Meeting one of the ‘most influential Arabs’.

On Friday 16, I was honored to attend a public lecture in a small library in Amsterdam where Abdel Bari Atwan, named by  Middle East Magazine as one of the 50 most ‘most influential Arabs’, was speaking on the eve of the one year commemoration of the Arab Spring.

Atwan in Amsterdam on Dec 16. Rosebell's photo

Atwan is editor-in chief of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. He discussed the Arab spring and the future of the Middle East and North Africa beyond the ‘revolution’.

Some of my favorite quotes from the meeting:

“We Arab people were suffered double humiliation. That brought about by imperialism and another by own very own corrupt government.”

I found this quote very meaningful for not only the Arab world but also of Africa. All year long many people have been watching closely to see if there will be a sort of African spring. And every time some friends asked me when is the African Spring, I replied, we won’t have a spring, ours will be the African Harmattan! None the less there has been inspiration from the north of the continent spreading south. In many ways our realities are close to those of the MENA countries and we can only wait and see what changes and how long will they take on the African continent. Just like Atwan said “whoever knew or predicted that the Arab people would depose four dictators in just one year?”

I have very passionate Yemeni friends and Atwan said he respected the struggle of Yemen, knowing how many guns are in the hands of so many people that the country has not moved to a civil war. He applauded the choice of non-violence of the people of Yemen even when they had access to arms. And he told us a famous saying about the difficulty of ruling Yemen with its tribes system that i loved.

“Riding a lion is smoother than ruling Yemen”

Then came Atwan’s passionate talk on the events in Libya and how he disagreed with the NATO military intervention. Even though he was glad that the killing of Muammar Gaddafi has been called a crime against humanity, he decried the west for allowing impunity of rebels turned government of NTC.

I was interested in the fact the the ICC had backed off the Libya case and of recent the prosecutor had indicated that Libya’s new rulers were capable of prosecuting Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Personally i found this ridiculous, how could the killers of his father offer him a fair trial in a country has no justice system. Having spent the earlier week hearing people decry the ICC being an African court, here i was with a situation which clearly an outside court could have done better.

When I asked Atwan about this he went beyond the case of Saif to talk about his recent trip to Tripoli and how many African countries and the were silent about crimes being committed about African people, both Libyans and immigrants.

There are at least 7000 black people in Libya being tortured and living in the most inhumane conditions all these atrocities being presided over by the new regime.Yet we see no human rights papers about them. Nothing from western governments who supposed intervened on human rights grounds. I will not be surprised if we soon hear that Saif has been executed. The West is keeping a blind eye to crimes committed by rebels because of they always put their interests above anything else.

And that was from a Palestinian man who lived in as a refugee in Jordan, managed to study in Egypt and later run one of the most respected Arab media outlets from London since 1989.

Atwan said for the future of the entire region, one must not put their eyes off Egypt. He said is Egypt becomes more islamist, chances are that most of the other countries will follow suit.


South Sudan Independence; A new journey begins

Flag of the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Mov...
Image via Wikipedia

Tonight at midnight, South Sudan will be covered with jubilations, from Juba to Warab, Torit to Yambio, Wau to Raga and all other corners of the new republic. Several dignitaries from around the world will be there to give their blessing to the divorce and for the new nation on Saturday.

And the dream of many like John Garang de Mabior the great South Sudanese fallen leader will come to pass. He once said:

“It is not my intention to change the Comprehensive Peace Agreement but I must say South Sudan needs its own independence. I see it coming even when am not the leader of SPLA/M.”

South Sudanese reporter, Anthony Kamba wrote a piece capturing what the mood in Juba was like ahead of the historic day.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrong an opinion and called it Standing by South Sudan and in there, he captured the countries challenges but most important the opportunities.

‎”…South Sudan has remarkable potential. With substantial oil reserves, huge amounts of arable land and the Nile flowing through its center, South Sudan could grow into a prosperous, self-sustaining nation capable of providing security, services and employment for its population.”

It’s this optimism that I carry a few hours from the independence declaration. I was chatting with a South Sudanese friend and he said to me to understand the feeling I would need to talk to people who lived in places like Kenya where colonial struggles claimed many and lived long to see the Union Jack come down.

