Footnotes from the British Underground

This blog began as venue for my stories as I traveled in Africa. 18 months later, I return to it as I travel to study as a Marshall Scholar in the United Kingdom. My hope is that this blog can be a conduit for you - my family, friends and secret/strange admirers - to track my movements, see a photo or two and get a glimpse of my days in the UK. Apologies once again to Dostoevsky for the blog's name...

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Location: Bradford, United Kingdom

After graduating from Notre Dame, I'm off to England for graduate study. I'll be studying for a M.A. in International Politics and Security Studies. When not studying, I'm continuing to coordinate Uganda-CAN's efforts to end the 20-year war in northern Uganda!

31.3.05

The World is on Fire - Update of my last 25 days in Uganda

When greeting someone in Luganda (the native language of Buganda, the central region of Uganda), there is no direct translation for hello. There is no one-word standard greeting. People always ask 'oli otya?' (how are you?) or 'ki kati?' (what's up?) or 'ogambaki?' (what do you say?) This simple linguistic difference highlights profound cultural differences. In Uganda, people do not run by each other and throw out one or two-word greetings; people stop and actually talk to the each other about their days, well-being, etc. It seems to me to create a much more humane, communal culture. So, ogambaki?

The task of synthesizing my last 25 days in Uganda into some 400-600 words is quite daunting. Not only has a great deal happened, but I find myself still trying to process and make sense of it all. Therefore, this will simply be a brief run through the highlights (and low-lights); if you want to read more, I have been trying to keep updating my weblog.

In the beginning of the month, I traveled to Lira District in northern Uganda, a part of the country that has been ravaged by the 18-year old conflict. Over nearly the last two decades, the Lord's Resistance Army, an apocalyptic-spiritual rebel group made up primarily of abducted children (20,000-25,000 over the course of the conflict) has terrorized the northern regions of Uganda, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and more than 1.4 million people living in internally-displaced peoples camps. The stories of abduction, rape and terror of the conflict are unbearable. I will put one such grotesque story at the end of the email if you want to read it.*

I visited two of the camps in Lira town, and the situation is heartwrenching and abominable. At one of the camps, people are sprawled inside and outside an old factory; living amongst rusty, dirty machinery. Children, viciously malnourished and without education, run around in the dirt and rust. Mothers breast-feed their babies in broken-down cars and sleep in the dirt. The lucky families sleep in small huts or tents, most which lack roofs, thereby the ground on which they sleep becomes wet and muddy when it rains. The people are starving, without clean water and living in destabilizing fear. One old woman with tears in her eyes told me, "We have no food. People are starving everywhere...We are hopeless people. In many ways, we are already dead." When I was leaving, I promised the people I would return (which I will be in one week) to conduct interviews and document their stories. One man told me, "I hope we are alive when you return."

As I walked around the camp, I wanted to cry, vomit, to break down. The camps were by far the most horrifying site I have ever seen in my life. Never in my life have I imagined that people can live in such brutal, dehuman conditions. When I returned to my hotel, I did break down. I had trouble breathing and controlling my thoughts. How is it possible for such horrific mass suffering to be happening while the world stands by in complete silence and inaction? If you want to do something, please send money to a relief organization like the Red Cross or especially contact your representatives and tell them you want them to work for peace in northern Uganda.

With my independent study project, which I am starting work on this week and will be working on for the next six weeks, I am looking at the political issues surrounding the war in northern Uganda. One of the main causes of the war is a massive north-south divide perpetuated by an oppressive one-party government that has fomented regional inequalities dating back to the colonial days of Uganda. Uganda is undergoing critical political transition/crisis these days (read about it in my blog if you're interested), which will have substantial impact on the policy debate regarding peace in the north. I am interviewing parliamentarians, opposition party leaders, IDPs in the north, civil society leaders and others to study the relationship between this political crisis and prospects for peace in the north.

