Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Museveni; the coward on criticism

Two weeks ago, I watched a documentary on unemployment aired on NTV. It explored its causes, using case studies of graduates who have 'tarmacked' the roads for ages after university.
But what was disturbing was a clip in which President Museveni placed the blame on subjects students study at university. He singled out Literature in English as one of those “redundant” subjects, wondering what one could do after studying William Shakespeare. “Shakespeare said this in this year, so what?” the sarcastic President asked.
I don’t think Mr Museveni's choice for Literature as a subject to berate was accidental. Literature emphasises critical thinking, using works of fiction, at times reality. Most literary works draw inspiration from real life, with authors either seeking to celebrate or criticise these aspects of life. It trains learners to look beyond the surface, equipping them with investigative and analytical skills.
It is therefore very understandable for President Museveni to berate such a subject. I mean which leader would not be worried about many students studying George Orwell's Animal Farm and discovering how revolutions (read liberations) can be abused? Which leader would not turn in their seats with unease if most subjects know about a certain Napoleon taking on the same behaviour and mannerisms of the Farmer Jones he deposed? Just imagine the strife we would have if half this country understood the concept of "eating eggs and drinking milk" as propagated by Squealer - and was able to name and shame modern-day Squealers? Who would feel comfortable reading Shakespeare's tragedy of Macbeth, cognisant that the betrayal and deadly ambition therein abounds in their neighbourhoods? Is it not Achebe who talked of old women feeling uncomfortable whenever bones were mentioned in a tale?
Leaders who have skidded off the path of the ideals they promised have found safety in muzzling critics who can ably alert societies about the ills. It is why the likes of Alex La Guma were banished by the South African apartheid regime. Does it surprise anyone that during the riotous moments in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, students and lecturers of Literature were targets of the monarchical repressive regimes, many arrested and incarcerated?
Mr Museveni's argument of promoting science subjects at the expense of arts/humanities is hollow and escapist - mainly because employment in this country has ceased to be a question of merit. I know of several nursing graduates who are unemployed because every time they have applied for a job at a district, the commissions have asked for bribes that they can't raise. Those who have been able to oil the palms have been employed, irrespective of their competencies. The same cancer has eaten most public institutions and is gradually rearing its ugly head in the private sector.
Unemployment therefore, is an indictment on those charged with the duty of planning for this country. The Asian tigers we admire are able to predict human resource needs of their countries - at times decades in advance - and deliberately influence training in that direction. What do we do here? Let majority children get half-baked primary school education, go to facility-less secondary schools and fizzle out thereafter - adding to the statistics of the unemployed. Meanwhile, the few with the means send their children abroad to Ivy League universities and remind us about why we should not study Literature.
Can anyone explain why a President who sees no value in Literature at one point had an adviser on literary affairs? Saw it fit to back a local Literature guru as his party's spokesperson and keeps lacing his speeches with metaphors and similes - all literary qualities?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Makerere ring-fencing; the vice is spreading

Some things in this country just keep sucking. With all these parochial calls for districts, tribal interests, ring-fencing, blah blah, one would imagine that the “intellectuals” would rise above this and maybe be the voices of sanity.
But how do you explain this? Makerere University lecturers met last week and voted to have the position of vice chancellor “ring-fenced” for only Ugandans. According to the academic staff association chairperson, Mr Tanga Odoi, they would not recognise a non-Ugandan if s/he assumed the position that falls vacant at the end of the end of next month. Letting a non-Ugandan become vice-chancellor would be equal to “mortgaging” the institution to foreign control, they argued.
So, here they are our elites. These guys have forgotten that in the 21st century, advancing notions synonymous with the early Stone Age just can’t stand. Even in the pre-civilisation era, tribes realised the importance of neighbours—that is why we had cross-kingdom trade. It is why Arabs came to the East African coast and people from the coast scoured the hinterland for goods. Yes, that our forefathers knew no man could be an island—but our modern day academics are yet to imbibe this fact.
