Saturday, 21 January 2012

Thursday, 19 January 2012


We moan and groan and frankly b*%ch alot about the state of our country-Uganda, but as we approach our 50th birthday stop to reflect and think, our national emblem (the Crested Crane) has a mohawk, cool huh!! Sure beats having a bald headed eagle, Ug 1: US 0.

Says a friend on facebook.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Dangers of Forgetting in Uganda

The following article, written by Andrew Green, was originally posted on the ThinkAfrica Press website on 14th November 2011 (link to original story). I am reproducing it here, with full permission, as the first of a number of interesting articles from other sources related to my promotion of Uganda's Jubilee this year.

October 9 may have been Independence Day in Uganda, but it could have been any other sleepy Sunday in Kampala. Disappointment from the previous night’s football match against Kenya – a 0-0 draw that denied Uganda a spot in the Africa Cup of Nations – dulled any impulse for celebration. There were rumours of a ceremony at the Kololo Airstrip, where British colonial administrators had handed power to Milton Obote 49 years previously, but the grassy field stayed empty even after the morning drizzle finally cleared.

The lack of pageantry was apace with the scepticism and dismissiveness that marks Uganda’s approach to historical discussion and celebration. It is a country where the national archives cannot accept new material because it does not have the space and because the government tried to tear down the national museum to turn it into offices last year.

Uganda has the world’s second youngest population, but the lessons of its past are being lost to its children, leaving no national identity to overcome commonly held ethnic stereotypes. The USdecision this week to join an ongoing conflict in northern Uganda highlights a division some scholars believe a more complete teaching of history could help resolve.

How soon is now?

Ugandans have “made a lot of mistakes in the past and we still make mistakes,” explains Edwin Paratra, who works at the Uganda Museum. “I look at the children we groom and they’re docile … many are just passing through the time.

"It’s important to make them be critical, but how can they criticize when they don’t really know [about the past]?”

Paratra joined the museum in 2007, part of a wave of new hires ahead of that year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala. He was a student at Makerere University then, and he clearly still delights in getting the opportunity to work at the museum. As he walked through its halls, he stopped to point out a temporary exhibition on transportation he helped set up.

For the last five years, part of his job has been giving tours to the busloads of students who show up each school day.

“It’s good that the young ones know where they come from,” he says, with a hall of displays on traditional Ugandan customs as his backdrop. But their interests are limited to the things they are taught in school, he continues. So they marvel over the country’s first car and its first typewriter – both legacies of the colonial era – but they rarely ask why there is no mention of the country’s post-independence leaders anywhere in the museum. History textbooks in this country end where the post-colonial era begins.

Reading, writing and remembering

“Anyone who comes in power doesn’t want the others’ history to be put anywhere,” Paratra explains. Not in textbooks, not in memorials, and not in the national museum. According to Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a senior history lecturer at Makerere, the decline in historical preservation is partly an attempt by the country’s leadership to control the national narrative.

More broadly, the history of history in Uganda is one of neglect. In a poor country with limited resources, doctors, engineers and even teachers provide the kind of results that look good on international donor reports and campaign billboards: lives saved, buildings constructed and students educated. The work of historians, archivists and curators does not deliver those kinds of statistics, so does not get the same kind of attention and support.

But, overlooked in a results-driven society, are the uncountable benefits of a citizenship with a robust sense of its own history. Uganda must, according to Ndebesa, create “motivation for society, incentives for work, motivation for nationalism and patriotism…We want to create the soul of a nation. We have no soul in this nation”.

In the absence of a national identity that the teaching of history would help create, Uganda is running the risk, he claims, of becoming a country where ethnic divisions dominate individual perspectives. He repeats several times that in his classes “I don’t take people into the past to leave them there”. One of the most important things he does in his history of Uganda class, he says, is to trace historical migration patterns to show people that contemporary ethnic prejudices have no basis in historical fact. That many of Uganda’s tribes are steeped in intermarriage. And that divisions within society, which sometimes erupt into conflict, are not necessary.

“The prejudices are there… but there is no systematic way of ‘de-teaching’ to remove those prejudices,”  he says, adding that, “[I am] aiming at doing that. But I don’t have big audience. These are very few students. Uganda is 32 million. If I teach 200 people, it’s a drop in the ocean.”

The dangers of forgetting

Ndebesa will soon be getting some support. Next year the state-of-the-art, fully digital Kitgum Peace Documentation Centre in northern Ugandan will be operational. Part memorial, part research centre, its goal is to encourage national reconciliation in a region subject to massive violence for more than 20 years.

The conflict in northern Uganda has variously been described as a guerrilla campaign by the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) or as a civil war between the country’s north and south. Through both force and persuasion, Kony drew troop supplies from his own Acholi tribe in the north, while simultaneously waging a terrorist campaign against the Acholi and their neighbours.

