Times have changed. East African countries are no longer able to help restore sanity among themselves, otherwise they would have sorted out Burundi and South Sudan long ago.
In 2007, partly to prevent unfair business practices, and leaks of regionally agreed policies, the East African Community states agreed to read their budgets at the same time.
This year, Kenya is reading its budget earlier, and for good reason. In June, it will be in the throes of the campaigns for the August General Election, and most critical business will have long closed.
Rwanda too will be going to the polls in August.
It’s the first time in a very long period that two East African countries have voted days apart in the same month. Rwandans will do their thing on August 4, and Kenyans on August 8 – if nothing changes. Election dates in Kenya have a funny way of shifting.
This has happened by accident, but perhaps the EAC countries should take inspiration and deal with our elections the way they have tried to do with the budgets – hold them all in the same month.
There are reasons why that would be problematic, though, and the main one is that it is a bad way to manage regional election risk.
Especially in Uganda and Kenya, elections tend to be viciously fought and the fury of the politicians can be scary – often you have violence – so there is a real possibility that voting around the same time could leave the whole region in flames.
You need to have a country that is not in election convulsions so that, as happened with Kenya’s 2007/8 post-election violence, Tanzania could mediate between the warring factions.
Also, the faint of heart, expatriates, and such folks usually flee and become temporary election exiles in neighbouring countries. Early last year, Nairobi’s roads had many Ugandan registered cars of such exiles who had left, fearing election mayhem.
In 2013, you couldn’t spit in the eastern Uganda industrial town of Jinja without it landing on a Kenyan. They took over the place.
Are a nightmare
However, for businesses and other organisations that work regionally, East African elections are a nightmare. Because little happens and there is often a lot of uncertainty, such companies had to endure a slow 2015 in Tanzania.
The same thing would have happened in Uganda, in addition to losing half of 2016 because the president is only sworn in May; and immediately they would have to go into holding mode in Kenya. That’s effectively three years lost.
The Rwandese run a tight ship, so their elections don’t cause the same palpitations that they do in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
However, if we held all elections in the same month, and even allowing that hell would break loose, collectively the region would lose only one year, instead of three.
Violence breaks out
After all, times have changed. East African countries are no longer able to help restore sanity among themselves, otherwise they would have sorted out Burundi and South Sudan long ago.
It’s therefore probably less important today for Tanzania to be peaceful, so it can mediate if election violence breaks out in Kenya or Pierre Nkurunziza goes rogue in Burundi.
Wasn’t it Machiavelli who said that; “Cruel acts, though evil, may be justified when they are done all at once…” ?
Simultaneous elections may just be what the doctor ordered for the East African economy.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3
We may all agree that plastic bags provide a convenient means of either carrying our groceries or storing some of these items.
Perhaps, we do not know the extent of harm that plastic does to the environment.
Plastic bags have created towering piles in most of our dumpsites across many African cities. And the environmental hazards resulting from plastic bags were so many such that when Kenya’s Environment Cabinet Secretary Judy Wakhungu announced a complete ban on plastic bags this week, she was greeted with cheers from most quarters.
UN’s environmental agency Unep estimates that 100 million plastic bags were given out in Kenya by supermarkets alone every year.
Top in Africa
It is estimated that Kenya churns out over 24 million plastic bags per month. Kenya now becomes the 11th country in the world to impose a ban on plastic bags and among the top in Africa, joining Mauritania, Eritrea and Rwanda.
The plastic bag waste in Kenya had reached a certain annoying rate, according to environmentalists such that when the ban was announced, Unep executive director Erik Solheim described the act as Kenya’s “decisive action to remove an ugly stain on its outstanding natural beauty”.
At the moment, the world has an estimated 275 million metric tonnes of plastic trash, thus creating an enormous economic burden. Because we are usually not good at recycling, we end up tossing these bags away after use.
Plastics are not biodegradable and can last longer -1,000 years in the ecosystem, releasing chemicals all this time.
It is not only that they are an eyesore when carelessly dumped, but are also a threat to our wildlife and even livestock which die after eating them.
