The politics of blood in Uganda – and a song

Wednesday February 21 2018

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  

By CHARLES ONyango-obbo

I am trying to find the politest word to describe the alleged decision by the Uganda Blood Transfusion Services decision to turn down the opposition Forum for Democracy Change’s (FDC) blood donation drive – or the alleged action by the police to block it!
Let us say it is “distressing”. However, I also understand that a cowardly (or cautious) Blood Transfusion Services might fear punishment for taking blood from an FDC drive at its headquarters, at a time when an acute shortage is being seen as the result of the wider incompetence of the Kampala government, and the virtual collapse of Uganda’s national health sector.

Basically it could be construed to mean that the blood service is buying into the view that the FDC, outside government, is able to do something that the State, with all the billions of taxpayers’ money, can’t achieve. And if that is true, then the logical conclusion also holds true – that the NRM government should give way to FDC.
The blood donation controversy, however, is part of the bigger question about the shrinking space for the opposition, non-State players, and the media in Uganda. So that is the matter we shall explore.

It is true that the Opposition, civil society, and the independent press can sometimes threaten the power of the incumbent regime and Big Man in ways that can lead them to lose power. In reality though, the biggest beneficiary of political and civil society opposition is almost always the government.
The Opposition and independent media are, in reality, unpaid employees of the government that they rail against.

One man who understood this was former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki. The 10 years of Kibaki administration between January 2003 and August 2013, were the freest ever for Kenya in media and civil society terms.

The late 2007-into-early-2008 post-election violence period in Kenya, produced its worst political crisis since independence, but something extraordinary happened in the next five years – some of the most dramatic economic growth, innovation, smart investment in infrastructure, and far-reaching constitutional reform that Kenya had ever witnessed.
Kibaki was not a great democrat. He was gifted with reasonably high emotional intelligence, and Old Makerere pride. He tolerated freedom for very utilitarian reasons. As his aides would confide, he didn’t like surprises, so he gave people free rein so he could know how everyone was thinking.

Among other things, his rule hobbled civil society without the need for repression. Because of the free wheeling environment, civil society spent more time arguing against each – e.g. on the issue of whether Kenya should have a presidential or parliamentary system in the constitution.

Secondly, among many other things, it enabled the emergence of a rich policy environment, at a time when the country would otherwise have been in crisis, and allowed a period of both private sector and government innovation.
Right now, there are many troubling problems in Uganda - runaway corruption, and the emergence not just of criminal networks that are becoming a threat to social order, but seem to have taken over different sections of national security systems – in turn leading to dangerous rivalry between them.

If there had been greater rule of law, access to information, and protection for independent media and civil society, they would all have functioned as President Museveni’s Ombudsmen of his government and security services, raising the alarm on abuse, theft, and all other harmful behaviour.
He wouldn’t be facing the global embarrassment of aid suspension from donors, who are doing so because he can’t get a handle on corruption. One day Uganda is being hailed, and the Museveni regime is harvesting global diplomatic points for one of the most progressive policies towards refugees, next day his regime is being cast as a blood-sucking regime whose officials are looting refugees’ money given by donors.

Information even circulated on social media that his much fought-for constitutional amendment to lift the presidential age limit and make him president for life, might have been possible partly because MPs were bribed with donor refugee funds to vote for it!
So, what would a thinking government do with the Opposition push to donate blood? If I were president (never mind that I will never be), I would have asked all Ugandans to join the government in its mobilisation for blood.

Then, I would say, “I would like to urge the Opposition, for this once, to put politics aside, and join me in this noble exercise”. That would put them in a spot. If they came along, they would seem to be getting aboard the NRM’s yellow bus. If they rejected it, they would look petty and unfit to govern, and some of their supporters would break ranks with them.
There is actually a very good song everyone knows about this approach to issues. It is titled Dance With My father, by Luther Vandross.

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