People in the north maintain that the government’s slow response to the LRA is, in part, out of ethnic retribution. The National Resistance Movement party of President Yoweri Museveni has never enjoyed much support in the north. And Uganda’s former leaders Obote and Idi Amin, who are vilified by the current leadership, traced their lineage to the northern part of the country. Even as the conflict has waned, thousands of Acholi are still displaced from their homes, breeding further resentment. Obama’s decision to send US troops to clear out what remains of the LRA underscores the fact that the conflict – and the ethnic divisions it has exacerbated – is still not fully resolved.

“The more we looked into the conflict in northern Uganda, the more it became clear that the problem is a manifestation of those historical problems [between north and south],” says Moses Okello, a senior research and advocacy advisor at the Refugee Law Project, the group setting up the centre. The violence “is a product of a blinkered way of teaching history”.

The new museum will build on oral histories and documents to “create a complete picture”, Okello says. But ultimately, the bigger goal is to force the country to reconsider how it teaches history.

“History, and particularly its cultural dimensions, creates a sense of identity as individuals and as a nation,” Okello argues.

“The average Ugandan kid is ignorant of other ethnic groups. The average Ugandan adult doesn’t know so much about other parts of the country. What they know is mostly stereotypical. By and large many of the problems of conflict come from this teaching of history.”

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The dirty politics of radio ownership in Uganda

After the resignation of the Minister for the Presidency,  Kabakumba Matsiko, from cabinet over accusations of abuse of office and causing the government financial loss while she was Minister of Information, following the police's discovery that a radio station she owned (Kings FM in Masindi) was using a mast and transmitter that belonged to UBC, I thought that there would be no more stories on stolen masts and other misused UBC equipment. However, this week the media reported that 35 more cabinet ministers were to be probed for abuse of public resources (read using UBC equipment and services without paying) and it is starting to look like Kabakumba’s case might be the rule rather than the exception.

Two thoughts came to my mind when I reflected on the media stories:
  1. The UBC must have acquiesced to its equipment being used for free (despite the official line saying those using UBC equipment without paying were doing so by colluding with some lowly employees)
  2. Are there any opposition politicians being being investigated?
I could not help but think that UBC has been aware for years that all these high ranking politicians were using its equipment for free. I even began to think that maybe the ministers were enjoying an unofficial perk from the government for their support- a way of making it easier to own and manage a vital mobilisation asset.

While I was going over these issues, I came across a report on radio ownership and its impact on political speech in Uganda by the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) that put things in perspective.
The report, based on a study carried out by ACME just after the 2011 presidential elections, shows to what extent the politicians in the ruling NRM party are controlling the political discourse in the country through their ownership of radio stations. A disproportionate number of the 280 radio stations registered in Uganda are owned by NRM leaning politicians and businesspeople. This in itself would not be improper if the radio licensing playing field were level. However, it is anything but.

According to License to Censor: The Use of Media Regulation to Restrict Press Freedom, a September 2011 report by Freedom House

"Ownership in the radio sector, which has the widest reach, particularly in the rural areas, is more opaque, with a significant proportion of outlets controlled by political actors or their close associates."

It is virtually impossible for a known opposition politician or a businessperson openly sympathetic to the opposition to get a license for a radio station in Uganda. It becomes nearly impossible if such a radio station is to operate in an upcountry location.

The main opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) has tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions to obtain a license for a radio station. According to the ACME report;

"The party had secured UShs 190 million (approx. US$ 76,000) from American donors to set up a radio station but it was denied a licence by the Broadcasting Council on the grounds that a political party was not allowed to own a station. When that course failed, the party tried to buy off two existing radio stations in the hopes of circumventing the licensing procedure. But there is a catch: the law prohibits the sale or transfer of a broadcasting license without the approval of the regulator. In other words, without the regulator’s clearance, a broadcasting station cannot change ownership."

At this juncture one might argue that the law does not allow all political parties (including the NRM) to own radio stations and therefore FDC should not expect any special treatment. However, in reality the NRM does not need to own its own radio stations because it already has the UBC operating as if it were the broadcasting arm of the party. This means that the NRM can use the government media for its own ends and it can also control the oppositions access to said media.

UBC’s lack of impartiality was highlighted in 2011 when it accepted money from FDC to run campaign adverts for Kiiza Besigye but only run very few, ostensibly after pressure was brought to bear on the management from above.

Even without UBC in the picture many party NRM party functionaries, cabinet ministers, government officials and NRM-supporting business people like Amama Mbabazi and Mike Mukula (here are some more examples) own radio stations through which they can disseminate the party’s agenda and on which opposition views are hardly ever aired.

