The Week That Was…

The Week that was… is a section in Sunday Vision that I used to religiously follow in the early 2000s. I hope it still runs (I haven’t read the Sunday Vision in years – for reasons I shall explain elsewhere). Anyway, back then, after perusing – and musing all-through – Tom Rush’s escapades in the Sunday Magazine, the “week that was” section would be my next pick.

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One of Tom Rushedge's articles from 2009 that this writer recently landed on.

In last week alone, I have travelled through the districts of Kabarole, Kibale, Kamwenge, and Ntoroko. The last time I made such a trip was in late December 2010 (the trip, then, would lead me through Kibale, Kamwenge, Ibanda and Kiruhura). Four years later, a couple of things have changed in these districts and towns that I can be allowed to make a few generalisations and inferences.

Travelling through Kibale district on January 2, 2011, I was shocked at the terrible state in which the Fort Portal-Kibale-Kamwenge road was; it was badly in need of repair – dusty, pot holed and narrow. 2011 was also an election year and while listening to one of the local Rutooro stations in the car, I would listen to the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, pledge in Runyankore that one of the things his government would address in the next term – his fourth; or sixth, depending on how you look at it – were roads, public administration and management of the new found oil wealth. I remember wondering out loud to the other occupants of the car: “How I wish the NRM fulfilled even half of their pledges…”

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The Kibale-Kamwenge road currently under construction.

I was to be proven wrong four years later. The Kibale-Kamwenge road is now under construction, and by the look of things, more houses have access to power; there are two or three new bridges on the same road; the road is wider now…I could go on.

Save for sections of the Kibale-Fort Portal road which are still dusty, a lot has changed (infrastructure-wise) in this part of the country. The ever-so-clean Fort Portal is now even cleaner – the government hospital (Buhinga) has been reconstructed and given a new coat of paint; there’s a new central market (almost the same size as Wandegeya or Jinja’s Napier market); the roads are well paved and there are a number of tourists taking a stroll in this town. On the downside, however, Fort Portal remains a quiet, sleepy town. Unlike its peers Masaka, Mbarara, Gulu or even Jinja, there is not much hustle and bustle in Fort – like the locals fondly refer to the town. Big supermarkets like Tuskys, Nakumatt and Shoprite are yet to set up here. Yet you expect they should, seeing the large number of tourists who flock this town. Some of the buildings on Kampala, Kasese and Babiiha roads are badly in need of a facelift.

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The round-about connecting Kampala-Kasese-Bundibugyo roads.

One thing that struck me about Fort Portal was the cleanliness, not only of the people, but also the people. Even without law enforcement officers (like is the case with Kampala), shop verandas are clean and there were disposal bins outside most places.

My six hour stay in Fort Portal included a brief visit to Virika hospital, one of the many Catholic church-owned hospitals in the country. I was here to see a friend’s dad who had been admitted. It was my second time. The first being a decade ago when I was hospitalised here, after a malaria attack. The hospital, like all Catholic institutions, is exceptionally clean and the staff are very attentive and helpful. Which deflates the notion that Ugandan doctors are lazy. Perhaps there’s something about religious institutions – the respect and reverence which people accord them, and not to public institutions.

The next stop would be Ntoroko. One of the newest districts (carved out of Bundibugyo), Ntoroko borders the DRC to the west and Lake Albert to the North. The Fort Portal-Bundibugyo-Lamia road and its magnificent bends (corners) is a sight to behold. Interesting to note: the road was constructed by the now infamous CICO Chinese company that has been entangled in the Katosi road mess. It is one of the many contradictions of Uganda today – that a company that delivers such a hugely successful project can fail on “smaller” projects like the Kasese-Fort Portal road and Katosi.

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Kihondo market, Ntoroko. The road shown here is one of the best done projects in the country, or so it seems according to this writer.

Before it’s construction, a journey from Fort Portal to Bundibugyo was nothing short of nightmarish. From dangerously hanging cliffs to long-winding turns that often caused cars to overturn; to the long hours spent navigating through rough terrain; to narrowness of the turns and risk of head-on collisions. The new 78 km road has reduced the time of travel between the two western towns from 4-6 hours to 2 hours. Business seems to be thriving on the roadsides and power has recently been extended here. All this in the last four or five years.

What all this means.

It has become tradition for the urban elite to dismiss rural voters and their voting choices as being simply irrational and driven by money, bribes like salt and soap. This, from my finding, is only partly true. While the urban elites have to contend with jam, pot-holed roads, expensive food and a high cost of living, the rural masses are having their “seven years” of plenty – road construction projects have driven demand for food; provide jobs to rural youths; lodge and bar owners are reaping big from construction workers and the extension of electricity means that many are lighting up their businesses, extending their working hours and reducing the cost of doing business.  There’s a mismatch: The aspirational urban folks, wanting to project their frustration (bad roads, high cost of living) on the rural masses, and the rural folks starting to enjoy the fruits of infrastructure investment.

What this could mean for the opposition in 2016, is the question this writer is grappling with. How do you craft a message that resonates with these two groups od people? How do you leverage urban frustration and manage rural expectation to your benefit?

My week-long trip to western Uganda will be serialized here on the blog starting this week. Stay tuned.

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2014: The Year That Was…

It was that great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw who once said: “I never resist temptation because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me.”

Indeed 2014 has been a year of many temptations – some good, others not so good. And like the good Christian of old (it’s fair to say I’ve become less of a believer these last two or so years), I will go ahead to spell out my biggest “temptations” of 2014.

Writing. The Blog. Weekly letter.

