Sunday, 24 February 2008

Launching 'HungerFREE'...and UB40

It is fair to say that a trip to a concert by ageing British reggae band 'UB40' is not high on many people's to do before they die list. However, when any group of international recognition performs in Kampala the effect is quite amazing. People will literally beg, borrow and steal to get the money together for the (relatively expensive) tickets and the hit songs are played ad nauseum on the capital's radio stations. In UB40's case this amounted to 'Red Red Wine' and 'Falling in Love With You', both of which are covers that it could be argued they have 'made their own' over the (many) years. Anyhow last night thousands of Kampalans packed into the cricket oval for what was an enjoyable, if slightly surreal, evening.

The concert last night came at the end of a busy week with Action Aid, during which we launched our 'HungerFREE' campaign in Kampala and the Eastern district of Katakwi. 'HungerFREE' campaigns are being run in over thirty countries worldwide, with the broad aim of forcing governments to deliver on the first Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. In Uganda we have decided to focus on three key issues: increasing women's ownership and control of land; promoting access to agricultural markets for small-holder farmers; and ensuring the availability of enough good quality seed. The key message is that in Uganda there is easily sufficient food to feed the whole country, meaning that where hunger exists it is as much a political issue as it is, for example, one of unfavourable climate.

As an advocacy NGO our aim is to campaign for the appropriate legal and policy frameworks to be in place at the national level to deliver on these goals, and where necessary to also embark on grassroots sensitisation programmes about the issues listed above. The latter is particularly relevant when dealing with the culturally controversial issue of women's control of land. Needless to say I don't have the space to go into great detail about the campaign here, but if anyone has any questions please feel free to get in touch.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Strike Over

The University is now officially open again after the lecturers decided to go back to work following a union meeting on Saturday. It seems the Ministry of Education stepped in to clear salary arrears which was enough to end the deadlock. Friday saw a minor demonstration but discouraged by the Guild President's appeal to remain peaceful, and a large police presence, most students decided not to bother.

Hopefully this will my last post on Makerere's woes for a while.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

All Quiet...Mak Sent Staff on 100m US Junket

Despite the hype campus remained quiet today. Students are apparently biding their time with the planned protest now likely to go ahead tomorrow. One thing for certain is that lecturers did not turn up to teach today despite the University Council's ultimatum. The academic union has suggested the deadlock could be broken by a promise to purchase sufficient teaching materials immediately, followed by negotiations over allowances and the pension fund raid in two months time.

In unrelated news it has emerged today that cash-strapped Makerere spent nearly 100 million shillings (~£30000) in September 2007 to send seven staff members to a junket in the United States...

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

'Resume teaching or resign'

Having been ordered to go back to work tomorrow the lecturers' union, MUASA, met today to decide their response. Given the tone of their spokesman prior to the meeting - "we all want a better university and that is why we are demanding teaching materials and better working conditions" - it is hard to see a quick resolution. Eyes now turn to the student response which is expected to come on Friday. During the last major lecturer strike, at the end of 2006, student protests were broken up by baton wielding police and liberal use of the President's favourite non-lethal form of crowd control, tear gas.

2120 update: The lecturers' union has announced that they will not go back to teach until more of their demands have been met (particularly the money for teaching materials). The students have responded by bringing forward their protest to tomorrow. Police are being deployed as I speak. It should be an interesting day - I'll try and post updates and maybe photos here tomorrow.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Strike To 'Get Ugly'

Students are now all back on campus after the holidays and the lecturers' strike is at a crucial stage. Tomorrow the University Council are holding a meeting in which (according to my source)the Chairman will order lecturers back to work on Wednesday or face disciplinary action. The lecturers' union is expected to meet on Wednesday morning to decide their reaction, which will almost certainly be not to comply to the order. Management has already started putting pressure on junior lecturers to show up or face the consequences. Government has also weighed in and is threatening mass sackings.

According to striking tradition at Makerere the next move will be a students' strike in protest at the lack of lectures. The rumour is that management is secretly encouraging the students to take action in order to force the lecturers back to work. All the while wages and allowances are in serious arrears and teaching materials are non-existent. Time to get out the marching boots...

Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Kenyan Crisis - A Boardroom Dispute Gone Wrong?

So much has been said and written about the situation in Kenya that there is no need to repeat much of it again here. However, one differing perspective I get from talking to people in Kampala is their belief that the tribal element to the crisis is in reality a class issue being manipulated by the political leaders.

Kibaki and Odinga (pictured right) are both hugely wealthy men from elite, political class families. Kibaki was Vice-President under Moi for many years, while Odinga's father was a prominent figure in the independence movement, eventually serving as the country's first Vice-President under Kenyatta. Indeed the two men were allies in the 'Rainbow' coalition that won the 2002 elections, unseating Moi's party. It was after this election that they fell out, when Kibaki went back on his promise to appoint Odinga as Prime Minister.

The reason this background information is important is to understand the intense personal rivalry that exists between the two men, to the extent that they have been prepared to whip up tribal sentiments among groups of largely young, poor, urban men. A key reason why this was so easy for them to initiate (apart from the vote rigging) is that the tribal split also represents the 'rich-poor' divide in the country. Because Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe have traditionally controlled more of the land and businesses it made it easier for Odinga to position himself as the champion of the poor, who are disproportionately non-Kikuyu. Clearly it is a more emotive story for international journalists to stress the tribal elements but the class issue should not be underestimated - while the Kenyan middle classes continue living a fairly normal existence it is those with the least that are killing each other.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Corruption - An Everyday Occurrence

There is a reason Uganda is ranked 111th in the world for corruption by Transparency International. Anyone who has spent a few months living here will have witnessed times when a sly backhander or brown envelope has sped up some bureaucratic process or paid off a grasping government official.

Today was a perfect little example. On my way back from work with Emmanuel, one of the boda-boda (motorbike) drivers I regularly use to commute with, we were forced to stop as a goods train crossed the road in front of us (no level crossings here). As the traffic was heavy we, along with many other boda-bodas, used the central reservation to snake our way to the front of the queue. Out of nowhere a plain-clothed law enforcement official jumped in front of us and took Emmanuel's key, his team quickly surrounding us while pointedly ignoring the half a dozen other motorbikes who were also not conforming to the 'highway code'.

I know you're probably thinking this sounds like a 'fair cop guv' - roads are for driving, central reservations are explicitly not - but to put it into context it not unusual for cars to drive on the pavement here. It is simply accepted in Kampala that more unorthodox methods of road use are necessary, and during the hundreds of times I have used boda-bodas, all of whom employ the same tactics, I had never been apprehended before. Anyway the combination of an enforced stop and the sight of a mzungu (white man) passenger, meant Emmanuel's bike was on the way to being impounded. It was at this point that I was considering my friend Abdul's tactic of acting out a phone call to the Minister of Internal Affairs. However, Emmanuel was soon back having 'apologised' for his misdemeanour. The cost of freedom? £3.05...

Monday, 4 February 2008

UFOs spotted on campus

UFOs (Ugandans for Obama) are a new group that have started holding meetings on campus and are being enthusiastically supported by many students. Although I can't imagine Hilary is losing sleep over their potential impact on 'Super-Duper, Mega, Tsunami Tuesday' tomorrow, it is interesting to note the breadth of interest and hope Obama has created. The founder of UFO compared Obama with Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther-King in terms of his ability to inspire Africans, both within the continent and the diaspora.

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga has even attempted to cash in on the Obama magic by revealing they are distant relatives and remarking that 'America will have a Luo President before Kenya', in reference to the ethnic splits currently engulfing the country (more of which here tomorrow).

Several months ago I would personally have struggled to chose between Clinton and Obama but no longer. The cynical tactics of the Clintons in South Carolina, combined with a seemingly smug sense of entitlement that radiates from Bill whenever he speaks, have been important factors, but far more so the consistently impressive performances of Obama. There is also no doubt in my mind that he is the single candidate who could almost overnight start to re-build America's shattered reputation abroad. It's time for change.