Of Dogs and Fleas, Or a Letter to an Old Comrade

Ituri, 21 January, 2018.

Dear M.B.,

It has been a while since we exchanged correspondence, I hope all is well.

My reason for writing to you is, last night I had a strange dream that I need you to help me make sense of. I know Banyoro are good at interpreting dreams and you make good mediums between us mortals and the spirits of our ancestors.

It was the most strange of dreams. In it I saw a big dog, a Rukamba,  the biggest I had ever seen. The dog’s body was in an awkward twist as it tried to bite at its own tail. It kept straining its neck to reach the tail but it couldn’t. It seemed the more it strained, the shorter the tail grew, and the more the frustration on the dog’s face.

There was another strange occurrence. The dog could talk, you know, like humans. Like you and I.

Amidst its twists and turns, the big dog let out a cry: “If only I could bite off this tail! It is the cause of my flea infestation!”

It doubled-down on its effort to bite its own tail, this time twisting its spine into a near coil, but the dog’s teeth could barely touch the last hairs of the tail.

Frustrated, the dog gave up. Momentarily.

Then something even stranger happened: the dog’s tail grew a mouth and started to speak too. I kid you not!

Chaos, I tell you.

In its defense the tail retorted, “but I have always worked diligently to ward off many fleas…”

“My flexibility, strength, and length and ability to reach every part of the body, except the head, has kept many fleas at bay,” continued the tail.

Visibly angry, the rest of the dog merely shook its head and paused a few seconds, or minutes, I don’t really recall the exact duration.

Then the big dog started the strange twist-dance with its tail again. It spun the whole of its body, anti clockwise then clockwise, in a bizarre twist that must have left its insides hurting! Still, it could not reach or bite the tail.

Now weary, the voice of the big dog grew hoarse. Where it used to bark, it now growled and grumbled. It grew restless. The tail meanwhile also shrunk in size before my very eyes. It’s hairs grew thin. It grew shorter. It wagged slower than before.

The only thing that seemed to grow in size were the fleas. From small microscopic beings to the size of a well-fed housefly!

The giant fleas now sucked at the big dog with reckless abandon. The tail, too short to reach the rest of the body, preferred to keep in the war of words with the head of the dog.

Their growls now became even more intense. The big dog spun like a whirlwind. Left. Right. Then back. It was a sight to behold.

Then without warning, a big storm blew low and hard, taking with it the big dog in my dream.

Taken. Caput. No more.

The big dog was gone. In its place was left a litter of beautiful puppies—big-eyed and with moist snouts, they were the most beautiful puppies I have ever seen.

Then I awoke to blinding light coming through my bedroom window. Someone had drawn the curtains, and turned up the radio volume.

My heart was racing. I had a cold sweat. My head hurt. I was confused. I was scared.

And playing on the radio was Jimmy Cliff’s 1993 rendition of John Nash’s famous “I Can See Clearly Now” song. You remember it from the movie Cool Runnings?

Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sun-shining day …

Such a strange dream, don’t you think?

As soon as I regained some of my cool, I sat up in my bed and penned you this letter. As you read it, I am still in my pyjamas. I may not leave my bedroom today until I know the meaning of this strange dream.

Sincerely yours,



Rwanda: Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last? 

The World Bank last week released its “Ease of Doing Business” report. In the East African region, Rwanda yet again trumped neighbours by ranking number 41 globally (a 15 places jump from last year’s ranking). Kenya followed closely in 80th position, having jumped 12 places from its previous ranking. Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi followed in positions 122, 137 and 164 respectively.

But there’s more to the rankings.

Since the start of the rankings 15 years ago, Rwanda has, at 52, implemented the most reforms in sub-Saharan Africa. Neighboring Kenya comes second here also having implemented 32 reforms.

So consistently, for the past 15 years, Rwanda has tinkered with and hacked this Ease of Doing Business index stuff…in the process becoming a global reform leader. But Rwanda has not become a Singapore. And it is not about to become one anytime soon on the back of these forms alone.

For me this is the greatest irony of “reform” and the gospel of economic transformation especially in the global south.

Turns out there’s only so much tinkering you can do. At the end of the day the results of the undertaking are only slightly greater/better than those of your neighbour(s) who prefer(s) to sit on their laurels. Or so it seems.

The next example takes us to the same amazing country, Rwanda. This time hacking not just business reforms but football!

In an interview with our publication earlier in the year, a Ugandan journalist friend narrated a rather fascinating story about the Rwanda national football team’s exploits at the previous CHAN football tourney.

In preparation for the tournament Rwanda hired Opta, UK based sports data company, and analysts from premier league side Bournemouth to prepare the team for CHAN.

The job for these analysts was simple: using data from how Rwanda’s opponents play, advise how the team can employ tactics to defeat them.

The analysts watched the last five games of Gabon, one of the teams in Rwanda’s CHAN group, and noticed a player on the left flank who tripped whichever opponent ran at him. They passed on the information to the Rwandan team.

When the two teams finally played, the Rwandan winger kept running at the Gabonese defender until the defender was sent off, and in the process Rwanda won the match by 2-1 to qualify the for the quarterfinals. Rwanda would eventually be exited from the tourney by eventual winners D.R. Congo.

How a poor country like Rwanda, with so many priorities, can afford to spare effort and scarce resources to help its national team succeed, not at the World Cup or AfCON but a continental tourney for home-based players defies almost everything we’ve come to associate with poor countries. It also sums up the spirit of a people who choose not to define themselves by what the world expects of them, but where they think they belong: the very top of technology use in sports in this case.

Sadly, Rwanda may not even win the World Cup in our lifetime. DRC, like we saw at CHAN, stands a better chance.

