Interesting conversations have been going on in various spaces these past few days. It all started with rumoured warships and by the time the week was out, social media had given us a new question: “Who let the car in?” All this got me thinking about the making of political discourse, leaders and influencers and how the conversation has evolved over the years. I will not take you back all the way to Independence, but let me start with the student organisations that bred the likes of Nobert Mao, the late Brig Noble Mayombo, Medard Sseggona and youth leaders like Sarah Kagingo.
A colleague recently asked a question: “What happened to the Makerere that bred these orators and political players?” I was hard pressed to give an immediate answer, except perhaps to state the obvious that student culture and the accompanying structures have been eroded and perhaps the level of discussion has dropped and the distractions are numerous.
However, as the political temperature was dropping at the university campuses, a new space was opening up and allowing in new voices. In 1993, the first FM radio station went on air and shortly afterwards, the first mobile telephone company set up shop in town. Together, the two developments paved the way for thousands of voices to hit the airwaves, many of them never heard before.
Suddenly, you could call in to the radio from your distant district and get access to a vast audience. Some stations took the radio debate to the open air via the popular but short-lived bimeeza. Many gained prominence, fame and notoriety from radio talk shows. Their names preceded them where one often could not put faces to the characters. Many made it to Parliament on account of having become an earworm to the electorate. I am sure you can name a few.
Fast forward, the unseen characters from our radio days made it to TV and now we have TV celebrity politicians. Again, we are not short of examples whose career has been vastly boosted by their TV theatrics. We have the crop that started conversations from their music and theatre stages and these are a force to reckon with too. This is not to discount the other factors that went into shaping the political conversation and defining the space in which that conversation takes place.
Speaking of space, the political space is not as accommodating as it was back in the day of the student movements and the open air kimeeza debates. If you tried organising the sort of parades that characterised student life in the 80s and early 90s at the university, riot police would arrive at the university gates before you have time to say “Lumumba oyee” three times.
Thus, while political consciousness is not on the decline, we are retreating to relative anonymity, not unlike the days of the call-in radio debates. On social media, we have the influencers as opinion leaders and then we have thousands of wananchi, often hiding behind a pseudonym in order to speak freely. Lately, it is not uncommon to see thousands dialling in to comment on a particular topic, for example, missing persons or the bulletproof car.
Nowhere in our recent history has there been evidence of more people wanting to speak out, having the means to express themselves at their fingertips and yet feel so restricted at the same time. True, we have evolved and technology has gotten better but are we better for it or have we upgraded and left some primitive settings intact?
Ms Nampewo is a writer, editor and communications consultant