As the Arabs rise up and conquer fear, Black Africa looks on in gloomy envy

Saturday February 12 2011

What is it about these Arabs?” The question came from an old friend.

He had spent the better part of his evenings since the uprising in Tunisia, glued to the television set, watching Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis and Jordanians rise up against oppressive governments, of which they had long been utterly terrified.

The question arose as a group of old buddies were talking politics over a wide assortment of drinks.

We all agreed that what was going on in the Maghreb was extraordinary. Soon enough, a debate ensued.

Would we or could we in Black Africa emulate the people of the Maghreb and the Middle East and frighten our own despots into promising not to seek more terms in office or, where applicable, try to pass on power to their sons or relatives?

There was agreement all round about how Arabs “so easily” take risks that often entail losing their own lives in the process.


From turning themselves into walking bombs to self-immolation in the style of the young fruit and vegetable seller who ignited the Tunisian revolution, they beat us hands down.

Is it that we are so in love with life, however miserable it is, that we are unwilling to risk losing it, or is it a cultural thing?

Soon enough, the debate became more narrowly focused on Uganda, where 25 years of Museveni’s regime, some as an “elected military dictatorship” is much more than growing numbers of his compatriots can stomach.

Strange as it may seem, even with regular elections through which he and his party could be dislodged from power, at least in theory, many Ugandans believe “the man” can never be removed through the ballot.

They cite vote-rigging, which courts of law have confirmed on two occasions, as the biggest impediment to peaceful change of government.

However, years of post-colonial political violence and instability have left large numbers war-fatigued, with few willing to countenance another “war of liberation.”

If experience under Museveni teaches them anything, they argue, it is that liberators quickly turn into the very despots they once toppled.

And so they are unwilling to trust other warmongers with their dreams of a democratic and equitable future.

The explosion of popular disaffection into rioting in the Maghreb, however, seemed to open up other possibilities.

The more optimistic started visualising a time when Ugandans would also rise up and force change.

One excited newspaper columnist couldn’t contain himself: “But can’t Ugandans take a leaf from the gallant men and women of Tunisia who have used their bare hands and applied sustained people’s power to get rid of their oppressors?” Others in our little drinking group were also of the optimistic type. I begged to differ.

In Tunisia, the trade unions were instrumental in driving the uprising until former president Ben Ali fled the country. Uganda has no trade unions to speak of.

Whatever workers unions the Museveni government found in place, it later emasculated, not least by co-opting their leaders into politics.

Money, position, and fame became preferable to fighting for a fair and just society.

What is left of civil society outside of the union are NGOs cowed into playing safe by draconian legislation. Few dare confront the state.

We now know that rioters in Tunisia and elsewhere were supported by electronic media, including bloggers on Twitter and Facebook.

Such back-up can only play an important role in societies where ICT penetration is deeper than simply cities and a few upcountry towns.

In Uganda, ICT penetration is no more than skin deep. Very few of the 80 per cent of the population who depend on agriculture, mainly of the subsistence type, for their livelihoods, have seen, let alone heard of, a computer

The country may have more than 200 radio stations, but many of these are owned by ruling party functionaries and supporters.

They would not broadcast anything threatening the interests of their party and government. Those daring to do so would be shut down.

Mobile phone networks would be jammed. And then, of course, the army and police would be as partisan and behave as unprofessionally as they have done over the past 25 years: They would shoot to kill.

Even the most foolhardy of would-be rioters would want to exercise caution.

It is a while yet before Uganda can go all the way down that route.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Social Research, Makerere University.