What Makerere University needs is fresh, focused leadership that appreciates its problems but importantly has the right work method to help it compete with other institutions at a global level. This kind of leadership does not necessarily have to be home-grown as the Tanga Odois of this world seem to believe.
The world is quickly becoming a global village—and progressive thinking must be outside the box. We can no longer work; behave like we are marooned on an island. It is why even dictators strive to cover their behinds—knowing a Hague exists. It is for the same reason today that surgery can be performed in Uganda but with the expert surgeons sitting somewhere in the US.
Makerere University’s global rankings have received a battering lately because the institution has failed to demonstrate its presence (through publication of research) on the world stage. And this is not a problem that will be resolved by an inward looking leader—as the lecturers are demanding.
To address Makerere’s complex concerns also call for someone with some level of exposure and probably international connections. By seeking to ring-fence the position, lecturers might just be eliminating the right solution to their problems.
Makerere should not exclude people from competing for the post of vice chancellor just because they are non-Ugandan, and similarly, no one should be favoured for the position simply because they are Ugandans. It would only be fair and in the institution’s best interest that all candidates are subjected to the same standards of evaluation and the position offered to the best candidate, Ugandan or not. Kyambogo University went this road—why is Makerere chickening?
I personally know a couple of good brains at that hill, who can help steer Makerere from the knee-deep mud in which it is stuck today. One such person, I believe, is Prof. Venansius Baryamureeba. He has been decorated by over 1001 universities/agencies for his accomplishments in the ICT sector. His faculty has become a role-model of sorts—in the region. But I would not want to imagine that he can become vice chancellor because opposition from without was curtailed on technicalities. Let him, and others like Prof. Ddumba, face competition from other deserving candidates—whether Cameroonian, Kenyan or Malagasy.
I have lately witnessed an injustice take place. A friend—a competent person at their job—lost a job just because they are Kenyan working in Uganda. It looks like as a country, we are embracing xenophobia with alarming interest. But it is boiling down even to our single units—family, clans, tribe, districts etc. That’s why suddenly Banyoro can’t stand Bafuruki, Banyala resent Baganda, Jopadhola ‘hate’ Iteso—and vice versa, etc.
Why are we taking this path?? Why??

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I got the taste of it--state violence

Friday September 11th might just turn out to be one of those dramatic and significant days in this country’s history. It was the second day in which Kampala had become a battle field. Security agencies were fighting rioters who had taken to the streets protesting the government’s decision to block Kabaka Mutebi’s trip to Kayunga District.
From the first floor of our Namuwongo offices, we were getting all kinds of reports from the field. Corpses littering the suburbs, shops looted, a police post overrun by rioters, wanton shooting—and no signs of relenting from all sides. The news was coming in thick that at times you didn’t know exactly what to focus on.
Then, disappointed that our weekly Panel of Journalists show on Kfm had been called off for fear of state reprisal or possible closure, at about 7.30pm, a tip came in that UPDF soldiers had surrounded the Kabaka’s palace and placed him under house arrest. One of our editors immediately called the army spokesman, Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, who admitted that there was a deployment, but added “we are doing it for the Kabaka’s security”. We then placed a call to Gen. David Tinyefuza, the coordinator of intelligence agencies, who rubbished the claims.
There was no way we were going to run such an explosive story without our own verification. That is when we decided to go to the palace. As chief sub editor, I rarely go to the field—in fact never go to the field. I am an in-house operations guy, waiting for copy and ensuring it is processed well. But this was a big story and above all among the editors who were still in the newsroom, I seemed the only one with a good geographical grounding of the area—Kyambogo, Banda and Kireka.
We hit the trail, our political editor Charles Mwanguhya, senior reporter Tabu Butagira and myself. We left the car at one of my relative’s house in Kyambogo University and walked to the Banda palace. But we saw no activity there—apart from some laughter emerging from servants’ quarters. As we left to go to the other palace at Kireka—10 minutes away—we got a call from one of Buganda’s ministers, telling us the Kabaka was calling off his trip to Kayunga. We took the statement off the phone.
