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I can hardly keep up with all the news these days. It was easy enough to follow along with Tunisia, then Egypt, during their protests and movements for freedom. But now there’s just so much going on that my head is spinning. Protests and uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Iran among others. Elections in Uganda. Not to mention the usual American mess of politicking and budget crises.

On the Ugandan election front, everything seems to have gone as expected. Museveni was announced the winner of the presidential election, with 68% of the vote. That number does seem suscipiciously high to me, but with all of the vote-buying/patronage maneuvers he did in the months leading up to the election, I am not surprised that he emerged ahead. And of course, there were some additional voting irregularities. Clearly, it would be inaccurate to call the election a great example of democracy in action. One bit of good news from Uganda is that, as far as I can tell, there has been no violent reaction to the election results. Things seem to be returning to normal in Kampala. I’ll be continuing to monitor things there, but it looks like this will have come and gone fairly quietly. The status quo holds in Uganda tonight.

On the other hand, it appears that the Arab world and north Africa are exploding in revolution. Libya has particularly grabbed my attention. Perhaps this is because Gaddafi has been such a proponent of the United States of Africa. Perhaps it is because there is a Muammar Gaddafi road in downtown Kampala, as well as the beautiful Gaddafi mosque. In any case, the response to the uprising against the  “King of Kings” is exposing Gaddafi’s worst dictator-qualities. While not too much information is available, it is clear that the regime has no problem using brutality to silence the protests. For about an hour tonight, I listened to Muammar Gaddafi’s son ramble on, taking on the role of victim and blaming everyone from the US and UK, to other African immigrants, to drug-users for the uprising. His words seemed completely divorced from reality.

So tonight, while Uganda has chosen the status quo, Libya and others are giving revolution a try. Both have the potential to be dangerous. I’m hoping tonight that true democracy wins out in both cases – peacefully and as soon as possible.

Tomorrow the people of Uganda go to the polls for their second multiparty presidential election in thirty years. Museveni is polling well ahead of his opposition, but anything could happen. Will Ugandans, encouraged by the revolutions elsewhere on the continent, in Tunisia and Egypt, vote for the opposition, and for a change in leadership after 25 years with Museveni? The opposition is split between seven different candidates, with perennial candidate Kizza Besigye leading the way.

While this article lays out the broad context for tomorrow’s elections, this one puts forth the theory that, if nothing else, this election will be cleaner than past elections.

“The money flowing into Friday’s election suggests that the NRM believes it can no longer resort to the kind of thuggery it has used to win elections in the past. In 2006, for example, leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was repeatedly arrested and his supporters beaten by official security agencies as well as un-uniformed goons who were later alleged to be government agents. In part because of international pressure, Tumushabe points out, as well as the example of the International Criminal Court indicting politicians in next-door Kenya for instigating election violence, outright physical coercion is mostly off the table.”

The article also suggests that the opposition has a better chance of success than they’ve been given credit for. The real uncertainty will come if it’s clear an opposition candidate has won. Then what? Protests or riots? No one can predict.

Adding to the day’s election news is the recently-revealed Wiki-leaks cables that draw a connection between the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda and the political motives of the ruling party. This is a theory Jon and I have long held – that Museveni and the NRM had planned all along to use the bill to shore up popular support for their party, and possibly to use it to discredit opponents. To Museveni and his political allies

If you’re interested in following the events real-time in Uganda tomorrow, check in with a favorite Ugandan blogger of mine on her Twitter account, where she’ll be tweeting the day’s events.

Uganda, you are in my thoughts tonight. Praying for a peaceful day for you tomorrow.

The current of events is flowing fiercely along the Nile River these days.

The ripples started this January when 98% of Southern Sudan’s residents voted to remain independent from Sudan and form their own country. Southern Sudan will officially join the community of nations in July, 2011. It will take work to build this new nation (the U.N. reports that a 15-year-old girl there has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school), but the future seems full of possibility.

From Southern Sudan, the ripples flowed north to Egypt – where we have all witness the 18-day revolution that changed the face of the Middle East, and the world.

