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EASY COME, EASY GO: The online borrowing craze among Kenyan youth

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EASY COME, EASY GO: The online borrowing craze among Kenyan youth

In the past, opening a bank account in Kenya was an elaborate and tedious affair. It was akin to applying for a job: you presented your “curriculum vitae” to bank officials who would determine your fitness as a financially serviceable client. There were forms to be filled (in duplicate) that captured details such as date of birth, schools attended, employment history, reasons for choosing that particular bank and referees to vouch for your suitability. Some banks even asked whether you had spent nights in a police cell and whether you had a criminal record. It was like joining an exclusive members’ club – the odious scrutiny made it look like it was a privilege to be allowed to join the “banking club”.

The procedure for getting a loan was even more stringent and punitive: you would be asked to deposit a valuable item, such as a log book, jewellery or a title deed, as collateral. Money matters were serious business.

That was then. Today technology, particularly smartphones, has revolutionised the financial sector, so much so that traditional banks must be ruing the day smartphones became second nature to humanity. These days getting a personal loan online is easier and faster than calling your nearest bank or micro-finance lending facility. Thanks to mobile banking, a smartphone owner can borrow from as little as Sh500 to as much as Sh70,000 without breaking into a sweat. All he or she needs is to be social media savvy. Having a social media account, such as a Facebook account, is understood by both the online loan apps and the borrowers to be an unstated primary requirement for accessing a loan. There are at least 50 mobile phone lending apps operating in Kenya.

A FinAcess (financial access) survey done in 2016 by the Central Bank of Kenya, the Kenyan National of Bureau of Statistics, FSD-Kenya and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor found out that 77.5 per cent of Kenyans own a mobile phone. Out of this group, according to a 2018 digital credit survey, 35 per cent, or roughly six million people, have taken at least one digital loan. In essence, the survey found that digital credit had become a leading source of credit in Kenya. Using a sample size of 3,000 Kenyans, the survey showed that digital credit appeals to younger customers, out of which 55 per cent are male and from urban areas. The study also found that by far the most common reason for taking a loan is to meeting day-to-day needs. Financing education also drives use of credit while just over a quarter of users take loans to support their business and agricultural activities.

However, many of these borrowers struggle to pay back their loans. According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200. (CRB is the body charged with the task of flagging or blacklisting all loan defaulters and ensuring that they are barred from borrowing from or transacting with any financial and legal entity, including the government.)

Eliud Njoroge, a financial risk management and private equity fund consultant, told me that mobile phone lending firms financed by venture capitalists were taking advantage of the vulnerability of impressionable youth. “The youth of today want instant gratification – they want it now and here. The notion of delayed gratification, that is, the idea of being patient and thinking through your financial needs, wants, opportunity costs and apparent risk considerations are alien concepts to them,” said Njoroge. “The ‘Java’ generation lives for the moment and developers of these digital apps are exploiting this social phenomenon in the epoch of social media, where the imagined reality of life is being played instantly.” (By Java generation the private equity fund manager, who himself is a millennial, was alluding to the Java restaurants in Nairobi that are popular among the city’s slick young urbanites.)

According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200.

“The crux of the matter is that today the aggressive marketing gimmicks by the owners of these apps are singularly directed at the post-millennials – guys barely out of their teens and who have zilch idea of what constitutes a financial budget, leave alone a plan,” notes Njoroge. “Because they still solely rely on their parents, guardians, benefactors, relatives and friends for their upkeep, they have no qualms misusing and squandering money. Hence, the apps have specifically been developed largely with this group of people in mind. They are ready and willing to spend, but most importantly, borrow money to feed their peer-driven lifestyle habits.”

Njoroge’s opinion is based on his wide experience in advising multinational banks and international financial corporations and, more specifically, financial start-up companies that are being funded to loan cash to young people (read anybody below 33 years of age). Njoroge has worked as a financial risk management consultant in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the United Kingdom. Now based in Kenya, he currently works with start-up companies on the look-out for potential big and small loan risk takers. “I will tell you for free that these online apps will explicitly not come out to state that they are targeting these young adults, but I know it from experience and interactions with today’s bankers and venture capitalists that this is the case.”

However, the 2018 digital credit survey found that “digital borrowers are more likely than average to run their own business or be employed” and “less likely to be … dependent on family or government transfers”.

Njoroge says that the apps make young people believe that they can both save and borrow money, but this is not the case. “There is no saving. The apps exist solely for ensuring that you borrow endlessly.” He says another lie being perpetrated by these apps is that they promote small business enterprises. “A complete lie. These apps would like to masquerade as micro-finance entities. They like to market themselves as tools that reduce the cost of borrowing through technology. But I can tell you for a fact that micro-financing is a different financial ball game, technology or no technology. If indeed there are times when they will provide loans for micro-financing, it is because they must be seen to do so, and therefore, it will be incidental and not the primary intended goal.”

The tragedy of these apps, says the financial consultant, is that the cost of repaying these loans can be very punitive. “Firstly, their interest rates are way above the rates charged by banks. The Java generation is impervious to these high interest rates – they borrow and spend money that they have not sweated for. The developers of these apps figured this a long time ago.”

In addition, “if today you default, your name is immediately forwarded to the CRB. If that happens, trust me, you will not even be allowed to borrow from Okoa Jahazi (a platform for borrowing airtime from Safaricom, the biggest mobile network provider in Kenya).”

CRB has to date blacklisted half a million people, according to the Transunion Credit Bureau’s CEO, Billy Owino, Just three years ago, there were only 150,000 loan defaulters in Kenya. Woe unto you if you are ever blacklisted. You are not off the hook even after you have repaid your loan. CRB still considers you a credit risk for seven years. What this means is that for seven years financial institutions will be wary of you when you approach them for a loan. “Most of the borrowers don’t know that they got blacklisted. We get 200 calls daily from individuals in this category, asking how they ended up in the blacklist.”

Twenty-year-old Charles, a University of Nairobi student, says that he took the trouble to compare the interest rates of the various online money lending apps. He eventually settled for KCB-M-Pesa because it had the best rates.” He says that on average he borrows between Sh2,000 and 3,000 twice a month.

“What do you borrow the money for?” I asked him. “I use the money to finance my Sport-Pesa (gambling) expeditions. I bet for big matches.” Although Charles is a college student, he has not yet outgrown indulging in play-station games. “Apart from betting, I also borrow money to afford my play-station games escapades.”

The digital credit survey found that only 3 per cent of borrowers get a loan in order to gamble. It is possible that this number is an underestimate given the finding that “digital borrowers are almost twice as likely to have tried mobile betting at least once in their lifetime”.

Sports betting

Sports betting has become big business in Kenya and ensnared an entire generation. A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.

Read also: BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth

SportPesa, a sports gaming company that was established about five years ago, is today the biggest sports betting platform in Kenya. It is among the dozen or so sports gaming companies that have sprouted in the country recently. These sports gaming companies have developed an impassioned craze among millennials and zillennials (the post-millennial teenage youth born after 2000) who have taken to betting as a way of life. The GeoPoll survey found that Kenyans gambled more frequently than their fellow Africans, spending an average of Sh5,000 a month. Charles has yet to win big cash (most people have never won more than Sh5,000) but feels that he has to keep on feeding his craving, which started as a hobby.

