The re­gion’s po­lit­i­cal tur­moil is a part of the Africa ris­ing story

FREDERICK GOLOOBAMUTEBI

The East African - - OPINION -

Re­cently a friend from a neigh­bour­ing coun­try, with whom I have been dis­cussing public af­fairs in the re­gion for some years, got in touch. He had heard about the brawls in the cham­ber of par­lia­ment in Uganda, as the two sides in the de­bate on whether to lift the age limit from the coun­try’s Con­sti­tu­tion. The phys­i­cal al­ter­ca­tions have left a number of mem­bers of par­lia­ment, mostly from the op­po­si­tion side, nurs­ing in­juries, some rather se­ri­ous, and a rel­a­tively large group, al­most all from the op­po­si­tion, on sus­pen­sion for three con­sec­u­tive sit­tings.

Right now Uganda is likely at its most di­vided since Pres­i­dent Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni and the Na­tional Re­sis­tance Move­ment as­cended to power nearly 32 years ago. They made prom­ises at the time that, on re­flec­tion, make them look dis­hon­est be­yond what any­one would have imag­ined at the time.

De­spair

My friend was some­what de­spair­ing. He had scanned the re­gion and come up with a pic­ture that, if not prop­erly con­tex­tu­alised, would knock even the most in­vet­er­ate of op­ti­mists side­ways. He looked at Burundi and saw a de­pressed econ­omy and a stalled na­tional dia­logue over how to put things to­gether again af­ter what has been go­ing on there since the 2015 po­lit­i­cal up­ris­ing over the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and whether the pres­i­dent was or was not el­i­gi­ble to run again. He looked at the DR Congo and saw ris­ing ten­sions ahead of De­cem­ber when some re­ally im­por­tant is­sues must be re­solved to en­able the coun­try to elect a new pres­i­dent, or keep the one they have. In Rwanda, he was pre-oc­cu­pied with the ar­rest of Diane Rwigara — one of the would-be can­di­dates in last Au­gust’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — along­side her mother and sis­ter.

Ms Rwigara, who ac­cord­ing to non-rwan­dan me­dia was a women’s rights ac­tivist be­fore she as­pired to run for pres­i­dent and was dis­qual­i­fied over al­leged forgery, is now bat­tling a number of charges, some in com­mon with, oth­ers sep­a­rate from, her mother and sis­ter. Such is the in­ten­sity of de­bate and di­ver­sity of opin­ion on some of Rwanda’s so­cial me­dia plat­forms that dis­en­tan­gling the claims and counter claims is a com­plex un­der­tak­ing, even for the most sea­soned of Rwanda watch­ers.

Across the re­gion, how­ever, the saga eas­ily fits into the now fa­mil­iar nar­ra­tive about in­tol­er­ance and even worse.

My friend’s look at Tan­za­nia, long con­sid­ered the most free and po­lit­i­cally ma­ture coun­try in the re­gion, has an “in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian Magu­fuli gov­ern­ment” seek­ing to “tighten its grip” on so­cial me­dia.

It re­minded me of a few years ago when each time I vis­ited Dar es Salaam many peo­ple I know there, af­ter 10 years of the fa­mously laid back Jakaya Kik­wete, could hardly stop wish­ing for “strong lead­er­ship.” And then they got it in Magu­fuli. And now some are ar­gu­ing “this is not the kind of strong lead­er­ship we wanted.’” Well, as is of­ten said, be care­ful what you wish for. And so in my friend’s eyes, Tan­za­nia has now joined the rest of East Africa in caus­ing con­cern among lovers of democ­racy and free­dom.

Over in Ethiopia, he de­cried the “hun­dreds killed in clashes be­tween the Oro­mos and So­ma­lis. And in South Sudan, talk of an ex­pected rebel offensive ahead of the na­tional dia­logue was ex­er­cis­ing his mind.

He ended with a pointed ques­tion: “Africa ris­ing”? It is a big ques­tion. It is some years now since the ques­tion of whether Africa is ris­ing or not emerged as a sub­ject of de­bate across the con­ti­nent and be­yond.

At first it seemed as if most peo­ple agreed that in­deed it was. Then the pes­simists rose up and started rub­bish­ing it. The naysay­ers of­ten build their ar­gu­ment on the seem­ing in­ca­pac­ity by many African coun­tries to over­come per­haps the sin­gle most im­por­tant chal­lenges that, over the past 50 years, have been re­spon­si­ble for pre­vent­ing them from achiev­ing their full po­ten­tial: bad gov­er­nance. They cite lack of ba­sic free­doms, lack of po­lit­i­cal plu­ral­ism, all­round po­lit­i­cal in­tol­er­ance, rigged elec­tions, tin­ker­ing with con­sti­tu­tions to ac­com­mo­date or pro­mote the in­ter­ests of sin­gle in­di­vid­u­als, and the cor­rup­tion, nepo­tism and in­com­pe­tence that be­devil the public sec­tor in­sti­tu­tions. No doubt, fo­cus­ing on pol­i­tics can­not but in­duce pes­simism, es­pe­cially if one takes the broad­brush ap­proach to read­ing sit­u­a­tions. It is the ap­proach that en­ables com­men­ta­tors to pro­claim: “All African lead­ers are the same,” to ig­nore coun­try speci­fici­ties and in­stead to use the same frame for analysing all events, see­ing similarities and ig­nor­ing dif­fer­ences, which dif­fer­ences if care­fully an­a­lysed and prop­erly con­tex­tu­alised, could lead to dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions. Is it all dark­ness? Not quite. We are far from be­com­ing model lib­eral democ­ra­cies. How­ever, we are also far from the days when mil­i­tary coups, not elec­tions, how­ever con­tested, de­ter­mined who would lead.

Away from pol­i­tics, think­ing about the ques­tion whether Africa is ris­ing from a so­cioe­co­nomic per­spec­tive may or may not in­duce op­ti­mism. It re­ally de­pends on what one wants to em­pha­sise. If one fo­cuses on the wide­spread and usu­ally deep­en­ing poverty, state-pro­vided so­cial ser­vices that tend to be of poor qual­ity par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral ar­eas where most of the poor live, public in­fra­struc­ture that in some places can be overly di­lap­i­dated or sim­ply non-ex­is­tent, it is dif­fi­cult not to feel pes­simistic. How­ever, a fo­cus on grow­ing economies, ris­ing pros­per­ity, ris­ing stan­dards of liv­ing and ac­com­pa­ny­ing gains in life ex­pectancy, and ac­cess to and lev­els of for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, leads to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion. Yes, Africa is ris­ing.

We are far from the days when mil­i­tary coups, not elec­tions, de­ter­mined who leads.” The naysay­ers of­ten build their ar­gu­ment on the seem­ing in­ca­pac­ity by many African coun­tries to over­come bad gov­er­nance

Frederick Golooba-mutebi is a Kam­palaand Ki­gali-based re­searcher and writer on pol­i­tics and public af­fairs. E-mail: fg­mutebi@ya­hoo.com

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