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What to do for country? A lot, if…

By Emmanuel Kwezi Tabaro

We do not try to assuage government responsibility and assemble the fire to burn it

Writing in his `The Last Word’ column (The Independent Feb. 20), Andrew Mwenda did touch an area that has been a subject of debate recently – whether citizens or government should be to blame for the apparent mess that Uganda is. From his nightly news segment, “News Night,” to the Friday KFM Hot Seat programme, Mwenda has found every opportunity to blame the citizenry and dismiss their (sometimes genuine) complaints as mere heckling and frustration. I disagree with Mwenda.

Firstly, the title of the article (“What can you do for your country?”), paraphrasing John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 inaugural speech, could not have been any more inapt. The speech, delivered on a chilly January day, by a youthful president who had just won an election by the closest of margins, in a country at the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, was meant to both inspire and capture the imagination of America and the rest of the world in what was then the nuclear age. The same, am afraid, cannot be said of Andrew’s attempt.

I have always been an advocate of local agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices towards managing (sometimes locally originated) problems. Whether it is gay activists fighting for recognition, political parties seeking more democratic space, I have always argued the drive for change should be driven, first, from within. However, “agency” is a function of something else, “structure” – those factors that influence, determine or limit agency. If we focus so much on the few trees that individual efforts are (however well-intended they may be), we risk missing the forest that the structural bottlenecks to these efforts are.

Individual effort and agency has its own limits. Two weeks ago when Mwenda raised the example of Silver Mwesigwa after the Friday Hot seat show, another panellist, Charles Odongtho, shared with us an anecdote from his village about a group of youths who came together, bought solar panels and connected tens of homes to solar power. Next they knew; UMEME deployed its officials to disconnect the residents because, apparently, UMEME is supposed to be the “sole” supplier of power. Clearly these young men were reacting to an immediate need – power – as a result of state inefficiency but found their efforts limited by “structure”.

Going by Andrew’s statement, these youth shouldn’t express their discontent rather they should “organise” and “do something” about their plight without waiting for government. But how?

Mwenda finds easy meat in members of Uganda’s social media community whom he labels as idle and having “a lot of time on their hands”. Well, here I will give a personal story. For the last one year, a group of friends and I have been part of a social media charity drive, #Iam4040, the brain child of one of the most passionate and inspiring young people this country has seen, Esther Kalenzi. Through their efforts on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter the group has raised funds to construct dormitories, repaint orphanages and address a wide range of social problems that are, directly or indirectly, the result of state dysfunction. Clearly someone on social media is doing something to change the situation.

At one of the #Iam4040 events last year, we visited a home for cancer patients (mostly children) run by another amazing young man using his personal savings, repainted the premises and donated a few items to the children and their parents. It was while at this home that an interaction with one parent from Kween district whose daughter was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma (a cancer of the lymphatic system common in children) left me perplexed. He narrated to us the trouble he went through at the (only) national cancer institute in Mulago; having to wait days before he could see the doctors, and on seeing the doctor, being told that the facility does not have enough beds to accommodate them and that they had to seek accommodation elsewhere in Kampala (this is a father who had just travelled from Kween to Kampala for the first time). Luckily the Akiba children’s home came to his rescue – and it has done the same for many such stranded tax-paying Ugandans who have been turned away from the national referral hospital.

Sincerely, old man Mwenda, in your wisdom, what could a bunch of mostly unemployed University students do to salvage such a situation? Crowd-fund to build a national cancer institute, since government has failed?

In the same speech president J. F. Kennedy would remark, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. If we cannot help the poor in society, and try to assuage government responsibility towards their plight, we are assembling the firewood that will burn the very tenets that a government should be built on, i.e. service to its citizens. For citizens in the Leviathan, according to Hobbes, agree among themselves to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others. If the Leviathan (state) cannot serve its cardinal purpose, it ceases being one, and we will be left to the mercy of nature.

In the same vein I’ll say, yes, neither opposition political leaders Mugisha Muntu, Kizza Besigye, Norbert Mao and certainly not Museveni are going to change Uganda single-handedly without an organised citizenry.

But the same should not be used to assuage their responsibility towards doing something. Like Mwenda has always argued, you can only make a pot with the clay you have…well, how come previous “potters” like Obote made better pots (viz. health care, education, etc) using the same clay? It might not be the clay that is the problem after all.

In as much as disagree with Mwenda, I acknowledge the importance of active citizen involvement  towards bettering this country for posterity. Again, to quote Kennedy in that inaugural speech, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this [NRM] administration, nor even in our lifetime…” But let us start somewhere; by recognising the limits of personal initiative (agency) in the face of a wider systemic dysfunction.


Emmanuel Kwezi Tabaro B.Sc. Zoology (Chemistry minor)
Makerere University, Kampala.
Twitter/Facebook: @Kwezi_Tabaro

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