On Thursday 18, many Ugandans woke up enthusiastic, ready to put months of campaigns behind them and choose a new president and a parliament. The voting was scheduled to begin at 7:00 am and end at 4:00 pm. So at dawn, many set out to line up and cast their vote in an election recent opinion polls had projected to be the closest since President Yoweri Museveni took over power in 1986.
But before the poll opening hour, most of Uganda was locked out of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp in a move the government regulatory body and the Ugandan Army Spokesperson came to defend as a response to ‘security threat.’ Over 7 million people use Internet daily in Uganda and WhatsApp is the fastest way of sharing information, cheaply around the country. Cutting these channels off sparked alarms on the intentions of state security and the Electoral Commission. Also Mobile Money services were taken down, leaving some Ugandans stranded as this is the quickest way many Ugandans send and receive money from relatives.
In December 2010 I traveled to Cancun, Mexico to cover the UN climate change talks – the COP16. It was there that I met and had a brief chat with the late Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi. Zenawi had been selected by African heads of state to represent collective views of African states at the talks.
It wasn’t easy to access him, just like any other leader at such a big world summit but I got a moment after he appeared on a panel talking about economy and climate change. He was as sharp as a tack cutting through all figures of what price the continent’s people were paying as a result of global warming and other climatic effects and what it would take for us to adapt to the changing patterns.
After the session I had a brief interview with him before he was led to some stall he had to visit. On the way back I had one more question for him and I did make a successful attempt.
I was amazed by his interest in details. I had told him am Ugandan but he wanted to know where exactly in Uganda I was from. When I mentioned west, he still wanted to know which town I was from. Then I went on to say near Mbarara and on his insistance I finally said Bushenyi. I had yet to visit Ethiopia where I have great friends who are like family to me in many ways.
When I finally visited the country later that month, I was told about the suppression of the people. I was shocked to know that even a Facebook status complaining about food prices and what government was or wasn’t doing could put one in trouble. I found it a great country with great history whose peoples were yet to see freedom.
Ethiopia appears in the last deck of countries when it comes to civil liberties, press freedom and Meles presided over a government that did little listening to dissenting voices.
As the year 2011 closed, December 7 marked a historic day in international justice. The first former head of state Luarent Gbagbo appeared before the International Criminal Criminal for crimes allegedly committed during the Dec 2010-April 2011 post election violence in his country Cote d’ivoire. Gbagbo had take over and retain power by force and trickery. Over 3000 people died in Cote d’Iviore.
He faces four charges of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape. Throughout the conflict I had kept in close touch with friends in the country and their distress was beyond what I could imagine. Everyday Africa was treated to the drama of two people claiming to have won an election. Many thought Ivory Coast could head in the direction of Kenya and Zimbabwe, where compromise had to be reached because Africa’s old men didn’t wish to leave.
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 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.
The main focus has been on the humanitarian needs for the worst affected. The UN estimates that and extra $1.2billion is required to meet immediate needs and of this so far less than $300 million has been provided.
Yet the discussion cannot just be about meeting the needs of today. This crisis was predicted, governments and international community had enough time to respond and had they responded we would not be seing images of children with bare ribs arriving in Dadaab. I have seen statements slamming international community for its slow response to the crisis but I have not seen many questions put these African governments expect for Kenya over opening a new camp for Somali refugees.
Read more of a blog i wrote for Channel16 published earlier this week.
It’s been great two weeks.I made a one week stopover in Brussels to catch the Couleur Cafe, an annual music festival that brings out the best of music from the world outside Europe. My inspiration was to watch the Ivorian Reggae legend Tiken Jah Fakoly perform. He’s such an activist who has been unable to live in his home country. He spends most of his time in Mali. I wanted to hear him sing tracks off his 2010 album, African revolution. The album emphasises the need for a more African education and understanding of the problems of the continent by those that live on the land.
The album couldn’t have come at a better time when in many countries in Africa youth are trying to push for political and economic changes. There’s another good one, Political War, which came out right before his country descended into violence late last year and the greater part of this year. Talks about wars and devastation in Liberia, Nigeria and other countries. Coming from Uganda where we are holding our breath hoping President Museveni will retire after his three decades rule, this album makes so much sense, we want no political war!
Some other songs talks at increasingly irrelevance of some African leaders to their citizens. I captured the great stage in Brussels.
