Deplorable state violence that has marred the ongoing electoral process has rightly captured critical attention of many commentators lately.
If one thing is clear in these discussions, it is that endorsing the official talk of COVID-19 guidelines, as a justification for the ongoing state violence and repression, is an act banked either on deliberate forgetfulness or short memory: conducting elections in the midst of a pandemic was not the only alternative available on the political menu.
All major opposition parties in the country were unanimous on the need to postpone the 2021 general elections due to the constraints the pandemic necessarily imposed, and the impossibility of holding meaningful free and fair elections under the circumstances.
The only party that insisted on elections under a raging global pandemic, and aggressively so, was the ruling party. It is the same party that is deploying state coercive instruments under its command to spell doom for its candidate’s strongest opponent(s).
Dr. Spire Ssentongo’s take on this matter will certainly cause an ‘Uncomfortable Laughter’, to borrow the title of his latest collection, but the truth in it is quite indisputable: while the Public Order Management Act gets a truly earned rest; COVID-19 just secured a seasonal gig with strict instructions: “make sure I do not fall”.
Yet away from these extremely worrying circumstances, this election has brought to the fore something new, something worth our critical attention. Unlike in the past, when presidential candidates’ campaign posters explicitly donned in manifold ways the usefully vague promise of modernist ‘development’, this time we are witnessing an interesting consensus on how what is at stake is our ‘future’.
Within circles of political opposition, many seem to agree on the need to rethink and rework the present, as a mandatory precursor for any meaningful future.
This is what one immediately reads in the rallying calls of key candidates: Kyagulanyi’s ‘A New Uganda’, Amuriat’s ‘Building a New Uganda’, Gen. Tumukunde’s ‘A Renewed Uganda’, and in Gen. Muntu’s ‘A Change You Can Trust’. The same sense seems to be implied in Hon. Mao’s ‘Reclaiming your Future’.
The ruling party’s candidate is campaigning on the message of ‘Securing your Future’. Given the current government’s neoliberal credentials, many have asked, and rightly so, ‘whose future’ it is to be secured. To this we must add: ‘which future’?
For a party that is only 15 years away to be half a century in power, before us is not just one but two futures: there is the future of 1986, which in an important sense is today (the present); there is also the future of the present.
Everyone in this party is offering lectures on the future of the present, and how they are up to securing it ‘foras’, as if to divert public attention away from the present, the future of 1986.
If we seriously consider the fact that under the current government, the present is the first future, and that this present is the basis upon which a second future is to be ‘secured’; we are better off foregoing, for a while, troubling ourselves with the second future, and instead interrogate the secure nature of the first future, the present.
If we find, as we certainly will, that in the present future, political technologies of colonial vintage are still being deployed enmasse, and that political opponents of the incumbent and their supporters are being brutalised, others’ lives cut short due to bullet holes punched into their bodies by people entrusted with public security, while the rest herded like cattle from one Nalufenya to the next, all with impunity; the talk of a secure second future, the future of the present, is total bunk.
An important question has to be raised regarding the manner in which presidential candidates are framing the question of the future. This framing ultimately derives from the broader framework within which presidential contenders conceive the present.
Are problems in contemporary Uganda primarily political, economic, or something else? According to the ruling party, for example, the existing political order is in good health. In its view, the remaining struggle is primarily an economic one: managing the transition from ‘poverty’ to a ‘middle-income status’.
Critical voices on this way of framing the problem, such as those pointing to the uselessness of statistics obtainable amidst acute economic inequalities, are silenced as ‘economic saboteurs’.
With this conception, the ruling party is relentless in its country-wide circulation of images embodying a tantalising idea of a future economic paradise: airport runways, expressways, high-class health facilities like the proposed one at Lubowa, monocultures, industrial parks, assembling plants, regional market buildings, power plants, to mention only a few.
After draining most resources in the present, those in power have embarked on a dangerous practice of ‘stealing from the future’, that is, borrowing recklessly to realize gigantic “public” projects whose only function is to secure their power in the present.
As Economists continue to sound alarms on the country’s ballooning debt levels, those in power always find avenues to justify more debt, the most lucrative one recently being the COVID-19 pandemic.
The point I would like to emphasize here is that not only is the cost of these gigantic projects that are the newfound obsession for our rulers too high (both for us living today and those to come); more than anything else, these economic pursuits in themselves cannot “secure our future”.
The presumption that the political order of our country is in good health, and that all that is needed is to borrow our heads off into a future economic paradise, is totally misleading. The ongoing public debate on “tribalism” alone reveals how far we are from achieving an inclusive postcolonial political community.
There is a general temptation to reduce tribalism to the “tribal” profiles of individuals in top governmental positions. Such temptation is understandable: the constitution of government may be the most apparent symptom of how problematic the broader political community is constituted.
However, if we seriously consider what we now know about late colonial political modernity in Africa, thanks to the critical scholarship of Mahmood Mamdani and others after him, we begin to see postcolonial tribalism in Uganda within an expanded frame.
Far from being simply about the second names of individuals in state bodies, postcolonial tribalism, just like colonial tribalism, is a state project: the continued tribalization of state structures in a purely colonial fashion.
If the state views and profiles us not as territorial citizens but as members of distinctive “tribes” in a territory that is Uganda, it is not difficult to understand why today every cultural group wants to be politically recognised as a “tribe”, with the latest push coming from our Ugandan Indians.
Like its colonial predecessor, the postcolonial state in Uganda is deeply immersed in the project of politicising cultural difference, dishing out “tribal” and “kingdom” statuses to whoever claims for one. Each new tribe or kingdom presumes cultural homogeneity, only to end up in conflicts that target internal ethnic minorities.
The multi-ethnic nature of our societies implies that a cycle of what MISR’s Yahya Sseremba has recently called “ethnic emancipation” will be recurrent, and with it unending political violence against ethnic minorities in each new politically recognised tribe or kingdom.
All this speaks not the language of a political community in good health, but one in chaos. How can we be dreaming secure future economic paradise, when the present political community is in deep crisis?
The author is a Ph.D. Fellow, Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere University [email protected] Twitter: @adventino88