In February 2013, after much hesitation and persuasion from friends, I decided to start blogging. I commited myself to writing a piece or two at least once a month. Come December 2013 I had managed a blog post every month ( a total of 10 articles), except for two months when “writers’ block” got the better of me. Another thing, traffic on my blog wasn’t picking up. Weren’t people interested in what I was writing?  I pondered. Enter 2014. I decided, a few things would change: I would stick to at least an article a month (to allow myself time to come up with something good), and take a different angle from what the general public would expect – or had come to accept as ‘acceptable’ – from other bloggers. In short, I’d have to break with convention. The idea of writing for News papers also came to mind.

It worked. In one of the first blog posts this year, I took on the President for his signing of the Anti homosexuality bill. Little did I know the article would garner international attention (to date it’s the most “viewed” on the blog; with close to 300 shares on Twitter). A Washington Post reporter would later email me for an interview. The number of followers on the blog would also increase. The “temptation” had paid off!

Then came the “Weekly letter to my 202 Facebook friends”. I must confess, the idea for the letter was borne out of my earlier fascination with two exceptional New Vision columnists in the early 2000s – John(nie) Nagenda and Tom Rushedge (popularly referred to as Dr Tom “Old Fox” Rush). Their almost irreverent look at the events of the week and a knack for squeezing satire out of even the most boring of stories made my weekends reading the Saturday Vision (or Sunday magazine for Tom Rush’s column) the best days of the week!

And so the idea of a weekly letter was born. Unfortunately, mid-way through I lost the mojo for writing weekly. The letter soon became bi-monthly and then I finally resolved to shelve the idea altogether. I might resume some day. Also, the focus of my letter on the events surrounding the troubles of former Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi and the President cast me in the spotlight – attention I didn’t enjoy. Perhaps in 2015 I will put those concerns to rest and resume the letter. Maybe.

Campus. Zoology. Politics.

I always find it hard explaining to friends, even family, that I am doing Zoology at the University…and actually enjoy it more than anything. But I also have a soft spot for debate and analysing politics. The two enjoy a special place in my heart. They are not (cannot be) mutually exclusive. “So why didn’t you do Political Science, Journalism or Law?” I am always asked by folks, “you are cut out for the Arts, not Science,” they are quick to add. You don’t know how long I have had to grapple with such questions. To me, Zoology (and so you know, I do minor in Chemistry) gives me the “grounding” to understand and appreciate the world around me without bias. The subjects help me to question even my most strongly held beliefs, preconceived notions and biases. It is not surprising therefore that some of the greatest philosophers cut across the Arts and Science. Aristotle is held is high esteem in Biology as he is in Philosophy or Political science. The two “iron ladies” of Europe, Angela Merkel (she holds a doctorate in Chemistry) and Margaret Thatcher (had a B.Sc. in Chemistry), had  a strong background in the sciences.

About campus. Well, third year has been one hell of a year. The prospect of me getting out in May next year has equally been relieving. With only months left until I leave, emphasis is more on learning those skills that I think will be useful in the world; on areas of Science that interest me (Evolution, Human behaviour and Animal disease). There’s been talk about the possibility of a post-graduate (Masters) although I keep dodging the Professor’s suggestion. Maybe the academia could be my next “temptation”, who knows? I have enjoyed my small class of seven and the perks that come with it – having one-on-ones with lecturers and uninterrupted question time. I would love to teach a small class too.

Radio. Quack intellectualism. Television(?)

First, I wish to take credit for coining the acronym “QI” to mean Quack Intellectual – the term itself was coined by my friend Agaba Rugaba, in response to another friend’s (Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire) harangue that African intellectuals are not “relevant” to their communities and do nothing but parrot dead white men! In a bid to carve out a niche of our own and occupy the “intellectual” space, Agaba suggested the term Quack intellectual.

2014 saw one such attempt to capture the “space” on radio. KFM was to be the station. After years of religiously listening to the station’s (formerly Monitor FM) premier political talkshow “Hot Seat” (also formerly called the Andrew Mwenda live show), I was elated when Andrew extended an invitation for me attend the Friday show in March this year. Nine months later, am a regular on the show. Again, this underscores the vision and tenacity with which the founders of The Monitor in 1993 (Kevin Aliro, Onyango Obbo and Wafula Oguttu) set out to change the media landscape in this country. Nearly all of the best journalists in this country have cut their teeth at Monitor. It could explain why the media house has had many run-ins with the state.

With radio came the urge to try out TV. It is one of the experiences I would rather prefer not to talk about but, hey, it happened. A group of six. Five friends and I set out to record a political talkshow of our own (it had to be politics!), and armed with nothing but a camera – and some dose of naivety, you could add – set out scouting for places to host the “show”. We zeroed on the Pan-African square. The short of it is, the show was tapped; image was not that good and, like we were to find out, a lot goes into Tv program production than one person behind a camera and a “panel” sipping on mugs of coffee.

Final thoughts. Travel. New Year.

In closing, I must say lately cynicism seems to have gotten the better of me – and indeed many young folks of my age. There seems to be a lot of negativity in the country today; things don’t seem to work only here in Kaguta’s Uganda. A century after the colonialists left, outside South Africa and North of the Sahel, only Tanzania has managed to build a railway. Even then, the project was financed by China in the 1960s at the height of the cold war. Our own standard guage railway financed by China is going to be the most expensive rail way – per kilometer – in the world. Karuma dam, like its predecessor, Bujagaali has been dogged by scandal after scandal. The cost for this 600MW hydro power dam has skyrocketed from an initial $600m to about $1bn and it could go higher. Only here can a President “launch” the construction of a ghost road project. The Cranes have re-defined the meaning of “almost there”…on our 26th attempt at the continental football competition we yet again came “so close” to qualifying were it not for that red card! Or were we?