South Sudan has been born at time when Africa has made substantial steps in development unlike the 60s. With a population that is not even half that of my country Uganda, South Sudan will need its neighbours who are already a step ahead in all sectors and am optimistic they will be a good asset. Women in Sudan are more than 60 percent of the population, yet 80 percent of them are illiterate. Empowerment of women of South Sudan will be key to the country improving the gloomy development indicators faster. I remember I met one woman on one of the trips to Sudan who said they didn’t want to be like women of Eritrea “who fought but in the end they were pushed out of the system and told their place was only in the kitchen once independence was declared.”

In April I was in Juba working with grassroots women leaders. Juba is a melting pot. It’s where East, Central Africa meets the north and horn of Africa. It’s one of the most diverse African capitals I have visited. My Boda Boda rider was a young man about 20 years old. He was born in Torit, he lived in Masindi in western Uganda then Kenya before finally coming back to Sudan. He speaks about ten languages. Language is important for integration and most Sudanese have spent many years living in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. These experiences can be harnessed to bring about changes in the new republic. South Sudan can take advantage of the booming sectors like education in Uganda where graduates spend years with no job.

It can get professionals from regional capitals who are not being put to use by their countries. These young people can be good for South Sudan as it starts from scratch. The new rich country where production is almost none existent will put pressure on its neighbours for some time because it is a great market for almost everything from food to industrial products to human resource. This can make South Sudan prosperous some years down the road.

But the all this optimism can only mean much if South Sudan can tame its ethnic divisions, corruption and the culture of hero worship. I know dangers of this culture because I am Ugandan. Twenty years after people fought to take power, we are still told if you didn’t fight for the five years in the bush, you are probably useless and you shouldn’t demand for good governance and a your share of the national cake. So Sudan must keep those heroes and heroines accountable. All Sudanese paid the price in this liberation and the country’s ruling party must start embracing alternative views.

I remember at one of the meetings a woman told me that in South Sudan if you don’t support SPLM you are equated to Bashir’s spy or the enemy. This stifling of people’s right to choose a party and oppose policies the way they see fit must be abandoned. And then the tribalism! You don’t want to see another Kenya of tribal politics and high inequality in the new country.

SPLM government must ensure they work for the good of all South Sudanese and shouldn’t hold the country at ransom and its oil revenues. The optimism rests on whether Salva Kiir and his government can deliver that country that many desired and fought for and died for. A country where they could be free and be free indeed.  When the midnight bells rings today, it will be a celebration of many thankful souls. Thankful that after all the loss and despair they went through they have lived to see this historic day. A day I pray will have even greater meaning when people of South Sudan look back some years from now.

Can Uganda’s opposition rally the masses to topple Museveni in 2011

The past week I have been swamped with propaganda lessons (or tactics) from those who mastered persuasion and used it for better or worse causes. Propaganda is commonly looked at in a negative way and it is only mentioned when referring to an enemy or rival when actually it can and does have positive values. Nowhere is propaganda, whether it’s positive or negative, best demonstrated than during elections.

As Uganda heads into general elections early next year, what can especially the opposition learn from one of the greatest propagandist, USSR’s Vladimir Lenin? At the beginning of the 20th century, Lenin, while organising in the Soviet Union on his way to power, argued that agitation and propaganda were a great weapon to attain power. He said that the task of the person seeking to lead,  “must be to utilize every manifestation of discontent and to make the most backward worker understand or feel that the student, the sectarian, the peasant, and the writer are exposed to harms…which oppresses and weighs on him at each step of his whole life.” Lenin argued that the backward farmer having felt that will irresistibly react on his own initiative to demand for changes.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni

How does this apply to Uganda? Let’s begin with Yoweri Museveni, the incumbent president, who is set to be his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party’s flag bearer after an inner plot amongst his party’s inner circle and diehard loyalists declared that position was not up for contest when the party holds its primaries later in the year. Firstly, he is clearly no longer the darling of the masses he was in his first years as president 15 or 20 years ago. Since the 1996 presidential elections, his support (as gauged from election results, two of which in 2001 and 2006 even the Supreme Court unanimously agreed were not free and fair) has been falling by 10 percentage points. Statistically, this would mean Museveni will likely get around 49 percent of the total ballots cast in the 2011 election, that after all the cheating and rigging has been factored in. This is below the constitutionally required 50 plus one percent to be declared a winner. Assuming that the constitution is not changed in the next eight months to scrap off this condition (we had to amend the constitution to deal away with presidential term limits in 2005), this would lead into a re-run.