Remember plastic bags are a major source of ocean litter. Unep estimates that about 80 per cent of our ocean litter comes from plastic, thus costing $8 billion damage to the marine ecosystem.
The environmental body approximates that by 2050, our oceans will carry more plastic than fish.
When burnt as a method of disposal, they release toxic substance to the air that we breathe. They do not contain safer chemicals.
They also leak colour additives into the food we eat when used to wrap hot foodstuff.
Plastic also block our waterways, clog our sewages and many a times block our drainage system. They also help in the spread of malaria, which is one of Africa’s biggest killers, by providing good breeding grounds.
Microplastics (like those beads on our facial scrubs or body scrubs) at times end up on our dinner tables as sea food.
And if you thought life without plastic bags was impossible, then you are wrong. Just take a trip to Rwanda.
Non-biodegradable polythene bags have been illegal in Rwanda since 2008, forcing many businesses to replace carrier bags with paper bags and it has paid off.
Kigali is so clean such as no plastic bags can be sighted at all.
Though proponents of plastic argue that it is far much cheaper and has many uses than paper bags, as they point out that more tree will be felled to produce the latter, the benefits of this ban outweigh their continued use.
The way forward after the ban?
Our governments could provide market for environmentally friendly bags and many people will embrace them.
We could also promote reuse and recycling of the ones we already have instead of tossing them away as waste.
By banning plastic bags, we are avoiding disaster in future.
I rarely think or talk about science outside of the social sciences. As a pupil and student I never had a head for such things as mathematics.
My ambivalence toward them often extended to teachers who tried to get me to like them. Putting ideas together in words, not calculations, was my thing. So I naturally gravitated towards “soft” (yeah, right) subjects.
This last week, though, I spent much time discussing or listening to people talk about science and scientists in Africa. If you have been attentive enough, you would know by now that governments in Africa are rather taken up or seem to be taken up by science.
If they are not talking about the imperative to lay emphasis on science subjects in primary and secondary schools, you will find them going on about how important it is that universities admit more science students than those wishing to study “useless subjects” in the arts and social sciences.
Today, whichever African government you can think of is prioritising STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for funding by the state and other privileges. So badly in need of scientists are we that we are willing to sacrifice everything else in the pursuit of producing as many of them as possible.
There are very good reasons for this. We are told constantly about how countries that have done well economically and which we seek or would like to emulate, invested heavily in training scientists. It is difficult to argue against that. Heaps of academic studies provide ample proof of the validity of those claims.
The emphasis on STEM formed the major part of my conversations about science. One of my interlocutors was an eminent African scientist whose talents and expertise have seen him soar to dizzying heights in his field here in Africa and abroad.
The other was a youngish social scientist. He formerly worked for a university, left to become a bureaucrat, but never let go of thinking, researching and writing. He has firm ideas about the dangers of sending brilliant young Africans to top universities in the West to study science without planning what they will or should do when they eventually return home.
The other is an old friend working in the field of innovation. He knows a great deal about inventions and innovations by African scientists that die at conception stage or that never see life beyond the prototype stage.
The conversations took place in different places, miles apart. The local contexts are also different. That, however, did not prevent our views from converging on one thing at least: There is a need to subject the current obsession with STEM to serious debate.
Some of our governments are getting away with simply jumping onto this bandwagon without doing the necessary thinking about the why, the how, and the after.
Why does Africa need scientists as badly as the advocates of STEM claim it does? One could say that without them, Africa cannot do such things as industrialise and make things. Apparently, in making things is where hope for eradicating poverty, a key imperative, lies.
The trouble with this thinking is that it is based on a simple equation: Once you have many scientists, you can industrialise and make things. Now think of all the scientists and innovators roaming Africa fruitlessly looking for money to turn inventions into useable products.
Neither governments nor their miniscule or parochial business communities that focus more on trading than on manufacturing are organised enough to support such people.
