Independence Musings Politics Uganda

Jeremy Clarkson, Ug@50, Prevent(at)ive Arrest and The Next 50 Years

Wow – it’s been a while since I last posted anything here. A long while. So I suppose a really long post should compensate for my silence, right?!?

The worst bit about taking so long between blog posts is having to choose what to write about since so much noteworthy stuff has usually happened in the intervening period. The last time I felt like blogging, I had just been relieved of my precious laptop (plus a couple of other prized valuables) by a thief. I felt my experience with the Uganda Police thereafter would have been worth writing about. Unsurprisingly, I was unable to summon sufficient energy to do the typing…

This time round however, there are no such problems. It so happens to be a truly remarkable time (Uganda’s Jubilees Independence celebrations – Google’s even done a doodle for us!) and it is happening just after a number of events that piqued my interest. So, let’s get started!

Jeremy Clarkson & Top Gear in Uganda!

Everyone that knows me knows that I am a complete petrolhead. Certified car-nut is probably a more apt description. Over the years, I have accumulated so much information on motorcars in my head that I wonder whether it really is optimum usage of my ‘hard-disk’, so to say. (In my defence, it is not just cars that I take a keen interest in but we’ll leave that for another day) As such, one of my best TV programmes is TopGear. I have watched every single episode of the modern format show. Actually, I have watched most of the episodes multiple times. Thanks to YouTube, I’ve also been able to watch many of the old format episodes.

Imagine my shock and surprise when I learnt (from Twitter) that the TopGear crew were in Kampala busy filming this year’s Christmas Special! Naturally, being a TopGear fan, I do follow Jeremy on Twitter and I remember trying to figure out where they were headed when he tweeted this. To find out that he was actually headed here was a very pleasant surprise. My efforts to get a couple of autographs and a photo-op have thus far been fruitless so I’m not a happy bunny at the moment 😦

This is not doctored! The 2012 Christmas Special – airing in Feb 2013

Anyway, the news that Jeremy, James and Richard were in town spread like wildfire. As the show’s fans desperately tried to get more information about the trio’s mission, one of them landed on this article written by Jeremy for his regular Sunday Times column. As you can imagine, for most fans, the euphoria quickly vanished. And the article went viral (by our standards) on social media and so many more people (including non TopGear fans) ended up reading the article. Naturally, given that many readers hardly know what a colourful character Jeremy is, the general reaction was angry protestations with a lot of vitriol being directed at Jeremy. One of my favorite bloggers, Simon Kaheru, a gentleman I respect/admire a lot had this to say. The comments at the end of his post typify the general reaction from those that read the article.

Now, one question some posed is why the article was only surfacing one year after it was published. The answer was simple – the publication Jeremy writes for (the Times) decided a couple of years back to establish a paywall for its news websites. That means this particular publication is quite opaque to the vast majority of web users. Up to that time, I was a regular reader of his columns (car reviews and opinion pieces) and the truth is that this article on Kampala was typical Clarkson fare. I was quite surprised that even TopGear fans were upset by the article – haven’t they watched/listened to him before? This is probably the most ‘politically-incorrect’ presenter/writer/speaker I’ve ever seen. Just look at this shortlist of some of the stuff he’s said/written. And that is a short-list i.e. there’s a lot more. You need to watch the video (the 2005 DVD Heaven and Hell) where he insults the Malaysians by destroying one of their proudly locally produced cars (a Perodua Kelisa). Or watch the TopGear episode (S3E7) where he describes the first-generation Porsche Cayenne in very colourful language… The quote is reproduced somewhere here.

So – is anyone still surprised that he’d write what he did? Getting offended is routine when dealing with this guy and so it’s best to assume an ‘unbwogable’ stance when reading/listening/watching him. That said, however, the most interesting thing though is that in all he writes and says, I always find that there are a couple of very serious issues that he raises that warrant attention. Basically, if you blow away the chaff (exaggerations, coarse humour and outright lies – no one under 18? Jumped over a body?), there are some oft uncomfortable truths in there. In that particular article, I would love all those that angrily dismissed him to consider the following:

  1. Is it not true that celebrity driven aid projects are more about egos and vanity than actually addressing the root causes of our problems? Are we not generally corrupt and violent?
  2. Do we not have a profoundly heart-wrenching crisischild abductions/sacrifice? Do we actually appreciate the scale of this problem?
  3. Has anyone visited any of Kampala’s slums lately? Care to tell us what they look like?
  4. Yes, the one restaurant meal cost is greatly exaggerated but are the current income inequalities in our society a joking matter?
  5. On a more pleasant note, isn’t our coffee truly delicious?

Let’s face it – this city (and by extension this country) has massive challenges. The fact that a foreigner has dared to point them out albeit in a crude and exaggerated manner should not make us lost sight of the fact. Personally, I would very much prefer to respond to Jeremy by working on those issues he raises so that he has no ammunition to fire at us. Thank God we appear to finally have sane people in charge of the city. Let’s clean it up, abandon our littering habits (can’t we do this? Or this?), fix the sewers and the roads and see where the criticism will come from.

