into the night at airports, land borders closed and opened with the sun.
It was in Rwanda, if memory serves me right, that this rule was first questioned. Why didn’t borders stay open longer? The answer? Not much: A few extra security and customs officials, some lights and bingo, the borders could stay open until 7pm, then 9pm, then midnight, until they never closed.
It was also in Rwanda that another basic question was asked not too long ago: Why did Africans need visas to visit the country? And if so, why not apply on arrival? And bingo, it became the first country to throw open its borders for visa-free travel by Africans.
It is thus surprising – and interesting – that Rwanda’s response to what it says is Uganda’s harassment of its citizens, is to close its main land border crossing and issue a travel advisory warning Rwandans not to travel to its neighbour. This is more so considering many Rwandans, including senior regime officials, were born or raised in Uganda and maintain friends, families, homes and ranches.
There will be time to delve into the reasons behind the latest spat, but the nature of the dispute and the tools used to make the point are revealing.
This is perhaps the most serious conflict between the two countries since the fighting in Congo almost two decades ago. Despite the best efforts of court jesters and makeup artists, anyone with a sense of history and perspective would have known that recent rapprochement was, fundamentally, papering over the cracks.
As long as the same principals remain in situ, and as long as relations continue to depend on the warmth of relations between leaders, those relations will remain vulnerable to historical injustices, real and perceived, as well as the vagaries of egos, mood swings and the evolving interests of players on either side.
The border closure and travel advisory appear, at face value (although not entirely), symbolic and an attempt to bring other players, particularly in the East African Community, into what has been a bilateral matter.
Looked at in linear terms, the two actions are a more mature way of ‘fighting’ than, for instance, Idi Amin saying he’d have considered marrying Mzee Nyerere if he had been a woman, or sending tanks across the border into another country.
But it also shows that while trade and movement of labour can be weaponised, they are in fact powerful deterrents against armed warfare: The people who have lost money in the border blockage must, I am sure, include Ugandans, Rwandans, Kenyans, Somalis, Congolese, Indians and so on.
Countries that trade together are advised not to go to war against each other. Kenya cannot drop a bomb in Kampala without hitting a Njuguna or Wanjohi, neither can Rwanda shell Kabale or Mbarara without hitting its own baturagye.
Even the travel advisory, as symbolic as it might be, reveals a shifting world. Since we got 24-hour borders across East Africa, a regional economy has emerged away from the gaze of policy makers and war planners. Consider the Kenyan mitumba traders who bus overnight into Kampala, spend the day picking out the latest fashions from their Ugandan counterparts, then bus back overnight in time to stock their Nairobi shops the next day.
Or take the young ‘suppliers of personal charm’ from central Africa, who bus into Kampala on Thursday evenings, add to the city’s famous nightlife and ambiance over the weekend, and are back home in time to tend to their market stalls on Monday morning. Will they really respect a travel advisory?
You can block all the cargo trucks you want at the border until the fish rots and the potatoes sprout, but whoever stops this commerce – especially the one of young people seeking opportunities oblivious to border lines or historical injustices – will be the one that starts the fight.
Like a wag told me, if Uganda stopped those buses from coming into Kampala some top government officials would be the first to seek regime change.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’sfreedom fighter. [email protected]
In the days following the National Resistance Army’s capture of Kampala in January 1986, one could estimate each fighter’s military rank – and where they stood in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – by what they captured for their personal benefit.
Commanders went for recently vacated mansions. Kololo was preferred, then Nakasero, then Muyenga, Mbuya, Makindye and so on. These were mostly government pool houses from which civil servants and soldiers from previous governments had just fled.
Most needs were physiological and basic: Food, water and shelter. After years in the bush all some really wanted was a warm bath, a toothbrush, and a clean set of clothes.
Before long, the needs morphed. Those who had ‘acquired’ properties now sought security in various forms: Jobs; money; personal bodyguards; or even closing off entire public streets. The newly-shirted reached farther for the first rung on the property ladder. As upper lower class suburbs like Kamwokya, Nansana, Najjanankumbi, et cetera, were bereft of ‘free’ government pool houses, many had to build or buy their own houses, for which they needed resources.
Many left for trade and civilian employment. Others believe that the almost democratic nature of the corruption in the military at this time and institutionalised off-balance-sheet financing arrangements were responses to this need.
If that theory holds, then it is reasonable to see the emergence of the happy-go-lucky vibe of the swinging 90s as a step up to the need for psychological needs of love and friendship. Army officers patronised live band venues like Little Flowers and Sabrina’s at Bat Valley, passionately supported football teams, or in the case of Maj Gen James Kazini, later to become Army Commander, even owned and managed music bands.