It is therefore hard not to be cynical about anything Ugandan. Black humour is the way of life. But the antidote to this negativity seems to lie with(in) Uganda itself. In its people. National parks. Villages. Wildlife. Upcountry towns. So when my department announced a trip to Kibale national park at the end of the semester, I couldn’t wait. I have passed through Kibale national park before, the last time being 2010 – it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. An extension of the Congo rain forest, the park has the highest density of chimps in the world; has numerous species of birds and butterflies. It’s a biologist’s haven! I’ll be in Kibale from 20th to Christmas eve, after which will be yet another trip; this time to Mombasa Kenya. The Mombasa trip will be in early January. There might be a trip to Rwanda too in 2015.

Through these travels, I hope, I shall find inspiration to be optimistic about Uganda and the region. Look out for my blog posts about these journeys.

With those very few words, am tempted to wish you a happy new year. And may you be tempted to do good in 2015!

Evolution…Some ideas are far-fetched

“Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution…” were the words (and title of an essay) written by that famous Zoologist Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973. Born in Nemirov, (part of the then Russian empire) in 1900, Dobzhansky is widely regarded as the founder of evolutionary genetics. And like all famous scientists (some say, all scientists), he had a knack for doing things out of curiosity; in his childhood, Dobzhansky would collect insects for fun and it is no wonder he would go on to do extensive genetic research on the Fruit-fly (Drosophilla melanogaster). 

Oh, sorry for the digression! My main reason for writing today is far from the person of Dobzhansky. I want us to begin a new conversation. A conversation about a subject, either because it is so hard or so controversial, that has been relegated to the fringes of our discussions. We seem to find more room on these pages to harangue about politics, economics, music, books and anything in between. But the mention of “evolution” evokes apprehension, suspicion and folks are quick to run to the hackneyed “you people think man descended from an ape?” question.

Well, for the record, man did not exactly descend from an ape. Or something of the kind. Or perhaps he did?

Such is what evolution has been reduced to, and evolutionists have been on the firing line so many times for being un-Godly, deluded and misleading the public. Nonetheless, evolutionists have done little to help their case. Replies to such attacks from religious groups have been countered by indifference and, in most cases, erudite dismissal. Names like Richard Dawkins and his “millitant atheist” cohort come to mind.

But evolution is not limited to proving or disproving if man really descended from a monkey or if the earth is 4 billion (against the Church’s claim that it is 6,000) years old. Evolution (and Biology for that matter) is so wonderful, poetic and enjoyable a subject that it should take front-page attention.

It is therefore not true that an interest in evolution is the precursor to atheism; neglect of God and a gate to the world of alcohol, drugs, and sexual grand larceny. Some of the world’s most famous scientists have managed to embrace evolution and religion. Darwin in fact delayed the publication of his famous book, On the Origin of Species, because the findings therein clashed with his own religious beliefs. Indeed the book itself roused so much debate in Britain and America then, that it is safe to say it was the most controversial publication of the 1800s.

The biggest, and most widely talked about, of all was the June 30,1860 Oxford evolution debate pitting on one side, Darwin’s friend and biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of the Church of England on the other side. It was in the heat of the debate that Wilberforce asked Huxley, “do you claim your descent from a monkey through your grandfather or grandmother?” to which Huxley retorted: “I would rather have a monkey for an ancestor, than a man who uses his special gifts to obscure the truth”.

The Huxley-Wilberforce debate aroused attention to this new field of science and the 1900s saw a gradual acceptance of evolution by natural selection as a theory that could, more than any other, explain the origin of life. These debates would make a comeback in the early 70s, 80s and lately with the emergence of the “Intelligent Design” school of thought and Darwinists like Sir Richard Dawkins.

In short, a subject that many would consider boring has shown it is capable of rousing debate across all sections of society. And such debate is not limited to religious zealots and “rock-the-boat” evolutionists, but even among scientists; Zoologists and Paleontologists, even Physicists. The interesting arguments amongst all these groups are missed when we declare evolution hard or boring.

I want to take you on a journey into this uncharted territory – Evolution. I want you to discover with me that there’s a lot to life than politics and daily gossip on TV. That evolution can be captivating, simple and poetic. Join me!

Kwezi Tabaro.

This article is the first in a series that will appear on the website science.ug starting January 2015. We will attempt to explain scientific phenomena in a clear, concise and easy to understand way. We shall cover the areas of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Philosophy and Natural history. Watch the space! 

Uganda’s problems are bigger than Museveni

On Friday last week (November 7, 2014), after the KFM “hot seat” radio show, my friend Ivan Okuda shared with us a letter to the editor that was set to appear in the Sunday Monitor, the now famous open letter by another friend, Vincent Lengkeek, to the president.

Now, Vincent was part of a team of Dutch journalism students that were in the country for a period of two weeks, doing various stories and documentaries about Uganda. I was one of their student contacts in Uganda. During the time they were in the country, I cannot recount how many times I was involved in debate with Vincent over his perceptions and biases about Uganda. Right from day one when he asked for my views about Museveni – whether he was a “dictator,” to the send off party before we bid them farewell, arguments between us never ceased, and all this while we did not seem to agree. For one reason: his simplistic outlook of Africa/Africans and a heavy dose of naivety about African problems cultivated over time by countless images of African children with protruding bellies from torn shirts, toothpick legs and flies hovering their mouths, extending a bowel for aid from the pious west that are relayed on TV everyday. I do not blame Vincent for this. We simply cannot ignore the impact of such powerful images on a person’s view and perception about Africa. Even more experienced western journalists have fallen from this simplistic narrative.