A few days after this storm, Dr. Ian Clarke’s revealed a couple of fascinating things about Jeremy in his regular Sunday Vision feature. Unfortunately, I’ve failed to get a link having read the dead-tree version. But in summary, he revealed that Jeremy supports some of his social/community work. Isn’t it ironical that the guy we were so quick to vilify may actually be doing a lot more for the urban poor in our midst than most of us? Secondly, he revealed that while driving around, they got caught up in the terrible Mukwano roundabout traffic jam and a policewoman asked him (Jeremy) for a cigarette in exchange for letting them through quickly. Honestly, what would your impression be of this country if you had an experience like this?

And, lets not forget something here. The majority of those Ugandans that are actually able to read this (plus everything else that’s been written about this) are those fortunate enough to have internet access. And they’re most probably on Twitter and Facebook. Basically, the elite of this country. Know what? You guys are a small minority of the population. (probably part of the 13% urban population mentioned there. I must say it is very annoying to have to rely on statistics about ourselves provided by the USA. Apart from the navigation being a mess, the UBOS website instructs one to contact the Bureau for more information. Just one of those issues we need to really sort out otherwise we’ll always be a laughing stock). Let’s never get so absorbed in our relatively comfortable lives so as to forget the majority of our country men and women are struggling in the real sense of the word…

Uganda @ 50! And Prevent(at)ive Arrest…

As a nation, we’re celebrating 50 years of independence. So much has been written and said in the buildup to the day that it’s been hard to keep track. I am well aware of the strides Uganda has made in this time. However, I am also acutely aware of the failures we have registered. I do not intend to delve into all the positives and negatives – many more accomplished writers have already done this. However, a couple of events over the past few weeks have shaped my thoughts on this Independence thingie.

The past few weeks have, I believe, been a very good time for the media guys. From reports of corporate fraud and allegations of theft of unbelievable sums of money from the Office of the Prime Minister and Public Service to demolitions of illegal structures by KCCA, there has been no shortage of headlines. But one of the most intriguing stories revolves around that man – Kizza Besigye. A few days ago, he and the 4GC activists decided to resume their protests. Predictably, the police came down hard on them. As we speak, he is virtually under house arrest. He did manage to beat the security cordon once or twice after which it was reported that the police bosses in charge of the lockdown were duly transferred. Probably, that is why the new guys felt the need to make a statement, to show that they were fully committed to the cause. This news started trickling in while I was enjoying The Messi & Ronaldo Show on Sunday night (7th October).

Now, I have always been puzzled by the way the police behaves during such times. Being a rational person, I have always thought that the best course of action would be to let the walkers walk but keep a close eye on them. If any of the walkers proceeded to cause injury or damage to any person or their property respectively, then simply arrest the suspect and proceed to apply the full force of the law. But let people walk if they want. I always thought that that would be the most sensible thing to do. However, the police definitely think otherwise. The first thing they usually do is seal off the Constitutional Square and then close Buganda Road. Even if KB (and his sidekicks) are miles away. It is not difficult to imagine the ensuing traffic chaos in the city on such occasions – I had the misfortune of getting tangled up in it just last week.

Now – and this is where things get interesting enough to warrant research into our thinking patterns as human beings – after several such episodes, many people now blame all the chaos on the walkers. The reasoning is – if they didn’t walk, then the police would not smother the city in a cloud of tear gas. Plus they would not have to seal off all the roads around CPS. What I don’t get is why very few people ever point out that this actually blaming the victims! Have we now gotten to the point where the powers that be can do no wrong? That we shall accept their awful handling of issues and pin the consequences on the victims? Which takes us to the concept of Preventive Arrest. Or Preventative Arrest (different persons pronounce and spell it differently and being a very strange concept, I’m not sure which is correct). I genuinely cannot get my head around it. So the Mayor of Kampala (disclosure – this is a gentleman I’m not terribly fond of) will probably commit a crime if he leaves his home tomorrow? Solution – make sure he doesn’t leave his home. It looks like the Minority Report days have finally arrived. Much sooner than I anticipated watching the movie back in the day…