Meanwhile the mantra “we need more scientists” goes unchallenged, even as the continent’s young scientists who go to study in the West tend to stay there because “there is nothing to do” at home, as their societies remain unequipped to use them.
And is it actually true that Africa has too many social scientists and so government money should not be wasted on training more? This is another general claim that goes unchallenged.
If you want to know how debatable it is, think of how many foreign consultants flock to Africa every year to advise governments on issues related to poverty and its eradication, how to restructure governments, economies and administrative systems, and even whole systems of education.
Think of how many come out every year to teach us about the importance of civil society or even human rights. There are lots more of these than those coming to help us set up factories or science laboratories.
So if we have too many social scientists, why do we import so many? And if we need scientists that badly, what do we actually need them for, and why do the few that we train tend to leave and stay wherever they go, suggesting that they are needed out there a lot more than here?
And now think of the even softer things such as the arts. I have been to many places in Africa. One thing I don’t see much of are well-maintained museums.
In many African countries, you will be lucky to find functioning national theatres where you can watch a play or a musical. Can governments that neglect culture know what to do with science and scientists?
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: email@example.com
I recently spent part of a week in South Africa, where I once lived and worked and had a fantastic experience on all fronts.
Had I been younger than I was when I arrived to take up a job as a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand in 2001, I might have sought to stay for good or for a very long time, possibly until retirement or even beyond. But by the time I got there, I had decided that East Africa was where I wanted to settle down.
And so, four years later, having completed the tasks that had taken me there, I left. Still, the decision was difficult, for I had I grown to feel almost as much at ease there as I did back home in Uganda.
For almost half of my entire stay, I was holed up in a village in the rural northeast, near Mozambique. I was there to study a range of local phenomena as a member of a multidisciplinary team comprising epidemiologists, public health specialists, demographers and social scientists.
My experience in the village, Ka Masuku, in what during the apartheid period had been the “Black Homeland” of Gazankhulu, was enlightening. I had gone there armed with fairly simple ideas about the apartheid era and how non-white South Africans had experienced it. I shall return to that shortly.
According to local reckoning, I was the only African on the aforementioned team. That by no means implies that my colleagues were from outside the African continent. The vast majority were South Africans: White, of Asian descent, and black Africans.
What the label “African” meant in the context of Ka Masuku and presumably in the wider South African context, was that I was not “South African”. I was from “Africa”.
The label was for the most part used, quite innocently, by the black South Africans, the villagers especially. Although it was sometimes used as a kind of jibe, it was amusing and also understandable.
It was understandable because in its efforts to make them feel inferior to their white compatriots, the apartheid system had also transmitted the idea that, as South Africans, blacks were somehow superior to “Africans”. Negative media stories and images coming out of “Africa” did nothing to dispel that notion.
The one thing I never experienced, however, whether in Ka Masuku or back at the university in Johannesburg, was xenophobia. In the village that may have had to do with who I was: A temporary resident who was preoccupied with esoteric matters of which they had little understanding. No local saw me as a competitor for anything.
Back at the university, I had come to fill a skills gap. In other words, I was not a threat to anyone.
I was reminded of all this on my recent visit when a resident Ugandan sent me an image via social media. The video clip showed a group of mainly young men in a part of Pretoria, wielding machetes and waving them at women and children staring at them from the balcony of an apartment building.
To chop up
Up until then I had not heard of the anti-foreigner protests and violence that had taken place earlier in the day. The young men were threatening to chop up African immigrants who, they argued, should go back to their own countries.
The accusations against the immigrants are very specific. They steal jobs by accepting lower pay than South Africans would accept for the same kind of work. They deal in drugs and sell them to minors.
They have set up businesses in informal settlements and the poorer residential areas and are making money that South Africans ought to be making. They are therefore growing rich while their South African neighbours are growing poorer, unable to find employment and therefore the money they could use as capital to start businesses and also prosper.
Overall, the accuracy or validity of these accusations is debatable. That said, there is some evidence that immigrants have taken advantage of opportunities that, before their coming, South Africans would have taken for granted, or not even noticed. And now that some are visibly better off, the South Africans want the opportunities for themselves and see mass eviction as the only route to seizing them
So, what can the government do in response?
A quick scan of the local print media revealed little more than a chorus of condemnation of their countrymen by the country’s political elite and civil society groups. It seems, however, that the more interesting reaction has been the hardening of rules and procedures for applying for visas to travel to South Africa.
Multiple entry visa
One has to experience the process to realise how onerous it has become. Perhaps most notable for a regular visitor is how it makes no difference whatsoever how many times you have been there and left voluntarily, within the time limits specified in your visas. You still face the same stringent procedures as a first-time traveller.
And if you want a long-term multiple entry visa, just forget it. To the South African authorities, it seems as if every “African” traveller is a potential illegal immigrant.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Have you ever imagined a day without women?
On Wednesday, the world celebrated the International Women’s Day with the theme; “Be Bold for Change”, urging women to stand up for what they believe in.
It was all about having the courage to be uniquely you and being an example to be emulated.
At times, people think being bold borders stepping on other peoples’ toes and crushing them. Well, that is not the case. It is more about pursuing a desirable change in the society.
Across the world, some women requested time off work to mark the day in protest against existing pay gaps and violence.
The labour force
In the US city of Alexandria, women teachers requested time off to mark the day, forcing the city to close down its entire public schools.
According to the UN, only 50 per cent of working age women were represented in the labour force globally, compared to 76 per cent of men.
What also made news was the unveiling of statue of the defiant young girl facing the charging bull of the Wall Street in New York.
It spoke volumes about women and their abilities to create change. Across the world, leaders denounced patriarchy and lauded women for their great achievements in various sectors. Several companies were urged to embrace gender parity on their boards.
There were also several promises made by various governments on ending gender-based violence and increasing women’s participation in all sectors.
Back in Nigeria, some Chibok girls were still in captivity of the Boko Haram, being raped and subjected to all forms of gender-based violence.
The mothers of the girls have cried for justice since it has been 1,059 days since their daughters were taken captives. It was heart breaking to watch their clip on the Voice of America as they were pleading with the world to come and wipe their tears.
The world should not forget the Chibok girls who were still in captivity, just because they dared to get education to remove them from shackles of poverty.
In many nations, there were accounts of gender discrimination. We have our own “Chibok” stories of women still being gang raped by gangsters or even security forces.
We have women whose hands have been chopped off or eyes gouged because they were viewed as a weaker gender and so forth.
Women were still being married off while young and were rounded up and forced to undergo harmful practices like female genital mutilation (FGM).
We have cases of women being discriminated at work because they fell pregnant.
The list is endless. So in the face of all these pain, we need to combat violence and discrimination against women as a way of tackling immense challenges facing them.
Apart from raising awareness, ending harmful practices like female genital mutilation and underage marriage should be more than urgent a call across the globe.
All these will go a long way to increase female representation in social, political and economic sectors and eliminate gender violence.
One thing I know is that women were ready to take the world, they have already navigated through many barriers, let’s now make it possible for them by creating an enabling environment.
You know you live in a failed state when images of starving people from your country are aired on international television.
For many years, decades even, Somalia has dominated international coverage of people facing famine, but now it seems that Kenya has joined the ignominious group of countries whose governments have failed to feed their people.
Last week Al Jazeera showed people in Ganze, Kilifi Country, plucking and eating raw wild berries ostensibly because their crops had failed.
The report did not state what the government was doing to help these people.
Instead, an individual from a cement company in Mombasa was delivering water in tankers to the people in Ganze.
This famine relief effort thus appeared to be a purely private sector initiative.
What’s worse, the reporter stated that the government’s direct cash transfer scheme to the poorest and most vulnerable people in Kilifi County was going to be discontinued, but did not explain why.
The story was a public relations disaster for the government, but then the government has only itself to blame.
When President Uhuru Kenyatta declared famine a national disaster, he paved the way for the foreign media and the international community to make a case for why Kenya is in need of food aid.