A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.

According to Banker Awards held in the UK in December 2017, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) is the largest bank countrywide in terms of asset size and has 12 million customers registered for the KCB-M-Pesa mobile service. The KCB M-Pesa loan app, which started in 2015 as a savings account, charges between 4 per cent and 6 per cent interest rate. Its phone loan service rose from 35 per cent between January and March 2016 to 41 per cent in the same quarter in 2017. Because of the success of mobile money borrowing, financial transactions at the branch level fell to 20 per cent from 31 per cent previously. Said KCB Group CEO and Managing Director, Joshua Oigara, in an in-house 2017 KCB newsletter: “We’ve seen a sharp rise in loan requests on all our mobile loans following the decrease in interest rates.” The newsletter stated that the average value of loans per customer was Sh1,800.

Like Branch International Inc., an international online money lending consortium that has its headquarters in San Francisco in California, and which launched its services in Kenya in 2015, KCB M-Pesa, vigorously advertises on Classic FM’s most popular morning radio show. Its target audience, just like Branch’s, is post-millennial youth who have just turned 18, who are college-bound and who have just acquired a national identity card. Branch is giving loans of up to Sh70,000, and according to the radio promos, it claims to have up to a million Kenyan borrowers. “You do not need any collateral, any bank account or a referee, all you need to do is download the Android app and you will receive your loan in 10 seconds flat,” proclaims the ad.

The advertising language used to sell the online borrowing apps is deliberate and intentional, targeted at a generation that is just starting to discover itself and excited about owning a gadget that, to them, seems to unlock hitherto unimagined infinite possibilities. The one-minute radio promos of these online lending apps are couched in language that would appeal to young adults. “Unlocking your growth potential” and other slogans are targeted at a generation that had little or no financial knowledge.

Ken, like Charles, borrows to finance his gambling habits. “So I will borrow every time there are big matches being played on the English Premier League,” admitted Ken. “I bet on Sport-Pesa and I borrow between Sh1,500 to 3,000. He said his favourite app was Tala because, “it is very prompt when relaying the money. I wanted an app that does not waste time in giving me instant cash.”

Dates and other emergencies

The online app of choice for 19-year-old Steve, a Technical University of Nairobi student, is M-Shwari. “I opted to use M-Shwari because it is a solid brand that works together with KCB, another solid brand.” Steve said he borrows between Sh1,000 and 3,000 a month to finance his college lifestyle habits. “Cut a brother some slack,” he said. “I need to enjoy some good life while I’m a student.” Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.

Steve told me it is not just once that he did not have the cash to entertain some girl in a fancy restaurant. “On several occasions I have had hot dates, but trust me, I did not have a penny. But tell me, would you let slip a date you’ve been chasing like there’s no tomorrow just because you’re not liquid?”

Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.

Steve said he has walked confidently into a Java restaurant a couple of times with a “beautiful catch” with not a single penny in his pocket because he knows he can borrow money from M-Shwari “of course, without her knowledge”. The instant loan is deposited into his M-Pesa account, which he uses to settle his bill. Meanwhile, the Java generation belle will not have the slightest hint that her expensive lunch treat was financed by a loan and that the young man will have to figure out how to repay it later.

By 2017, the M-Shwari (shwari means to be calm or peaceful in Kiswahili) online loan portfolio had 420,000 applications every day; of that, 70,000 are processed daily for repayment every 30 days. It has more than 80,000 agents countrywide and processes US$20 million daily payments, according to a study done by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay. M-Shwari is operated by Safaricom, the biggest mobile network operator in Kenya, and is considered to be the mother of mobile phone lending apps, largely because it was the first mobile phone loan application in Kenya.

Started in 2012, M-Shwari has to date 21 million customers in Kenya. The minimum threshold required of an M-Shwari borrower is to possess a Safaricom sim card and to be registered as an M-Pesa user. Therefore, technically speaking, anyone with an M-Pesa account qualifies to borrow from M-Shwari. The beauty with M-Shwari, its users tell me, is that you can borrow offline so long as you are on the M-Pesa platform. M-Shwari charges a one-time “service fee” of 7.5 per cent on all loans.

M-Shwari is actually a creation of a partnership between Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) and Safaricom, who split the revenue accrued from the lucrative business. According to the How M-Shwari Works: The Story So Far report written by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay in 2015, Safaricom provides access to customers and transactional data on mobile phone and mobile money usage. CBA, on the other hand, develops credit scoring algorithms that analyse the transactional data to make credit evaluation decisions. The actual lending is done by the bank. One of the single biggest reasons why the M-Shwari app is preferred is because money is promptly credited to your phone immediately. But just as you receive money on the spot, you must also pay it back on time. Deferment and delayed payment can be costly and punitive. “I have always endevoured to pay back on time,” said Steve.

According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers (known as mama mboga). From as early as 3 in the morning, the women vegetable sellers begin to borrow money from M-Shwari because they need to go their respective markets to buy their wares, fresh and in good time. These women are experts in M-Shwari borrowing. By the evening, when they are reconciling their figures, they will begin repaying their loan, usually from between 8.30pm and 10.30pm, in preparation for the dawn borrowing. The women borrow anything from between Sh3,000 and Sh5,000 daily. On a good day, the mama mboga will repay her M-Shwari debt and still remain with a tidy sum as profit. However, these women, who are M-Shwari’s most loyal customers, are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to paying back their loans.

According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers.

Chebet, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not even care to know the interest rates charged by these mobile phone apps. She told me that she borrows between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 per month. And she was very forthright on why she borrows the money: “I borrow to satisfy my spendthrift behaviours. I am always buying shoes, bags and clothes that my meagre allowance that I am allowed by my parents cannot satiate.”

The 19-year-old said her favourite borrowing app is Tala. “I got used to Tala because it is advertised a lot on mobile smartphones. Tala is truly one of the money-lending apps that is advertised 24/7 on Android smartphones. The pop-ups are constantly in your face every time you navigate through the phone.” (Tala was previously known as Mkopo Rahisi, Kiswahili for “easy loan.” The app has devised a system where it rewards referrals: for every person you recommend Tala to, you are paid Sh200. Users of Tala, nonetheless, have to part with an additional charge in the form of M-Pesa transaction fees because the app uses a Pay Bill number. I asked her whether she paid her debts in time; she said she had defaulted a couple of times.

Tasha, like Chebet, has no clue how much interest rate she is charged by Tala. Blandly honest, the 20-year-old student told me she told me she borrows “to buy myself make-ups.” Hence, every three months she will borrow between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 from Tala.

Tala, which was started in March 2014 by Shivani Siroya, a former United Nations employee, began by dishing out Sh10,000 loans in Kenya; today it gives loans worth up to Sh50,000. The app has the highest interest rate among its competitors – between 11 per cent and 15 per cent. (Branch charges 8.4 per cent.) Tala charges 11 per cent if you pay your loan weekly and 15 per cent if you choose to pay monthly.

