A nation at a crossroads: We should all be activists

Anthony Natif

What you need to know:

  • Uganda stands at a precipice. The revelations of entrenched corruption have exposed the decay at the heart of its political system. The path forward lies in empowering the citizenry. 

For more than a month, Ugandan society has been embroiled in a storm. The public has been waking up to a barrage of information about the largesse of politicians at the expense of a hungry, diseased populace struggling to stay afloat. 

Corruption revelations have forced them to face the realization that their politicians in parliament, regardless of political affiliation, are united by greed. At the helm is a speaker running a massive slash fund that’s conveniently called CSR, with the sole aim of maintaining a political system built on patronage and sharing out resources among politicians on both sides of the aisle.

At the base of this information deluge—that has at times felt like use a horse-pipe to drink from a corruption cesspool—are five human rights activists; Agather Atuhaire, Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, Kakwenza Rukirabashaijja, Godwin Toko, and myself who have been receiving information from the corridors of power and sharing it with the public through X (formerly Twitter) under the hashtag #Uganda

As an activist on the frontline, waking up each day to look at and share information about the lavish expenditure and lifestyles of our parliamentary leaders has, at times, felt like staring down the barrel of a loaded gun; an utterly reckless endeavor but one we collectively feel has to be done, for the greater good. It hasn’t been without warnings of impending danger, including in my case, a death threat.

So, why do it, one may ask? I find my answer in the words of former US President Ronald Reagan who in one of his most famous speeches, “A Time for Choosing” said: “a nation which prefers disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one”.

This country finds itself at a crossroads. As a dear friend recently said, we essentially have two political parties—the party of praise and the party of denunciation. Both of them aren’t really ideologically grounded. Their main disagreement is on the management of public resources and the distribution of benefits. It therefore isn’t surprising that conversations about money are at the core of our politics both as the intent of political engagement and a source of disagreement. 

Public discourse around accountability, human rights, building social safety nets, and other issues that matter to our progress, are no longer interrogated as a matter of principles but are instead farmed for their outrage value. Citizen-led initiatives like the Uganda Parliament Exhibition then become like irritating noise to politicians whose job it is to fix a system from which they draw sustenance. Tough luck!

Achille Mbembe, in his seminal work “On the Postcolony”, offers a stark analysis of the state of many African nations in the post-independence era. He describes a scenario frighteningly similar to the Ugandan context: *

“...the concentration of the means of coercion may be difficult to achieve using conventional resources—that is, those the state used before the current stage; such resources no longer exist, or are no longer available in the previous quantities. At its most extreme, the very existence of the postcolonial state as a general technology of domination is at risk... The principle of appointment remains, in theory, in the hands of an autocrat...In some cases, a vestige of an administrative imaginary survives, although the institutions and bureaucracies supposed to give it flesh have collapsed. Very commonly, hierarchy or centralized pyramidal organization may no longer exist. Orders issued from on high are rarely carried out...Where real powers exist and are used, this happens not by virtue of law or regulation, but often on the basis of informal, contingent arrangements...”

Mbembe’s insights highlight that the problems Uganda faces are not unique, but rather deeply embedded within the structures of many postcolonial African states. The collapse of formal institutions, the rise of informal power networks, and the disregard for the rule of law create an environment where corruption thrives at the expense of the citizenry.

This systemic erosion of governance is further illustrated by the recent controversy surrounding parliamentary commissioners receiving hefty payments as “additional incentives” after leaving office.  

Former Leader of Opposition, Mathias Mpuuga defended these payments, stating: “To call any such payments corruption is the highest level of spite, double standards and deliberate misrepresentation to the public ...If such payments amounted to corruption, all current and previous MPs would be compelled to refund to the public coffers monies paid as gratuity or honoraria.”

Honorable Mpuuga’s defense reveals a troubling mindset within the political elite. It reinforces Mbembe’s observation that informal arrangements and a sense of entitlement have supplanted formal, legal structures of governance. Hon. Mpuuga does not justify the payment on ethical grounds, but rather on the basis of common practice. This normalizes the blurring of lines between public funds and personal gain, further undermining public trust in the system.

As citizens, we are now on our own, and the only way out for us is to turn every one of our people into an activist. Draconian laws like the Public Order Management Act and The Computer Misuse Act have limited the options available to citizens to organize and petition their government. A public sit-in will be treated with the same brutality that high treason might attract. This has created an activist class that wakes up to scream into the yearning abyss of X.

Support for causes starts looking as a merely symbolic exercise. A like here, a retweet there, and people go back to their mundane lives, slogging away against the machine. It’s tempting to say this version of activism is just a disguise for cowardice; a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity; virtue signaling at its absolute best. It shouldn’t be this way. These exhibitions work as a good eye-opener for the masses. It gets them to pay attention to the ills in society and get them animated, but only for a short time.

Leaders are inevitably going to fail. When that happens, how much pain and unrest are we willing to accept as we transition to better? If our boda boda guy, our local butcher, askari, etc, can’t talk about this with the same conviction that gets us to shout into the bottomless abyss that is social media, then we shall forever watch on helplessly as politicians rob us blind and the country slides into irredeemable chaos.

Uganda stands at a precipice. The revelations of entrenched corruption have exposed the decay at the heart of its political system. The path forward lies in empowering the citizenry. It will require the difficult but essential work of building a society founded on civic republicanism. This means cultivating an engaged, informed populace that demands accountability and transparency from those in power.

Turning on the TV and being fed what’s happening in the world and then turning to social media to scream into the void about it, can’t be all that we can do. It’s also an exercise in futility; a sure way to build a society of rootless people, beaten into submission by violence, economic deprivation. 
We should all be activists!

Anthony Natif-Team Lead, Public Square.