Two years of solitude: How Covid changed East Africa’s sociocultural, political order

Saturday December 17 2022
President Museveni and son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba

President Museveni’s son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, made a bold move and announced that he wanted to lead Uganda at some point. Later, he refined his message and said he was throwing his hat in the ring in 2026 when, it turned out, his father still intends to make a bid for at least 45 years in office.

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

This Christmas and New Year are going to feel a little different. They are the first since Covid-19 shut down the world in early 2020, which will take place in East Africa — as in all of Africa — without strict face mask mandates, social distance and sanitisation diktats.

Covid brought many changes in the region, a few obvious, most not so. It spawned a high level of digital dependency as most things, from learning, meetings (now very many folks know what Zoom, Google Hangout, Microsoft Teams, and Webex are), physician consultancy, and even more payments, went online.

Along with it came a new army of cybercriminals. In the end, we got a big boost in levels of digital literacy.

We are yet to see good studies, but anecdotal evidence that there was a massive improvement in basic hygiene and preventive health as everyone scrubbed up, and several governments rushed water services to areas that had been long neglected.

There are doctors who, privately, go as far as claiming that, because of these massive improvements and the comparatively lower toll of Covid in Africa, in absolute terms, fewer people could have died in countries like Kenya and Uganda in 2020 and 2021 than in any of the previous few years without the rampaging virus.

‘Miracle’ foods


Anecdotes also suggest that, like in many other places in Africa, we embraced traditional medicines and “miracle” foods that keep illnesses away in ways that were probably last witnessed 100 years ago. We became more authentically African in our embrace of indigenous/traditional knowledge and cultural expression. The ancestors must be very pleased.

It will be interesting to see how these changes and re-arrangements manifest in our societies and the way we live and work in the coming years.

Cowering at home and fearing the often brutal Covid rules enforcers on the street, social media memes and comedians became the primary avenues through which many people kept their sanity. A new generation of stars, from restless and bored school children, parents driven to near-insanity, and nomads verging on suicide from being forced to shelter in place, created amazing content, launching many of them to post-Covid fortune and fame.

Social media is young, but the lockdown period stamped that youth on it like a thunderbolt. From that emerged one of its most potent political impacts in East Africa. It lit a big fire under the generational contest in a very dramatic way.

Contemplated their situation

Huddled at home, penniless and fuming, Kenya’s youth contemplated their situation. Along came then Deputy President, now President, William Ruto, who told them their problems were partly due to the historical monopoly of wealth and power by the country’s historical families and old money —whom he dubbed “dynasties”.

Those dynasties were represented by the main coalition he was running against for president, Azimio la Umoja, whose flagbearer was former premier Raila Odinga and whose chairman was then his boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta. The Kenyattas, are as old money as old money can get, and Odingas are the nearest Kenya has to the Kennedys.

In an election that was contested up to the Supreme Court, and which Raila still maintains was stolen from him, the one thing that can’t be disputed is that if the people hadn’t been in lockdown brooding for most of two years, it could have been all but a tied vote.

Most violent election

In Uganda, the country went to easily its most violent election in January 2021. Long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni, in power for 35 years at that point, faced off with reggae musician-turned-political Robert Kyagulanyi, more popularly known by his stage name Bobi Wine.

Kyagulanyi was a baby with a running nose when Museveni came to power, after a five-year guerrilla war, in January 1986. A hit with urban youth, it took the weaponisation of Covid rules and a huge amount of violence and electoral sleight of hand for Museveni to prevail over Kyagulanyi.

Something big gave way in that January 2021 election, and it became evident a year through a surprising source — President Museveni’s son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who was shortly after appointed Commander of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces.

Bold move

Muhoozi made a bold move and announced that he wanted to lead Uganda at some point. Later, he refined his message and said he was throwing his hat in the ring in 2026 when, it turned out, his father still intends to make a bid for at least 45 years in office.

He travelled around the country rallying the youth, but his weapon was mostly Twitter, where he displayed a penchant for attention-grabbing and norm-shattering posts. If he hadn’t been the President’s child, he would have been thrown down a dark hole. He got a mild reprimand and was dropped as Commander of the Land Forces but promoted to general.

Amidst the controversy that swirled around him, something important was lost: No one had framed the generational question better than Muhoozi. Though he remains bitterly at loggerheads with Kyagulanyi, they had been born by the same historical forces. Museveni will likely hang on for a while, but in 2021, in a stark moment in Ugandan political clarity brought on by the pandemic, the generational train left the train.

Next week, we look at how the pandemic reshaped East African security, how sports — especially in Kenya and Rwanda — defined that period, and how Tanzania’s unorthodox denialist approach to Covid forced new thinking about “African things”.

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