Indeed, most of the visiting students were surprised at the way things are run in this part of the world – seeing it was their first visit to Africa. That there was more to Uganda than Amin, the anti-homosexuality act and…wait for this, Ebola!

There’s a strong perception that has been created about Africa, in the west, as a continent where everything doesn’t work; where you have to lower your expectations of everything from sanitation, to service delivery, to democracy, etc. For this I’m afraid we’re equally culpable.

And here is why

In the article, Vincent describes two incidents: one where two of his colleagues on a boda boda are stopped by a traffic policeman who asks them for “a lot of money” lest they are sent to jail. Now, I think my friend Vincent embellishes his friends’ unfortunate experience. Bribe seeking by traffic police is rife here. That is not new. But it is not entirely a result of state failure or a failure on the part of Museveni. It is simplicism to posit so. Rather, bribery is a function of a complex citizen-police interaction that is ingrained in our populace…in any case it’s the former that takes initiative to give (or ask to give) bribe. A Ugandan sociologist, Dr. Jude Kagoro, has extensively written about this complex interaction in his articles and publications as a result of six months work with the Uganda Police. In short, police corruption – at least in the Ugandan case – is more “complex than we’re willing to admit. I am not making a case for police bribery or corruption, but a deeper analysis of Ugandan society is important in understanding these nuances.

The second incident that the author draws on to drive his point of Museveni’s failure is the glaring poverty. He again takes the often-trodden western-journo-writing-about-Africa path of street children and the lame begging on streets. To bet my two cents, I saw that coming! Museveni’s leadership (or the lack thereof) is to blame, Vincent concludes. Well, I’m sure my good friend has heard about beggars in his native Netherlands; in Amsterdam. There’s even a whole nationality (our equivalent of the Karimojong) called Gypsies that roam streets of Europe, from Denmark to Greece, to Germany and the Netherlands. I’m quite sure their presence on the streets of Amsterdam is not an indictment on the bad leadership of the Dutch government. Or is it? And then he makes the mother of all blunders, “…the Ugandan students who guided us on the tour did not have any money and live in slums.” For the record, there were eight Ugandan students in charge of this group and four live either in halls at Makerere or hostels. None of us, as far as I know, lives in a slum. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. All Africans are poor, sleep in slums and need money – in the stereotypical western journalist lens.

With all its pitfalls, there’s however much we as Ugandans should take from Vincent’s article. For example, when he talks about a bodaboda man who snatched a female colleague’s bag. It is very unfortunate that such a thing should happen. But it is an all too common occurance in Kampala for people (especially bodaboda men) to fleece off unsuspecting foreigners. They call it “teaching” them how things work in this town! It is not uncommon for a foreigner to be charged twice, thrice or sometimes four times the fare, just because they are white, and we think they have money – lots of it! This paints a bad image of our country. Every time we are to use a bodaboda with friends from Europe, I have to walk ahead of them and negotiate the boda fare lest we’re charged twice. And we say we’re the most hospitable people in East Africa? You do not have to love or hate Museveni to realise that Uganda’s problems are much bigger than him; that he’s only a cog in the wheel of Uganda’s problems.

Vincent’s article, while not entirely accurate, in my thinking, should ignite debate about the image of Uganda that we wish to portray to the world. It is not Museveni’s Uganda, this country is ours.

*An edited version of this article appeared in the Daily Monitor newspaper (November 17, 2014). 

Whose Sole Candidate?

For the past three weeks, I have had arguments (on Whatsapp, over drinks, even on radio), with a couple of friends over the real or perceived presidential ambitions of the now ex-PM, Amama Mbabazi. Most seem to argue that Amama does not have a “permanent” constituency (i.e. the church, youth, women or the army), and that the perceived support he’s banking on was because of his perceived closeness to the president. Now that he’s been given the sack, it is very unlikely many of his hitherto supporters will follow him in the political cold waters. One went ahead to even say that a group of the ex-PM’s loyalists from Kanungu had trekked to state house over the last week, to deny rumours of any connection to the “Mbabazi project” and pledge their allegiance to the president.

I don’t buy this argument and here is why.

I am not surprised that Mbabazi seems to be deserted – it is expected. Knowing the kind of character Museveni is; he will stop at nothing to avert any threat to his power. He will bribe, defame, shame, cajole, threaten or, in the worst case scenario, kill if he feels his power is under threat. Therefore no businessman, politician or cleric can afford to put their business, career or life on the line for Mbabazi – a situation that is further complicated by Mbabazi preferring to keep his supporters and foes alike second-guessing about his political future.

Therefore, at this moment it is not so much what Amama does (or says) but rather what Museveni does about his (Mbabazi’s) ambitions. Any sort of publicity now, good or bad, is welcome for Mbabazi. If you’re Museveni, this should have you worried sick! So what you see manifested as a projection of might – crowds (stage-managed?) to welcome the president from the U.S, ministers pledging allegiance to him as their sole candidate – could as well be signs of weakness. A pointer to something that the ministers and crowds know (that Museveni is at his weakest and will use any stunt to assure himself he is still a darling of many), and, hopefully, Museveni knows too but has decided to play along.

