Ankole cow, free market, and fateful Jan 14 election

Wednesday January 20 2021
By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Last week, we argued that people’s culture, where they live (in hilly or low lands), and their history can shape how they respond to current-day political realities, and the policy choices they make. Which brings us to the long-horned “Ankole cattle”.

Our maternal great grandfather was a warrior of some renown in the late 19th Century, according to disputed family history. He was also a proud cattle man.

His view was that all the calves in walking distance of his kraal that “resembled” his bulls, were his, because they must have been sired by them. Occasionally, he would impound the calves, and he had the military means, so to speak, to enforce the seizure. Remarkable, because there is no way a banana farmer, would pass by a garden two kilometres from his garden, and claim that the bitooke resembled his, and therefore belonged to him.

That is because cattle keeping and maize farming are very different. When there is no disease, a maize farmer can plant, weed a few times, and wait to harvest. A small time cattle keeper has to take the animals out, feed them, walk them a distance to the well, and do that daily.

Serious cowboys like President Yoweri Museveni give their animals pet names. You don’t give pet names to maize.

Some years ago, at Nation Media Group, we were doing a special report on Rwanda. We met the feisty Sam Nkusi, who a few months earlier, had been Infrastructure minister. Sam is a cattle man, and invited us to his farm.  He introduced us to his favourite milk cow. He pointed out that its eyes were beautiful and eye lashes long. It had a well-rounded backside, he said.
He said he knew how its milk tasted. If the farm manager sent him milk from another cow, he would figure out immediately. No potato farmer can claim those aesthetics.


Now, in 1986 when the NRM took power, they were intent on building a local version of socialism. They believed in trade, but not in money. So, they spent the first two years trying to cut barter deals, where they would exchange mostly coffee and tea, for goods like medicine, farming implements, agricultural chemicals, and so forth.

It was a total flop, and they gave up, liberalised the economy, freed the exchange rate, sold off money-losing State enterprises, and let the free market take over.

But the pivot to the free market happened also partly because several top leaders in the NRM, including Museveni, and officials in charge of economic policy, were from the Ankole cattle-keeping tradition. In addition, when the flood of exiles returned in 1986, agriculture, and particularly cattle keeping, was an important cultural re-induction back into a society from which they had been absent for some years.

There is something about cattle keeping that is essentially anti-socialist. There have been no memorable socialist experiments in the world in countries where cattle keeping is dominant in the economy.

First, as noted earlier, people form close personal attachment to cattle and even name them. But only one man or woman can name a cow, not the whole village.

It is easy to appropriate a farmer’s maize and millet, and distribute it to the village. You can’t do that with a cow. The village can gather, plough a garden, and plant it together. But it can’t milk a cow collectively.

And a cow is too layered. You might share its milk with the village, but when it is slaughtered, there is the meat, then the hide, even the horns and hooves. Giving them away is like robbing the rancher five times over.

Cattle is capitalist. When the NRM chiefs eventually got their herds going, and could see their long horns against the sunset, their socialist instincts melted away. Private ownership triumphed. If you are a free-wheeling entrepreneur in Uganda, you have the Ankole cattle partly to thank.

Cattle also impacts politics. In May 2018, the military conducted an operation in Kisekka Market in downtown Kampala. It was an unusual operation. Some thieves had stolen most of the wire mesh at Museveni’s Kisozi Ranch. He sent the army to collect, like my great grandfather with the calves, all wire mesh that resembled his stolen ones. To a matooke or maize farmer, a fence primarily keeps thieves and other trespassers at bay. They do the same for the cattle keeper, and more. The wire mesh also kept Museveni animals from wandering off the ranch.

In some respect in this election, as he did with Kizza Besigye in previous one, Museveni seems to have viewed Bobi Wine as someone who was snatching his wire mesh, and opening the way for his cows (power) to bolt from the ranch. Again, he sent the army to collect.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist,
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3