Tala has also come up with a system that can detect when customers change their mobile phone number. It has a default message that reads: “Your account is linked to another device.” It is a polite warning from Tala that it would be improper and risky to run away with their money, for example, thinking that by changing your sim card, you will be off the hook insofar as repaying your loan is concerned. Chebet, in not too many words, confirmed to me Tala’s tightening of its lending procedures: “You can run, but you cannot escape.”

Mariam, another 19-year-old, is hooked to Tala. Although not a spendthrift like Chebet, she nevertheless said a good thing will not pass her simply because she cannot afford it. “That’s why these apps came about; to be rescuing some of us when we are stuck.” Getting stuck often means not being able to do things, like going to concerts with your peers, because you don’t have the money. “The first time I borrowed money from my phone was when there was a big music show in town and I just could not afford to miss it. All my friends were going there. How could I be left behind?” Mariam uploaded the Tala app and in the blink of an eye she had money in her M-Pesa account. “I resorted to Tala because it’s really advertised on the phone, plus my friends invited me to use it.” Mariam says Tala’s interest rates are high, yet she opted to stick and continue using the app because she finds it convenient. She borrows between Sh1,000 and 2000 every month.

In an interview she had with the Business Daily in January, Siroya said that Tala’s association with the M-Pesa platform had given her company access to 27 million users. Worldwide Tala has given out 4.5 million loans worth Sh25 billion to clients in the Philippines, Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania. Ninety-five per cent of her clients are repeat customers.

George, 20, a student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT), was as candid as a college student can be. “What do you borrow the money for?” I asked. “To finance dates at fancy restaurants that I know very well I can hardly afford with my own meagre cash.” George also said he borrows to patronise expensive pubs, which ordinarily he would not afford. “How often do you borrow?” Often enough was his curt answer. “Which app do you usually use?” The student said he does not have a specific app and therefore did not also care to find out their respective interest rates. “I will use any as long as it gets the job done. But I have noticed, by and large, I tend to rely mostly on Tala and M-Shwari.” I also asked him whether he repays the loans, if at all. “I do, although I am always falling behind schedule.”

Just like her fellow college mate George, Barbara, 19, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not care about interest rates. “All that I care for is there is money coming my way.” She said she borrows “to get through to the end of the month, as well as to buy my writing books for assignments after squandering my allocated pocket that my parents give me for every month.” Barbara said she religiously borrows between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 every month. “I use Tala simply because of peer influence – many of my friends use it and they recommended it to me.”

Perhaps it is because of his age that I found Joe’s reason for resorting to the online borrowing money apps reassuring. Joe is 21 and has almost completed his studies at JKUAT. He therefore is already thinking about what he will do after exiting college. He currently runs a mitumba (secondhand clothes) business, selling contemporary clothing to his fellow students. So when I asked him what he borrows the money for, he promptly told me that he borrows it to replenish his stock and to keep his business afloat,“because oftentimes, I’m not paid on time by my customers”. Every month he borrows a standard Sh2,000 from Tala, which he repays promptly.

Chomba, also a university student, borrowed just once because he had a real emergency. His sister’s child, who he was looking after when he was on recess, became sick and needed urgent treatment. “I had heard about KCB-M-Pesa and its reasonable interest rates, so I downloaded the app and borrowed Sh4,000. I later opened an account with KCB.”

Njoroge, the financial expert, pointed out to me that online loans are approved on the basis of the applicant’s reputation, “what they call reputational collateral”. Reputational collateral is dependent on such habits as how many times you make your calls and how often you transact on your M-Pesa account. “The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”

Danson Muchemi, CEO of Jambo Pay, the IT company that collects revenue on behalf of Nairobi County, especially revenue relating to parking charges, praises the online borrowing apps “because they brought down banking barriers. There is no more profiling. The technology has enabled the creation of ‘digital assets’ that approximates what type of a person you are. Armed with this information, the apps are able to sketch your character and identify your spending habits, needs and wants, even though there is a thin line that separates the two.”

“The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”

Unlike the banks, which depended on your “CV” to arrive at a decision about whether or not they will advance you a loan, the power of technology is such that it can, with near precision, detect whether or not you will be a defaulter. By analysing your social media profile, the apps can sum up your personality and your willingness or ability to pay back. “Technology, as opposed to traditional banking methods, which took ages deciding on whether you qualify for a bank loan or not, allows mobile banking financiers to make that decision fast and instantly.”

“Old habits die hard” is an English idiom that explains acquired habits that later become difficult to get rid of. When a loan is just a click away, it is not hard to imagine a future where online borrowing will become a habit, or maybe even a harmful addiction, among Kenyans.

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Mr Kahura is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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A DARK TRUTH: The racist dynamic at the heart of Kenya’s conservation practices and policies

MORDECAI OGADA explains why black Africans are almost completely absent in the field of conservation in Kenya, which has been hijacked by whites and foreigners who pander to prejudices that have been cultivated by romantic or colonial notions about Africa and its wildlife.

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A DARK TRUTH: The racist dynamic at the heart of Kenya’s conservation practices and policies

The practice of conservation and the narrative around African wildlife is a kingdom, albeit without a single monarch. The monarchy and nobility consist of an eclectic mix of royalty, commoners, idlers, misfits, scientists, killers (who refer to themselves as “hunters”) across a very broad spectrum of backgrounds. We have youthful cowboys in their 20s, and we have octogenarians. There are also wealthy lords and scruffy backpackers. The one thread that links them is the fact that they are all white.

Their race is also what confers upon them a unity of purpose and mutual sympathy in lands where the indigenous majority are black. This kingdom is absolute and doesn’t tolerate dissent from its subjects. Those who serve the kingdom faithfully are rewarded with senior positions in the technical (not policy) arena and international awards and are showered with praise and backhanded compliments in descriptions like “being switched on”, “a good chap”, and best of all, “a reformed poacher”. This praise also manifests itself in the form of the Tusk Conservation Award, which is conferred annually by the Duke of Cambridge, HRH Prince William, on the local conservationist who best serves as an implementer or enforcer of the kingdom’s conservation goals.

Structured conservation practice in East Africa began largely when demobilised World War II soldiers started looking for a field where they could apply one of the few skills they had gained in the war (shooting) without harming people. The rise of the conservation officer or protector was actually preceded by the establishment of the first hunting reserves at the turn of the century a few decades earlier.

However, there was a new recognition that the resource was finite and needed to be preserved for the exclusive use of the colonial nobility that was necessarily defined by race; hence the need for enforcement. Exploitation of African wildlife by Western consumers began in the early 1900s with hunting safaris, which were basically tests of resilience and skill with the target of harvesting the biggest and largest number from this bounty under pretty harsh and rustic conditions. It was closely followed in the 1960s by the photographic safari and cinematography that cemented the romanticism of these adventures in the African wild. This led to a spurt in tourist interest, which no doubt pleased the foreign exchange-hungry newly independent states.