Which reminds us of the question, old as humanity itself: Why do nice guys finish last?

In the world of human relationships, while women say they want to date nice guys, their actions and choices often suggest the opposite. Hollywood is inundated with examples such as these (Whitney Houston and her estranged marriage to Bobby Brown comes to mind) and books spanning such diverse fields as psychology and zoology have been written about the phenomenon.

Thus parallels can be drawn between the two worlds – of human relations and economic transformation – and the conclusion is a simple one: doing the “right” thing, and acting right, is not a guarantee to economic heaven, football glory or marital bliss. Somewhere, a bad boy, shabby and with a foul conduct to match, always gets to walk away with the bead-eyed beauty. Unfair, this world!

As Rwanda, Kenya Head to the Polls, East Africa Watches with Bated Breath 

The long-awaited is here! The two East African nations of Rwanda and Kenya go to the polls this August. Rwanda will take the first bite at the cherry on August 3 and 4, while the latter will have their turn on August 8.

First to Rwanda. Although the results of the coming poll are considered fait accompli (in favour of the incumbent) by several observers, and the exercise altogether deemed a “boring” affair – what with the lack of adversarial flair many have come to associate with electoral politics in Africa – the campaigns have taken on a life of their own online.

First with a series of articles in the Economist that seemed to suggest a “climate of fear” in the lead up to polls (see another equally fallacious one in the Washington Post, here).

The response from the Rwandan online community couldn’t have been more timely. In classic wordplay, “climate of fear” morphed into a twitter hashtag #ClimateOfCheer displaying the festive mood at most of President Kagame’s rallies, that could be mistaken for carnivals!

It is an interesting time to be an observer of affairs in Kigali this season. On the streets of the capital one cannot miss the near-festive mood: public transport cars are draped in red, blue and white – colours of the FPR Inkontanyi – flags. T-shirts bearing the incumbent’s image are on sale at the street corner, including, interestingly, in the new Mr Price outlet at Kigali Heights. Beyond the presidential aspirant, there seems to be Paul Kagame (PK) the fashion icon. At a bar we went to with friends one evening I could count up to 10 people – from waiters to patrons – donning PK-inspired t-shirts and caps.

WhatsApp Image 2017-07-31 at 20.18.05.jpeg

PK the fashion icon? One of the many Kagame-inspired T-shirts on sale in Kigali

While this would seem to vindicate the Economist’s lazy attempt at explaining the “brand Kagame” phenomenon, you only need to walk the Kigali streets a little longer to be disabused of the notion.

Frank Habineza, of the Green Party, and Philippe Mpayimana, an independent candidate who once dabbled in journalism in the 1990s, are the other aspirants in the race for president. Woe unto them, you’d say. While their campaigns have not seen even a fraction of the numbers at RPF rallies, save for a number of school children and curious bystanders, they nonetheless stand a chance in the next government thanks to Rwanda’s constitution that ensures that the winner of the August 4 polls does not take more than 50% of cabinet positions.

A far cry from Uganda and Kenya’s first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system, Rwanda’s consensual politics could help explain the “boring” nature of Rwanda’s campaigns. You cannot tell your opponent to – borrowing from close to home – eat their mother’s something something… because you will have to serve with them in the same government.

Now to Kenya: the chilly July Nairobi weather can best explain the goings-on in East Africa’s biggest economy. News this afternoon of discovery of the body of Chris Msando, Director of ICT at the national electoral body (IEBC), who went missing last Friday sent chills down many spines. Kenya could yet head back to the senseless violence it witnessed in 2007, many observers suggest.

One such observer is a Ugandan journalist friend who I met in the Kenya capital late last year. He notes that, without exception, every Kenyan election in which an incumbent has been on the ballot has been characterized by violence: 1992, 1997, 2007, and, he hoped not, 2017.

The signs coming out of Nairobi seem to vindicate him for now, but we pray for better. A report in the regional East African newspaper this week noted concerns by Kenyan manufacturers about uncertainty ahead of the August 8 poll, and many have had to withhold major investments for the next 12 months. This has serious implications on the country’s economy alongside that of her neighbours.

Already billed as one of the most expensive elections on the continent, neighbours like Uganda will want to take lessons from the Kenyan polls for pointers on what the future holds if cut-throat confrontational electoral politics is not checked.

And here is where Rwanda’s example comes in: consensual, as opposed to confrontational, electoral competition will deliver us to Canaan faster than bloodletting!


This past weekend I was in serene Jinja for a friend’s wedding, believe it or not, the first time I’ve stayed in the town for longer than a day! It was a good experience. While the town’s heydays seem to be in the distant past, there are signs a new dawn is approaching. Driven largely by local tourism.

At the Sailing Club, as we downed a few beers, I had an interesting chat with one of the groomsmen — the Oxford – JP Morgan – Columbia MBA type — about fortunes here and abroad. Tell you what, brace yourselves for the coming wave. The American, European, now Asian, ship is losing steam fast and the growth winds will soon blow south…but we need to get our African house in order first.

All the best in your marriage, Leo and Esther!

Yes, Uganda is “Friendly” to Refugees, But That’s Half the Story

Uganda seems to be a darling of the international press lately over our all-welcoming refugee policy. In a world where countries are building borders and walls around themselves, Uganda is opening itself up to those who cannot find peace in their home countries. An opinion in the Washington Post this week wondered why Uganda is more welcoming to refugees than the United States. There’s been many other pieces of punditry of the sort all over the place.

It’s a good time to identify as Ugandan. Even more now that the country is hosting several heads of state, the UN secretary general, and numerous other delegates for the first ever Solidarity Summit for refugees.

