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.