Locating the Kireka palace was not going to be easy because whereas I know the hill, I didn’t exactly know where the palace is found. I then called a friend, Dalton, to help guide us—he stays just below the hill. He joined us and led us to the palace—only that he too didn’t exactly know how its structured. That is how we found ourselves exactly at the palace’s main gate without even knowing we were there.
“Ninyi nani (who are you)?” was the welcome call we got as an array of soldiers ran from inside the gate to our car—about 20 metres away—as they cocked the guns. “Toka kwa gari,” one of them shouted, with the others surrounding us. We got out, our hands raised. “Ka chini (sit down),” a burly one near me retorted. As I moved to kneel, I saw a heavy boot land on my right shoulder, sending a chilling, sharp pain through my body. I tumbled, in the process hitting the same hand on the now ajar car door. With my balance lost, I fell. But as I struggled to kneel, a second thud came, this time sending me sprawling on the tarmack.
At this point I heard someone, probably their commander, ask them to stop and direct the others who had cocked not to fire. I was then ordered to remove my shoes (what is the purpose of this shoe-removing ritual whenever there is an arrest?)
We were then asked to identify ourselves—which we did, with our identity cards. Asked about our mission, we were candid, telling them we wanted to ascertain if indeed the army had besieged the Kabaka. Their commander, a dark, medium height fellow, and looking the youngest among them—then asked who exactly our “leader” was. I told him to speak to Mr Mwanguhya, since I was visibly angry—fuming to be exact.
But one incident struck me. The moment we said we were journalists from Daily Monitor, one of the soldiers had become excited, telling the others in Swahili, a language I speak, read and write, that they were expecting us. “Wacha hawo, afande ametwambia (Leave them, boss has told us about them).” Apart from their leaders, the rest, nine including three women, looked very drunk—and with no alcohol smell, we could only guess what they were high on.
Apparently, Lt. Col. Kulayigye, after receiving our call, knew we would make an attempt to get to the palace. From what they asked us, it was clear that he instructed them to compel us to tell them who had given us the deployment tip. Basically expecting us to break the oldest covenant of our trade: Never disclose your source.
One of the female soldiers moved close to me, this time all of us seated in the car—with only Mwanguhya out—and inquired if Daily Monitor was part of Bukedde, the Luganda publication of our competitor, Vision Group. I thought it unwise to respond to such ignorance and kept quiet.
Another asked if we spoke Luganda, or were Baganda. I told him we could “gamble” some Luganda. He them said: “Benyini babyeletedde (they have brought this upon themselves)”. This could have meant that the Baganda had courted trouble themselves. Realizing the implication of this statement in front of journalists, he quickly qualified it: “We love both the Kabaka and the President.”
Making no headway in the amateurish interrogation, the commander let Mwanguhya join us. He then came to my window—and apologised for any “embarrassment” we may have suffered. He asked us to report what we had observed and wished us a safe journey.
In the car, Lt. Col. Kulayigye called Mwanguhya trying to inquire about what we had seen. It is obvious that we had seen was a choreographed scene. Colleagues had been calling me earlier, saying NTV was running footage of the Kabaka’s palace being calm and their reporter, hoodwinked, was reporting that all was well. The army knew journalists would go to the palace and must have re-organised their deployment. At least the 10 we saw were clearly soldiers. When some of the royal guards came out to see what was going on, they were quickly ordered back.
Back in office, typing away the story on the page proved difficult as the pain in my shoulder kept increasing. My boss, Daniel Kalinaki, asked our sports editor, Mark Namanya, to come and help as the driver took me to AAR.
Later, as I lay on my bed, I thought myself lucky. I had throughout the day seen photos of corpses, people killed by bullets. I had come face to face with some of these trigger-happy soldiers, but gotten away with a sprained shoulder. Maybe it could have been worse, like it was with Kalundi Sserumaga, the host of a political talk show, Spectrum, on Radio One. After appearing on a show on WBS TV that reviews events of the week, he was bundled into an unmarked car and until this blog was posted, no one had an idea where he was or whether he’s alive.
These, we were told, were common occurrences in the Amin regime. So, have we come full circle?