Intellectual desert

Two major pitfalls arose from the romantic age between 1950 and1970 – pitfalls that continue to determine how wildlife conservation is practised today. The first major pitfall was the illogical link and valuation of wildlife based on tourists’ appreciation and (where hunting was allowed) consumption. The second pitfall was the firm placement of black Africans as “props” who were destined never to be equal intellectual participants in the management of and discourse around African wildlife. Thus my compulsion to describe Kenya (rather harshly, in some of my readers’ estimation) as an “intellectual desert” as far as wildlife conservation is concerned.

Two major pitfalls arose from the romantic age between 1950 and1970 – pitfalls that continue to determine how wildlife conservation is practised today. The first major pitfall was the illogical link and valuation of wildlife based on tourists’ appreciation and (where hunting was allowed) consumption. The second pitfall was the firm placement of black Africans as “props” who were destined never to be equal intellectual participants in the management of and discourse around African wildlife.

Indeed, photographic and hunting safaris have since then included a very obvious but unspoken element of domination over black Africans – we can see it in the nameless black faces in white hunters’ photographs and in the postures of servile African staff attending to white tourists in the advertising brochures. Black Africans are totally absent as clients in all the media and advertising materials and campaigns. When hunting was legal in Kenya, it was normal for a photograph of a hunter with his guides, porters and gun bearer to be captioned: “Major F. Foggybottom and a fine leopard bagged in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, September, 1936.” Fast forward 80 years or so. Black Africans are prominent in their absence from the reams and hours of literature and footage on Africa’s spectacular wildlife. The uniformity of this anomaly is startling across the board, whether one is watching the Discovery channel, BBC, or National Geographic.

With the advance of neoliberalism, market forces have become important drivers of both tacit and explicit policies all over the world. In African conservation policy and practice, the black African has become like an insidious impurity that sometimes leaks into the final product but should ideally be absent in anything considered “premium”. This is not to say that media houses and marketing firms are deliberately engaging in racial discrimination; however, they are, sadly, pandering to prejudices that have been cultivated by romantic or colonial notions about Africa and its wildlife.

The colour bar

Blatant racism becomes much more evident in the conservation field, which in Kenya is dominated by whites. From a strictly academic standpoint, the open discrimination and obvious colour bar evident in the conservation sector in Kenya is fascinating for two major reasons: one is its longevity – business, agriculture, banking, education and all other fields have changed beyond recognition in the last few decades, but conservation remains firmly in the “Victorian gamekeeper” mode, where conservation is basically about protecting wildlife from the proletariat so that the nobles can consume the same for luxury/ recreational purposes.

The second is the acceptance of this status quo by senior indigenous state officials and technical experts across the board. Wildlife conservation is the one field where highly-qualified black Africans are routinely supervised by white practitioners of far lesser technical pedigree or experience. Indeed, some of the supervisors are American or Europeans relatively new to Kenya and with very rudimentary knowledge (if any) of Kenyan wildlife and ecosystems. Examples that come to mind are the appointment of one Peter Hetz (MSc, American) as Executive Director of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum in 2011 to supervise one Mordecai Ogada (PhD, Kenyan) who was appointed as Deputy Director. The recent appointment of Mr. Jochen Zeitz to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) board is another case in point. Here I have used very pointed racial references because it is quite simply a racial divide. We simply do not find non-Caucasian foreigners in wildlife leadership positions in Kenya, nor do we find Latin Americans or Asians. We also don’t find Kenyans of European descent in any of the subordinate roles.

Wildlife conservation is the one field where highly-qualified black Africans are routinely supervised by white practitioners of far lesser technical pedigree or experience. Indeed, some of the supervisors are American or Europeans relatively new to Kenya and with very rudimentary knowledge (if any) of Kenyan wildlife and ecosystems.

How, an observer might ask, is this hierarchy maintained without any disruption by the growing number of indigenous Kenyans pursuing advanced studies in the conservation field? How do the academic exertions of all these technicians fail to moisten the intellectual desert in Kenyan conservation?

One reason is because, just like water never produces vegetation on seedless ground, the intellectual barrenness of indigenous Kenyans has been built into the training facilities and curricula. It goes without saying that Kenya’s ecological diversity and abundant wildlife are key pillars in the country’s economic, social and cultural identity, but Moi University, the de facto leading local institution in this field, only offers a degree course in “wildlife management”, which basically equips local wildlife practitioners to be technicians or foot soldiers for conservation, not to be fully engaged with any of the intellectual challenges that exist in the sector. Those who are better trained and experienced in this field are a small minority who seldom find acceptance in the sector because they inherently threaten the existing hierarchy.

KWS itself has two training facilities: the Manyani field school and a well-resourced training institute in Naivasha. Manyani is a proven centre of excellence in tactical field training necessary for wildlife rangers. The Naivasha training institute, which was established in 1985 to develop the “soft skills” and policy thinking around conservation and fisheries, changed in 2009 when it began offering rudimentary naturalist and paraecologist courses more geared towards serving the tourism industry than the cause of conservation. As one would expect, the academic contribution of this institution to tourism falls so short of the standards required by Kenya’s highly developed tourism industry that in the final analysis, it is a lost investment. One of its more recent distinctions is the levels of academic performance advertised on its website as requirements for admission, which are far below what an institution training custodians of any country’s most valuable resource should be.

Closer analysis of these institutions and their low intellectual ceilings reveals a far subtler, but important, perspective on the colour bar in Kenyan conservation. The people being trained in these institutions are replacing the gun bearers and gamekeepers of feudal England and colonial Kenya.

Kenya as a nation still struggles with this colour bar and our public arena is replete with the symptoms of it. One that stands out is the dropping of charges against the late Tom Cholmondeley for the killing of Samson Ole Sisina, a KWS officer, at the scene of an industrial bushmeat harvesting and processing operation on the former’s Soysambu ranch. Those familiar with Kenyan society know that the killing of a security officer on duty is a (judicial or extrajudicial) death sentence in Kenya 99.99% of the time. The truth is that there were absolutely no mitigating circumstances here, other than the victim’s race. Barely a year later, in May 2006, Cholmondeley shot and killed Robert Njoya, a stonemason who lived in a village that borders his 50,000-acre estate, a crime for which he was jailed in 2009 following public uproar.

Closer analysis of these institutions and their low intellectual ceilings reveals a far subtler, but important, perspective on the colour bar in Kenyan conservation. The people being trained in these institutions are replacing the gun bearers and gamekeepers of feudal England and colonial Kenya.

More recently, in January 2018, there was a memorial service for the late Gilfrid Powys, a renowned rancher, conservationist, and KWS honorary warden. The service was attended by a plethora of top brass from KWS in full uniform, as well as several government leaders, as befitted his status in society. I suspect many in the congregation were taken aback when one of the eulogisers, Mr. Willy Potgieter, read a long and touching tribute where he detailed how the departed wasn’t a particularly religious man but would indulge his spirituality by hunting buffalo every Sunday morning. The discomfiture of the uniformed staff and company gathered was palpable and would have been amusing had it not been such a stark testament to the existence of conservation apartheid in our country and our society’s acceptance thereof.