It’s one of my last days in Washington DC before i head home. I took a walk with friends by the White House today. From a distance I could see the flag waving. It had black, yellow red. Few flags can be confused with the Ugandan flag, i took a few steps and i saw one man holding out a placard. As i walked closer to him, one image caught my eye. The image of Brenda Nalwendo, the photo that send chills down the spines of even those i knew to love President Museveni’s regime. It was in April she was shot right in her belly as she tried to cross the streets as the police and military fired on protesters. She was pregnant and by the hand of God she survived and her baby was unharmed. I later visited her in hospital and haven’t heard from her much. But right here in DC i saw her picture and also the picture of parents of a 2 year old Juliana Nalwanga who was killed in Masaka. About 10 people died in the protests.
This week civil society organisations called for an independent inquiry into the April killings. I am not optimistic this will happen as we have seen many inquiries in Uganda tend to be a waste. Charles Bukenya was the man holding the placard with these images. He’ on hunger strike a colleague tells me. Its part of the vigil that former presidential candidate and opposition figure Nortbert Mao has called for,according to Bukenya. Bukenya is a Uganda Young Democrats (USA) head. He says he will not end the strike until President Obama talks to him or about the human rights violations by the current regime. He says its time U.S stopped being blind to the ‘impunity’ that rules in Uganda.
Yesterday, the Trust Law which is part of the Thomas Reuters Foundation published a Danger Poll. The results were about the five top spots where it’s dangerous to be a woman in the world. Top was Afghanistan and second was Democratic Republic of Congo. The indicators were six; non-sexual violence, sexual violence, health threats, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to resources and trafficking.
DRC was put in that spotlight because of the war time rapes that are well documented in the Eastern DRC where different militias control different parts. The survey identified Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan, India and Somalia as the top most dangerous countries for women in 2011.
We journalists love to jump up to the terms coined to describe a place or a people-sometimes without questioning. Our challenge is always, how do you describe a place or people to another person who has never been there and make them feel as if they are there? Sometimes the terms coined might well fit the situation but as an African, I have seen these terms thrown around by those outside the continent who are so ready to speak for us in their endeavor to get more funding to ‘save’ Africans. What they never think of is these terms stick even when these situations are gone. Many have heard of the war in Congo and mass rapes from different UN resolutions and regional agreements. Our very own army – Uganda committed horrendous crimes in DRC between 1998-2003 and so did four other African armies. The challenge we are faced with in the Congo is not so much in coining terms to describe a whole country as worst place to be a woman but rather finding real interventions to end the lawlessness in DRC that allows impunity to do anything from murder to rape.
So I had a discussion with my former editor at Inter Press Service Africa Terna Gyuse on why the world is fixed on coining terms instead of embarking on real interventions. I am also aware that these narratives put on an entire country last way longer. Before we know it everyman from Congo will be looked at a rapist or even asked questions on immigration forms like, did you rape anyone during the war? How do you help a country without creating negative connotations to a whole group of people? This was Terna’s response:
Part of the problem is there are too many people paid to sit in offices and sell campaigns or places they’ve never lived. They’re always busy fighting on someone else’s behalf, they are making so much noise they have to add extra something or the other to everything just to be heard. We all do it I suppose. They are sitting there, well paid and with their fingers on the triggers of access to everything, always adopting people they like to feel are helpless.
But (sadly) we let them do it. Always lining up to be “climate witnesses” for this group or whatever the flavour is. We go to too many meetings not to say anything but to ask for help. We Africans are so often ready to be whatever they say we are. On conflicts Oh everyone knows those rural African men are sex-mad patriarchal rapist fiends, hopped up on drugs and tradition and the power of the gun. When we get good access, we’re still busy explaining ourselves to outsiders whether its access to the media, to powerful people elsewhere or to wealthy people elsewhere.
Seeing this term coined, ‘worst place to be a woman’, I thought this can easily be passed onto Uganda, Zimbabwe, Chad, South Sudan or even Central African Republic. The term made me wonder, I thought of Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who founded a hospital in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu to provide free care to the victims of sexual violence. The man has worked tirelessly to provide for women who would have lost lives and provided support for their psychological recovery. Having seen firsthand the worst impact of rapes of women of his beloved country, I wondered if Dr. Mukwege would ever evoke the term ‘worst place to be a woman’ as description of his country.
I can only hope that all the killing, looting and raping, which includes men as victims too, will be presented as part of a complex story of DRC that has got many facets. That the world shdn’t just be satisfied in having the largest UN Peacekeeping mission in Congo with little results to show. We should question whether the agreements on the exportation of the blood minerals do hold and whether the Kabila government is doing enough. It should also be told that despite the rapes, Congo has got women and men that are making shifts in making their communities better for all and that the redemption of Congo cannot come about by just throwing around labels.