Zaake’s bad English and Uganda’s rotten politics

Sunday December 1 2019


By Alan Tacca

Watch your distance. You could be splattered with mud, bad milk, or worse.

I am contemplating this sickening African thing about the English language, and Francis Zaake’s rickety delivery on Voice of America. An honourable Member of Parliament. A man of action. Those who are patently unjust now watch Zaake’s clenched fist more closely than his lips.
Okay, a flawed man. But what is this fuss about his English?

At first I thought it was another of those forgettable Abirigaesque language exhibitions that will multiply under NRM rule; some by NRM members; others by Opposition politicians like Zaake; all talking like they had crocodile tails in their mouths.
Ruling party talk-show junkies who have been ridiculing him forget that young Zaake is completely a product of President Museveni’s education system.

When Joseph Serwadda brought up the legislator’s English troubles during his rambling Sunday morning talk-show on Impact FM, I laughed.
The ‘apostle’ himself speaks English with great competence; but this mastery does not prevent him from dabbling in demon exorcism and other supernatural rubbish; just like Maama Fiina, who speaks very little English. Or prevent him from forming thoughts and ‘hearing’ them as divine voices. Psychologists are interested in such delusional experiences.

Anyway, in English-speaking Uganda, the ‘apostle’ had in the very same studio a bishop – yes, a bishop – who cannot pronounce ‘characteristic hypocrisy’ without biting off half of his tongue.

The studio functionary, Gyagenda, who fired a clip of Zaake’s voice into the show for public ridicule, had only two days before been worshipfully hosting a man who screams mostly in Luganda, and then in pidgin English, and who would have to become an honorary Red Indian before he can say ‘Oklahoma’, but who had served as His Excellency the President’s spokesman for many years.


I suppose the President – and Gyagenda, and Serwadda – had identified in him gifts that make up for the pidgin; like screaming.
If our other religious organisations were as ‘show biz’ as the Pentecostals and had as many broadcast stations, we would get to hear even more ways of presenting the English language.

Some months back, at a special function, an elevated bishop in the Orthodox Church was heard on air. His English was wriggling out so painfully you might have thought he was using a mouth borrowed from a village archimandrite. But none of this diminished his dignity or the power of his message.

Three-quarters of mankind speaks terrible English or none at all. So what? What hurts with our politicians is not their English, but their moral emptiness. Vice President Ssekandi’s halting English may not loot the Treasury, while more eloquent English users steal government ranches.
Robert Mugabe, who could conjure any turn of phrase in the English language, left Zimbabwe smelling like a rotten toad.

Simeo Nsubuga can articulate the phrase ‘characteristic treachery’ far more elegantly than Francis Zaake. Put both men in the same electoral contest today, and many Ugandans with flying colours in English will vote for Zaake without blinking at all. They are not stupid. Zaake is a simpler animal, but he is not a traitor. His conscience is packed in his guts.
Have I spared anyone?

Not really; except perhaps President Museveni.
But Museveni’s English is all right, as indeed the First Lady’s, even if their new-found friends add a ghetto touch.
In different circumstances, regular conversations with the Kabaka and Nnabagereka of Buganda Kingdom – listening carefully – could make State House English even more refined. But this would not necessarily improve the governance of the republic.

Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator.