Why Some African leaders are smiling at the storm in North Africa

It’s been more than a month since protests that began in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid spread across North Africa and the Middle East. The protests in Tunisia were sparked by the action Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old street vendor who on December 17, 2010 set himself on fire in front of the municipal building protesting his ill-treatment by local police who confiscated his merchandise.

By the time Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011, protests had gripped Tunisia, many Tunisians poured in the streets to challenge the regime of -President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali was later forced to flee to Saudi Arabia, ending his 23 year old rule.

The Tunisian revolution, entirely engineered from within, spread ripples to the rest of the Arab world and protests have been going on ever since. Africans have largely followed the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Sudan through different media. In Uganda where local TV stations air direct feeds from Al Jazeera and other international networks, many people especially in the capital have watched in disbelief. They have hardly seen determined people standing up to a regime without the help of a gun.

Many Ugandans in the social networks have facebook status and tweets warning or wishing the same could happen in Uganda. I have refused to be optimistic about the events in North Africa. However a good look at Zimbabwe, Angola, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville to Uganda  you would understand the excitement.

The first post I made when Ben Ali was ousted by Tunisians was “the African club of dictators has lost a member and they will be doing some rethinking.” May be I should have been more specific on which leaders. So far only Sudan’s Omar al Bashir, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika and to some extent, the self-baptised Africa’s king of Kings, Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi are feeling the quakes and tremors.

At  the African Union summit  in Addis Ababa, Tunisia was missing on the agenda but the AU president hailed the maturity of Tunisian people. The summit largely dwelt on the Ivory Coast election row where they are yet to reach an agreement.

The protests in North Africa have been largely around unemployment rate, corruption, poor living conditions and curtailing of freedoms of masses by the regimes. A look at the statistics tells you a story that would trick most of Africa into thinking they too could have a shot at bringing down their own dictators.

Almost two thirds of Egypt’s population has been born since President Hosni Mubarak came to power. Unemployment rate is North Africa has been high as their leaders live a royalty life. Corruption has been so rampant that the middle class in these countries never saw the reason why they paid taxes.  The living conditions in these countries for most of the population were terrible.  Only one percent of rural people in Tunisia have access to clean water and unemployment was at 14.2 percent as of 2009.

Compare the situation in these countries to Uganda you will find a lot of similarities.

About 77 per cent of Uganda’s population is youth. According to a 2008 World Bank report, Uganda has the highest youth unemployment rate and the youngest population in the world.

The African Development Indicators [ADI] report 2008/2009, showed youth have borne the burden of unemployment with the rate at 83 percent.

Corruption has been well documented and a few examples including the siphoning of the Global Fund money meant for HIV and Malaria interventions. More than $1.6 million was embezzled and misappropriated and we still can’t really point out to any recovery more than 3 years down the road. One of the ministers that was implicated in this corruption scandal once told me, on a flight to London, that the “President knew the where the global fund money went.” And later testimonies showed some of it ended up supporting the referendum in 2005.

This scandal that led to Uganda to be temporarily suspended from benefiting from the Fund did not cause much outrage and the ministers who were in charge are walking free in our streets. Capt. Mike Mukula, the junior health minister at the time has actually returned to campaign for a parliamentary post with a cynical slogan “We want you back” in Soroti Eastern Uganda.

There’s been evidence that a lots of funds meant for the hosting of 2007 the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting went missing. President Museveni ordered for arrests but we haven’t seen any big officials brought to book.

Just this month, members of parliament woke up and found 20 million shillings wired to their accounts for monitoring NAADs programs (an agricultural program that has largely benefits those who support the regime). President Museveni said that MPs needed this money ironically at a time of elections and the Ministry of Finance has come out to say the government is broke and will not easily fund certain sectors. The media continues the campaign  calling this a bribe and some opposition MPs have gone ahead to return the money to Parliament.

Talk of standard of living, Uganda having worse development indicators than the North African countries. Most Ugandans rely on out of pocket expenditure for their health, public health services are very hard to access and even when you get to hospitals there are no drugs. Soroti, a Regional Referral Hospital has only three maternity beds, it serves a population of over 20,000. The Universal primary education enrolled pupils and in the end we have produced half-baked primary education drop outs across the country with girls being affected most.