But amidst all this frenzy, I am yet to read a nuanced account of what is behind Uganda’s “good” refugee policy – every major international outlet is regurgitating the same explanations, albeit by different “experts”.

Veteran journalist Charles Onyango Obbo tried to shed light on this Ugandan “exceptionalism” in the Daily Monitor this week (read his piece, and thank me later!). He uses the example of Ankole and Buganda as communities that have always welcomed migrants and assimilated them into their cultures; and in doing so grown prosperous because of the cheap labour provided by the refugees.

The story is the same, I suspect, for many Ugandan communities. In Tooro for example, with the influx of Bakiga and Banyarwanda from south western Uganda. The two communities have since taken on Tooro identity (with pet names to match!) and gone on to own some of the largest tea estates in the area.

How I wish Uganda uses this renewed interest in the country to “re-brand” itself as the welcoming, tolerant country many know it to be.

Because while all this good is happening, the image that is portrayed of the country is still one that is fraught with stereotypes. Most reference to Uganda today in any book still draws largely on the image (some say notoriety) of Idi Amin. Where the authors try hard enough to stay “current” their imagination can only take them as far as caricaturing Ugandans as bigots who want to “kill” gays!

I have just finished reading Nuruddin Farah’s 2014 novel, “Hiding in Plain Sight,” a book about Somali identity in a cosmopolitan world. In the book Farah makes an effort to deconstruct generalizations and caricatures made of Somalis all over the world – as prejudiced, war-mongers, etc.

The irony is that he makes those same generalizations about other communities in the book. So the Ugandans are bigoted, corrupt and homophobic. The Kenyans are cheats. Uganda’s role in Somalia has nothing to do with the country’s pan-African ideals, but a desire by the generals (and their lieutenants) to line their pockets by selling AMISOM food and fuel to the terrorists.

Oh, and all Ugandans seem to enjoy a good meal of mattocks (Matooke) and peanut sauce. So much for a generalization!

Back to the refugee question: I think Uganda’s “exceptionalism” needs to be looked at in a more contextual way; one that puts into consideration the country’s history and unique experience over the years.

For example, the very notion of “Uganda” – is it a theoretical definition of territory or a collective “consciousness” of what is Uganda?  Maybe it’s the unconscious belief that Uganda – the geographical entity, as we know it – does not really exist, so it doesn’t change much if we allowed members of other neighbouring communities (called “countries”) to join us, that is responsible for the country’s favourable refugee policy. We don’t know.

We can make a few informed guesses though. But I am afraid this may not be possible in the midst of the storm caused by excitement over the good press the country is receiving.

In short: why would a country made up of “refugees” not welcome refugees?

On Stella Nyanzi and the “small penis” Rule

Mark Twain is famously said to have once quipped, “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” To that, dear reader, I wish to paraphrase: the rumours of my literary demise (as far as this blog is concerned) have been greatly exaggerated. The good news is, we are back and hope you never left too!

The subject of our yarn-y conversation today, Stella Nyanzi: academic, rubble-rouser and writer extraordinaire of erotica! To Dr Stella Nyanzi we shall return shortly, after a brief detour.

The late author Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel, “State of Fear” – about a conspiracy by Hollywood, environmentalists and academicians to create unnecessary fear among the public about global warming – did not go down well with many on the left. None more than Michael Crowley, then editor of the New Republic, who wrote a scathing review of the book in which he made uncharitable remarks about the author, comparing him to “a mighty t-rex that has escaped Jurassic park…”

Revenge from Crichton was swift, and boy was it sweet! Writing in his 2006 book, “Next”, Crichton caricatured Crowley as a wealthy, spoiled Yale-educated paedophile (aptly named Mick Crowley) with a small penis who rapes his sister-in-law’s two year old son.

And as if to drive his point home, Mick Crowley’s character does not play any significant role in the book and neither does he affect the overall plot in the fast-paced 448-page techno-thriller about genetic science and its mass-marketing industry that soon runs out of control.

Which brings us to the “small penis” rule – a strategy famously attributed to libel lawyer Leon Friedman.  Friedman’s “small penis” rule summed up states that a fictional character one is writing about can bear such close resemblance to the real life person that a reader will instantly make connection between the two, however, the author would then need to add an unflattering description: that the character has a small penis or has a bad body odour so as to throw off the possibility of any libel suit.

Since no man, however aggrieved, can come to court protesting they have a small penis, or foul body odour, the strategy allows many writers to get away with unflattering caricatures of real life people.

Now to our own beloved Stella Nyanzi: I first met her during the 2015 Writivism festival at the National Theater where we hosted her to speak about sex and its representation in African literature. During her conversation on the panel she read from her erotic Facebook posts and got the audience in a frenzy. In the end her panel was a crowd puller and one of the best attended at the festival.

Since then I have only followed her Facebook posts – at which point I should admit: I very much love the imagery in her writings especially the now famous one in which she wants to make love to the president. It was a masterpiece.

I am trying to make love with Mzee, but his thoughts are far away plotting about how to win again in the 2016 elections. His dancing-stick is dead asleep. I try to touch his man-boobs and tickle the old nipples with my hands, but he’s tightly clad in his bullet-proof vest until a time when Uganda is safe enough for him. I try to tickle his arm pits, but he is firmly holding the coming draft budget document under one armpit. I abandon the idea of foreplay with his torso and try to French-kiss His Excellency. He pushes me away, makes an ugly face by folding his lips and then telling me that the mouth was made for eating food only. I lie back, close my eyes and invitingly reveal my beautiful bossom, hoping that he’ll reach down and touch me. Nothing happens…

More recently however (starting February 2016, I think), her writing seemed to take a turn for the worst – from literary eroticism to outright slander and abuse. Her choice of victims included MISR’s professor Mamdani, the President, first lady, minister for ethics, among other public officials. Her list of victims keeps growing by the day and so do the numbers of her followers. The more graphic her writing has become, it seems, the more her fan base has grown.