This Friday, however, the current flows full circle to the Nile’s source – Uganda. Starting February 18, Ugandans will go to the polls to elect their President. Polls suggest that current President Yoweri Museveni will likely be re-elected to another five-year term. If he succeeds and completes the term, his tenure will reach 30 years. Museveni still enjoys considerable support from those that appreciate the stability he brought to much of the country after Idi Amin’s reign of terror. However, 3.5 million new citizens have been registered since the last elections in 2006, and 90% of these new voters are between the ages of 18-23. These young voters are more likely to be fed up with President Museveni’s increasing corruption and apparent desire to remain president-for-life.

Among other things, I will be watching to see how Uganda’s judiciary and military are able to serve as an impartial force to ensure that the elections are free and fair. As we saw in Egypt, the independence of these institutions in the face of an authoritarian executive is perhaps the most important factor in democratic transition.

Whether it begins this week or in five years, let us hope that this generation of Ugandans gets the opportunity to lead a genuine democratic transition to a post-Museveni era marked by peace and increasing prosperity. They deserve it.

There is talk these days from across the political spectrum, spurred by the events in Egypt, about ‘real democracy’.

Appearing on Sunday talk shows last weekend, Secretary of State Clinton called for transition in Egypt to “real democracy, not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or so-called democracy”.

Echoing this, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote this week, “Our paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time.”

Ironically, for more than a generation many leading political theorists have defined democracy exactly that way – one man, one vote, one time.

In 1991, writing about democracy’s “third wave”, Samuel Huntington stated unambiguously, “Elections, open, free, and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inesescapable sine qua non.”

Perhaps the Egyptian experience, coupled with democratic movements currently underway in Tunisia, Yemen, South Sudan, possibly next month in Uganda, and elsewhere represent a paradigm shift in our thinking about democracy.

During the first half of the 20th century, democratic success meant securing government of the people. Nationalistic and independence movements across Latin America, Africa, and Asia worked to expel colonial powers and secure a sovereignty of their own.

The second half of the 20th century saw a global preoccupation with elections – as exemplified by Huntington. Governments in the former colonies headed by foreign puppets, hereditary kings, or populist revolutionaries were rejected. Government by the people in the form of popular elections became the goal.

But, we have learned over the past few decades that elections, however important, do not in themselves bring about a democratic society. “Suppose the election is declared free and fair,” the late Richard Holbrooke reportedly said on the eve of the 1996 elections in Bosnia, “and those elected are fascists, racists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to peace. That is the dilemna.”

Elections can be rigged explicitly through corruption and violence, or implicitly by co-opting or dividing potential opposition, stoking fears amongst disempowered voters, and appealing to foreign powers’ desire for stability. What’s more, regular elections can be quite consistent with the persistence of deplorable and deteriorating living conditions within the society.

Underlying the current calls for real democracy is an argument that democracies ought to also be for the people. Real democracies not only feature local control and regular elections. They are also home to governments that measure all activities against their ability, or likelihood, to elevate the condition of life enjoyed by the citizenry. These governments do not always have the capacity or luck needed to succeed, but they are committed to the continuous attempt.

Different leaders may have different ideas on how to proceed (i.e. rely exclusively on the private sector in hopes of a trickle-down; provide basic welfare to guarantee minimum social justice; forge a middle ground through regulation and public/private partnerships; focus on austerity; cultivate foreign aid; build a large military to provide safety; maintain a small military to save money; prevent immigration to put existing citizens first; promote immigration to encourage diversity, economic development, and innovation; and so on, and so forth).

In other words, in a real democracy, governments and politicians are only legitimate when their proposals are presented with the justification that they will improve the lives of those they govern. Anyone without this goal in mind is beyond the pale and without merit.

In one week we observe Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In one month, on March 4, we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of his inauguration. Perhaps it is fitting that the man who memorialized democracy as government of the people, by the people, and for the people in his speech at Gettysburg provide the historical backdrop for the new birth of freedom seemingly underway in our world today.

As I watch events unfold in Egypt, I can’t help but think of Uganda. At the surface, the parallels between Presidents Mubarak and Museveni are plain to see. Both are war heroes that brought stability to much of their country. Both forged strong ties with the West and leveraged this support to consolidate their own power domestically. Both have remained in power for 25+ years. And, for some reason, both made the decision to circle their wagons around their own survival rather than prepare their country for peaceful democratic transition.

