Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Foreign News Musings: 2016, the year of backing the wrong team (US Elections, Brexit, and Colombia)

I follow international news quite a lot and, as a result, I tend to have opinions on a wide range of international events and goings-on.

Many times I follow international news events with a certain level of detachment. I follow the news, get to know the basics of what is going on and when that particular item or event is no longer in the news I quickly move on to whatever else replaces it in the headlines.

On other occasions I find myself so invested in a particular developing story because maybe it might have implications for my life or work.

However, there are times I find I am so into some foreign news stories even when they might not have any direct relevance to me. It is like how you can watch a football game between two teams you’ve never heard of but over the course of the game you find you are rooting for one side over another.

2016 has been a typical year in the sense that I have followed some news stories quite closely, and I have supported different sides in a range of elections, referenda, debates etc. all over the world.

However, I cannot remember any other year when most of the sides I have supported have performed so badly. 2016 has had many “bad” outcomes for me as far as taking sides in international affairs is concerned that it seems every side I have backed has failed or performed poorer than I had expected.

I will use just three of the major examples- the US presidential elections, the Brexit referendum and the Colombian referendum on a peace deal between the government and leftist guerrillas commonly referred to as FARC.

In all three of these examples  found I was following the debates and campaigns quite closely and  became convinced that I knew which side would carry the day but in all I found myself on the losing side.

With the Brexit debate I took in the analysis of the pundits and reinforced it with my own understanding of what I thought the British were thinking. I figured nobody in their most objective state of mind would want to leave the European Union. I figured that the ultra-nationalists and the anti-immigration groups (who I thought were the ones most opposed to Britain remaining in the EU) would never carry the day. I was wrong.

A majority of Brits voted to leave the EU (59.1%-48.1%)

In the case of the Colombia peace deal I took the view that most Colombians would “see the light” and vote for the peace deal, I figured that no straight thinking person would be opposed to a negotiated end to a conflict that had lasted 52 years. There were those who were campaigning against the deal because they favoured a military solution to the conflict and some who supported a peace deal but only one that ensured heavy punishments for the FARC commanders, which they felt the deal on the table did not address adequately. I figured these were a minority who would be easily defeated and international news channels seemed to agree with me. Again I was wrong.

A majority voted NO. It was a small majority (50.2%-49.8%) but a majority all the same.

Finally the one I am still processing-how Donald Trump wound up being the President-Elect of the United States of America. A lot has been written on this, and lots more is still being written, so I will not get into the details that everybody is familiar with.

Like most mainstream media and the political pundits that filled the pages and airwaves, I was pretty sure that there was no way Donald Trump could win. I felt that though he had surprised everybody by getting as far as he had in the primaries, the national election would be a different ball game and the vast majority would vote for Hillary Clinton. I was wrong once more.

While the three examples I have given seem to be very different, they have a common thread going through them-the experts and mainstream media read the mood of the people wrong. In all these cases the mainstream media (the one I was most likely to follow) gave the impression that the majority of the populace was on the side of the establishment and anybody going against the establishment was most likely painted as being narrow-minded, short-sighted, not very informed etc.

In Britain the “Leave” campaign was characterized as being full of bigots who were against immigrants or working class people who didn’t quite understand the benefits of remaining in the UK. In Colombia the proponents of the “Yes” campaign held that anybody against the peace deal was either simply hawkish or a rich urban middle-class person who had no appreciation of the suffering the war had cost the poor Columbians in the countryside. Trumps supporters were dismissed as racists and country bumpkins who did not appreciate what it took to run the country and maintain positive relations with America’s neighbours.

Obviously I am over-simplifying but the point is that those that lost were all surprised because they had taken “the others” for granted and became overly confident of the numbers of those supporting them. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos had gone as far as saying that his people had no Plan B for when they lost the referendum because there was no option but to win.

I, like millions in the countries in which these referenda and elections were held, based my opinion on the mainstream media and the establishment pundits and I eventually found out just how off the mark I was.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Future of Ugandan Media in the Digital Age

The Ugandan media landscape is changing fast and, as a result, traditional print and digital media are being forced to rethink the methods of work that have kept them relevant to their audiences and profitable for decades.

With the advent of digital media platforms, the leveling effect of social media and the multiplicity of online sources of news, many legacy media houses are finding themselves more and more alienated from the audiences they have come to depend on for views and sales.

The "new media" is creating newer modes of capturing, packaging and distributing news content that are more relevant and responsive to the needs of a new generation of news audiences.

These changes in the media landscape have forced many media houses in Uganda to begin thinking critically about how they can embrace the new technology and platforms in order to stay alive in a rapidly changing media market.