Again depending on rank, age and circumstances, needs and wants shifted with time. Those with property now started eyeing large tracts of land, including government ranches for free, or sparsely populated areas to buy and set up farms. Those with school-age children were happy to benefit from the largesse of free education, army schools, or an opaque scholarship scheme that paid for university tuition abroad.
The older ones were grateful for a medical scheme, also sufficiently opaque, to which they were able to appeal, depending on public standing and perceived loyalty, for assistance with pesky prostates, cranky kidneys or leaky heart valves for themselves or their parents.
Three decades on, a few have soared into the top segment of Maslow’s hierarchy of self-actualisation: Playing golf, painting, learning how to play musical instruments and the like, mostly retired into their communities.
Many more, however, are in the esteem-seeking segment in which they are engaged in a daily pursuit of respect, status and recognition. This is often fraught with difficulty, especially where one has a zero-sum outlook to life.
Getting a national heroes’ medal is nice, for instance, until hundreds more are led out at the drop of a hat, at every opportunity, to receive the same thing.
A diplomatic passport is great, until every manager in a government agency has one and sits across from you in the VIP lounge without having fired so much as an air pistol or marched a mile under artillery fire. It doesn’t help the digestion if, as is often the case, they have bigger cars, bigger officers and bigger salaries.
Played wisely, this card allows regimes to trade loyalty for status. Anyone rich enough can fly abroad for medical treatment, but you cannot buy a diplomatic passport over the counter. You can have the Katonga Medallion handcrafted in white gold, but it is not the same thing having your wife festoon it over your head in your mansion instead of the President handing over a brass medal at a public event.
So you go out looking for those things available only to a select few, like a flagpole for your car, blinkers in your car grille or armed escorts in a chase car. But even these might not be enough to give you the status you feel you deserve, so you shout for attention, or turn to those things only a few people can get away with.
You push motorists off the road. Torch an earthmover. Manhandle law officers. You demand respect, you say repeatedly, for all the ‘sacrifices’ you made, but the more you try to grab it, the less respect you come away with. Take risks you did; but what, precisely, did you sacrifice?
A few hours before polls were due to open, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission said it was postponing the presidential and parliamentary elections for a week. A few days earlier, its offices in two federal states had “burned themselves” to the ground, with voting materials inside.
This postponement wouldn’t have been considered entirely unreasonable had it not come so close to voting time. And when President Muhammadu Buhari, who is facing a tough race for re-election, said anyone interfering with the election would do so “at the expense of his life” many saw not a sword-wielding knight standing protectively over a vulnerable Miss Democracy, but a rattled, sabre-rattling incumbent.
Africa is more peaceful today than it has ever been in the post-colonial period, following the dying-out of civil wars all the way from Ivory Coast to Mozambique. Yet the absence of war has not always meant the presence of peace; democracy, promised as a means of choosing leaders and managing affairs of society, is looking shaky in some key countries.
The problem is not that democracy isn’t taking root in many African countries; it is that many leaders have learnt how to unpick it, primarily by turning elections – only one ingredient of the package – into selections. Here are a few multidisciplinary approaches to stealing or rigging African elections:
One can be mathematical by sponsoring as many Opposition candidates as possible from different small interest groups – women, youth, and small ethnic groups – to divide the Opposition vote and ensure your rivals do not build a coalition against you. Choose the names wisely and you can have candidates keep you on top or bottom of a crowded ballot paper and lose your main rival in the muddled middle.
The West and South Africans have, over the years, mastered Anthropological Rigging 101: It revolves around questioning where your main rival was born, or to whom, and thus ‘othering’ and excluding them from the vote and voters. Variants include presenting their (forged) academic results or finding and parading jilted ex-lovers to spill dirty secrets or present abandoned offspring.
There are bonus points for evidence, however circumstantial, of against-the-grain sexual preferences or inadequate horsepower in the hood. Once you get your main rival going around campaign rallies swearing that he doesn’t need to be jumpstarted to get the job done, you are home and dry.
The law is, of course, a good discipline to master. It can help you knock out rivals or eliminate any obstacles to your own candidature such as age or term limits. It is said that the law is an ass and god knows how stubborn donkeys can be at watering holes. It is thus generally considered prudent politics to control the water and the whip should their lordships become adventurous in interpreting the law once your stolen victory is brought to their attention and adjudication. Substantive rewards or punishments should clarify substantive effects of ‘mere mistakes’ on final poll outcomes.
The financial approach, wherein you outspend all your rivals and buy the vote, has been around for decades but there is a new variant: By claiming not to have money to organise them, you can postpone elections long beyond the end of your term, or until you have the political momentum and have ‘sorted’ key rivals.