This week she was charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication (for using her Facebook page to refer to President Museveni as a “pair of buttocks”) and remanded to Luzira prison until 25 April, much to the angst of many Ugandans who decried the government’s creeping intolerance to dissent and free speech.

Although a firm believer and advocate of artistic license – literary exaggeration and alteration of conventions of grammar to make a point – I am also skeptical of the Pandora’s box such unrestrained freedom can open.

There is no shortage of literary luminaries who have used the might of the pen to speak truth to power. Names like George Orwell or, closer to home, Okot P’Bitek and Wahome Mutahi (he of the famous “Whispers” column) come to mind. Wahome used his column in the Daily Nation to drive literary daggers into the heart of the KANU dictatorship. He was jailed, got out and wrote even more scathing, yet humourous, attacks. One thing distinguished him though: he did not resort to calling people by their nether regions!

Perhaps the dearth of provocative writers like Wahome (who passed on over a decade ago) explains the rise of voices like Stella’s. Or it is the changing times? All the same one ought to be worried for this dying art form. I see sparks of the same from my friend Jimmy Spire Ssentongo’s Observer column. Beyond that there is nothing really.

In closing, there is no doubt in my mind now that the current ruling class is not only devoid of any ideas, it is also allergic to new ones; which explains the anger meted out on Stella and many of her kind. But perhaps more saddening is the lack of imagination, you can say even ideas, in what another friend, Angelo Izama, calls the “waiting room” generation.

That the ideas – if any – informing the current ruling class should be contested is not in doubt, what is, however, is the intelligentsia’s weapon of choice – brawn or brains? Stella seems to have chosen the latter. But we can all join her to do better: we do not have to go to the sewers to reclaim Uganda.


The same Mark Twain, in another of his yarns, once claimed that the best way to harvest turnips is to not to pull, since it injures them but to “… send a boy up and let him shake the tree.” Perhaps the best way to “harvest” the current establishment is not through abuse; better we sent some boys to “shake the tree”. I will explain. Next time.!

Uganda: The Kids are Disruptive, And It’s a Good Thing

What do two young men, barely in their mid twenties, have to do with the authorities in Kampala being in a very foul mood lately? So much so that, in a space of four years, the two would be arrested a combined forty times – ten arrests shy of Opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s own record! Meet Uganda’s self-acclaimed political activists, Wabulembo Robin and Brian Atuhaire.

Brian has been in and out of the police cells so often that when I call him for this article, I joke about which cell he is currently being held in. He is a free man, for now. Wabulembo, too, has been out for a while after he had been picked up for unleashing yellow pigs onto the Kampala’s streets.

And they are not about to give up.

In September last year, as the sun set down on chilly Nairobi’s Westlands suburb, I sat down with a Nairobi-based Ugandan journalist to pick up on a conversation we had had months earlier about Uganda’s youthful population. Kalinaki, in a Daily Monitor article, had expressed disappointment at Uganda’s youths who “carry the manila paper of poverty placards with pride as tickets to the vanilla flavour of monetary reward”. This, while comparing them to the out-going  Septuagenarian generation who in their twenties “dreamt in the violent but progressive colours of revolution.” Now, Kalinaki can be quite acerbic and embellishing in his writings, but here he had a point: young people today seem to have lost some of that revolutionary fervour that characterized the generations that preceded them.

While the twenty-something-year-old Museveni was reading Franz Fanon and frothing at both sides of the mouth with Marxist ideals, the only froth most young people will get to see today is that out of a glass of beer!

But this should be a cause for celebration, not worry, I will explain.

You see, while most observers firmly fixed their eyes on Uganda’s (and indeed Africa’s) growing youth unemployment and disenchantment with government, they missed a very interesting mini-revolution that has been taking place for a while now – birthed by the expanding broadband connectivity and social media. For years, away from the incompetence that defines the public sector in most of Uganda, a few smart young people, ensconced in innovation hubs funded by tech-philanthropists, hit away at their computers as they sought to  create the next “app”. And, boy, did we see them; from an Uber-esque service for your laundry, to one that would detect malaria – without the need to have yourself pricked.

All these groundbreaking innovations were birthed on a single floor in a small storied building located in Kampala’s Kamwokya suburb.

For a while government was too busy clobbering its opponents to realise the groundswell of optimism and creative freedom places like HiveColab had brought.

Not until social media became an important tool in the recently concluded elections.

Most of these tech-prenuers, terrified by the teargas and violence being meted out on opposition sympathizers, joined the campaign from the safety of their smartphones – through platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Most of the applications that they were building found use in the political campaigns – as interactive platforms for the different candidates (popularly known as “bots”) to “populate” their social media pages and drive traffic; online radio stations for candidates; and databases where candidates could keep track of their agents at polling stations.

Technology had at last emerged as the closest attempt at a “leveled” playing field for the incumbent’s opponents. In fact, according to a fly on the wall, the decision by government to block access to social media and mobile banking services was partly due to concerns by authorities that an opposition party had planned to use the mobile money platform to send facilitation for its poll agents across the country. The party had also built an elaborate online platform where voters would in real time be able to report electoral malpractices and incidents, if any, of violence.

At the heart of this “disruptive” innovation are young people like my friend Samson Tusiime: young, ingenuitive, ambitious and with the smarts to match! Meeting a few days before the elections, he mused about the role technology would play in the upcoming polls; how he had built a platform that would track in real time incidents of election violence from across the country.