This has led to media houses getting involved in experimentation with different formats, content and distribution channels but as yet nobody seems to have a good idea of what works best.

Those that have made some headway in producing, and delivering, content that their audiences want are finding they have to figure out how to make money from these new formats and platforms.

The dilemma that many media houses are facing is that innovations in digital and mobile news gathering and distribution will ultimately mean very little if these innovations cannot be monetized.

At present, while the media houses are slowly getting to grips with digital media, the advertisers are still hesitant to spend their money on these new products and platforms. The advertisers are still more comfortable dealing with legacy media, probably because they understand it better.

All things considered, it will be a while until Ugandan media houses sort through the experimentation to find what works and inevitably some will not survive.

However, those that are thinking seriously about the future, and investing in keeping relevant in the digital age, will experience lots of birthing pains but they will inevitably be the first at the table when what is today's new digital/social media fad becomes tomorrow's mainstream platform for delivering news.

Its a brave new world out there but it is also full of untapped potential.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

My Swahili journey and why Ugandans do not speak the language

I recently decided to start teaching myself Swahili, which is the most widely spoken language in East Africa.

I wanted to learn Swahili (or Kiswahili as it is called in Swahili) because I have been a keen supporter of the East African community initiatives and I am a firm believer in the idea of an East African federation.

However, over the years I have increasingly began to feel like a bit of a fraud because of my inability to speak any Swahili.

I have been finding my inability to speak Swahili at odds with my preaching the gospel of integration and getting East Africans to come together as one.

Because Swahili is the de facto langauage of the East African community, I felt I was not setting the right example myself by not speaking Swahili, which I believe is the easiest step an individual Ugandan can take towards being part of the bigger East African family.

It is now a few weeks into my "Learn Swahili" project and everything is going rather well. I wish I had embarked on this earlier.

However, as I have been studying Swahili, I have also been reflecting on why the language is not spoken as widely in Uganda as it is in other East African countries.

Everybody will tell you that Ugandans do not speak Swahili because it is a language that was long associated with brutal military dictatorships and their soldiers but this, while true, is only a small component of the whole story.

The reasons why Swahili never developed as a widespread lingua franca in Uganda have more to do with opposition to in from the kings of Buganda and the early Christian missionaries.

The British in Uganda had decided in the early 20th century to promote the Swahili language as a means of communication among lower levels of government and as a language of instruction in the early years of education.

However, the Christian missionaries at the time resisted, and worked against this, because they associated Swahili with Islam and they felt that teaching Swahili might somehow give Islam a foothold in Uganda.

This missionary opposition to Swahili might not have amounted to much if the Kabaka of Buganda, Daudi Chwa II, had supported the policy of teaching Swahili.

But Kabaka Chwa was not only opposed to Swahili, he was actually quite emphatic about how he would never allow the language to be taught in his kingdom.

Kabaka Chwa believed that teaching Swahili would lead to a situation where it became the lingua franca of the Uganda Protectorate and he was afraid this would then diminish the cultural influence Luganda, and by extension Buganda, was already beginning to have on the expansion and establishment of British rule in the protectorate.

The Baganda collaborated with the British from the beginning of their establishment of the Uganda Protectorate and they had been rewarded with lands from other kingdoms and communities and Baganda chiefs were being used to spread British rule to other parts of Uganda especially in the East and parts of the West.

This had led to a situation where Baganda had been elevated to a special status by the British and by default Luganda had started to gain an equally special status in local administration and education outside Buganda.

It is against this background that Kabaka Chwa felt that Swahili would diminish this new found status of Luganda and he thus opposed its teaching in Buganda and since the British depended on the goodwill of the Baganda at this time, they acquiesced to the Kabaka's demands.

Because British colonialism spread out from Buganda to the rest of Uganda, when the teaching of Swahili in Buganda was abandoned the Swahili project died for all practical purposes though efforts to teach it continued up to the late 1940s.

In the late 1960s President Milton Obote, through his "Move to the left" initiative had laid out plans to make Swahili a national language and a unifying force in Uganda.

Obote was a great admirer of President Nyerere of Tanzania and he wanted to emulate what the Tanzanian president was doing at the time to do away with tribal identities in Tanzania and create a Tanzanian identity through Swahili.

However, Obote was overthrown before his plans could take off.

Therefore by the time the military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s came around Swahili was already pretty much dead and it has been struggling since.

Anyway, I am committed to my pursuit of fluency in Swahili and I hope by the end of the year I will have attained a level of proficiency that will enable me hold general conversations on most common topics. By the end of next year, I want to be able to write, talk and debate on any topic of interest.