Besides, it is not new in this part of the world. Mobutu and Bokassa could have as well won any election by 90+ per cent a year before they were deposed. They were made to believe, by their inner circles, that they were invincible, all-knowing and, as was in the case of Mobutu, sorcerers and seers! Songs were sang in their praise. For example, in 1984 Congolese musician Francois Luambo Makiadi (popularly known as Franco) composed the song “Candidat na Biso” – our sole candidate, heaping praise on Mobutu and calling upon Zaireans to cast the ballot for him because he is the only one who can guarantee their sovereignty. In one line Franco goes ahead to castigate Zaireans for hypocrisy and ingratitude to marshal Mobutu.

We all know what became of Mobutu’s Zaire 14 years later.

The crumbling of Mobutu’s empire is best described by an article by Ian Fisher that appeared in the New York Times of June 21, 2001. In it Fisher writes,
“It is almost possible, but not
quite, to squeeze out a tear for
Mobutu Sese Seko in his last days
as the diminished dictator of Zaire.
Everyone was cheating him, from
his own children to the suppliers of the pink champagne he popped
open each morning at 9. He had lost control of the military. He could not believe that after 32 years as unquestioned ruler, the ”Helmsman” of a huge nation ridiculously endowed with natural riches, he could be defied”.

Such is common with leaders who stiffle dissent a la Mubarak in Egypt, Gadaffi in Libya. By attaching a high premium to government officials, businesses or religious leaders associating with or being thought as sympathetic to their opponents, they breed a group of opportunists and sycophants around them. These sycophants serve to massage the ego of the leader and, like we’ve seen with Mobutu, will come up with all sorts of names, titles and praises for the leader. These are the greatest threat to any leader. Forget the opposition.

Finally, if I were in the president’s shoes, I would be so much worried about the new crop of praise-singers surrounding me than Mbabazi and his youths. For one thing, those who openly come out to support Mbabazi today, we could say, represent “genuine” support because; 1) They have exposed themselves and in the event that Amama does not stand or win, have all to lose. 2) We cannot say that they are motivated by anything Mbabazi has to offer – he is effectively out of government and therefore can neither secure them government tenders or political favours. What motivates them then? We should ask ourselves. On the other hand, it pays to be on the president’s side now more than ever before because he has got the private goods to dispense (scholarships, money, cars,  government tenders, etc, etc.)

Therefore, before we write off Mbabazi, it is prudent we did analyse the different factors at play now and trends in the near future leading up to 2016. I’d say, eyes on the ball!

Corruption and Growth Economics

Over the last one month, Ugandan media has been awash with stories of corruption. From the the standard guage railway conflict between two Chinese firms China Habour Engineering  and CCECC to the now infamous 74 km Katosi road scandal, one would be spoilt for choice choosing which scandal to talk about in Museveni’s Uganda. In fact, the country was recently ranked as the most corrupt in the region behind Kenya. My friend, Rugaba Agaba, argues that this casts a dark cloud on the investment future of the country. I disagree. I argue that corruption can be an incentive for economic growth.

High corruption levels in developing countries like ours are anything but unexpected. Corruption by itself is indicative of a sound economy that allows government to make public investments – the same investments that public officials tap into. So therefore, nothing re-affirms the soundness of Uganda’s economy than increased levels of corruption. Government officials don’t steal air! Besides, the Ugandan economy has been growing at an average of 6.5 per cent over the last 20 years while the size of GDP has doubled since the turn of the millennium. And this exactly mirrors what has happened to the Southeast Asian tigers, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines in their transformation over the last 50 years. The three countries have ranked as the most corrupt countries in the world (by all existing indices) in the past 40 or so years. Yet despite this they have also managed to achieve the highest economic growth rates. The same countries, between 1986 and 1996, grew on average at 7% while the rest of the world grew at 2.5%. Now this seems to be counter-intuitive as the dominant discourse suggests that high corruption levels are a disincentive for economic growth.

How is corruption an incentive for growth?

In his 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argues that the butcher man is able to provide meat to the market not because of his benevolence but self-interest. His well-being is dependent on him delivering the meat and hence the decision to deliver or not is piggy-backed on his own selfishness. The same conclusion can be made for economic growth and corruption – humans are inherently greedy and this greed is manifested in many things, corruption inclusive. So for society to benefit from the greed of one member, it must structure the incentives available to this individual in such a way that it is in the individual’s best interest to see the society do better for only then will he do better.

Secondly, government red tape and unnecessary regulation incentivises corruption because it’s only by paying a bribe that an individual is able to avoid these lengthy processes and have their business, for example, registered in a short time. While this cost is unnecessary and prohibitive of investment, it can be transferred to the final consumer and thus the investor is cushioned from the loss. In the end, the investor registers his business in a short time (which business is taxed) while the greedy government officer uses the bribe to buy a car (which is also taxed). Therefore, in an ineffective overly regulated business environment, corruption spurs innovativeness while only lessening (not eliminating) the profit margin for the investor. 

Finally, I would like to debunk, using examples, claims that;

a) Corruption inhibits Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in-flows.
This is certainly not true. Suharto’s Indonesia, despite its high levels of graft, managed to attract higher FDIs than any of her neighbours (despite the latter, e.g Singapore, Malaysia, having lower levels of graft). Uganda still manages to record the highest level of FDI in the region despite the higher, real or perceived, levels of corruption than any of its peers.

b) Corruption is synonymous with poor service delivery, shoddy work.
This is also not true, entirely. Rick Doner et al. argue that in a situation of “competitive clientilism” where many firms compete for state favours, the results are more efficient delivery of work(s) as opposed to “monopoly clientilism” where contracts are given to government cronies regardless of merit. Indeed, countries that have pursued competitive clientilism, like Thailand, have eclipsed those that have adopted monopoly clientilism, like the Philippines under Fernando Marcos, in terms of economic growth.