It is puzzling to me why so many leaders decide not to take the high road. I am less familiar with the Egyptian case, but I know that President Museveni could still cement a positive legacy for himself in the eyes of mankind by stepping down and putting all his energy into leading his country through a peaceful and democratic transition. But, instead, he insists on forcing his countrymen to choose between his corrupt stability or the uncertainty of populist revolt. Why not ride off into the sunset and become a Cincinnatus or Washington? He could live well; books would be written about him; he’d probably win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, the reason for Mubarak and Museveni’s calculation probably lies in an under-appreciation for what is being asked of them. In the United States, we look fondly upon George Washington’s virtuous decision to step down from power. But, we often fail to appreciate that this decision was made without the fear that a democratic transition would result in fundamental social change in the country. Slavery and marginalization of native peoples ensured that any transition of power would occur within a limited pluralism. In other words, there was no risk that the country would go from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood or from Ankole to Acholi. Thus, by bracketing the voices of a large swath of the populace, there was less at stake for the United States in building the institution of democratic transition.

I wonder, if African slaves and native peoples had the vote in Washington’s time, would things have been the same? Would Washington really have stepped down so honorably if a free and fair election risked bringing to power an entirely different social group prepared to take the country in a drastically different direction? An even more interesting question is, would the elites around Washington – Addams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, etc. – have allowed Washington to step down? Or would they, like the elites around Mubarak and Museveni, have encouraged him to hold on to power and cultivate aid from donor countries to decrease dependency on local voice? Perhaps some of them would have worried privately that a Native American president might replace private property rights with communal tenure, or an African American president would implement a land-reform agenda to break-up enormous plantations. These founders, in turn, might have to flee back to Britain, or in exile to France or Spain. Of course, we will never know the answers to these questions, but it is interesting to consider them.

The American democratic experiment has been conducted gradually, incorporating new variables over time. We created democratic institutions while controlling for slavery; we industrialized while controlling for harsh labor practices and gender inequity; we promoted global democracy while propping up dictators from time to time.

The United States is a force for good and the world’s most successful democracy. But, the road to this point was long and full of litter.

The truth about the American experience ought not give the autocrats of the world an excuse for their spinelessness. But it ought to give us pause. As we ask nation-builders across the world to democratize in one, two, or even three generations, we should make it clear that we aren’t asking them to catch up to or emulate us, but to do that which we weren’t able to do ourselves.

Right now Jon and I are skyping with our Ugandan friends: Stephen, who is studying at Notre Dame, in the US, and his wonderful girlfriend Winnie, who is working in Gulu, Uganda. We are recalling memories of our last double date at an Indian restaurant in Gulu and talking about current events in Uganda. Stephen is sharing some of his thinking about some new ideas he has for projects in northern Uganda. Winnie  keeps asking us when we are coming back.

I’m struck by how much joy these little interactions give me. To be able to hear both Winnie’s and Stephen’s voices while we are on completely separate continents feels like some sort of miracle.

A little bit of simple joy for my Wednesday afternoon.

Jon with his dear friend Jacob. Note Jacob wears his cell phone on a cord around his neck.

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating piece on the spread of cell phone technology throughout the world. I, of course, was most interested in its focus on sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s a story that has been told over and over in recent months: mobile phone use has spread rapidly throughout Africa and there are a thousand different ways that mobile phones can be used as a tool for development.

This article tells the story from the perspective of a guy with basically the most interesting job ever: traveling the world to observe how people use their cell phones and talking with them about design.  One of the things I really liked about this article was that it went beyond describing possible development projects based on mobile phone technology to highlighting the fundamental ways that cell phones change the way people live, which in turn impacts development.  For instance, the concept of “just in time,” which is the ability to make decisions with little advance planning.  A great quote:

Something that’s mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal — land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars — can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A “just in time” moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different, too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.

And of course, I loved this article for the descriptions of cell phone use in Africa I have come to know so well.  Sending money via text message (our friend Hellen would do this all the time). Cell phone entrepreneurs (kiosks are everywhere, selling time on a phone or selling an hour to charge the phone).  Small businesses transformed by immediate access to information, or immediate contact with their customers (we would call up our boda boda driver, John, all the time to see if he was available to drive us.  And we’d ask him to bring along however many bodas we needed to move whoever we were with).