Even private unaffiliated stations are wary of hosting opposition politicians because they do not want to get into trouble with the authorities. In a country where government authorities (like RDCs) can arbitrarily vet who appears on a radio talk-show and cause trouble for the hosting radio station, station managers are often likely to give opposition politicians a wide berth. The following example, from the ACME report, serves to illustrate the difficult position station managers who try to be fair to all parties find themselves in.

 "At Open Gate FM in Mbale, eastern Uganda, the director, Charles Mukhwana, said that the station was “always open” to all political views. They tried their best to be balanced and independent though they were sometimes compelled to consult with the RDC and the security authorities when it came to hosting “controversial people”. This, he said, was because they did not want to clash with the government. As Mukhwana put it, “We think we are partners and also they give us the licence to operate.” As a balancing strategy, they ensured that no opposition politician was featured on a talk show without a member of the NRM on the same show."

With such a state of affairs it would not be far-fetched to assume that the current probe into the rot in UBC will not go the full distance because its unlikely that the NRM government will come down hard on its faithful and also because control over the political discourse through controlling who owns and determines what gets aired on radio is of utmost importance to those that rule this country. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Ugandan history in rare pictures

I have been following the regular photo uploads on the History in Progress facebook page but I didnt know that they had a website. Until now. The website has a relatively large collection of pictures taken in different parts of Uganda from the very early 1900s to just after independence, which are a delight to look at for anybody as interested I am.
Students and teachers of Gayaza Girls School pose for a photo in 1908
In its own words "History In Progress Uganda collects and publishes photographs from (private) collections and archives in Uganda. By doing this HIPUganda opens up possibilities to relate to, react on, and think about Uganda's history in photographs. These photographs can be put in context by those who lived in the time the photographs were taken, or know stories about it. That way they can become valuable in understanding the past and relating it to the present". 
An aerial view of Kampala in the early 60s
Its the bit at the end about the value of the pictures in understanding the past and relating it to the present that is of particular interest to me. As I had already indicated I feel that Uganda's 50th Independence anniversary should be leveraged to get a strong campaign going that will have most Ugandans focusing on what they have in common that is worth celebrating. The Jubilee should also be used to reflect on how far we have come and why we have not moved further than we could have. The people that have been ruling Uganda should hence be called to account or made to step up to the responsibility of pushing the country further.

Making a canoe near Lake Bunyonyi Kabale in the 1930s
The pictures on History in Progress website and Facebook page tell a story of a country and a people developing and embracing a different way of life as the years progress. They show Uganda's steady evolution from a collection of traditional societies to a modern nation, which ought to cause one to reflect on the apparent stagnation or regression (in some areas) since independence. The pictures, especially those of the Uganda Protectorate Public Relations department show the kind of importance attached to things like agricultural extension services, which have all but disappeared in Uganda today resulting in some of associated problems the agricultural sector is facing.

Everybody should hop over to the History in Progress Uganda website or join the History in Progress Facebook page. Get a feel of a different era

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Interviewed on books I read

I was interviewed by the Daily Monitor for a the column The Books They Read a few weeks ago, which has been published today. When the writer approached me asking if she could interview me for the column I thought it would be an easy interview since I read a lot.

However, when the interviewer said that she was interested in only fiction I soon realised that I was going to have a harder time because I have read very little fiction in the last 6 years (as I had alluded to in a recent post). So Some authors I have enjoyed recently like Bill Bryson, David Landes, Richard Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others were not going to get a mention. The interview was made harder because I do not have any particular favourites (or rather I have many different ones).

That was just as well because it was probably going to be heavily edited anyway- as the final published interview proved.

I have pasted it below. Here is the link for the story in The Daily Monitor.