Anyway, the reason I’ve been pondering all this at this particular time in our nation’s history is because a few days ago, the two front-runners in the US Presidential Election, President Obama and Gov. Romney had their first presidential debate. Remarkably, they shook hands warmly before assuming their positions and proceeding to tear each other’s policy positions to shreds. Note – they shredded each other’s policy positions and theories. Not each other but each other’s positions on topical issues. And herein is the point that’s taken me so many words to arrive at: Until and I repeat – UNTIL our politicians are mature enough to embrace each other and debate each other in a sane manner and UNTIL our politics are mature enough in that compelling voters make choices based on policy positions and issues and not petty bribes, our Independence will remain a mirage. This can only happen if our leaders start respecting each other and respecting us. I’m talking about both sides here. Right now, if our President actually respected the leaders and members of other parties and if they respected him too, this country would be a much better place. Extending the respect theme – if public servants respected those they serve knowing very well that they are the ones that pay them their salaries, if employees respected their employers and vice-versa, if we all respected our leaders and vice-versa, if we all respected our fellow citizens in our communities irrespective of gender, tribe or religion, if we respected each other on the roads, if we respected our environment – wow – what kind of nation would we be? I truly hope that this kind of respect will take root and will grow over the next phase of our nation’s growth. Will we see non-violent elections in 2016? Will we see a live, televised presidential candidate debate with all the candidates participating (and debating sensibly, not hurling personal insults at each other)? Respect folks, respect – that’s all we need. (Imagine if Afande Omala actually respected KB as the leader of the main opposition party? Can you imagine the UK police gleefully tear-gassing Ed Miliband?!?)

The Next 50 Years…

A short while back, I was asked on Twitter by fellow IT enthusiast and Linux guru James Wire what more I thought KCCA should do to prove that it was different from the preceding administration(s). My immediate answer was very simple – in addition to the cleaning, can we please see some serious investment in infrastructure? For Kampala, I’d imagine the best way to start would be to very quickly replace the three roundabouts surrounding the Jinja Road traffic lights with modern traffic lights. The three are the Oasis Mall, Airtel and Mukwano roundabouts. These roundabouts alone are responsible for so much fuel wastage and teeth gnashing in truly nasty jams. Then the next step would be to implement a dual carriageway road from Nakawa through Banda/Kireka/Bweyogerere (I know this might go beyond KCCA’s territorial borders). Such investment would definitely not come cheap. I however refuse to believe that KCCA cannot afford to do them. The central government of course should step in with the right level of support – the city provides the lions share of tax revenue and thus should be taken care of appropriately. One thing I always think about is the fact that despite presiding over a lousy administration, Seya actually implemented the Kalerwe road works (conversion of the narrow old road into a dual carriageway from the Kubbiri roundabout to the Northern Bypass). Yes, it was done during his time and so he should get credit for it.

Our Twitter banter got me thinking – how exactly will we be able to get this country to the place we all want it to be. It struck me that the only way we get our house in order is to get our priorities right; we must invest in our health care, education and infrastructure. I will talk about healthcare another day. But while I was thinking about education and infrastructure (probably because of the frustration of using Jinja Road through Mukono over the weekend – doing a school visitation), I recalled yet another recent event – the passing of the Lunar Pioneer Neil Armstrong. And it suddenly struck me that if we, as a country, invested massively in infrastructure projects and education, we might reap a lot more than we bargained for. What do I mean? You see, Neil Armstrong was part of the awesome Apollo Space Program that ran from 1961 to 1972. This program gripped and inspired the Americans like nothing had ever done before. Yes, it cost billions. But does anyone think it was mere coincidence that companies like Apple and Microsoft were born in the few years following the Apollo heroics? These guys (and many of them will freely admit) were inspired by the space program and they learnt from it that nothing is impossible. They learnt that the sky is NOT the limit. Is it any wonder that American companies like Boeing are thriving today? Big projects simply inspire people and inspired people can take a country forward in a major way… I’m not saying that we start our own Apollo Space program. Rather, I’m suggesting that we cut the frilly stuff from the budgets and invest in things like a serious road network (6 lane Kampala-Jinja-Kenya highway anyone?), a serious rail network, serious IT infrastructure, serious science labs in schools and institutions, plentiful electricity supply etc. Basically, stuff that will stimulate and encourage hard-work, innovation and inspire/spark our children’s imagination. In doing so, who knows what the kids who’ll be seeing all this being implemented will be inspired to do? If we give them high-speed internet access from border to border and well equipped labs, who’s to say that in 50 years’ time, there won’t be multinational knowledge based companies that call Uganda home?

At the start of this post, I placed an image of the doodle Google has put in place for this day. Judging from the reactions of various tweeps (twitter users for the un-initiated), it seems this doodle has gotten many people excited. But lets not forget Google is an American company whose existence is simply due to that environment and culture that celebrates and spurs creativity and innovation. An environment where all the factors needed to make dreams come true exist and are protected jealously. We’re living in a time when more and more countries are learning the tricks that have enabled the West to thrive and are busy creating similar conditions back home. Look at China, South Korea and Malaysia. All of them are investing in public infrastructure AND their education sectors. Are we going to birth such a culture in this country and indeed this continent over the next 50 years? Then we need to stop waiting for the Chinese to come build our roads for us, the Japanese to put in place functional traffic lights and the WB/EU to stock school laboratories. Instead, let’s rethink our priorities, stop pilfering our resources and get serious about taking charge of our destiny.

Happy Independence Day to you all!

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