Last week one of NRM die-hards Mary Karoro Okurut, who ‘represents’ us Bushenyi women in the parliament, wrote an opinion saying that this time the president will get more than 59 percent. Her weak arguments being that in the last five years the lives of Ugandans have changed to the right direction pointing to among others the end of Joseph Kony’s rebellion that the opposition cannot break the NRM strongholds in western Uganda without stating why they can’t.

A more recent Afrobarometer survey in May, 2009, which lends credence to this statistical analysis, showed that President Museveni would not win a clear majority if elections had been held at the time of the survey. 41 per cent of the polled respondents thought they would vote for an NRM candidate if a general election were held the next day. Put slightly differently, they would vote for Museveni since the NRM has not known any other candidate but him.

Museveni clearly knows what is at stake: He must convince voters that he is still relevant after 24 years in power.  So, he is already traversing the country trying to do exactly that. Yet it is a line that will be hard to push successfully when over the period he has been president, training institutions, for instance, have put out more qualified people than have been workplaces to absorb them so much so that getting a job is no longer primarily about what you know than who you know. Most of these qualified but unemployed people are youths who now languish in Kampala’s slummy suburbs depending on their parents who often have to send them some food to survive on as they hit what we call “streetology” (that is, endless walking the streets and knocking on doors looking for employment).  In areas like northern Uganda especially the Acholi sub-region, general unemployment is at about 70 percent. For parents who have given everything within and beyond their means to send their kids to school on a promise of a better future not only for the kids but also for themselves, there cannot be a more saddening situation than having to go on tilling land to sell their little produce to look after 20-something-old educated but jobless men and women.  And unemployment is only but one of the sore issues that plague Museveni’s presidency. There is stinking corruption, the breakdown of all types of services embodied by lake-size potholes in the middle of the capital city, sectarianism in access and distribution of resources (for a man who once abhorred even the sound of the word) et al.

FDC President and Museveni's main challenger in the last two elections Warren Kizza Besigye Kifefe. Daily Monitor photo

The question then becomes: can the opposition link such widespread discontent to Museveni and his NRM to such a magnitude and rate that they can get massive support from such groups? After all, the biggest percentage of the voters in 2011 will be youths because 70 percent of all Ugandan citizens have been born under Museveni’s leadership. The battle for hearts and votes for 2011 should take place among Uganda’s most voting population. Only time will tell whether the opposition can take the battle to this key demographic. In the past I haven’t seen any sort of mobilization or trying to put a clear message and linking problems that everyday Ugandans face to the ineffective leadership of Museveni. That remains the challenge for anybody who wants to lead Uganda.

All the major political parties have completed their primaries and two of them – Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and the Democratic Party (DP) – even got new leaders: Olara Otunnu, the former UN Under-Secretary General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, and Nobert Mao, former MUK Guild President, Parliamentarian and now Gulu District Chairman, respectively. The other, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), returned Dr. Kizza Besigye who has challenged Museveni twice so far.  These and a few other not-so-major parties have formed an interparty cooperation. They intend to field one candidate, which is their key strategy to ousting Museveni out of power he has held for 24 years now.  If Besigye is chosen as the coalition’s candidate, he will take on Museveni for the third time running. The former military colonel can be single-handedly credited for proving that Museveni was challengeable and some people think he still stands a better chance against Museveni. Yet it does not really matter who leads the coalition – Otunnu and Mao have equally sufficient resumes, political and organisational skills to match any standard – if nobody puts to action that lesson from Lenin.

One more lesson from Lenin:  once he captured power he had to ensure that people don’t turn their backs on him. The closest comparison between Leninism and Musevenism, if I can call it that, once  Lenin captured power he sustained support by blaming all the shortages and injustices on the past regime(s), going as far as using films (he controlled the film industry) to remind people how terrible things were under the Czarist Russia to deflect attention from shortcomings under his rule.

And this art of reminding the population of the horrific past that some of us never even saw  especially in regard to our security, is what Museveni has ridden on to keep his support, at least for those living outside northern and eastern Uganda for the last 24 years. In every speech, whether it is at the opening of a new school, a factory or just a road that usually will have taken forever to be completed, we have to be reminded of the past so that we look at the present in the prism of our past. The use of the past to control what we agitate for today and in future is what we need to deal with.  Museveni has already mastered that and the opposition are yet to enrol in the school of Leninism propaganda.

Iran: when a society is humiliated

“People can tolerate hardship, people can tolerate dictatorship but when they reach a point that they feel humiliated that’s when they can force change.”

This week I attended a lecture by a great Iranian whose name I will not mention for security reasons. The discussion was about Iran and the green movement. If you don’t know already, in June President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (call him ‘ahmad in a jacket’ if you want to get his name right quickly like me) won what Ugandans would call another Kisanja (term) during the disputed presidential elections. Before the elections people had been generally free to canvass for votes and many Iranians believed even if he didn’t go, their vote for reform would be recognised. Ahmadinejad claimed a two-thirds majority and the protests against the election followed where many people were arrested some killed. Currently over 500 Iranians from all walks of life are still locked up in jails for taking part in the protest but this has not crashed the movement for change.

map of iran
Map of Iran from PBS.ORG



















So from this lecture I got you what I thought was important quotes and highlights of the Iranian green movement.

First, it has been non-violent. It has no structured leadership for this would make it easy for the dictatorship to target the leaders and therefore somehow significantly crash the movement.

It has been embraced by Iranians from all walks of life. “It is not a student uprising neither is it about workers.”

Only 20 percent of the population are in favour of the current Islamic establishment but you can’t mistaken this movement to be about religion.

It has taken advantage of the new media age to use outlets like twitter, facebook and others to make their voices heard by the rest of the world.

The professor indicated that he was glad this movement is not happening overnight.

“The movement is now less visible than it was in the first two weeks after the elections. I am happy the reform is going on gradually, we don’t need it to be immediate because that will be violent thus taking us 30 years back.”

“It’s a protest that is affecting the core of government. The election was not the only issue. For the last 30 years nobody questioned the legitimacy of government but we see it now.”

On leadership: We know what we don’t want but we don’t know what we want. All factions are together but if you asked what kind of political system they want, there will be a difference, that’s why it’s good the movement is gradual. It gives a chance to get in touch with ordinary people and build awareness.

To foreigners: “the biggest help you can give us is do nothing. The US has been giving money for democracy promotion but Iran has money, that’s not what we want.”

His remarks on the impact of a non-violent all encampassing movement are very true becuase for places like uganda where a rebel leader (current president Museveni) took over power by force promising a fundamental change, they have largely returned to the same old corruption and political manupilation of the citizenry.

I was moved to write about this lectured because of the opening quote. Many Ugandans long for reform but there’s the inability for people to come together to demand for this. Thiss left thinking may be we haven’t yet felt the humiliation. And if that’s so when we will feel it?

Exporting presidential term limits removal ideas to Costa Rica?

It’s now two weeks since I set foot in this beautiful country Costa Rica for my studies. I can’t say much about the country and the people only that Me gusta todo aquí.

But even before a month elapses I read the news that Costa Rican President Oscar Arias is seeking to join the Latin America-Africa syndrome of calling for a new constitution that expand executive powers and get rid of “unnecessary checks” on the president’s authority.

With less than 9 months left in office, Arias can’t run for re-election but his brother and current minister of the presidency — a primer minister of sorts — has openly said he’s interested in running for president in 2014. A new constitution with expanded executive powers would fit him just fine.

That’s all I can pick from the media. And when I told a friend about my worries for this latin American country that has been a island in an ocean of countries facing conflicts, he suspected I might be the one who has exported this idea to Costa Rica. Being Ugandan where we successfully saw the amendment of the constitution to open the lid on presidential terms, my friend suggested I might be the very good Arias advisor.

Costa Rica has not had an army in the last 60 years and it is seen as one of the most progressive countries on South America. But I told my friend I never was part of the group that masterminded the imposition of the whole idea of life presidency on the Ugandan society as if they society never saw enough during the self proclaimed life president Idi Amin. What hurts more today however is  that those defending the decision to put our country’s leadership future in uncertainty want to justify. They justified it then by saying we had a good and able leader and therefore if we gave him one more term he would leave and we would have gained so much from him in those five years. But alas! There’s a new tactics and reasons, that his lubimbi will end when his 75. One Ugandan saying goes, “Owahinga ahorobi nawe ayinuka” which means that even the one who ploughs the softest soil still retires.

I hope Costa Rica doesn’t commit the same sin that my country did and might pay dearly for in future.