“I wonder how you guys are going to steal the election this time,” he quipped to a friend standing besides us at the bar. The fellow sipped the last of his beer and left. Almost in a hurry!

It wasn’t to be though as the idea was successfully nipped in the bud by government, to its credit.

So when I read yesterday that Samwyri – as we fondly refer to him – had been picked up from his home by plain clothed officers, on charges of planning a demonstration in Jinja, my heart sank. A line had been crossed, I felt.

A cursory look at Uganda’s body politic reveals a growing trend of intolerance – peppered by dogmatism and religious zealotry.

“This creeping intolerance has also slipped into our political sphere,” I narrate to another friend on the eve of the president’s swearing-in; social media sites such as Facebook and Whatsapp had been blocked again. I tell him how I have had to install a VPN to get around the government imposed “firewall”. The professorial type always, he argues that what we are seeing is in fact a product of the shrinking political space within the NRM – after they expelled their long-serving Secretary General and de facto number two, Amama Mbabazi – and that the ruling party’s irritability and paranoia can only get worse with time.

But my own reading of the tea leaves paints a rather more optimistic picture from this fight over internet freedoms. The country is on the verge of a generational and cultural shift. So what we are seeing as anarchy, growing government censoriousness and radicalness is a reaction to new cultural forces that are sweeping hard, low and fast enough to threaten the very foundations of what is considered “tradition” – servitude, religiosity and obedience to authority. In short, “tradition” represents the status quo, a coterie that, according to Rajat Neogy, “spells out the don’ts in large capitals and is vigorously intent on the things that cannot or must not be done”. Yet for all the effort in preserving itself, a don’t-culture is always indicative of the dying phase of any culture, a culture at its last gasp fighting for dear life. Uganda today would seem to perfectly fit that description.

If there is anything you should be praying for, it is that the kids – Samwyri, Wabulembo, Atuhaire, even Sheba Karungi! – continue shaking that tree that Uganda’s don’t-culture is. While they risk falling off the branches and breaking their arms, the fruits from their shaking are more important for Uganda. Pray still, that many more join them, until the tree can take it no more…and gives way.

Go kids!




Democracy In Africa Ain’t Broken, Don’t Fix It

When you read through our papers lately, it is hard for you not to come to a conclusion that Uganda has gotten it overly wrong–again; and that the country is tailspinning into chaos. A friend who lives in South Africa the other day called Uganda a political and economic “basket case”. So, looked at from anecdotal evidence it seems everything in Uganda is heading south and everyone is doing badlyyet, objectively, the country is doing better than most if not all of its peers.

So why does everyone seem to predict doom? The answer is simple, and no prizes for guessing: the media.

With the explosion of radio, television and the internet over the last two decades it has become increasingly easy and fast to get news from every corner of the country–most times in the palm of your hands through a smartphone. Like they say nothing travels faster than bad news. And the phenomenon is  not unique to Uganda; whereas globally we have seen a reduction in deaths from conflicts over the years since 1400, tuning to a cable channel every morning and watching horrifying images of the war in Syria and Iraq would make you think the world is headed for a nuclear armageddon.

In the last five years, I believe there are few columnists I have religiously read as the veteran Charles Onyango-Obbo. In his article today he seemed to argue that Uganda, and by extension Africa, has largely failed to develop because we lack the democracy and political freedom to unleash our innovativeness. It is not so often that Charles shoots himself in the foot – it is rare enough that when it happens, we’ve got to say something!

Obbo speaks for many educated Ugandans/Africans who see the “lack” of democracy on the continent as the a major reason for our backwardness and poverty. But how true is this?

We would need to ask ourselves: what is the correlation between political freedom (democracy) and innovation? Going by Obbo’s line of thought, it would seem that repressive regimes led by “big men” stifle innovation and keep away creative people. Lack of respect for private property laws, due to weak institutions, would also keep the best minds from innovating. However, to what extent is all this true?

Elizabethan England (1558-1603)  was particularly characterised by brutality, high-handedness – you would be burned at the stake for praying to God the wrong way! – and royal absolutism, yet the same repressive period has been depicted as the “golden era” of English history because it produced such literary greats as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe; Sir Francis Drake, the first man to circumnavigate the globe, would set sail in 1577 – setting the stage for Empire and colonialism; and ground was set for Isaac Newton and other scientists to thrive in the following century through innovations by astronomers like Thomas Digges. So England under queen Elizabeth I, while being repressive, also enjoyed more prosperity than it had ever before; it also saw an explosion in discoveries and innovation that would influence much of the world–forever, some would some would say.

Fast-forwarding the clock hand to the last century, it was Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union that released the first satellite into space – a feat democratic America would only match a year later, to their dismay. The same USSR would transform from an agrarian society to a nuclear power in less than a century. Now, it takes quite a bit of brains and innovative “freedom”to build a satellite that will take a man into space or to turn an agrarian society into an industrial one in under a century. But the soviets are not among the best democrats around the block. Maybe innovation and democracy are not fraternal twins, nay?

To use Obbo’s example of why in over 50 years of independence virtually no African country with the exception of South Africa and Egypt has built an equivalent of the London Underground rail, we would need to look at Egypt and South Africa – the latter’s repressive apartheid history and the former’s rich civilisation history under the Pharaohs. Either way, it doesn’t do Charles’ “democracy favours innovation” argument any, well, favours.

A more nuanced explanation would be that we haven’t developed the capacity, or the need, to build such projects as the Underground. So we will bring out drums and flutes to cheer the Big Man next time he launches a two mile stretch of tarmac – because that is our immediate need.

