Young Ugandans and Africans are angry: The curse of the road - Daily Monitor

Young Ugandans and Africans are angry: The curse of the road

Wednesday March 13 2019


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Young people are very angry in Uganda, as elsewhere in Africa. From Sudan to Algeria, and South Africa – and indeed the world – they are raising hell.

A while back, a friend at the Kenyan online platform The Elephant, nudged me to write an article on this youth rage, after a group of us spent a long evening discussing the wave of protests around Africa.

In the resulting article, among other things, I noted one of several complicated sources of national discontent and youth radicalisation – progress. Some years ago, there was a report in the Monitor that blew my mind. It was a “small” tucked away story report.

It quoted a government report that projected that in a few decades, something like 70 per cent (if my memory serves me well) of Ugandans will live a short distance from a main road.

In other words, even before 2040, Uganda (and other countries on the continent) could become versions of Egypt. Nearly 95 per cent of Egyptians live along the River Nile - on less than 5 per cent of its territory.

The roads (and hopefully a railway in the future) are our equivalent of the Nile. There are immediate gains: Its quicker and cheaper to distribute goods and services to populations who live like that; and it is also swifter and easier for ideas to spread.

By the same token, it is easier for an authoritarian regime to control and repress. You don’t have to send police and military to 10,000 scattered villages, many in remote places. You just drop them in a straight line along the road and you got business covered.

I noted the serious effects on politics. The more people live closer to the roads, the more they will become alive to inequality. If you see those fancy cars, the expensive goods being carried to supply the rich fellows in the next towns (fridges, TVs), and you don’t have any of them, you become more acutely aware of economic exclusion.

Matters are not helped much by the wave of “city people” who go up-country, and step out of their fancy cars, with rounded cheeks, and shiny clothes from Dubai, when they stop along trading centres along the highway to buy mineral water, maize, or roast chicken.

And that is not all. There is the mobile phone, specifically mobile Internet. In the past, a chap in remote Kaberamaido didn’t know how fellows in Cape Town were living. Or if he was told, he couldn’t “see with his own eyes”, to use the strange expression.

Now the ka-fellow can see it all online. Not just Cape Town, but Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Gaborone. He sees young shirtless men, with skimpily dressed young women, playing beach football, and he begins to see that there is a more cheerful life than playing omweso in the dust in the village square.

The chap now sees that in Windhoek, Dakar, not to mention off Entebbe Road – there are schools that are in another world, compared to the rundown government thing that he has to make do with in his neighbourhood.

And in the evening, he will join others to watch the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal in the papyrus enclosure in the local township. The thing with football is it allows people to be hysterically happy, or if you are a morose fan, you will still be struck by the celebrating crowds on the screens.

The idea of “permission” to be happy is more subversive than most people realise, and undermines all sorts of authority – from the political strongman’s, the parents’ over the children, and the priests’ over their flock. And while he is watching, he learns that the star African football in some Premier League side, grew up in a small town just like him, and now earns $25 million for chasing a small ball around, and drives a Ferrari in “outside country”.

And with that, the fellow’s universe of what is possible, his imagination, his realisation of what he can achieve, dramatically expands. It does so in a context where nothing in his environment is supporting the new creative juices and expectations unleashed inside him.

Instead, he learns that the local politician stole the youth enterprise fund meant for the area. And what happened to the politician? Nothing.
Instead, the thug was appointed minister of State in the latest reshuffle. That evening, having scrounged Shs200 OTT tax, he gets on the Internet, and reads that by contrast, a Japanese minister in a ministry where money was lost (and he didn’t even steal it), committed suicide in shame when the scandal broke. And he sees a prime minister, who gives Uganda aid, riding a bicycle to work.
He - like several of his peers going through the same experience – snap.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data.
visualiser and explainer site. [email protected]