Talking coronavirus to wananchi: when folksy style gets in the way

Sunday May 24 2020


By Bernard Tabaire

The 14th presidential address to update us on the coronavirus state of play was slated for Monday, May 18. Then it was slated for Tuesday, May 19. Then it was slated for Monday, May 18. Same time. 8pm, a start time never kept.

It is a fluid situation and we assume consultations go on to the last minute. One was, therefore, bound to be patriotic — we are in this war together — and cut the presidency some slack for a little confusion and plenty of tardiness.

We had the address on Monday. Then we had it on Tuesday — and not because something threatening the shaky foundations of our country had happened. The President was not declaring a shooting war with a neighbouring country. Nothing of the sort.

Having warned us upfront of the lengthy address that awaited us, as if it were news although it was courteous, the President sat back as he does always and went for it. The delivery, even in its 14th iteration in as many months, was ad hoc and rambling. Why has this virus done this?

The President’s handlers say any criticism of his delivery is a concern of the elite — that catch-all word that offers such an easy copout from a set that never accepts that Mzee, being only so human, stumbles sometimes. They say the way he speaks is effective in reaching the masses, the people “on ground”, bantu bawansi, his dependable supporters.

He couldn’t care less about the pretentious elite of Kampala and the diaspora, being that these days one can follow these fireside chats on social media channels like Facebook Live from whatever corner of the world.


What happened on Monday night, however, was on a different level. He rambled. All right. He eased the lockdown. Or maybe he did not. By the time he was done, his beloved mwananchi in Kalangala and Kisoro and Kidepo was as confused as the snooty elite on top of Mbuya Hill in Kampala.

Is it a command to wear no other mask except the government-issued type from Nytil or not? Do the “my cars” start zipping around, dodging Kampala’s potholes, the next day or not? The only clear thing for me was that the curfew stayed. Oh, and that the bars too stayed shuttered.

Otherwise, the message was so muddled that the deliverer had to come back the next day to clarify. Need I say this was not the first time he was doing a repeat address for the same purpose. We should, therefore, be counting 13 presidential updates on coronavirus and its baby, Covid-19. Not 15.

No matter, the Monday YKM Primetime Show was so bewildering it inspired Daily Monitor to craft the slickest headline of its 27-year history: Museveni masks end of lockdown.

Social media had been alight even before Mr Museveni ended his address. When he returned, he cleverly played down the mess by characterising the clean-up show as one about “the when”. Okay.

Good thing is that we finally learned that the “my cars” would resume driving on May 26; that public transport would resume on June 4 but stay clear of all border towns that he even named; that bodas would carry one passenger as long as rider and passenger were masked; that we are good wearing other approved masks, and on.

All this was avoidable. Folksiness in public delivery is good and Mr Museveni generally does a masterful job of it. Except that he needs to keep it within reasonable check. When you are issuing directives directly affecting public health, people’s livelihoods, people’s education, better be clear so the people know what hard choices they have to make.

For a veteran President to appear on live national TV and perform in so halting a style as to fail to communicate — to even conduct a mini-Cabinet meeting as we have seen on previous occasions — is unsettling.

Those interested in our governmental affairs may want to process this stuff some.

Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.