We cannot forget that President Museveni has been in power for now 25 years and he’s seeking re-election to step in the shoes of Mubarak.

This kind of comparison would one understand why some educated youthful Ugandans can have faith that la revolución will spread farther south of the Nile. This is not a wild expectation but looking on the side you would know well why Ugandans are not about to stand to President Museveni and his regime.

North African countries have a high literacy level over 70 percent and there are more urban dwellers in the north than in most of sub-Saharan Africa with a more exceptions. Most people who live in urban areas in Uganda for instance are more aware of the working of the state and they generally don’t vote President Museveni. So urbanization has a huge impact on how citizens relate to government and urban dwellers in Africa generally expect more from government.

Food prices have been a big factor in North Africa but we have not seen food prices threatening the survival of 80 percent of most Ugandans who live in the rural areas. Uganda is a fertile country and most people eat from their gardens. I grew up in a rural area and for me government means a few things. They do not relate hunger to government failures or lack of policies.  In the last twenty five years President Museveni has capitalized on this and made sleep (‘peace’) as the sole basic need Ugandans can demand for.

And like Ibrahim Sharqieh, the Deputy Director, Brookings Doha Center said, “the Tunisian model demonstrates, revolutions do not happen overnight.”

Many Ugandans especially the old have been psyched about the past of the country. They live in eternal fear that Museveni alone can guarantee a peaceful Uganda and he reinforces this daily with talk of when he came in 1986 and we –shall- deal- with –talk for every problem the country faces is from saboteurs.

Sharqieh further says “They (revolutions) require an accumulation of events before the environment ripens… They require momentum. Tunisians today recognize how the 1984 “bread revolution” has impacted their current uprising, as well as the 1988 Algerian uprising that collapsed the country’s single party system and introduced democratic reforms. Egyptians likewise recognize the significance of the April 6 price and wages demonstrations in 2008 and food demonstrations in 2007.”

Borrowing from Sharqieh’s analysis of theTunisian model, “an impoverished, educated people can more effectively organize violent protests and disrupt stability” than our largely uneducated psyched population.

Most youth in Uganda are also engulfed in the craze to acquire quick free money just like their fathers in power. They have not seen what effective institutions mean and the struggle to snatch what you can has not left us behind. There’s a lot of money being distributed now across the country as we near the voting day on February 18th. And the youth who could have made a difference are part of this crowd which sells their vote. I always ask, why should I sell my future to men who are the evening of their lives?  Most youth haven’t had time to stop and ask that question and reflect while others stay away from voting and engaging in any political thinking this guarantees their survival.

And also the heavy reliance on donor money doesn’t make an ordinary African question his government. Someone once told me “abo barya esente zabazungu gwe abifaakoki?” meaning they are eating white people’s money why do you care? So Africans still see funds as either government property or from a token to their government from western countries.

Also there was unity among the people across divides of religion and class, that division is still here in form of looking at everyone’s region and tribe.

Lastly the revolutions going in North Africa have been helped by the use of new media which has had a well reception in the whole of the Arab region in the last decade. In the rest of Africa, many youth have not seen a computer and while telephones have increased the participation of youth in freedom of expression, the youth can’t easily maneuver when government puts a crackdown. And those on social networks are not yet using them for the cases that affect their daily lives. In 2006, the government jammed radio stations which were airing election results and people had to rely solely on the Electoral Commission (EC) tally center. The EC, which has been ruled incompetent by the highest court in the land, to be the only source of information Ugandan’s democracy remains at the mercy of a few men.

Most people in Uganda generally are in two categories those that fear the regime and those that fear life after the regime. Those in fear are aware that they will be crashed because we have seen heavy military equipment (one usually saved for combat) in the streets of Kampala when the youth have come out to demonstrate in the past. Those who fear the life after can’t start imagining the scenario.

This happens in many other African countries where rulers have given themselves more years and abrogated constitutions to leave nations with a chance of having a life president. So for now I remain skeptical of my country seeing any of what’s on TV and I hope that these revolutions bring meaningful changes to these countries. That no one will hijack a peoples struggle just like it happened in Iran decades ago.