So corruption on its own is never bad. What is bad is the modus operandi of the actors and the incentives to graft that inefficiency, over-regulation bring. You cannot have the IGG, CIID, Parliament, the media and general public investigating the corrupt and expect better. This has resulted in the stalling of public works because every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks they have a say over alleged corruption tendencies in public works. Again, this is representative of our “decentralized” brand of politics with small enclaves of power at every stage. Therefore public contracts take longer to take off, be finished in Uganda, while they are delivered on time in say Rwanda or Ethiopia, not because the public officials in these countries are averse to corruption but because these are highly centralized states where graft – even if it existed – would be limited to a few individuals in the higher echelons of power – and no one is free enough to discuss it publicly.

© @Kwezi_Tabaro

Kalyegira is right, Museveni is to blame. But is he?

On the sidelines of the show last evening, we had an interesting argument about the current brand of politics in Uganda; why members of parliament are prostrating before the president to bail them out and the electorate is also doing to the same to the MPs. Veteran journalist, Tim Kalyegira, thinks this malaise has its roots in the politics of one man – Yoweri Museveni. But how true is this, and to what extent?

Kalyegira argues that in the 60s and 70s, peasants would “shower” Amin or Obote with gifts ranging from agricultural produce; bananas, sorghum, peas etc, while others would give them chicken, goats and even cattle whenever they visited up-country. The same favour was extended to civil servants. Medical officers, District Administrators (DAs), teachers, etc, often did not need to buy food at their outposts – the locals provided. Even throughout the 80’s, during the NRM/A war, peasants in Luweero contributed generously to the struggle.

Why was this the case, then, and not now?

The answer, according to Kalyegira, lies in the demise of cooperatives. That these organized farmers to produce more for themselves and the remainder for sale. The unity in numbers that the farmers within cooperatives had cushioned them against exploitation from middlemen and shrewd businessmen. With the demise of cooperatives, farmers were exposed to the vagaries of the free market economy, they had no incentive to produce more than they could consume since by doing so they’d end up at the mercy of middlemen who would pay peanuts for their produce. With time, production slowed down and others abandoned agriculture all together for the more rewarding services sector – trade, motor bike riding, etc. In positing so, I guess Tim is right – albeit partly.

Liberalisation gone bad?

For the keen observer, something interesting has been happening in Uganda since the turn of the millennium. The economy (coupled with the means of production) has slowly but surely shifted to Kampala. 67% of the Ugandan economy today is nested in capital, Kampala. Previously, the urban folk would drive to their villages during the Christmas holidays with items like bread, sugar and (occasionally) clothes for the rural folk. On return from the village they’d carry food stuffs; matooke, milk, ground nuts, sorghum, etc, etc. Sometimes goats and chicken would be part of the “send-off” package. Others would carry charcoal back to the city. However, that is changing (changed?); the urban folk have to sustain families in the village who have now moved into the “cash” economy – i.e, have started consuming foods that they don’t produce (have stopped producing) like Posho and which they have to buy in shops; with money they don’t have! Indeed, this is best explained when one travels along our highways (Masaka road); bushes now cover what used to be plantations and roadside towns are sprouting up in places that used to be deserted. Who buys the items in these shops? Certainly not the travellers on the road — they are far too few of them who stop over and shop here. It is the rural folk. And where do they get the money, since the plantations are no more?

Herein lies the crux of the problem.

Because the rural economy has become monetized, like in Kampala, and folks here produce very little or nothing at all owing to the mass exodus of young people – whose youthful energy drives production on the farms – to towns. Someone has got to salvage the situation; someone has got to pay the bill. And who better than a relative in Kampala or a politician, an MP. For those with no relatives in Kampala, the local area MPs come in handy: for them to prove themselves worthy of another term in office they need to be seen “on ground”. Now for the uninitiated, being “on ground” connotes nothing like what you’re thinking right now. Rather it means providing private goods to ones constituents – it can take the form of contributions to weddings, birthday parties, meeting hospital costs for the sick, funerals and drinking parties at the local bar.

Without social support systems like health insurance, unemployed benefits or pension for the retired, majority of ugandans transfer these social pressures to the small working urban class in Kampala, occasionally, and politicians, mostly.

What manifests as MPs taking bribes from the presidency to pass a contentious bill (as with the 2005 lifting of term limits), opposition MPs receiving 110 million shillings each or parliament urging the head of state to bail them out, is in fact representative of the breakdown in the social support structures that exposes these individuals to excessive financial demands from the electorate.

Votes for sale

Elections are now a transactional process in which generosity (towards the constituents) is rewarded and frugality punished. So, where the president used to visit and was showered with gifts, today he has to carry sacks of money. Where MPs used to be called to “grace” ceremonies in the constituencies without having to part with much, now they have to provide sodas, beers and pay for the music system.

And any average commentator would conclude, from the scenario painted above, that this is and indictment on Yoweri Museveni, his government – for impoverishing Ugandans. This, however, is not the case. Poverty levels have been on the decline since 1986 when Mr Museveni came to power and now stand at around 24% – the lowest in the region. A more nuanced explanation therefore has to be sought and I believe it lies the transformation of the rural “producer” economy into a consumer one that no longer produces enough or don’t produce what they require.

