The Warsan

Here’s 2020 – and its fools and wise men and women

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Today is a symbolically important day; we start the third decade of the 21st century. Politicians are giving signals that they understand the times are very much changed, and call for a very different pair of hands to steer the destiny of nations.

In what the online news site Africanews called “winds of change”, East African leaders whose two or three terms are about to end, are reaffirming they will not stand again or won’t do a Museveni and scrap term and age limits to lengthen their stay on the throne.

Africanews reported Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, repeating that he wouldn’t run in 2024 when his current third seven-year term expires. A 2015 referendum lifted term limits for Kagame, so he can run if he wishes until 2034. In interesting comments, Kagame was reported to have said “only fools rule beyond three presidential terms.”

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, who in 2015 plunged his country into near-civil war and crisis that has bloodied its economy when he scrapped term limits, has been swearing that he will leave the thing in 2020 although he can cling on for longer.

Tanzania’s ham-fisted John Pombe Magufuli, who quickly turned rogue after exciting the world about his anti-corruption ways, had raised suspicion that he would overturn the country’s long-standing two-term presidential term. He too has now said he will not seek a presidency for life.

In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second term expires in 2022, and there have been questions about whether or not he will stay on, especially if the current push for a constitution change succeeds, and the post of Prime Minister is created. That one, or a watered down presidency, could be his, according to the political grapevine. Now Uhuru has come out and said he won’t hang around.

The only East African president who hasn’t put his cards on the table is President Yoweri Museveni who, at 34 years, is the longest-ruling president in the region’s history, and currently the fourth in the African Presidents-for-Life League. We will return to the Uganda case in the future, but for now many must be wondering how East Africa in general has changed.

Let’s take 1986, the year Museveni came to power as our starting point. At that time, the internet as we know it today, hadn’t been invented. Today, we are headed into a kind of post-internet age—and the good man and our dear president is still around.

The internet overturned the way we learn, create, experience the world, do politics, fall in and out of love, grow rich or poor, and took away the power of many institutions (hierarchical churches, parents, political parties, states) as it also entrenched that of others – the securitariats, big finance, and big tech, conspiracy theorists, and all sorts of evil people.

In 1986, HIV/AIDS wasn’t a big deal. It came, wreaked deadly havoc that threatened to finish off our societies, and now it has been check mated with the advance in medicine and care. It’s still deadly, but no longer an automatic death sentence. Even something as mundane as the water hyacinth, which is imperiling Lake Victoria, wasn’t around.

The force that has upended Africa’s urbanisation trajectory, the boda boda, was nowhere in 1986. In fact, until the election of 2001, the boda boda was still largely a bicycle in remote parts of the country and at border crossings.

Universal Primary Education (UPE) was unheard of. It’s over 20 years now. With UPE, the Kampala government has since behaved like the drunk who drove a party bus over the cliff – the mediocrity cliff.

There were, of course, no mobile phones; only a single private university (Bugema); only government radio and TV; the hugely popular English Premier League wasn’t three (it was only born in 1992); there were no sports pubs; there was no mall in Uganda, and no secret voting (everyone queued). It was a time when it was a big thing to be accused of being a “multipartyist”. Many yellow people wouldn’t greet you or let you marry their daughter or son, once you were so labelled.

Piped water still a luxury in Kampala and not running in many parts of Uganda, having broken down during Idi Amin and Milton Obote II rule.

A woman claiming that smearing shea butter on yourself would stop bullets was leading a rebellion against the Museveni government. Her movement was called the Holy Spirit Movement. Her name was Alice Lakwena. She came as close as the sugar plantations of Kakira. Northeastern and northern Uganda was all enveloped in war.
The East African Community was still a mirage. Imagine how everything has changed. This is not the world to which you bring 1980s – or even 2000 – tools.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

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