Covid-era E. Africa: Presidential shirts, workouts and eating with peasants

Saturday August 21 2021

Travellers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi after resumption of flights earlier cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions. Airports had been closed and passenger lounges had taken on a ghostly look. PHOTO | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The start of August was an important anniversary for half of East Africa, but it went by unmarked. Battered by the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic early in 2020, virtually the whole world was in lockdown.

East Africa hunkered down, and Uganda and Rwanda, for one, imposed some of the strictest lockdowns on earth to control the spread of the virus. Airports were closed and passenger lounges slowly took on a ghostly look.

In Tanzania, the combative and ham-fisted president John Magufuli came into his Covid-denialist element, and argued that God and steamed herbs, would be enough to beat the virus. He scrapped the publication of Covid-19 infections and deaths data, and threw the gates open for business and international travel in May. Tanzania’s reported Covid-19 infections remained unchanged at 509 for over a year.

Magufuli died on March 17, officially of heart complications. But, with several government leaders succumbing to Covid-19, the popular version that he died from the virus he had belittled held sway.

Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda demured. In the first week of August 2020, both Nairobi and Kigali opened for international travel, and Uganda began moves that eventually ended in it, too, opening in September. These airport reopenings were a significant moment; they spoke to a belief, albeit faint, that the wheel was finally turning favourably in the fight against the pandemic.

A year later, the fear and lockdowns, in which at least a dozen people were killed by security forces enforcing curfew — especially in Kenya and Uganda — have been dialled down a notch. Face masks are still the rule, but largely ignored beyond the edges of the capitals, and are a myth in many parts of rural East Africa.


Vaccine campaigns are in various stages of progress across the East African Community (EAC), and even in Tanzania, a near 360-degree swing on the virus following the relatively more enlightened President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s ascension to power has kicked off vaccination, and Magufuli’s steam booths have been closed.

Surprise: Covid era East Africa’s most peaceful

The pandemic-blighted 2020 seems like it was long ago. Maybe it is, given the dramatic changes the region has witnessed. A lot, some of it largely off radar, has also happened to the occupants of East African presidential palaces: to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta; to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni; to Rwanda’s Paul Kagame; the disruption that has been brought by President Samia Suluhu Hassan, SSH as some wags in Dar es Salaam call her; to Burundi’s Evariste Ndayishimiye, widely known by his nickname Neva; to South Sudan’s fedora hat-addicted Salva Kiir; and not least to Democratic Republic of Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi, who has been banging on the EAC’s door to be let in, and looks likely to soon have a seat at the high table.

Remarkably, despite the cold war between member states and the abrasiveness of the now-departed Magufuli, the Covid-19 era has seen the most peaceful period in East Africa since 2013.

There a little respite in the biggest bloat on the EAC; South Sudan’s spectacularly brutal civil war that has over the past eight years killed nearly 400,000 people, sent over two million fleeing as refugees to neighbouring countries, and internally displaced 2.5 million. A peace deal struck to end the conflict in 2018, has sputtered along fitfully, with Kiir’s rival Riek Machar finally taking office as first vice-president in February 2020, and a newly created national parliament, a long-overdue condition of the troubled peace deal, finally sworn in only on August 2.

In Burundi, Neva rises

In Burundi, as in Tanzania, a presidential death created brief upheaval and uncertainty that eventually shifted the political market into positive territory. Elected in May, Ndayishimiye was scheduled to be take office in August 2020, when his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza stepped down. But Nkurunziza, who had been in power for 15 years, died suddenly. The official cause of his death was cardiac arrest. However, the Covid-sceptic Nkurunziza, whose wife Denise Bucumi-Nkurunziza was in a Nairobi hospital recuperating from a Covid-19 infection at the time, is also thought to have been felled by the virus.

An ill-advised attempt to delay Ndayishimiye’s assumption of the throne in the vacuum created by the death was quickly swatted away, and his swearing-in was fast-tracked to June.

With a failed coup against Nkurunziza in 2015, amid conflict brought by his third-term power grab, Burundi fell off the wagon and descended into violence. A new and deadly war on the opposition, free media and civil society was unleashed, as Burundians once again fled across borders to become refugees.

Morose and brooding, a paranoid Nkurunziza closed down and never left his lairs in Burundi to travel outside the country until he died.

Ndayishimiye, a former rebel, army general, and secretary-general of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, was seen as a chip off the Nkurunziza block. Nkurunziza relished to show the peasant touch. He was often photographed kneeling and praying in farmers’ gardens for their crop, or harvesting it. He liked to play football, although at least once an opponent who tackled him too hard on the field was sent to prison to learn how to play against a president.

Ndayishimiye doesn’t play football, but he has taken Nkurunziza’s agrarian touch to a whole new level. While there was a sense of novelty in Nkurunziza’s hobnobbing with peasant farmers, Ndayishimiye has turned it into an art form. It seems, though, to sit a little easier on him than on his predecessor. A recent video showed Ndayishimiye and his wife visiting a local butcher. He sat on a rickety bench as First Lady Angeline Ndayishimiye picked the portions of meat she liked.

He is regularly shown hauling harvest on his head, with Angeline dutifully beside him carrying her bit. There is a larger cast of villagers, farmers and other folks who work the land around him than there were around Nkurunziza. In photos on Burundian official Twitter handles two weeks ago at an event to mark Local Government Day, Ndayishimiye is shown sitting on the ground in a field, drinking from a traditional African gourd. Beside him, Angeline tucks into a plate of food with her bare hands.