© Kwezi Tabaro

Bakonzo vs. Basongora: The Tragedy of Commons

To understand the Basongora – Bakonzo conflict — ignoring the obvious, simplistic narrative being peddled by different interest groups — it’s imperative we looked at Garret Hardin’s economic theory, “the tragedy of commons”.

In his 1968 article which appeared in the journal ‘Science,’ Hardins defines “tragedy of the commons” as instances where an individual acts independently and rationally according to one’s self-interest by depleting some common resource; “commons” represents a shared resource. The resource may be land, water or the atmosphere.

Picture this, you have a finite resource, land, on which are settled communities whose population growth (for now) is exponential. Therefore, with every passing generation, the population of inhabitants increases (through more births; less deaths due to better health services, and migrations into the area) while the size of land remains the same.

In the ideal case, you would expect the inhabitants of this area (in our case, Basongora and Bakonzo) to, explicitly or implicitly, work towards measures that foster the equitable sharing of this common resource and hence lead to social stability. That Basongora, being herders, would regulate the number of animals they possess so as to live in harmony with the Bakonzo cultivators. The Bakonzo would also do the same: maximize the land available for cultivation, because the overall result of their equitable use of land would be advantageous to both communities.

In the real world things don’t happen like that.

Like Hardins argues, the utility of adding one more animal by a Musongora herdsman has two components;

1) Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of an additional animal, the positive utility of increment of one animal is nearly +1. Put another way, it is advantageous for one to increase their stock by one animal. Or, in the case of the cultivator, to increase the acreage under crop since this would increase their output.

2) The negative component (disadvantage) is a function of additional overgrazing by one more animal; the increased likelihood of animals straying into neighbouring gardens and, on the side of the cultivators, increased land disputes with herders over excess acreage under cultivation. Since the effects of overgrazing, land disputes and potential conflict are shared by all herdsmen and cultivators (i.e Basongora and Bakonzo respectively),the negative utility of any particular decision taken independently and rationally by an individual, cultivator or herdsman, is only a fraction.

The same conclusion is reached by all other rational beings who share the “commons”. And the vicious cycle continues.

What you have in the end manifesting as tribal conflict that, some say, is premised on cultural differences – i.e, Obusinga, Obukama, Obundingiya(?), etc, etc., in fact stems from utilization of resources  — in this case, land — and not tribal differences. Although this argument should not be used to assuage the responsibility of cultural leaders in this conflict. There’s less reason that causes a Musongora herdsman to hack a Mukonzo cultivator that is cultural than economic.

Therefore the government’s response in Kasese (or even the greater Rwenzori) cannot be military, at least in the long term. It should be economic. How do we make sure we make land a lesser means of production; how do we reduce these communities’ dependence on land for economic survival, is a question that government should ponder on.

I have argued, not once or twice and in many forums, that the solution to stemming these tribal differences, some borne out of colonial injustices, is creating an environment that allows for the emergence of a critical mass of young, educated and employed Ugandans – the new middle class. The primary means of production should move from land to services because land is a finite resource and our population is not about to reduce any time soon (at 3% we have one of the fastest population growth rates in the world; ours is the world’s second youngest population, behind Niger). Compulsory national youth service can contribute to this exposure and developement of a common secular ideology. Intermarriages, too, may help.

The tragedy of commons is not unique to greater Rwenzori region but Uganda as a whole and Africa at large. Our governments cannot continue treating young people as serfs; vote-churning machines and cannon fodder for street-wise opposition politicians and expect better.

We should wake up and Smell the coffee; we’re at a knife’s edge already.

Kwezi Tabaro®
@Kwezi_Tabaro

Zero Sum Mentality: The Politics Of

“…there
is a general and chronic lack of respect for
legitimate authority. I should perhaps clarify
this point for an American audience,
accustomed as Americans are to respecting
symbols, whether political, religious, moral or
social. For at least the past ten years, the
political powers-that-be in Brazil (basically, the
Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party)
have been flirting with legal transgressions,
outright contempt of judicial decisions, and
illegal occupations and invasions of land—
always in the name of an ill-defined vision of
“social justice.””

Above is an excerpt from an article (http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1455). I can’t help but draw comparisons between the Brazilian and Ugandan contexts: The disregard for authority is rife in Uganda with peasants and politicians alike showing disrespect at best and–at worst–apprehension towards state agencies like the Police. It is not uncommon, these days, for a leader to incite those he is supposed to lead to disregard, heckle insults or even throw stones at police. Reason: they (the police) are enforcing lawful orders which he, the politician, and his supporters may find uncomfortable.

Over time, this disregard for authority has morphed into outright anarchy; Police and state agencies meant to enforce the law have back-tracked, fearing violent outbursts from the powerful electorate and their political leaders, and the result has been a systemic breakdown of institutions over time evidenced by buildings constructed in road reserves, chaos in markets caused by “powerful” constituents who don’t want to pay city dues, street vendors selling their merchandise on pedestrian walk-ways, name it. In the end, we have a society that has grown too “powerful” at the expense of the state, yet it should be the reverse.

How did we get here?

This introduces me to the term “Zero Sum Mentality”, a notion that for every one winner, there must be a loser. The predicament we find ourselves in partly boils down to the zero sum mentality that our leaders tend to carry with them to political office; the thought that their outright victory warrants them to trample on their opponents whose policies and advice they trash. Little do they know that democracy–and democratic leadership at that–is about consensus building and not “majoritarianism” or dictatorship of the majority. So, years into their term in office, they are too absorbed into building political alliances to address the needs of the electorate.  Too late they realise, that another election beckons and in haste their only option is to play politics of the gallery; showboating, populist tendencies, addressing “social” issues like redistributing land amongst the majority poor–a bulk of the electorate–often in disregard of court orders. (Nantaba ring a bell?) If these attempts do not work in the end, bribery towards, during and on election day will finally deliver a second term in office.