Once a government admits that it does not have the capacity to help its citizens to avert hunger, it is basically signing on to failed state dependency status.
It is a well-known fact that famine is usually not the result of drought or poor rainfall, but the consequence of poor governance or failed policies.
Famines occur because governments fail to institute policies or programmes that enhance food security.
As I have stated in this column before, there is no reason Kilifi, which has so much agricultural potential, should be on a famine watch list.
Both the national and the county governments have failed the people of Kilifi because they failed to unleash this potential.
However, agriculture is not the only means to enhance food security; many rich arid countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, import almost all their food.
Their people don’t starve because they have the capacity to buy imported food.
Kenya was not reduced to a starving nation even during the devastating famine that ravaged the country and the Horn of Africa region in 2011.
At that time, ordinary Kenyans contributed generously to the relief effort without begging for aid from foreign donors.
It seems we have sunk pretty low since then.
It is shameful and disturbing to see that our so-called “digital government” could not see this national crisis coming, and now expects the international community to pick up the pieces.
And it is the same international community the government has been vilifying since it took office in 2013.
I have always wanted to go to West Africa, but for one reason or another I have lost the chance to do so.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to a conference in Abuja, but the online visa application form was so hard to navigate, I gave up and so could not go to Nigeria.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I got an unexpected invitation to attend a meeting in Dakar and got really excited because the Senegalese embassy’s website showed that Kenya was among those countries whose nationals do not need a visa to go to Senegal.
Just to make sure, I wrote to the embassy and was told that, in fact, I did need a visa, which could take up to 14 days to process.
So I was forced to decline the invitation.
I expect to go through lengthy, cumbersome and humiliating visa processes when going to Europe or North America, which is why I have been declining invitations from those regions in recent years.
But I didn’t expect it to be so difficult for Kenyans to travel within Africa.
I now realise that the Pan-Africanist dream of a borderless continent was just that — a dream.
Ghana and the Gambia are the only countries in West Africa for which Kenyans do not need visas.
The other countries in Africa for which Kenyans do not need to apply for a visa are Botswana, Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Rwanda, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
These now top my list of countries to visit in the coming years.
I was watching campaign clips of US President Donald Trump going on with his usual racial tirades and started wondering how a person could be outright racist.
I don’t think Trump woke up one day and decided that his colour was superior; it must have been something he learnt as a child, so I thought.
Could it be that our homes and schools are the breeding grounds of racism? And racism is still rife in Africa!
You see, as human beings we all use stereotypes at one point either knowingly or unknowingly. So we are the enemies of equality that we keep shouting about.
When we look at people using pigeonholes, we at times focus on the colour of their skin, age, gender and these days people have taken it to another stinking level - we take in the body size as well, we see nothing beyond those.
In our minds, biases are created so we end up only thinking these people are dumb, bad or slow, which does not reflect in reality.
And unfortunately, this is how different people are perceived in the society. Though there is only concern about growing racism in Western and the Arab world.
There is increasing racism attitude and behaviour among children in Africa which needs to be tackled fast enough. The other day in Tanzania’s commercial city of Dar es Salaam, I was meeting a group of women of the Asian descent and we were asked to go along with our children. My child was the only African while the rest were Asians.
When I took my child to play on the swing with the rest, one of them said they could not play with him because they were told that Africans are monkeys and one said his name was disgusting.
You can imagine a toddler feeling the sting of racial prejudice in his own country! Well, with time, some of the younger children loosened up and decided to play with my toddler.
The older ones were adamant that they could not play with an African child. You see, we cannot blame these children because they were all born innocent and loving until someone, either at home or in school, or wherever corrupted their minds and told them that one race is superior to the other. This is how we pass on racism and tribalism to our children.
Children cannot help but learn from their parents or at school that certain races occupy different positions in the society.
Psychologists assert that racism and physical prejudice don’t fully develop in human beings until their teen or adult years. But here were children who were hardly 10 but had the ability to express racial preferences.
