African Dictators’ Club Has Lost a Member

Posted on 06 February 2011 by admin

By Rosebell Kagumire*

KAMPALA, Feb 6 (TerraViva) – Most people in Uganda fall into one of two categories – those that fear the regime and those that fear life after the regime.

The first fearful group expects to be crushed because we have seen heavy military equipment in the streets of Kampala when the youth have come out to demonstrate in the past. Those who fear the life after can’t even start imagining who else could run the country.

Protesters in Egypt: the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia has found swift echo in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

Protesters in Egypt: the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia has found swift echo in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS

The Tunisian revolution, entirely engineered from within, spread ripples through the Arab world. Africans have followed protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Sudan closely – in Uganda, where direct feeds from Al Jazeera and other international networks are available on local TV, many have watched in disbelief. They have seldom seen determined Africans standing up to a regime without the help of a gun.

Twitter and Facebook have been abuzz with warnings or wishes that the same could happen in Uganda. The first post I made when Ben Ali was ousted read, “The African club of dictators has lost a member and they will be doing some rethinking.”

Maybe I should have been more specific: so far only Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika and to some extent, Africa’s self-styled King of Kings, Muammar Gaddafi, are feeling the tremors.

Recipe for uprising

The protests in North Africa have been largely around unemployment, corruption, poor living conditions and the curtailing of freedoms.

Almost two-thirds of Egypt’s population has been born since President Hosni Mubarak came to power. Unemployment across North Africa has remained high while their leaders live like royalty. Corruption has been so rampant that the middle class in these countries can see no reason why they pay taxes. The living conditions in these countries for the pooris terrible. Only one percent of rural people in Tunisia have access to clean water and unemployment was at 14.2 percent as of 2009.

Compare the situation to Uganda you will find a lot of similarities.

About 77 percent of Uganda’s population is youth. A 2008 World Bank report, shows Uganda has the highest youth unemployment rate and the youngest population in the world. The African Development Indicators report for 2008/2009, reported 83 percent of youth are out of work.

Uganda has worse development indicators than the North African countries. A visit to the Soroti Hospital, a regional referral facility serving 20,000 people, found just three maternity beds; drugs are frequently out of stock in the pharmacy. Most Ugandans pay out of threadbare pocket for health care.

Universal Primary Education enrolled tens of thousands more pupils but available facilities were stretched to the limit. Many teachers go without pay for many months.

A 2009 World Bank study showed that disgruntled teachers are absent an average of one of the five working days; 25 percent of teachers in Universal Primary Education schools did not meet professional requirements.

Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research (MISR) last month released a report showing that Ugandan classrooms are packed with an average of 94 pupils… in the mornings: government’s failure to address the school lunch problem has led to low afternoon attendance, especially in areas with food insecurity.

Yoweri Museveni. Credit: Mark Garten/UN Photo

Yoweri Museveni. Credit: Mark Garten/UN Photo

More than $1.6 million intended to fight HIV and malaria was embezzled and misappropriated from Uganda’s grant from the Global Fund, leading to the country’s temporary suspension in 2005.

A minister implicated in this scandal once told me, on a flight to London, “The President knew where the Global Fund money went.” And later testimony showed some of it ended up spent on the 2005 referendum on multi-party-ism.

Museveni has been in power for 25 years now and he’s seeking re-election in February.

Why not Uganda?

This kind of comparison of underlying factors makes it understandable why some youthful Ugandans have faith that la revolución will spread south, up the Nile. This is not a wild expectation, but a closer look suggests Ugandans are not about to stand up to President Museveni and his regime.

Urbanisation has a huge impact on how citizens relate to government and urban dwellers in Africa generally expect more from government. Urban Ugandans are more aware of the workings of the state and they generally don’t vote for Museveni.

North African countries have a relatively high literacy level, over 70 percent, and North Africa is more urbanised than most of sub-Saharan Africa with a few exceptions.

Food prices have been a big factor in North Africa, but we have not seen food prices threatening the survival of 80 percent of Ugandans who live in the rural areas. Uganda is a fertile country and most people eat from their own gardens/farms. I grew up in a rural area and for me government means several things, but they do not relate to hunger, to service failures or lack of policies.

Many Ugandans, especially the old, have been traumatised by the country’s past. they live in perpetual fear and believe that Museveni alone can guarantee a peaceful Uganda. He reinforces this daily with talk of when he came to power in 1986, ending a civil war, and “we shall deal with” talk – it seems every problem the country faces is from “saboteurs”.

In the last 25 years President Museveni has made “sleep” – meaning peace – the sole basic need Ugandans can demand.

“The Tunisian model demonstrates revolutions do not happen overnight,” says Ibrahim Sharqieh, the Deputy Director, Brookings Doha Centre says,

“They (revolutions) require an accumulation of events before the environment ripens… They require momentum.

“Tunisians today recognise how the 1984 ‘bread revolution’ has impacted their current uprising, as well as the 1988 Algerian uprising that collapsed the country’s single party system and introduced democratic reforms. Egyptians likewise recognize the significance of the Ape. 6 price and wages demonstrations in 2008 and food demonstrations in 2007.”

Sub-Saharan strongmen sleeping easy

In Sharqieh’s analysis, “an impoverished, educated people can more effectively organise violent protests and disrupt stability” than Uganda’s largely uneducated, psyched-out population.

Many of the educated youth in Uganda who could be at the helm of a Tunisia-Egypt like movement are instead engulfed in the craze to acquire quick free money just like their fathers in power. They have not seen what effective institutions mean and the struggle to “snatch what you can” has not left us behind. And there’s a lot of money being distributed across the country now as election day approaches on Feb. 18.

The heavy reliance on donor money is another reason the ordinary Ugandan doesn’t question her government.

“Abo balya esente zabazungu gwe abifaakoki?” – They are eating white people’s money, why do you care? – Africans still see funds as either government property or a gift to their government from Western countries which explains the lack of demands for accountability.

North Africa’s uprisings have also enjoyed unity among the people, cutting across religious and class divides. In Uganda divisions are ever-present, with everyone constantly looking at each other’s region and tribe for differences rather than common cause.

So for now I remain sceptical of my country taking its turn to fill the TV news with scenes of people’s power while I hope that the revolutions under way in North Africa bring meaningful changes to these countries.

*Rosebell Kagumire is a a Ugandan multimedia journalist working on media, women, peace and conflict issues. This column  appeared in somewhat different form on her blog.



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