Mamdani on Uganda

The Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani is back in Uganda–since last year he’s been heading up the Makerere (University) Institute of Social Research (MISR) in the capital Kampala–where he has already pronounced on the “consultancy culture” in Ugandan (and continental) universities. Mamdani, once close to Uganda’s Life President Yoweri Museveni (in power since 1986) has also just published an opinion essay on the stand-off between the Ugandan government and the “Walk to Work” protests by opposition forces:

In Uganda today, prevailing governance seeks to divide the population by politicising ethnicity. The motto is: one tribe, one district. Inside the district, an administrative tribalism divides the bafuruki from those designated as indigenous to the district. As a mode of governance, tribalism institutionalises offical discrimination against some citizens and in favour of others.

New ideas nurture new practices. Given time, even the most revolutionary idea can turn into a routine divorced of meaning. Think of how we have managed to reduce the practice of democracy to routine rituals.

The remarkable thing about the events we know as ‘Walk to Work’ is that they have followed on the heels of a national election whose results were anything if not decisive. Whatever its outcome, ‘Walk to work’ must make us rethink the practice of democracy in Uganda.

For a start, one is struck by the spread of cynicism among both rulers and ruled. More and more in the population thinks of elections not as the time to make meaningful choices but as a time to extract dues from politicians who are unlikely to be sighted until the next election season!

Similarly, more and more in the political class are coming to think of elections as a managed exercise where the outcome is decided not by who votes but by who oversees the counting of votes. What does it say about contemporary democracy that even an election where those in power can win support of a vast majority of people, over 90% in Egypt and over two-thirds in Uganda, does not give you any idea of the level of dissatisfaction among the electorate?

Consider one remarkable fact. In spite of the growth of universities and think tanks worldwide, researchers and consultants have been unable to forecast most major event in contemporary history.

Why? This was true of [the] Soweto 1976 [uprising in South Africa], it was true of the fall of the Soviet Union and it was true of the Egyptian revolution [earlier this year]. What does it say about the state of our knowledge that we can foretell a natural catastrophe – an earthquake, even a tsunami – but not a political shift? The rule seems to be: the bigger the shift, the less likely is the chance of it being foretold.

I think this is so for one reason. Big shifts in social and political life require an act of the imagination. They require a break from routine, a departure from convention. That is why social science, which is focused on the study of routine, of institutional and repetitive behaviour, is unable to forecast big events.

Herein lies the challenge for Uganda’s political class.

No matter how small the numbers involved in the developments we know as ‘Walk to Work’, there is no denying its sheer intellectual brilliance. That brilliance lies in its simplicity, in its ability to confer on the simplest of human activities, walking, a major political significance: the capacity to say no.

The irony is that many in the opposition, and perhaps just as many in government, seem to think of ‘Walk to Work’ as a shortcut to power, which it is unlikely to be. The real significance of ‘Walk to Work’ is that it has broken the hold of routine. In doing so, it presents us with a challenge. That challenge is to come up with a new language of politics, a new mode of organization, and a new mode of governance.

From this vantage point, I would like to offer a few reflections by way of conclusion.

We should resist the temptation to think of Tahrir Square – as Soweto before it – as a road map. Rather, let us think of Egypt as a vision, a democratic vision, as both event and process. Remember that it took nearly two decades for the Soweto Uprising to deliver a democratic fruit in South Africa. When it comes to Egypt, the democratic revolution has just begun. None knows how long it will take to institutionalise its fruit.

Today, we need to acknowledge that Tahrir Square has not led to a revolution, but to a reform. And that is not a bad thing. The lesson of Egypt – unlike that of Libya next door – is the moral force of non-violence. Unlike violence, non-violence does not just resist and exclude; it also embraces and includes, thereby opening up new possibilities of reform, possibilities that seemed unimaginable only yesterday.

The challenge before the Ugandan political class today is not to close ranks for a final struggle, as it is habitually prone to doing. The real challenge is to forge possibilities for a new politics, on the basis of new associations and new imaginations. The real challenge is not revolution but reform. The verdict is still out whether it is government or opposition that will take the lead and provide the initiative.

Full article here.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is the Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country. He is on faculty of The New School in New York.

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