Sanitised terminology

Apartheid in conservation matters. The duplicity that exists within many people and institutions purported to be dedicated to conservation may seem bizarre to those unfamiliar with the sector. Here is how it works: Basic psychological examination of wildlife hunting reveals that it is a uniquely complex aspect of human endeavour because it occurs at both ends of the spectrum of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Subsistence hunting is firmly at the bottom of the hierarchy as it fulfils physiological needs while sport hunting is at the top, within the realm of self-actualisation. This is illustrated by the celebrated blood sports of falconry and fox hunting pursued by royalty in the Middle East and Britain, respectively.

The highly sanitised terminology is also in striking contrast to the derogatory terms like “bushmeat poaching” used in reference to subsistence hunting. This highlights the role of the media in cultivating the racial divide because in Africa the term “poacher” or “bushmeat” is never applied to the activities or diets of people of European descent, regardless of legality.

Likewise, the term “hunter” is never applied to the activities of black people. These three degrees of separation in the hierarchy of needs are the basis of the colour bar. They are the reasons behind the flawed belief that we can allow white people to kill (not poach) wildlife and shoot black people suspected of being “poachers”. This is also the basis of the ongoing nonsensical scheme of a “task force” going around Kenya trying to gather support for proposed “consumptive use” of wildlife, an activity de facto delineated by race. It stands to even casual examination that the practice of structured legal hunting of wildlife in Kenya (and much of Africa) is an activity controlled by, and indulged in, by people of Caucasian extraction.

The highly sanitised terminology is also in striking contrast to the derogatory terms like “bushmeat poaching” used in reference to subsistence hunting. This highlights the role of the media in cultivating the racial divide because in Africa the term “poacher” or “bushmeat” is never applied to the activities or diets of people of European descent, regardless of legality.

It also goes without saying that the colour bar we live with in Kenyan conservation is an anachronism that we should have escaped from in the mid-20th century. But before we can achieve that freedom, we must squarely face up to the problem and appreciate its full extent. It is systemic.

When the board chairmanship of KWS fell vacant about four years ago, our government turned, almost reflexively, to the ageing Dr Richard Leakey, who is no longer at his physical or intellectual best, and who, in my view, is not even the best candidate for the job. The spectacular failure, frantic inactivity, and deafening silence on conservation issues that characterised Dr Leakey’s last tenure at KWS came as no surprise to those of us familiar with the man’s capabilities. The most poignant memory of this is a photo of Leakey posing with the black board members holding tusks beside him – an image that evoked memories of the “great white hunter” of yore. The photo itself was taken during the torching of 105 tonnes of ivory in 2016, a fairly logical conservation activity, but the carefully structured pose shows a board composed of people who have no knowledge or reading of the history and culture around wildlife conservation in Kenya. If they had even rudimentary knowledge of the history of conservation practice in Kenya, they would have recognised that their photo was misplaced in space and time. There is little doubt that Leakey (and possibly Brian Heath, in the back left, distancing himself from the ivory) were aware of this nuance and were the only intellectual participants in this photo – and therein lies a snapshot of our enduring tragedy.

The intellectual desert that is Kenya’s conservation sector remains as barren as ever in 2018. The sporadic and disjointed efforts to moisten it with sprinklers will all come to nought unless we concurrently plant the seeds of indigenous knowledge and expertise.

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Bobi Wine and the Politics of Revolution

ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE documents the rise of the “Ghetto President” who has become a person of particular interest to the Ugandan state. By ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE

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Bobi Wine and the Politics of Revolution

‘‘I believe in the politics of friendship. Without the politics of friendship there can be no radical movement.’’ – Srecko Horvat

‘‘…struggles, incarcerations and whistle blowing bring people together through friendship to try and do something. Will we succeed? Who knows! Who cares! What matters is the actual process of trying to do it… the chances may not be good. But we have the moral obligation to try’’

– Yanis Varoufakis

It came as a huge relief to many – especially to his wife Barbara and their four children – to learn that the highly popular Ugandan musician and MP for Kyaddondo East, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – popularly known as Bobi Wine – was still alive following his dramatic night arrest on August 13, 2018 in Arua town, Northern Uganda. The country’s political machinery – including President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and Dr. Kizza Besigye Kifefe of the opposition’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – had descended on Arua Municipality to drum up support for their respective candidates in a hotly contested by-election necessitated by the June 8, 2018 shooting to death of the incumbent MP, Ibrahim Abiriga, a Museveni loyalist who was killed alongside his bodyguard by hitmen riding on a motorcycle.

Kyagulanyi, who some say appears to have been flirting with the idea of establishing a people’s movement – a third force of sorts away from the Museveni-Besigye historical antagonism – arrived in Arua with clarity of purpose. Lately, he had been preaching that Uganda’s problems would not be solved through adherence to political party positions, and had been urging his supporters to think of broader formations, a proposition which sounded a little vague and amorphous.

On arriving in Arua, Kyagulanyi chose to back a different candidate from those backed by the big boys, Besigye and Museveni. Addressing a packed rally, he acknowledged that the divided opposition risked losing the seat to Museveni’s NRM, seeing that the crowded field of contestants had five individuals who passed for progressives. The way out, he suggested, was if the opposition overwhelmingly voted for the most suitable candidate out of the five. He endorsed Kassiano Wadri, a onetime MP and parliamentary whip in Besigye’s FDC, who ran as an independent. On August 15, Wadri won the seat from his prison cell.

Two notable events happened during the final round of campaigns in Arua. The first was when Kyagulanyi led a huge procession of cheering supporters – him riding atop a vehicle and urging his followers on – past a relatively well-attended Besigye rally, forcing the former army colonel to cut short his speech and wait for the noise to subside, seeing that the uninvited guests had overpowered the strength of his microphone. The whole episode had a somewhat humiliating effect on Besigye, the long-time undisputed symbol of opposition politics in Uganda. He nevertheless maintained a straight face, eventually succumbing to a group dance once the music started playing, seeing that the only way to ignore the intruders was by getting busy.

The second incident took place when President Museveni’s convoy was driving out of Arua and passed a group of supposed Kyagulanyi supporters who jeered the head of state. However, according to Museveni’s version of events, as posted on his Facebook page, his convoy was stoned, resulting in the shattering of the rear window of his official vehicle. It was this second event that resulted in Kyagulanyi’s troubles.

In a hurried tweet sent on the fateful August 13 night, Kyagulanyi released a photo of the lifeless body of his driver, Yasiin Kawuma, shot inside the MP’s vehicle. “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot me. My hotel is cordoned of…” read part of the tweet. The message was perturbing. Kyagulanyi’s followers expected more updates from him but none came.

The following day, news broke that the MP had been arrested, alongside 33 of his colleagues on the Arua campaign trail, their whereabouts remaining a mystery. It was alleged that Kyagulanyi had been found in possession of a gun in his hotel room, and was being charged with treason before a military court. There were fears that he and his colleagues had been heavily tortured.

