Will someone sing Uganda a love song?

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • A Uganda expecting a solution looked to the government to throw it a lifeline. On Sunday President Yoweri Museveni made a much-anticipated State of the Nation Address (SONA). He offered nothing, except a meandering lesson in history. But people don’t eat history

These are some of the hardest economic times in Uganda in 36 years. We are not alone, others too have been hammered by the combined after-effects of a two-year-long Covid-19 pandemic, a global energy and food crisis made worse by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and ever-adverse climate change blows.

A Uganda expecting a solution looked to the government to throw it a lifeline. On Sunday President Yoweri Museveni made a much-anticipated State of the Nation Address (SONA). He offered nothing, except a meandering lesson in history. But people don’t eat history.

Still, in it all was perhaps also Museveni’s most notable moment of courage in a long time. Several countries, including in East Africa, have offered public sector wage increases, tax cuts, thrown subsidies in the mix to keep fuel prices lower, announced price caps, and limited some exports.  Not Museveni. He did none of that, showing a remarkable turn back from his populist bent of recent years.
It was also strikingly different from the populist action of a previous Ugandan leader who acted very differently when confronted with a similar crisis; Field Marshal Idi Amin in 1972. Faced with isolation, the biting effects of sanctions, and the collapse in business confidence following the January 1971 coup, Amin needed to do something. In August of 1972, he announced that he was expelling the Asian community, which dominated business.

Although Amin’s expulsion is mostly portrayed as a nationalist anti-exploitation action, it is only a small part of the story. Primarily it was a populist racialised seizure of economic assets held by a minority to a majority that was in dire straits. The Asian expulsion and redistribution of their assets were Amin’s tax cut, subsidies, interest-free loans, and job creation all rolled into a single policy. If the black majority was doing economically well, he wouldn’t have expelled the Asians.

The Asian business seizure, however, turned out to be a card that Amin played too early. When the 1973 oil crisis, also known as the first oil crisis, began in October 1973 and sent energy and production costs sky-high, Amin had already emptied his magazine.  Led by Saudi Arabia, the major oil-producing countries announced an oil embargo targeting countries that had supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The October 6 to October 25, 1973 war between Israel and several Arab states was led by Egypt and Syria and ended in defeat for the Arab coalition. By the end of the oil embargo in March 1974, the price of oil had risen by almost 300 per cent.

However, while, like Museveni today,  Amin came to the economic crisis that would unfold over the next six years empty-handed, Ugandan society didn’t just fold its hands. It did many things, but there is one that is often not fully appreciated. It sang. Yes, it was in the music. One of the most important musicians of the time was Peterson Tusubira Mutebi and his The Thames band. The remarkably talented Mutebi was a man of average height, but also one of the most fashionable musicians to roam Ugandan lands. With his platform shoes and bell-bottom trousers, it lifted him in the sky like a shining star.

Mutebi sang for difficult times. It was not protest music as Bobi Wine might sing it. Mutebi, like several of the musicians of the time, sang love songs.  Love songs were the protest music of the period. The Amin era, definitely from a lyrical point of view, produced Uganda’s greatest love songs. Mutebi’s hit songs such as “Nyongera Ku Love” and “Solome” were balm for the wounded soul of an oppressed, terrified, economically-deprived nation.  Love songs in a regime that hated and tormented, were subversive. They offered the people something politics didn’t.

I remember as a boy peeping through a window at a Mutebi show because we couldn’t afford the entrance. It was electric. This was a period of scarcity, so there were no drinks, no beer, or soda, for sale.
There was only music and dance. Deeply influenced by what was popularly called Lingala or Congolese music, Mutebi’s songs had segments more than those of most other Ugandan music; there was the slow part where you held your partner and danced slowly, and the fast part where you released her/him and danced free-spiritedly. He was a captivating stage dancer and a huge dance style influence.

Mutebi’s love songs eased tormented hearts. It filled the void left by absent beer and soda – or unaffordable booze when it was available. And it held out the possibility of love, where hate filled the days. The pain didn’t go away. It was only dulled. But that was better than nothing.
As president, Museveni couldn’t have done it during his SONA on Sunday. But, as a mwananchi shivering outside the tent, I can. Will someone please sing Uganda a love song?

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