An article posted in Boston Globe newspaper on June 2012 quotes Mahzarin Banaji, a renowned Harvard University psychologist, brain researcher, and racism and physical prejudice expert, and colleagues pointing out that even though they may not understand the “why’’ of their feelings, children exposed to racism tended to accept and embrace it as young as age 3, and in just a matter of days.
So, here are my suggestions on how to help children unlearn bigotry and make a world a better place for everyone and the future generations. The change start with us, we could start those community multicultural initiatives or events to reduce racism attitude and increase awareness about the existing intolerance.
When children continually do the same thing together and their parents and teachers encourage them, they tend to form a great team - they are just innocent souls who need to learn various virtues and unlearn racism.
Our schools could embrace multicultural education that promotes positive group relations and help learners and their teachers positively embrace ethnic diversity.
As parents, we could talk positively to our children about people who we perceive to be different from us, it could be ethnic, racial, religion, gender or any other thing so that they have a diverse and positive outlook of the society.
They will also be able to learn to live and work closely with people whose religion, race, culture may be different from their own.
By speaking positively with our children about people from different cultures and races, their lives would not be constricted by fear and they would eventually work to end discrimination.
That is how I want to raise my child.
There is this heartbreaking video which went viral in Tanzania of a woman who wept before President John Pombe Magufuli in public narrating her torturous journey to get justice following her husband’s death.
The Kenyan woman was married in Tanzania but all hell broke loose when her husband died. She was branded an outsider and her property confiscated.
The widow tried unsuccessfully for several years to go to the authorities, including courts, with all documents indicating that her husband gave her the power of attorney to take charge of the family properties.
She also had her marriage certificate and all other required papers, but she instead ended up on the receiving end from authorities to her in-laws and step children.
It reminded me of the place of women as far as land rights and property ownership are concerned in Africa.
In most African homes, women still lack land rights, making them really vulnerable. I thought the situation was a bit different for women with some exposure and could at least stand for their rights.
Away from that woman, I had some unhappy experience two weeks ago in Dar es Salaam when local authorities had come to our neighbourhood to solve a boundary dispute pitting two of our neighbours.
A hoarse voice
I was later called and asked if I was the owner of the home where I live. When I responded in the affirmative, it was when I heard a hoarse voice from one of the men who had accompanied these officials! He was like, “You are just a foreigner and a woman so you have no say about this land. The only person authorised to talk about this land is your husband. I doubt if he had even married you by the time he acquired this land!”
My jaw dropped at this point. How sure was he that I was not married and did not participate in acquiring the parcel of land? I remember every time we would go to see the land in the past with my spouse, that guy was always friendly and would fondly refer to me as shemeji (Kiswahili for in-law). But on this day, when it came to land and property, I immediately became an outsider, a foreigner for that matter and a woman who should just shut up!
However, I didn’t shut up, I insisted and reasoned with the local government officials who later told the man to avoid offending others. Then in a surprise twist, the government official asked me if I had legal permit to stay in Tanzania.
Well, to cut the long story short, Africa still has a long way when it comes to women having access to land or family property. The only time women will have secure access to land is when our governments come up with laws to contest the social norms and practices that stand in our way.
I know of a few countries like Rwanda and Kenya making headways there, but the efforts were yet to result in equitable outcomes for women and men.
The land question is a historical problem in Africa since the pre-colonial days. It was always the male members of the clans who exercised control on land use. And it was only sons who inherited land as women were regarded as distant claimants through male relatives even after being divorce or widowed.
The male members of the family would gang up and take over the family property and either kill the woman or send her and her children away. Sadly enough, the practice was still rife in many regions of Africa.
In some communities, old women who still owned some land were usually accused of practising witchcraft and killed, then their lands invaded.
Even land titling has not helped women much as it is mainly men who were considered to be household heads who get their names on these documents.
While women worked hard to make ends meet for their families, land was definitely out of their control. Though we were making headways with progressive policies, we still need to raise awareness and carry out legal literacy about women's land rights.
Our governments need to encourage women who have been denied access to land to come out and file claims and help them secure access to legal redress. Land ownership gives woman some social status and dignity.