Juba’s bid to punish sin could be Uganda’s gain

Wednesday May 15 2019



The comrades in South Sudan have done something that could bring more money into the pockets of Uganda’s entertainment entrepreneurs – they will limit bar hours (a sensible move), but ban all night clubs because of the “immoral acts” taking place in night spots (a terrible idea).

Even before its latest war broke out in December 2013, South Sudanese were flocking to Uganda (and Kenya) to splurge on nightlife, and of course, to invest their ill-gotten money. With this ban, expect to see a bigger inflow.

Juba says apart from the excesses of the flesh, the clubs allow in children as young as 13. Yes, that is a no, no, but it is an enforcement problem that should be dealt with that way. It is a common response in Africa – when governments fail to enforce observance of rules and laws, their next step is often to ban.

Managing such social issues this way only drives them underground, no matter how hard you try. A friend in the Yemen capital Sana’a, told me that even before the war got really bad, there was strict enforcement against alcohol, and Christian prayers.

However, he still managed to pray every Sunday in an underground church. The rest of the week, the same church space was an underground bar, run by East Africans, and they sold a lot of Tusker beer, and other forbidden beverages. Business was always brisk. But the bigger failure, and the real business South Sudan will lose more of to Uganda, isn’t the fun. Most ordinary people go to clubs to have fun.

The thing, therefore, is that a smart State doesn’t permit freedom of happiness just so citizens can have fun. No, one of the reasons it does so is political.

As the Romans taught us centuries ago, circuses, and all sorts of entertainment are great distractions from politics. When you have 1,000 young people partying in a night and posting drunken photos of themselves on Instagram and Facebook, that is 1,000 potentially disgruntled youth who are not tweeting against your government or watching the Kizza Besigye or Bobi Wine interview on TV that evening.

Most importantly, in our low production economies, where most factories close by 5pm, clubs and bars are among the leading consumers of electricity in the night.

That, and the fact that club drinkers keep consumption of beverages high, one reason why the leading companies in this sector are also among the top 10 taxpayers in Uganda (the last time we looked Nile Breweries was second, Uganda Breweries fourth, Century Bottling seventh, and utility company Umeme 10th).

My cab driver friends in Nairobi tell me there are two days where they work all night, and only get home early morning to crash (Friday and Saturday nights, the peak of clubbing days). Many of them earn over 50 per cent of their revenues on those two nights.
If you run a country, and have the health of an economy to worry about, this is how you think. You do not act like a priest or village chief who, rightly, is supposed to ensure that his small community conducts itself in morally upright ways.

Yet this broad area, of what people can see, read, drink, who they can date, and where they spend the night is one our governments mostly get wrong.

We repeat a small story we have told before, of Kenya’s former president Mwai Kibaki, who seemed to understand these things, despite his relatively advanced age. If you look at the freedom indices, the freest period ever for Kenya was during Kibaki’s presidency. And there was almost no wish Kibaki didn’t grant the country’s media owners’ association when they protested.

It would, therefore, come as a surprise to many that while Kenya had very good press freedom scores under Kibaki, he was not a great believer in media freedom. He largely supported it for pragmatic, even cynical, political reasons.

Kibaki believed that if you had media freedom, your opponents would exhaust themselves denouncing you, and the political factions would be busy attacking each other, they would not be able to get in your way or cause you real problems on the ground.
He was right, enabling him to achieve, in relative terms, a near economic miracle in his two terms, even with the post-election violence of 2008. The fellow even handed over a budget surplus.

Secondly, he saw it is as a way of reducing surprises, because most things would be in the open, while freeing the intelligence services to do serious work related to national security, not spying on the opposition in bars.
The idea that press freedom nurtured democracy, or informed the citizenry, were nowhere in his mind. He was a cold-minded utilitarian. President Salva Kiir – not to mention Yoweri Museveni - should try it.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data.
visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site. Roguechiefs.com.