In a hurried tweet sent on the fateful August 13 night, Kyagulanyi released a photo of the lifeless body of his driver, Yasiin Kawuma, shot inside the MP’s vehicle. “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot me. My hotel is cordoned of…” read part of the tweet. The message was perturbing. Kyagulanyi’s followers expected more updates from him but none came.

***

Kyagulanyi became a person of particular interest to the Ugandan state following his June 29, 2017 victory in a parliamentary by-election in Kampala. Running as an independent against Museveni’s NRM and Besigye’s FDC, the new kid on the block seemed to have brought with him the multitude of supporters accumulated through his music career, merging showbiz with the new business of commandeering an insurrection in Uganda, shifting from artist to politician and vice versa.

The Ghetto President – Kyagulanyi’s other moniker – had taken Uganda’s political establishment by storm, and possibly by surprise, some having imagined that the satirical (or not) ghetto presidency had no tangible political implication. However, the residents of Kyaddondo East – the real and proverbial ghetto Kyagulanyi governed – showed through the ballot that his “presidency” was real.

One of the early signs that Kyagulanyi would prove troublesome to the Museveni regime was his defiant and confrontational conduct during the debate to abolish the presidential age limit, a sneaky NRM-driven amendment that sought to scrap a constitutional provision barring anyone beyond 75 years of age from contesting for the country’s presidency. For the NRM, it was necessary to leave a window of possibility open for Museveni were he to entertain thoughts of participating in future elections. Kyagulanyi, as part of the opposition’s Red Beret movement, became a star attraction when violence broke out, turning parliament’s debating chamber into a boxing ring.

Photographed and filmed physically facing off with overzealous state security agents who breached parliamentary protocol and sneaked in to manhandle opposition MPs, Kyagulanyi engaged in fist fights with Museveni’s henchmen, who seemed to have marked him as a prime target. When the same series of events were repeated a second time, Kyagulanyi uprooted a microphone stand and used it as a weapon against the security men, proving that when push came to shove, he was willing to use his fists in defending the things he believed in. Museveni took note.

***

Kyagulanyi had only been an MP for a year when a new group of pundits began comparing him to the FDC’s Besigye. The young MP was holding massive rallies wherever he went in Uganda, a spectacle previously seen as a preserve of the consummate FDC leader. Suddenly, Besigye appeared to have a challenger for the opposition’s throne.

Before Arua, there had been a number of other by-elections in Jinja East, Bugiri, then Rukungiri, Besigye’s home district. In an interesting turn of events, Besigye’s FDC candidate won Jinja East, with Bugiri going to Kyagulanyi’s candidate. However, when it was Rukungiri’s turn, Besigye and Kyagulanyi combined forces and campaigned together for the victory of the FDC candidate. In his party’s acceptance speech in Rukungiri, Besigye said that the election was won not because they had the numbers but because of defiance, and thanked Kyagulanyi for his support, a clear acknowledgement that the veteran appreciated the capabilities of the rookie. It is through these successive by-elections that Kyagulanyi got an early chance to test his support outside of Kampala.

Kyagulanyi had only been an MP for a year when a new group of pundits began comparing him to the FDC’s Besigye. The young MP was holding massive rallies wherever he went in Uganda, a spectacle previously seen as a preserve of the consummate FDC leader. Suddenly, Besigye appeared to have a challenger for the opposition’s throne.

Upon Kyagulanyi’s arrest in Arua on the night of August 13, among those who demanded for his immediate release were Besigye and other leading FDC figures, including Kampala’s Mayor Erias Lukwago, who was acting as one of Kyagulanyi’s attorneys, and the former head of Uganda’s military and FDC stalwart Major General Mugisha Muntu, who stood front and centre in his defense.

Yet the Besigye-Kyagulanyi comparisons wouldn’t go away, even at this dicey time. On leaving Kampala’s Lubaga Cathedral on August 22, where prayers were being held for Kyagulanyi, a journalist asked Besigye if he might be a stumbling block to the young MP’s political project for Uganda. ‘‘People have to get this clear,’’ Besigye said. “I am not contesting for any seat and there is no leadership contest between Kyagulanyi and I.”

From the cathedral, Besigye headed for a night radio interview, where he furthered the gospel of freeing Kyagulanyi. The following morning, on August 23, Besigye took to social media to post familiar photos of police vehicles barricading the road leading to his home in Kampala’s Kasangati area in an effort to block him from standing in solidarity with Kyagulanyi, who was being presented before court. The residences of Mayor Erias Lukwago and Ingrid Turinawe, the head of the FDC’s Women’s League, were also cordoned-off. Coincidentally, a 2016 video of a defiant Turinawe confronting policemen and throwing open roadblock spikes placed outside the road to Besigye’s home had been trending.

***

In reading Ugandan journalist Daniel Kalinaki’s book Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution, one realises that fighting Museveni is not a walk in the park. Detailing the early days of the National Resistance Army (NRA) – later NRM – bush war, Kalinaki takes one on the long journey Besigye travelled as a comrade of Museveni before the two fell out. Besigye had come to realise that Museveni had gone rogue and had started to shop around for comrades who were courageous enough to stand up to the latter’s fast growing dictatorship.

In an interesting turn of events, Besigye even asked his wife, Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, if she thought she could lead the onslaught. When everyone else thought they weren’t ready yet to lead the revolt, Besigye grudgingly decided to be the man of the moment, starting a journey that would take him to prison, exile and back, which cost him broken limbs and more.

There is no doubt that Kyagulanyi has become a political sensation in Uganda. It also has to be said that depending on how things go – considering factors within and outside his control – he may have a truly bright future as an important leader in the struggle for the liberation of Uganda.

However, throughout this period of his detention, and looking back at his meteoric rise as one of Uganda’s most visible opposition figures, one wonders what this moment portends for Kyagulanyi, since, as many had predicted, it was only a question of when – and not if – Museveni would strike back with the might of his state security apparatus. It is in looking at individuals like Besigye – on whose shoulders Kyagulanyi must stand, one way or another – where some answers, certainly not all, will arise. It is the likes of Besigye, who have travelled this road before and who refused to compromise, who may offer Kyagulanyi some clarity. It is through such associations that Kyagulanyi may learn how to navigate certain difficult terrains. Kalinaki’s book shows how a youthful Besigye was forced to make tough choices the moment he chose to oppose Museveni, lessons that Kyagulanyi can benefit from.

There is no doubt that Kyagulanyi has become a political sensation in Uganda. It also has to be said that depending on how things go – considering factors within and outside his control – he may have a truly bright future as an important leader in the struggle for the liberation of Uganda.

***

In “wanting to stress that we live in dangerous times in which everyone opposed to the political and financial powers might soon become targets”, a unique series of events held in July 2016 titled ‘‘First They Came for Assange’’ happened simultaneously across 14 cities, marking four years since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. It was during such an event in Brussels that Greece’s former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, while in conversation with the Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat – both of whom are Assange’s close friends and regular visitors to his place of isolation – said the following:

“We talk about brave people like Julian… all those people that are putting themselves in the line of fire on behalf of that which is good and proper. But there is a lot of cowardice today, friends, ladies and gentlemen. Julian Assange has a problem with his shoulder. Do you know that it is impossible to get a shoulder specialist to come into the embassy and take a look at him? Because they fear they will lose their clientele. We have to remember that human beings are capable of the best and the worst. Our job as a movement is to cultivate the former against the latter.”