To put the argument to rest, we dusted the shelves for a tool I had come across a year ago – The SCImago Institution rankings. This tool has data on scientific publications by all countries in the world from 1996 to 2014. Since scientific innovation is key to the economic prosperity of nations – the most scientifically innovative countries are equally the richest – it would be interesting to see the correlation between science innovation in democratic and other not-so-democratic countries. So we ran the numbers…

Whereas in the global West, indicators tend to suggest a positive correlation between democracy, prosperity and scientific innovation – the top 10 countries, with the exception of China, also rank as the most democratic, with the strongest institutions and intellectual property rights. In Africa, the view is a little blurry, the list of 10 countries with the highest scientific publications has such democracy bad boys as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia and Uganda (in 9th position). The surprises are Zimbabwe as number 12 and Senegal in 13th position. Zambia can only manage 20th while Africa’s third biggest economy, Angola, comes in at a distant number 34.

The findings, instead of answering our question, raised more: if repressive regimes were a hindrance to innovation and ideas, then how come of the top 10 countries on the continent in terms of scientific knowledge generation and output 7 are either dictatorships, monarchies or one-party states?

Stability, frequent elections and smooth transfer of power in Zambia, Senegal and Ghana do not seem to have created a better environment for scientific innovation and publication than in less democratic Uganda, Ethiopia or Sudan.

So the problem in Africa would seem that we, our intelligentsia, tend to spend more time hanging our heads in the clouds of democracy theory when we should be focusing on our feet standing in the sands of reality.

Whereas Uganda has staggered on its democracy path over the years, and its peers seem to have fleeted past it in democratic gains; the country’s problems cannot be entirely explained by its democracy or lack thereof. Neither can the success or failure of any other country.








Democracy Has Failed Us. Let’s Play Football

So Uganda’s long-awaited election is a few days away. The “stupid” season is finally coming to an end, a friend of ours would say. We must say it has been a long grueling, yet sometimes boring, campaign season.

With a lot said and done, a few things are clear now: the winner of the upcoming presidential election will be male, 59 years or older, from western Uganda and with a military background. He will be an NRM ideologue too – past or present. Which is why at a recent interview with the good guys at NTV, we said this election is as much about pas de changement – No change – as it is about anything else. The real fight will be in 2021 when the old guard must cede ground for the millennial generation: young, aspirational and un-scarred by Uganda’s tumultuous post-independence history. In other words, the future belongs to Museveni’s “children”!

There will be more than 5 million of them taking part in this upcoming election, even more if you considered those who participated in the last one as first-time voters. And yet no candidate has appealed to this important constituency. No one seems to have a clear strategy to deal with these first-time voters; to reach out to them specifically with a message that resonates with their dreams for Uganda. All have opted for more mundane messages – education for all, health care and good roads. Former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi had started well with a campaign largely driven by new media that has now all but lost steam, and the rate at which his team is shrinking lately he might be left with only close family members by Feb 18th.

Meanwhile, just when we thought this was one was going to be one of the more peaceful polls, our friends at the NRM were nursing other ideas. Their secretary general, Kasule Lumumba last week issued death threats to whoever took to the streets after the polls.

Polls are a matter of life and death in this part of the world, which is why we think,and this thought we have haboured for a while now, that political contests should be resolved through football matches. Only then can the results be accepted.

The democracy vaccine Africa was inoculated with in the 1990s doesn’t seem to be very effective. The Institute of Defense Analyses recently released findings that more than half of the 300 elections in Africa between 1990 and 2015 were characterized by violence. And this year will see polls in 14 African countries, amongst them Joseph Kabila’s DR Congo where the incumbent is seeking a(n unpopular) third term. Gabon’s Ali Bongo will look to extend his family’s grip on that tiny country as he seeks a second term while Djibouti strongman Omar Guelleh will seek to extend his 17 year iron grip on the horn of Africa state. All signs from Rwanda suggest Kagame will seek re-election next year, possibly going on up to 2034! Burundi meanwhile is up in flames over a disputed third term.

Show me an election in Africa, and I will show you disputed results, violence and a grumbling opposition. Elections therefore, other than entrench democracy, have tended to fan violence and division.

But there are a few lessons we can learn from the recently concluded African Nations championship (CHAN) in Rwanda. The first one is that a host country, Rwanda, did not make it to the finals but still crowds turned up to cheer eventual winners, DRC, who beat Rwanda in the quarters. It is the equivalent of Museveni organizing an election in Uganda,  without intimidation or resorting to violence, recognises an opposition victory, and NRM supporters cheer the winner. It is the stuff of fairy-tales, right? Well Rwanda did that.

Anyone familiar with the two countries’ history will tell you that with the exception of perhaps Tanzania, there are few countries at the hands of which the Rwandans would want to taste defeat – military or of a sports nature. Which makes the DR Congo win even more significant.

Our second, and final lesson from CHAN, will take us back to our opening that Africa is on the verge of a generational shift – thanks to its youthful population – that will leave its immediate post-independence leaders holding onto nothing but the hardware of the state – tanks, tear gas, and kiboko-wielding hooligans – while young people wrestle away with the boundless potential that the internet and new media provides. The point is buttressed by Joseph Kabila’s Congo: written off by most of the world as a basket case, Congolese citizens have had to look within themselves and give the world their best talent exports – Fally Ipupa, TP Mazembe and a couple of football stars gracing European leagues. While the Congolese state remains terribly incompetent, unable to deliver even the most basic of services, it can still produce football champions and world class music stars.

Maybe next time we shall talk more about TP Mazembe’s renaissance under its chairman, a certain Moise Katumbi, governor of Katanga province. He is the man the watch!