In the DR Congo, President Joseph Kabila was able to enjoy another two years on the job by pulling this simple trick: since donors really love elections, he seemed to say, he would wait for their call once they had raised all the cash to pay for them.
In fact, ‘Dr’ Kabila should be consulted widely due to his groundbreaking work in this area. First, his research shows that rigging for your anointed successor is so cliché; rig, instead, for an Opposition chap you can do business with. Opposition supporters won’t know whether to laugh or cry about this “peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another”.
‘Dr’ Kabila also introduced a new method of weaponising disease by postponing voting in provinces that had reported a few Ebola cases, until long after the elections. That these provinces also happened to be heavily populated Opposition strongholds was down to the discipline of geography, statistics, and perhaps luck. It ought not to matter if those who miss voting as a result are more than the winning margin – as long as you remember to feed your donkeys.
If you find all of this too much work and too confusing and you are the quiet, unassuming no-nonsense leader of a small country consider applying the Isaias Afwerki Theory. It states: Elections? What elections? What are elections?
Last week we argued that the idea of using curvy women as a product to attract tourists is insulting and poorly-packaged patriarchal poverty porn.
But to see this as a one-off bad idea – just an ill-timed rush of blood to the head – is to miss the telltale warning signs around us of how desperation is stripping us of our dignity. For example, it has now become acceptable, nay, official policy, to export young people to work as maids and housekeepers in the Middle East, sometimes in slave-like conditions.
The pragmatism of reducing the pressure of youth joblessness at home is obvious, as is the personal benefit to the young men and women who go from zero to $500 or more per month in one plane ride. But this is evidence of policy failure, not success.
Ugandan maids are not preferred in the Middle East because they have been trained in housekeeping as well as Arabic or Persian language and culture. It is because they are cheaper than the Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis before them. The opportunity will continue until the Malawians or someone else cheaper comes along.
These jobs put food on the table, send kids to school and pay for life-saving medicines, but they are also menial, soul-crushing and not scalable. Having worked as a maid for a family in Muscat for three years, one cannot then work for another 30 families in Oman.
Then and now, the only winners in this slavish trade are the local collaborators, the middlemen traders and the plantation owners; there is very little upside for the product itself or the labour it produces.
How does such an unsustainable (and quite frankly shameful) practice become official policy? There must exist joblessness, desperation and someone willing to pay for the labour. But these conditions are not peculiar to us. And not every country with a youth unemployment problem is trying to ship them out as maids in the same way that not every country with curvy women is considering putting them up for display.
The difference lies in the response; either a rush to the bottom of the low-value chain, or climbing up the greasy pole by, for instance, retooling and reskilling workers. It is not clear how well we have done on the latter, or what impact we have seen from a $100 million ‘skilling’ project launched to much fanfare several years ago.
But there is something missing in the way we define what is acceptable or desirable for us. The best way to see it is to be politically incorrect: Imagine an Indonesian ‘investor’ sets up a furniture factory near Kampala. She consumes water, electricity and maybe some raw materials, which is a boost to the economy. But if she pays her workers only Shs10,000 per day and vacuums up the surplus back to Jakarta thanks to a 10-year corporate income tax holiday; would we consider this a good deal at face value?
There is a mathematical economics answer of whether the investor is a net contributor or extractor of value. But there is a political economic question of relations between capital and labour, as well as long-term value: how do you go from merely hosting the factory as a cheap-labour venue to owning, producing and exporting furniture?
In other words, a society must learn to see itself as capable of eventually making the investments others make in its midst, and take deliberate steps to be more than a supplier of cheap labour. What is the point if the factory workers can never afford the furniture they produce? That way, a society that gives a large tract of free land in Lubowa to an investor to build a specialist hospital, then discovers that it has to guarantee the project loan, should be able to see that there is more long-term value in doing the project itself or through local entrepreneurs with proven track records, or at least a hybrid.
This lesson is not new. The decision to prevent Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda from acquiring a sawmill in the late 19th Century and the 1909 order by Sir Hesketh Bell, the Governor of the Uganda Protectorate, to destroy hand gins, which had allowed cotton farmers to add value to their crop in order to get higher prices, were attempts to limit technology transfer and keep the natives as producers of low-value raw materials and consumers of finished products.
The colonial policy was designed to keep the natives poor and strip them of dignity. A society’s ultimate mission, and that of its leaders, should be to economically empower and give dignity to its people. This is the question many post-colonial African leaders have refused to engage with, for to do so is to challenge the neo-colonial edifices of their regimes.
Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us when sections of the ruling elite see natives who do not have skin in the game, as the skin in the game, be it tourism trophies or slaves for export.