Julian Assange may or may not be some people’s ideal example of a freedom fighter, but there is no denying the fact that through his continued isolation at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, he has become a contemporary example of how persecution can be meted out on an individual for reasons directly or indirectly linked to their revolutionary actions and beliefs.

Importantly, the words by Varoufakis underline one truism that is apparent as we witness the overwhelming outpouring of support for Kyagulanyi. With hundreds, if not thousands, using his silhouette as their profile picture on social media, we must come to the conclusion that there can be no successful revolution in these times we live in – where everyday struggles push us into little survival cocoons – without the politics of revolution embracing the politics of friendship. Even a retweet or an M-Pesa contribution can trickle into a massive pot of support that may just turn the tide.

The journey will be long and tedious – especially after Kyagulanyi’s release.

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BATTLE FOR THE PEARL: Bobi Wine, Museveni and the future of Uganda

President Museveni successfully thwarted political opposition until Bobi Wine came along and posed a formidable challenge to the ageing leader’s ambitions. By ERIASA SSERUNJOGI

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BATTLE FOR THE PEARL: Bobi Wine, Museveni and the future of Uganda

Thirty-six years ago, in 1982, the year Bobi Wine was born, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was busy commanding the war that eventually led him to power. At 36, Museveni had run for president in 1980 as a rabble-rouser representing the new Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM).

His party did not even stand an outside chance of winning the election, with Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and Paul Ssemogerere’s Democratic Party (DP) being the hot favourites. In the end, Museveni even failed to win his own parliamentary seat. During the campaigns, he had warned that he would start a war should the election be rigged, and he did indeed start a war after UPC controversially claimed the election for itself amidst claims that DP had won.

Paulo Muwanga, who was the head of the interim Military Commission government on which Museveni served as Deputy Minister for Defence, had arrogated himself the powers that were entrusted in the Electoral Commission to announce election results, returning UPC as the winner, with Obote proceeding to form a government for the second time, having been earlier deposed by Idi Amin in 1971.

Museveni had watched the intrigue and power play and how the gun had emerged as the decisive factor in Ugandan politics since 1966. He had decided early in life that his route to power would be through the barrel of the gun. His determination to employ the gun became manifest when he launched a war against Amin’s new government in the early 1970s.

Museveni’s Fronasa fighters were part of the combined force that was backed by the Tanzanian army to flush out Amin in 1979. Also among the fighting forces was a group that was loyal to Obote. Museveni’s and Obote’s forces and other groups were looking for ways to outsmart one another as they fought the war. It was a time when Bobi Wine was not yet born.

Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi), who has been a Member of Parliament for just a year, has followed a different path. He is one of those Ugandans who believe that Museveni should be the last Ugandan leader to access power through the barrel of the gun. He wants future leaders to work their way into the hearts of Ugandans and convince them that they can take the country forward.

Bobi Wine first rose to popularity through music. Even though the popstar is new to Ugandan politics, he has for over a decade been disseminating political messages through his songs, in which he positions himself as a poor man’s freedom fighter.

Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi), who has been a Member of Parliament for just a year, has followed a different path. He is one of those Ugandans who believe that Museveni should be the last Ugandan leader to access power through the barrel of the gun.

Through his music, he has criticised the government when he felt it sold the people short; he has castigated the Kampala City authorities over throwing vendors and other poor people off the streets; and he has sought to encourage Ugandans, especially the youth, to take charge of their destiny.

“When freedom of expression becomes the target of oppression,” Bobi Wine said in one of his songs, “opposition becomes our position.” That was before he joined active politics.

When he married in 2011, he made sure that the marriage was celebrated by the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in the capital. When he was incarcerated recently, there were prayers for him at Rubaga Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic Church in Uganda. Catholics are the biggest religious grouping in the country.

Bobi Wine was born in Gomba, one of the counties of Buganda, the biggest ethnic group in Uganda. He has worked his way into the Buganda king’s heart, dubbing himself “Omubanda wa Kabaka” (the King’s Rasta man).

In Uganda’s music industry, Bobi Wine and his “Fire Base Crew” rose to the very top in their category, with Bobi Wine calling himself the “Ghetto President”, whose retinue included a “Vice President”, a cabinet and other members. He also has a security detail. His chief personal bodyguard – Eddie Sebuufu, aka Eddie Mutwe – was picked up at night by suspected military operatives on August 24, 2018.

Bobi Wine has over the past decade traversed the country where he has been performing as an artiste. Then, shortly after his election to Parliament, he travelled to many places within the country to introduce himself this time as a politician. He enjoys name recognition across the country that no Ugandan politician of his age and experience can command.

Battle for the youth

Bobi Wine plays the music that many Ugandan youth want to listen to, but he also preaches the gospel of change and prosperity in a way that is attracting crowds to him. He was born in rural central Uganda but he moved into a shanty neighbourhood of Kampala early in life, struggling through what most young people in the city experience. Although he went school up to university level, he went through all the hassles that young Ugandans go through. He speaks their language.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) projects that at the mid-point of this year, Uganda had 39,041,200 people. Of these, only 648,000 people were projected to be 70-years-old or older. This means that Museveni, at 74 years of age, is among a lucky 1.7 per cent of Ugandans who are alive at the age of 70 or above. In fact, only 450,500 people, or 1.2 per cent of Ugandans, according to the UBOS projection, are as old as Museveni or older.

Reliable numbers on employment in Uganda are hard to come by but it is generally agreed that the country has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Museveni’s opponents often cite his age to make the point to the youth that their future is not safe with a 74-year-old leader who has been in power for 32 years.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) projects that at the mid-point of this year, Uganda had 39,041,200 people. Of these, only 648,000 people were projected to be 70-years-old or older. This means that Museveni, at 74 years of age, is among a lucky 1.7 per cent of Ugandans who are alive at the age of 70 or above.

Museveni being Museveni – the Maradona of Uganda’s politics – has tried to tilt the debate on age to his advantage. He has, for instance, distinguished between “biological age” and “ideological age”, saying that many Ugandans are young biologically but very old ideologically. He has identified “ideological disorientation” as one of Uganda’s “strategic bottlenecks”, positioning his “ideological youth” as the solution. For one to be “ideologically young”, Museveni says, one needs to have the right ideas and mindset on how to transform society. He regards himself as a master in that. He says biological age is of no consequence in politics.

In his State of the Nation address last year, the Ugandan president said staying in power for long – and therefore being old – is a good thing because the leader gains immense experience along the way. In the wake of the recent arrest of Bobi Wine and 32 others who were charged with treason after allegations of stoning the president’s motorcade, Museveni wrote at least six messages on social media addressed to “fellow countrymen, countrywomen and bazzukulu (grandchildren)”. He now takes comfort in addressing many of his voters and opponents as grandchildren.