There is a popular video on social media of one of those famed Burundi bicycle banana transporters. It is a hairy business for the bravest – or insane. He is racing down a twisted tarmac road at world-champion-winning speeds. The narrator observes that he can’t touch the brakes, because the tyres would explode. The rider would likely be hurled to his death in the valley, and his precious cargo destroyed. Kilometres later, he arrives with his goods in a town with a patch of flatland and downloads it triumphantly.

The banana carrier delivering his cargo safely after a crazy ride is a perfect metaphor for Ndayishimiye. Like he did on Local Government Day, he’s enabled Burundi to sit with its buttocks on firm ground for the first time in seven years.

Politically, Neva seems to be weaponising Burundi’s modest circumstances into a doctrine of noble humbleness. Early in his rule, he made overtures to Burundi’s long-suffering media, opening dialogue and promising a new freer era. Journalists who were in jail were pardoned and released.

Like SSH did with Magufuli, he has abandoned Nkurunziza’s see-no-Covid-hear-no-Covid approach, and taken the disease more seriously. He has ventured out into the region twice. In mid-May to President Museveni’s inauguration in Kampala as the Ugandan leader set out on his fourth decade in power – but Museveni had to send a plane to pick him up. Later in the same month, he travelled to Kenya and went to the lakeside city of Kisumu, where he hobnobbed with President Kenyatta and attended Independence Day celebrations.

The ghosts of Nkurunziza still menace the land, but Ndayishimiye’s Burundi might just be starting to move out of his shadow.

In Congo, Felix snookers Joseph

In DR Congo, President Tshisekedi has moved even more quickly out of his successor’s shadow. Fewer leaders have come to power in the peculiar circumstances that Tshisekedi did in 2019. President Joseph Kabila, finally succumbing to pressure to hold elections and step down, allegedly helped steal the vote for Tshisekedi, and not his own party’s candidate.

It was a devilishly ingenious move, with Kabila calculating that Tshisekedi would be a feeble leader and forever beholden to him. It looked like an inspired piece of political cynicism, as Tshisekedi appeared the type who would make a perfect puppet. A child of privilege, his father Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba, a notable Francophile, was once a prime minister, then became the prince of DRC’s opposition politics. Young Tshisekedi was to spend some years in Brussels, Belgium, trying to find his footing.

It didn’t go according to plan. In less than two years, Kabila has been almost comprehensively snookered by Tshisekedi.

The story ahead

In the second part of this series, we will stop by Tshisekedi’s place. Also, to the east of DRC, a happier relationship has developed with Rwanda, where President Kagame is emerging from the pandemic with a new sartorial sense. He now regularly dons locally designed shirts, and recently became a dotting grandfather. Watchers say his and Rwanda’s prospects are written on his new-style shirts.

He is not alone. In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta who has earned himself a long list of nicknames, is also called “Uhuru wa Mashati”. When he showed up to make Covid-19 announcements, he came with a new style sense – colourful shirts from local manufacturer Rivatex. He never repeated any of them for a TV appearance. Since becoming president in 2013, the once relatively lean Uhuru today spots an extended midriff. His colourful shirts, worn untucked, help to also mask the pot belly.

Uganda’s Museveni has gone in the very opposite direction, shedding nearly 30 per cent of his body weight. With what was to turn out to be a turbulent election approaching, and seeking to present an image of health and fitness, in April 2020 Museveni, then 75 years old, released a workout video for a country in lockdown that couldn’t go to the gym. It included an impressive 30 press-ups. The video went viral and was covered globally.

In August he returned, this time throwing down 40 press-ups. The slimmed-down Museveni, though, has not changed his style radically, or tailors. His shirts fit better, though. In common with Uhuru and Kagame, he likes to speak of how they are made locally.

These new colourful presidential shirts and bespoke styles are therefore about something bigger – an advertisement for a new push to make and buy locally made goods. At a political level, though, analysts think they are also signs of crypto-economic nationalism.

When Museveni shed weight, no one would have imagined he would also try to shed his political past as dramatically as he tried to do on the evening of August 14. In a televised broadcast, in a speech that gave many whiplash, he denounced the violence of the security services that have been the hallmark of his rule, and which he has historically fervently defended.

He argued for the utmost respect for the human rights of Ugandans, and in a performance that would have won an Olympic gold, silver, and bronze for hyperbole all rolled in one, he claimed that his NRM had the best human-rights record in the world.

What has chased Museveni into the light? Internally, globally, and regionally, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge during two years of the pandemic, and he and his peers are responding to the reality.

However, there are many regional factors at play. Among them, Suluhu happened, and the competition for star East African president became crowded. Is she the one who will move the East African needle, or is she Magufuli with lipstick?

Next week we look where this East Africa will take us. We will speak about what Uhuru sees when he looks in the mirror; the fork in the road that Museveni has arrived at; a Kagame confronting a generational challenge perhaps no other African leader has – managing transition in a post-Genocide society; this East Africa, where President Kiir, considered by some to be a warmonger, declared on a hollow 10th anniversary of his country’s independence, that he would not plunge it back into war.

Read Part II: Uhuru is restless, Kagame and Museveni begin long walk

Read Part III:  A region on the fly: Queen Samia and the five East African kings

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter: @cobbo3