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.
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, all-round 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 broad-brush 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 socio-economic 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.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]