The choice of social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) as the preferred way of transmitting the president’s messages also raised debate. From July 1, social media users had a daily tax imposed on them because the president said people used the platforms for rumour-mongering. Many social media users have avoided the tax by installing virtual private networks (VPNs) on their handsets and so the “rumour-mongering” on social media continues. Since younger people spend a lot of time on social media, their septuagenarian president has decided to follow them there. Whenever he has addressed them as “grandchildren”, there have been hilarious responses in the comments section.

Beyond the debates, Museveni has in past election campaigns come up with a number of things to attract the youth, including recording something akin to a rap song in the lead-up the 2011 elections. But if it is about music, Museveni now faces Bobi Wine, a man less than half his age who has spent all his adult life as a popular musician.

Museveni’s government has tried one thing after another in an attempt to provide the jobs that young people badly need, with initiatives ranging from setting up a heavily financed, but highly ineffectual, youth fund in the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. After the 2016 elections, in which Museveni suffered the heaviest defeat in Kampala City and its environs, he set out to dish out cash to youth groups to promote their businesses. Not much has come out of this initiative.

When he shot to power in 1986, Museveni rebuked leaders who overstayed their welcome, saying that the vice was at the root of Africa’s problems. As time went by, and with him still in power, he changed his views. He now says that he actually prefers leaders who stay in power for long periods. Museveni’s opponents latch onto such contradictions as they keep piling up.

Is it Bobi Wine’s turn?

Over the last 32 years that he has been around, Museveni has had a number of challengers and Bobi Wine is now threatening to storm the stage as the new kid on the block.

When he shot to power in 1986, Museveni rebuked leaders who overstayed their welcome, saying that the vice was at the root of Africa’s problems. As time went by, and with him still in power, he changed his views. He now says that he actually prefers leaders who stay in power for long periods.

Many of the people who were in the trenches with Museveni in the earlier years and who dreamt of picking the baton of leadership from him have dropped their ambitions because age and/or other circumstances have come into play as Museveni stayed put. Former ministers who once nursed presidential ambitions, like Bidandi Ssali, Amanya Mushega, Prof George Kanyeihamba and even the younger Mike Mukula, for instance, have since retreated to private lives. Others, like Eriya Kategaya and James Wapakhabulo, have passed on.

Of the Bush War comrades who harboured ambitions of taking over from Museveni, only four-time challenger Kizza Besigye and former army commander Mugisha Muntu remain standing, with the largely silent former prime minister Amama Mbabazi thought to be lying in wait for a possible opening.

By staying in power for so long – since January 1986 – Museveni has worn out his ambitious former comrades and perhaps even ensured that the chance to rule the country passes their generation by, a reality that has made it more likely that he will face a challenger who is younger than his own children.

But Museveni will not allow this generation of youth to win. The ruling party consistently stifles the emergence of younger leaders. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, for instance, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party saw a rare surge in activity championed by younger people. One of Museveni’s in-laws, Odrek Rwabwogo, was among them. Rwabwogo had resorted to penning a string of articles in the partly state-owned New Vision newspaper about how the ruling party’s ideology could be sharpened to take care of the new Uganda. A number of other younger leaders within the party vied for space and expressed their visions in what was interpreted by some as a jostle for a front row seat as Museveni was expected to be standing for his last term in preparation for retirement in 2021.

Then, shortly after returning to power in 2016, Museveni engineered the removal from the Constitution the 75-year cap for presidential candidates, which would make him eligible to run again for as many times as he would be physically able to handle. This was a sure sign that Museveni was not willing to hand over power to a more youthful generation.

Repression heightens

The move to remove the age limit for presidential candidates from the Constitution inevitably invited stiff opposition from those who for decades have worked towards removing Museveni from power. In September last year, army men invaded Parliament and beat up and arrested Members of Parliament who were trying to filibuster the debate and perhaps derail the introduction of the bill to remove the age limit. Two MPs were beaten to a pulp and one of them, Betty Nambooze, has been in and out of hospitals in Kampala and India over broken or dislocated discs in her back.

This unfortunate incident, however, did not stop the State from bringing charges against her when after the shooting to death in June of an MP, Ibrahim Abiriga – who was one of the keenest supporters of the removal of age limits – Nambooze made comments on social media that the State interpreted as illegal. This week she had to report to the police over the matter, but she was informed that the officers were ready to have her charged in court, where she was delivered in an ambulance. She was carted into the courtroom on a wheelchair for the charges to be read out to her before the magistrate granted her bail. She sobbed all the way and afterwards wrote on Facebook that while in court she was “crying for my country”.

Francis Zaake, the other MP who was also was beaten, had to be taken to the US for treatment. He is now being treated again and is set to be fly out of the country due to injuries he sustained during the violence in Arua in which Bobi Wine was also attacked by soldiers of the Special Forces Command that guards the president.

Bobi Wine and 32 others have since been charged with treason but Zaake hasn’t yet – though Museveni has said in one of his statements posted on social media that Zaake escaped from police custody. When he is supposed to have escaped, Zaake was unconscious and could not move or talk. He was reportedly just dropped and dumped at the hospital by unidentified people. The head of the hospital has said that Zaake is at risk of permanent disability because of the damage he suffered to his spinal cord. The authorities say they are waiting for Zaake to recuperate so that he can face charges related to the violence in Arua.

By these callous actions, Museveni has demonstrated how ruthless he can get when his power is challenged. He has referred to the injured MPs as “indisciplined” and has not extended any sympathy towards them.

Those who have dared to challenge Museveni, especially Besigye, have been here before. The new opposition politicians currently in the line of fire, including Bobi Wine, have been served with a dose of what to expect if they push Museveni hard. The decision on how far they are willing to go is now in their court.

It seems that Museveni plans to apply to Bobi Wine the script he has used on Besigye over the past two decades. Apart from being targeted for physical assaults, Bobi Wine will be – and it is already happening – isolated from members of his inner circle, especially those who provide him with physical cover. They will be arrested, intimidated, or offered money to start businesses, a ploy to get them to abandon him. Some, like his driver Yasin Kawuma, who was buried a few weeks ago, will die.

It seems that Museveni plans to apply to Bobi Wine the script he has used on Besigye over the past two decades. Apart from being targeted for physical assaults, Bobi Wine will be – and it is already happening – isolated from members of his inner circle, especially those who provide him with physical cover.

Another thing the Museveni machine will do, and which it has done in the past, is plant fifth columnists around him – men and women who will show immense eagerness to work with Bobi Wine to remove Museveni from power but whose real assignment will be to get him to make mistakes and to spy on him.

It is also to be expected that Museveni will reach out to Bobi Wine with some kind of deal – he seems to offer all his credible opponents proposals for an amicable settlement so that they can drop their political ambitions. It is hard to say whether Museveni has already approached Bobi Wine or not, but there are rumours to that effect.

Ultimately, it will be up to Bobi Wine to decide what he wants to do going forward, but with him fighting for his life in hospital, we dare not predict the future.

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