The short piece below was published by Index on Censorship on May 24. A longer analysis of Uganda’s post-election violence, which I contributed to the Foreign Policy in Focus website of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, can be found here.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni appears to have lost the plot. A violent crackdown on initially small and peaceful opposition protests at rising fuel and food prices has over the last five weeks left at least ten protestors and bystanders dead, including a two year old child, and hundreds injured. This show of indiscriminate force has shocked even government supporters, pitching the country towards political crisis. Now the 67 year old president, who came to power 25 years ago at the head of a rebel army, is blaming local and international media for his predicament, and promising to roll back the press freedoms that have been one of the saving graces of his rule.
As a guest at various meetings and workshops in Uganda over the last couple of years I have been interested to note how many of these, whether convened by government or non-government agencies, open with a short prayer.
Although having no specific religious affiliation myself I can see the positive value of this practice. It was exemplified by a woman invited to lead the opening prayer in an event I recently attended. She urged us to approach the proceedings “with humility” and “to seek wisdom and understanding from each other.”
On April 1, 2011 a small hairy animal hacked into my computer and dispatched the following piece to The Daily Monitor
by Polly Dog
Now listen up, humans: we dogs are not only your best friends, we are also your oldest. Archaeological evidence shows that dogs and humans have lived together for well over 10,000 years, and this has happened across the world in all known cultures. It’s been a good partnership for you as well as for us. Recent medical research shows that humans with dogs in their families enjoy better health, with lower blood pressure and fewer heart problems. So, we not only guard your homes from burglars and your airports from drug traffickers and terrorists, we also make you fit and happy.
And how do you repay us? By covering our environment in concrete!
British imperialists picked some fine spots from which to supervise their dominions. The colonial administration of Nyasaland, a 900 kilometre long strip of south east Africa that has been known as Malaŵi since independence in 1964, was headquartered on the lower slopes of Mount Zomba. Salubrious breezes ruffle the trees and flowering bushes that surround a cluster of early 20th century brick buildings, quaint and dinky now, making one wonder how so much power could be exercised with so little concrete. A dilapidated Gymkhana Club, built in 1923, looks out over a wide lawn that probably doubled as a cricket and polo pitch. It is easy to imagine the few dozen colonial officers and their wives gathering here for gin and tonic at sundown, some brightly planning an amateur performance of Charley’s Aunt in the surprisingly ample hall behind, others complaining about the insufferable stupidity of the houseboys and yearning for home.
Uganda’s democratic deficit (The Christian Science Monitor, March 3)
Yoweri Museveni’s decisive victory in Uganda’s elections, which will extend his 25-year rule by a further five years, puts paid to any thought that winds of change from North Africa would blow south across the Sahara. It looks instead as if the veteran leader, who came to power at the head of a rebel army, is settling in for a Life Presidency in the old, African style.
“Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” by Jeremy Scahill, (Serpent’s Tail, 2007, 550 pp); “Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” by John Lanchester (Penguin, 2010, 239 pp)
Here is an interesting contrast in efforts at persuasion.
“Blackwater” is a worthy, liberal critique of one of the creepiest facets of our age: the outsourcing of state violence to “security companies” and “defence contractors”—correctly outed in the subtitle as “mercenaries.” This topic deserves serious and widespread attention but, alas, this book has little chance of persuading anyone not already convinced of Blackwater’s intrinsic creepiness. It is unlikely even to add significantly to the armoury of facts and arguments at the disposal of those already so persuaded, because it is such a tiresome read. I could not get past Chapter Two (a disquisition on the family, early life and character of the company’s founder and proprietor, Erik Prince).
Some time ago, Kenneth Onekalit and Joseph Okema returned from running successful businesses overseas to help rebuild their homeland in northern Uganda. They brought money, skills, energy and hope. Kenneth was establishing a Northern Uganda Farmer's Cooperative to revitalise family farming. Joseph headed the Northern Uganda Youth Development Centre.
Searching for some seasonal peace we arrive at a “Safari Lodge” perched on a cliff above Lake Albert in Uganda’s Rift Valley. Looking towards the far western shore we can just see—or is it a cloud?—the outlines of the Congo’s Blue Mountain range. It is certainly quiet, except for a jolly party of Swedes enjoying a family reunion. Nice. We take a dusk stroll for a couple of kilometres into the savannah behind, startling brilliant birds out of the bushes and being startled ourselves by the occasional family of wart hogs, wiggling their cute tails as they trot away from our approach. There’s no danger of meeting scarier wildlife here, though, for the big game prospects have already been trumped by big oil.
Shortly before Christmas an American professor from the respected, Catholic university of Notre Dame posted on the Internet what he believes to be an authentic memorandum, dated November 14 1986, from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to his brother, Salim Saleh.
The document (posted at www.musevenimemo.org) describes a low-altitude flight that Museveni allegedly took over the north of the country that he had just begun to rule. It states that “we must assume full control of the fertile lands. It will be necessary, therefore, to find a way to drastically reduce the population.” Elsewhere, the memo describes the local, Acholi people as “chimpanzees.”
A commentary I recently contributed to The Guardian (London), arguing that awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was unlikely to advance the cause of peace in China, drew many predictable ripostes from readers on the Guardian site, and some further flurries of bemused contempt in the China-punditry blogosphere (eg, here). It’s ironic how unwilling so many Western liberals are to hear dissenting voices in their own communities, and depressing how a technologically expanded “public sphere” so soon fills up with sound and fury signifying rather little.