What do you like about books?
I like books first of all because they allow me to experience a different world and life through the words and experiences of the characters. Books are a kind of teleportation device that enable one travel to a place and time different from one’s own which in many ways contributes to broadening one’s outlook and perspective. Books even when they are not based on real events can be a wealth of knowledge on real life issues.
Which are your favourite books? 
I do not have any favourite book(s) but Great Expectations by Charles Dickens would feature prominently if I had to make a list. It’s the one book I have read the most. About three years ago I read The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck and though I found it bleak and depressing at times, its central character Wang Lung’s, struggle to obtain land, till it and prosper against some pretty tough odds was moving and not easily forgotten. I also like short stories like those in A Quiver full of Arrows, A Twist in the Tale and 12 Red Herrings, all by Jeffery Archer, or like those in The Veteran by Frederick Forsythe.
Who is your favourite character in books you’ve read?
Characters come and go and they are your favourites for a while until other characters come along and become your favourite. I tend to find that characters that are also narrators of their stories somehow linger on longer in my head because I feel they are telling me their story themselves. For this reason, Pip from Great Expectations is among my favourites. My current favourite is Calliope “Cal” Stephanides from Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides because I finished it recently.
Which books didn’t you enjoy reading? Why?
There are many books I have started and not completed (or read and not liked) in all genres but self-help books seem to feature heavily in this category. I have come to realise that many (not all) self-help books in our bookstores, especially those on growing rich or gaining financial independence, are only marginally useful to people like me because they are written with a western (mostly American audience in mind). For example, though the general advice on being successful in business maybe the same everywhere, some factors like rampant corruption, systems and institutions that are non-existent or don’t work as they should and the all-pervasive technical “know-who” that characterises Ugandan society renders some of the advice in these books inapplicable.
Which Ugandan books have you read? 
I am a bit ashamed to say this but I haven’t read that many Ugandan books and even the few I have read were those that were around the house when I was growing up almost all of them written in the 60s and 70s. These were books like Dare to die, The Prodigal Chairman and the Trials and Tribulations in Sandu’s Home, all by Geoffrey Kalimugongo, or the famous poems, Song of Lawino, and Two Songs by Oko p’Bitek and quite a few others from that era like Return to the Shadows by Robert Serumaga.
However, I have recently come across a group of people who have been pointing me to Ugandan authors I had hitherto not known so I plan to be reading more Ugandan books.
Which book(s) are you reading?
Right now I am reading a pair of funny novels; one is by Mohammed Hanif called A Case of Exploding Mangoes and the other is White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Friday, 6 January 2012

Not a really a post

Technorati says I have to include this code in a blog post to prove I actually publish this blog. So this is a pseudo-post and part of the general blog tweak-up and house keeping.

Here you go Technorati.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Welcome to 2012-The year the world doesn't end and Uganda turns 50.

The new year is already 3 days old but I think it is still young enough for me to wish everyone a happy new year. Like all brand new years, 2012 is walking briskly along with a purposeful stride and an air of invincibility thinking it cannot do worse than 2011. However, this elation will not last and everything will soon get back to normal, which is not necessarily a good thing because normal for Ugandans means ever increasing fuel prices (with the accompanying price increments in nearly everything else), higher interest rates on bank loans, politicians stealing billions, et cetera. I could go on but what's the point, there will be enough of this in everyone's life during the course of the year. I don't need to labour the point. Besides there are people better placed than me to make predictions,  like the opinionated Mr. Kalyegira does here, or give analyses on what to watch out for.

However, there is one thing I am very certain of, and that is, that the world is not ending this year contrary to what ancient Mayans might or might not have predicted for the year 2012 or what The Red Pepper will inevitably dedicate miles of newsprint to. This year is going to be ordinary in many ways but for some of us it will be a special one because.....

2012 is the year Uganda turns 50.

I can already hear people saying "who gives a damn" or "how does that help me?" and I understand the average Ugandan's nonchalance towards independence anniversaries. Independence does not mean much to most Ugandans because only a small portion of us ever lived under colonial rule (and some who did wish things had never changed) and the difficult lives most Ugandans live have effectively immunised them of sentimentality and yet sentiments are what such jubilee celebrations appeal to. They aim to rekindle the pride of a people; engender patriotic fervour and cause the poets to writes odes to the nation's heroes and the people to break out in song and exalt the great legendary leaders that fought against the marauding hordes of foreign invaders and.. and....OK maybe I am getting carried away here but that is impression I get whenever I see independence jubilee celebrations of other countries on TV. Unfortunately, it appears Uganda does not really have anything of the sort make a big deal of. We had a pretty tame colonial experience (compared say to Kenya or Zimbabwe), the post colonial experience has not left us much to celebrate and these days NRM has kind of appropriated for itself any gains Uganda has made over the past 49 years so that any independence day celebration is indistinguishable from an NRM anniversary.

However, all hope is not lost and two initiatives by The New Vision and The Monitor called the Uganda Jubilee Project and Uganda@50 respectively hope to get as many Ugandans as possible involved in the jubilee year by sharing that which they feel they ought to celebrate or be proud of about Uganda as it turns 50 as opposed to the same old parades, boring slogans and speeches that are imposed on us every year. Because I feel we as Ugandans ought to make this anniversary one worth celebrating I will be monitoring how these two projects progress and giving my two cents worth every now and then. This kind of anniversary ought to be the kind of thing that should (if only temporarily) get most Ugandans thinking of themselves as a diverse group of people with a common stake in this project called Uganda that requires everyone's contribution if its to succeed.

Maybe I expect to much and I am making a fuss over nothing but I will see how the year progresses and I will keep dropping my two cents worth every now and then.

Happy New Year once more.