Cell phones have become a mainstream part of the culture in a way other technologies haven’t yet, at least in Uganda.  Don’t let anybody fool you into believing that mobile phone technology will one day, in the future, encourage development in sub-Saharan Africa.  It already is.

Throughout the last couple days, I’ve been checking lots of different news sites to monitor how things are going in Kasubi. When I went to bed on Tuesday night, I feared what I would read in the next day’s paper. I suppose the news from Kampala is both bad: some unrest around the tombs, with 3 people killed by security personnel; and good: no reports of widespread violence or rioting.  I have noticed, mostly on the Daily Monitor’s Facebook fan page, and in comments in newspaper articles, a theme of empathy and shared loss expressed by people not just of the Buganda tribe, but by Acholis and other groups from around the country.  This brings me a bit of hope that perhaps trust is growing between ethnic groups in Uganda.

Along with reading the articles, I’ve been trolling the photos and videos, hoping to not see any familiar faces. I continue to hope that many of my neighbors had the chance to avoid the chaos around the tombs. Jon and I plan to call friends from the area tomorrow to check in with them.

People in Uganda (and those watching from elsewhere) continue to wonder about who (if anyone) was behind the fire. A friend shared this Al Jazeera clip with me, and it discusses the steps that various parties are taking to start investigations.  It also highlights a lot of the issues going on in Uganda at the moment, and provides some good context.

Uganda has truly lost an important piece of its cultural heritage.  As best as I can tell, it doesn’t look like it’s lost its (hard-fought and precariously maintained) social cohesion.  I hope that that can continue, and that rebuilding the Tombs provides an opportunity to grow empathy and trust between Ugandan communities.

It is almost 11 on a Tuesday night, and I should be reading, writing, and applying to jobs. Instead, I am extremely distracted. Not by the singing revelers outside my window, welcoming St. Patrick’s Day a couple hours early – although, that is a bit distracting. It’s this news that the Kasubi Tombs, in Kampala, have burned down tonight.

The Kasubi Tombs as they burn. Photo by Joseph Kiggundu, Daily Monitor.

The Kasubi Tombs are more than important cultural and historic structures to me. When we lived in Uganda, they were my neighbors. Our apartment was at the bottom of Kasubi Hill, and we passed the Tombs every day to and from downtown Kampala. We took numerous visitors to see the tombs to learn more about the Buganda tribe, its history and culture. I always loved passing the guards of the Tombs; dressed in the traditional saffron-colored robe and leaning against the big tree out front, they waited patiently to greet the next set of visitors.

the Kasubi Tombs in October 2008

Nobody knows yet why the Tombs went up in flames. I’ve already seen a couple of theories floating around online. None of the theories involve an accident.

In the last several months, there has been much tension between the ruling party, the NRM, and the Buganda kingdom, relating to a land dispute. Riots in October went on for about two weeks and killed a number of people and damaged property all over Kampala. It is easy to draw a connection between this earlier dispute and tonight’s fire. If this theory proves to be true, it could mean a fresh set of riots and worsening ethnic tensions.

Another theory revolves around more recent news. Just last night, a security guard opened fire on students at a hostel near Makerere University. Two students were killed – both were Kenyan. Today, students protested at Makerere and through the surrounding neighborhoods. Could this be related to the Tombs burning? Or, was the fire just an accident?

Setting aside the question of how this could happen, my mind has been racing thinking of my friends and acquaintances in Kasubi. Were our boda boda-driving friends there to witness this important site being burned to the ground? What is happening in the neighborhood now – any rioting or general panic? How are John and Gladys and Alex and Mabel? What will happen tomorrow?

For the moment, all I can do is send positive thoughts their way. And attempt to dust off the distraction and try to get back to work.

Want to be inspired? Check out this trailer for a documentary on women-owned craft businesses. It focuses on two groups, one of which is Uganda Crafts. It’s a beautiful piece and really gets the ethos of Uganda Crafts down in just a couple minutes. Additionally, many of my Ugandan friends and co-workers can be seen throughout the piece. AND a couple of my basket designs make the cut too! 🙂

The filmmakers were planning to go on to Haiti to learn about and film some similar work being done there. These types of businesses are more important than ever after the tragic events of last week’s earthquake. Please consider checking out their site and donating to help them capture the story of women’s businesses in Haiti.

Enjoy the film!

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