Veteran journalist Charles Onyango Obbo writing in the East African last week argued that with the death of Rajat Neogy in 1995, intellectual debate in Africa died a natural death. His pan-African Magazine left the continent long time ago and is now hosted at the Hutchins Centre at Harvard. You would be inclined to agree with him, until you changed the lens and looked at Transition in a different light: true, we might not have another magazine of its kind, but certainly there are many 22 year olds who are irrigating the fields of pan-African intellectual discourse with their ideas. The problem is, the internet has democratised debate and there is no need for physical magazines anymore. So once in a while you land into these “spaces” and are left thinking, not all is lost. The good guys at Writivism – another of those pan-African literary projects by young folks – shared an article by a 22 year old Motswana young lady, who prefers to describe herself as “…a 22-year-old writer who is obsessed with Africa and the internet. [w]ho in her spare time  studies mathematics at the University of Botswana”. In Siyanda’s words you will find the gist of our argument.

Turns out Transition and Rajat Neogy’s ideas have not died, they have morphed into a more potent, though yet to be realised, form thanks to the internet.







Dinner in Dar, Magufuli “Tough” Love: The More Things Change…

Tanzania’s newly elected president John Pombe Magufuli has been the talk of town in East Africa, and most of the continent, for the past few weeks. His no-nonsense approach to issues in that country down south has won him many admirers in the region.

Many have compared him to Mwalimu Nyerere, Thomas Sankara and, interestingly, Museveni and Kagame in their earlier (better?) days, what Bill Clinton referred to then as the “new” breed of African leaders.

And they are probably right – Magufuli is in many ways like the above mentioned leaders. I would add: he is like any other African leader, good or bad. He is striving to do the right thing for his country and its citizenry. But like he will soon find out, it takes a little more than rabble-rousing, grandstanding and frugality to run an efficient government. And then the loud drums from his hitherto praise-singers will quieten before the crowd slowly retreats to cynicism…and the cycle continues ad infinitum.

This is Africa’s problem (no pun intended).

Those well versed with the history of this region will remember thirty years ago, when a 40-something year old balding, lean guerilla leader clad in fitting military fatigue, commanding an equally youthful bunch of intellectuals, took the reigns in Kampala. He promised sweeping reforms. And, boy, they were fast coming! He wondered why a president should travel in a convoy of more than three cars; why his convoy shouldn’t stop at the traffic lights; why a president should fly in a private jet to New York when his citizenry was drowning in abject poverty…I could go on. He went on to assign himself a paltry $64 as monthly salary. His name was Yoweri Museveni.

Thirty years later, the same man looks every bit the shadow of his former self.

An anecdote is given by an Kenyan friend who teaches at the University of Witwatersrand as we await our flight from Dar es Salaam’s International airport, that in 1986 or thereabouts when young Museveni took the reigns in Uganda, the euphoria spread over to Western Kenya. Parents christened their kids “Museveni” – for most, in admiration of the young man’s ideals and resolve to address what he called then “Africa’s problem”. The more sophisticated kind used the naming to pass a subtle message to KANU’s Moi that the winds of change were home bound.

I laugh so hard at Wekesa’s anecdote and wonder if there are any 30 year olds walking around in Western Kenya with the Museveni name today. “I would love to meet those Museveni kids,” I tell him.

So the praise and goodwill Magufuli is garnering from the region and Africa as a whole shouldn’t surprise us. It has happened before. Maybe we should not even rush to christen our newly-borns “JP Magufuli” – experience shows.

No sooner had I made that suggestion at dinner with colleagues from 8 countries – Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Sudan – than the Tanzanians rushed to the defensive: “Magufuli is different…”

I want to revert but as I turn to, my eyes land on a Rwandan colleague seated across the table. She’s flanked by another lady from Burundi. I want to make reference to Uganda’s third term syndrome and how it has now metastasised to these two neighbours–to buttress my earlier point that Magufuli is no saint–but I have picked up enough adversaries for the night. The joke is probably for another day.

The Rwandans are a timid lot these days. After years bashing us, Ugandans, for amending the constitution in 2005 to allow Museveni run for a third term, they now find themselves in a similar dilemma with Kagame. The Tanzanians are not letting them have a breather too – for once pro-people presidency is not a Kigali preserve, they taunt them. The argument is not lost on the Kenyans, erstwhile “digital” government poster kids in the region. Turns out there’s only so much a good social media team can do to mask the rot in the Jubilee government that recent corruption scandals have shown.

Our hosts, the Tanzanians, seem to be the only one’s standing on the moral high ground here. Of course, Uganda has carved out its name as the bad boys so we have less to be apologetic about. I steal another glance at the Rwandans…their heads are still bowed.

Noticeably quiet throughout the evening, a colleague from Burundi manages to throw in her three cents worth: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…The more things change, the more they stay the same.” And that statement would come to wind up our conversation.


It is a few days before the curtain falls on 2015. The year has, by all measures, been a good one for us. We wrote our final papers at Makerere and should be picking our letters this coming January. Quite a feat, you would say.

Though two things continue to worry us: the rate at which our hairline is fast receding and the need to settle down. We’re so restless lately.

So there’s this new found friend in Dar. She’s one of those you tell your boys about over a few beers. Our heart stayed down south, it seems. The rest is a story for another day.

Crowds, Clouds, Clowns: It is Raining Promises in Kampala

It is election season in Uganda yet again. It is a rainy season too. And we have a fair share of political comedy to take us through these grueling rains. Thank heavens!