The vicious cycle continues.

Meanwhile, the opposition, fearing it may lose relevance, adopts an even cruder modus operandi in a desperate attempt to win over the disgruntled, with half or none of the resources that the incumbent has access to; they resort to incitement of largely side-lined youthful masses, name-calling of those in office to attract their attention into bribing or “silencing” them jobs, opportunities for corruption, etc. That is why they will tend to align with cultural institutions, promising to return “federalism” even when it is clear they have never believed in the same, they will side with every disgruntled group; Bodaboda riders being expelled from the streets, illegal vendors, striking taxi operators and traders against (lawful) taxes. You often wonder how an aspiring leader will organize masses against paying taxes? How do you run a state without taxes?

If the opposition finally manage to unseat the incumbent, they will find themselves stuck between delivering on their overly-ambitious promises which, though popular, do not make economic sense and thence are un-attainable. Or doing what they ought to do as elected leaders – shape policy. With pressure mounting from the now increasingly angry constituents and the hitherto incumbents who are actively re-grouping, survival instinct kicks in and the incumbent finds himself working towards guaranteeing their own return and continued stay in that political office. Thus  he finds himself employing his predecessors’ tactics — the same tactics they rallied the electorate against.

Blame Not the Ugandan Intellectual: An Open Letter to Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire

My good friend,
I write this in response to your post yesterday titled “25 TIPS ON HOW TO BECOME A UGANDAN INTELLECTUAL.” First, I applaud the sarcasm and double-speak that peppered your piece. Stuff was for world cup! And, yes, your piece, at least according to me, should be treated as such – sarcastic. Much as I agree with some of your “tips” and clearly appreciate your disdain for this brand of African/Ugandan “intellectualism” – one that it is inundated with mimicry, short of critical thought and reflection. I must, however, ask:
What is intellectualism? Who defines intellectualism? Is intellectualism binary i.e., that you’re either one or NOT?

You know we’ve had this argument – what makes one an intellectual – earlier with a couple of friends. I beg you revisit this subject for the benefit of the audiences not in attendance then.

Secondly, throughout history the world has found it convenient to attack folks who do not subscribe to their, often narrow, views, thoughts and dogmas. Most of the Greek philosophers (who, by the way, received their scholarship from Egypt, Alexandria in particular) were persecuted for the “Africanness” of their philosophy. Plato fled to Megara while Socrates was executed. This apprehension to their ideas by the Greek government, Greeks was not that their philosophy was wrong. It wasn’t! But I suspect ignorance, genuine fears and resistance to change were at the root of these persecutions.

For every one Ugandan pseudo-intellectual who “quotes dead white men” I can give you names of 100 rural folks who know (and can recall off-head) the names of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea’s starting 11. For every “intellectual” who despises their local language, ideas I can give you, Bwesigye, 10 families in Uganda’s deepest village who spank their kids because they can not speak English. So, you can not place the blame squarely on the African/Ugandan intellectual for “abandoning” African ideals in favour of European (read western) ones. I have no greater obligation whatsoever to read Afrikology, just because it is written by an African, than Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Science, knowledge and by extension intellectualism, can not be “Africanised” or “Europeanised”. They are universal.

It is human nature to associate with what we assume to be the best. When you want to send your kid to school, you send them to the best schools in the land. You will want them to associate with the smartest kid in class and should they graduate, you want them to marry a “successful” lawyer, doctor, architect, accountant, e.t.c. It is not because you’re selfish. You are not! It’s human nature. That is why folks in this town will flood their Facebook profiles with pictures taken while touring the west, talk about their experiences at Harvard, Princeton or London School of Economics. Not because they are vane. No! It’s because these particular institutions have clout. They (these institutions) are the best there is at the moment. You might praise Makerere all you want but truth is, it is just another African university (and therefore, not worthy of mention in company of ivy league-rs).

St. Clement of Alexandria sums it up well here when he says:
” If you were to write a book of 1000 pages you could not put down names of all Greeks who went to Nile Valley [the equivalent of an ivy league college today] in ancient Egypt to study and even those who did not claim they did because it was prestigious.”

Ancient Egypt then, just like the west (Europe and America) is today, was the epitome of scholarship. Alexandria in the 300s BC was the world’s fountain of knowledge; science, mathematics and philosophy. It housed the world’s largest library (just like the west does today) and therefore any scholar worth their weight in gold would give anything to go to Africa (Egypt) for studies. Those who were tutored in Alexandria, we still talk about them; even today. And those who remained in Greece? Well, who knows about them?

We have to accept the fact that knowledge is universal and, judging by ancient civilisations, very fluid; not limited to one race, civilisation or continent. An intellectual is one who is humble and patient enough to accept these facts without prejudice or hubris and follow the oases of knowledge, wherever in the world they are, acquaint himself with this knowledge and hopefully pass it on to the next generation. The world is not generously sprinkled with these oases of knowledge and like seasons; they keep changing – drying up here and springing up there. One day it is Khemet that is the centre of knowledge, next it is Alexandria, then Athens, then Rome, then the Americas, and now perhaps the East (China).

I hope we shall continue this debate (off these streets) at Karamagi’s office, your office or in a room bigger than those two combined, with an audience. You are welcome!

Your quasi-intellectual friend,
Kwezi Tabaro.