For starters, debate over the last few weeks of the campaign has been about the potential of each candidate to pull crowds. FDC’s Kizza Besigye gave talking heads quite a bit of fodder to chew on as they tried to explain his (estimated) 2 million man march onto Kampala. For a man whose star seemed to be fading in light of the emergence of Go Forward’s Amama Mbabazi we can comfortably say the good old doctor needed the assurance of numbers more than any other candidate. Mbabazi and Museveni too pulled significant crowds–the latter going a step further to hire “crime preventers” from across the country to boost his numbers. All would have gone according to plan had the hired crowd been paid. They were not. And the details we were served on the nightly news; Testament to the fact, perhaps, that the NRM is such a “mass” party that payment of its “officials” is one hell of a grueling task. Incompetence that has characterised the NRM–some would argue.


Crowds at Pres. Museveni's rally. Credit: Don Wanyama/Facebook Photos

Worth noting however are the low incidents of violence in the campaigns so far. Apart from a few isolated cases, the campaigns have generally been peaceful. Even the seemingly tear-gas-thirsty police has restrained itself. This comes with a certain degree of relief to many spectators who were bracing themselves for yet another show down between Kale Kayihura and the (un)holy alliance of Mbabazi and Besigye. None of that will happen–and we have the crowds to thank for it. I will explain.

Arms Races

In evolutionary biology, the cost of fighting between organisms competing for the same resources (food, mates, territory, etc) is quite significant to both parties–the eventual winner and vanquished alike. The cost of two male gazelles fighting over a female–in terms of energy spent, exposure to potential predators and risk of losing life–is too great to be borne even if looked at in the reproductive gain that access to the female provides. Therefore, over time, species have evolved elaborate mechanisms to avoid direct confrontation with their enemies. You see this as very elaborate structures like horns, long teeth in members of the feline and canine families, extra long tails in male birds. Some have argued, interestingly, that the significantly large size of the human penis–relative to our primate cousins–is the result of a sort of “arms race” driven by our acquisition of an upright posture. Interesting…but I digress.

For the opposition and Museveni, the longer they have interacted in this political niche, Uganda, the more they have learned each others ways. Museveni has over time learned that while violence (as evidenced by the tear gassing, physical beatings, and sometimes, undressing of opponents) will cower his opponents and force many of their supporters to stay behind on election day, the cost of the same is increasingly offsetting the gains. With the expansion of the internet and social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the blog-sphere, images of Besigye’s inhumane arrest will be broadcast all over the world, including, even more importantly, western capitals. Now if there’s anything that gives an African leader fits and shivers it is having their brutality exposed for the whole world to see. The cost is too great to bare.

For the opposition, violence serves to buy them space and coverage in the media (local and international), endears them to the masses and cements their argument to Western governments that Museveni presides over an authoritarian state. On the downside, however, violence cowers their supporters from openly campaigning for the opposition, attending their rallies and might even hinder them from participating in the electoral process. The cost of violence to this group, too, is too high to make it a sustainable option.

So for once the opposition and NRM seem to have realised that direct confrontation serves neither of them and have resorted to a “crowds-race” of sorts. Arms races too tend to get out of hand, until natural selection steps in. While a male peacock with longer, more elaborate and brightly coloured tail feathers will attract the most females (and thus stand the highest chances of passing on this trait to his offspring), conspicuous tails make one more susceptible to preying by enemies.

In Uganda’s case the “crowd-races” have resulted into interesting cases of photo-shopped crowds, “hiring” of crowds (school children, boda boda riders and taxi drivers) and all manner of camera tricks to embellish the pictures from campaign rallies. It is Photoshop galore!


One of the "photo-shopped" campaign pictures. Credit: Twitter/Unknown Source

However, in absence of a discerning citizenry, guided by a critical and objective media, these crowd-races can get out of hand. But I think we are holding on just well enough for now.

And then the (empty) Promises

No statement has perhaps generated more media attention than Kizza Besigye’s promise to double the wages of secondary school teachers to Uganda Shillings 1,000,000 (USD 300); that of primary school teachers to Ugx 650,000 and 3.5 million for doctors. For most of us opposed to his promise the difference in opinion is not because we don’t care for the plight of civil servants, quite the contrary, rather it is the feasibility of such a venture. Besigye’s argument for increment of wages is buttressed in the belief that the country is already bleeding a lot in political largesse and that by cutting the number of parliamentarians by two thirds, and doing away will all the political hangers-on he will be able to offer public servants better pay. The problem with FDC and by extension Besigye’s argument is that it is rooted in idealism and not political reality.

Whereas it would make a valid moral argument to suggest that members of the civil service–teachers, doctors, nurses, etc–who work tirelessly to serve the population should be rewarded, the argument does not sound as convincing politically. The whole civil service in Uganda consists less than 5% of the population–and most rarely vote anyway. Therefore, what pressures does a politician face from non-increment of teachers wages? Zilch. Would the same politician lose an election on account of the same? Unlikely. What on the other hand would be the political cost of not appointing a minister from Bunyoro or any other influential constituency? Significant.

So we head into another election with Besigye choosing a strategy that is discordant with the majority electorate. Where he is campaigning to cut the size of cabinet, Museveni is campaigning to increase its size and create more districts. Where he is preaching fiscal discipline and meritocracy in government appointments, Mbabazi is promising to pay war veterans.

Not to be left out in this promises galore is the president himself who promised residents of Nakaseke in Luweero district an “industrial zone”. The residents would be better off asking folks in Soroti who were promised a fruit processing factory in the last election. It has been 5 years coming!

Yet there is a section of Ugandans who think this election is a done deal. That the winner is already known. But scenes like the ones we were treated to of “hired” crowds at NRM’s Kololo rally point to the fact that even Museveni considers the importance of crowds–at least the impression they create, in this election.

The crowds will decide this one.