A week after visiting the north, I traveled with my group to eastern Uganda, where we lived in a rural homestay and studied the intricacies of rural life in Uganda. This was quite a fascinating week and a big challenge for this not-so-rural guy. I lived in a mud hut with big spiders and a whole assortment of unidentifed large insects. Thank God for mosquito nets. The week had its comical moments - drinking millet beer with the village men with wooden stick straws out of a communal bowl and racing Ugandans barefoot across a field as hundreds of school children looked on - but it was also difficult to live so simply. And the rural life really is so simple in the sense that the people have to think about and attain things that you and I take granted everyday, such as water. Considering that most of the world lives in such village conditions, it was definitely an educating week.

Returning to Kampala, we had a formal academic week of Luganda exams and papers. The week found excitement, however, in a handful of protests that happened in the center of the city concerning the constitutional amendment bill currently being debated in Parliament. The bill is attempting to take away two-term limits currently placed on the president. I followed the protests, interviewing participators and organizers of the demonstrations. If you're interested, I posted information and findings on my blog. The opposition protest was pretty phenomenal because it was the first opposition protest in 20 years that was not repressed by government. That was a hopeful day, but unfortunately today a second opposition protest was completely repressed by police who use massive amounts of tear gas to clear the center of the city. As a man on the streets told me, "See, there is no democracy in Uganda."

I know that some people complain that these updates are so political and not so personal, but it is impossible to be apolitical in Uganda these days. The country is really approaching a watershed moment where it could plunge into massive conflict and turmoil or move towards a more hopeful, democratic future of national reconciliation. I spoke about the future of Uganda with one of the heads of the opposition parties here, the Forum for Democratic Change. I wrote a bit about that on my blog too if you're interested.

But as for me, I am fascinated, horrified and most of all, provoked. There is always something new to think about, learn or realize here in Uganda. I find myself amazed and overwhelmed by the contradictions and paradoxes so apparent here and all over the world. Sometimes, I become so enraged at the war, the suffering, the poverty. And yet I love so many things here - the godly fruits, the crazy taxi park, the friendly people, the beautiful countryside, the newspapers, chapati (this salty bread food that is common here) and more. Most of all, I have been so lucky to have a great homestay family that has taught me so much. They are great people and I hope I will stay in touch with them even after I have left this place in just six weeks.

Well as usual, I have written far too much. Please send me updates from your ends of the world. Thanks for everyone who has thrown me a line here or there; it means a lot.

And gyebale. In English, that means "thank you for the work you do." When greeting someone in Uganda, people always thank each other for the work they do. The more I become accustomed to it, the more I like it. It is important that we recognize the work of each other, no matter what we do with our days and lives. I wanted to end this email thanking all of you for the work you do. Gyebale wherever this email finds you and whatever it finds you doing.

I once read somewhere that the world is on fire. I have never been more convinced that it is. Yet, when we stand together and embrace one another across borders and oceans and divides, I have never been more convinced that we can calm the fire. Maybe never end it, but calm it. Tame it even.

*From a nine-year old escaped abductee -
CAUTION: this account is difficult to read and very graphic.

"There is nothing that I liked there. They collect all the children together and make you beat someone to death. Once there were about seven who tried to escape, including two girls. The commander decided not to kill the girls. He picked one boy to be killed. He placed his head on a piece of wood. He told one of the girls to come and chop this boy to small pieces. She started trying to cut his head off, but was not doing a good job. The other boys were told to help. When they had almost taken the head off, they had to chop the body into small pieces. Then they were told to play with the dead person's head. The boys had to throw it in the air four times, and the girls three times. The girls were bare-chested. After that, they commanded the girls to smear blood of the dead boy on their chest. After that, they put the head of the boy in a central place, put clubs all over it covering the head, and informed us that anyone who tries to escape will have the same thing."

28.3.05

Happy Easter and a New Column on Protests

First off - Happy Easter. I wrote a scathing reflection to a friend the other day on how we are privileged to have hope in resurrection that comes after suffering when so many people throughout this world know just Good Friday and unjustified suffering. Yet, I think we have to have hope or else it would be impossible to live with sanity in this troubled world with so many contradictions. And it is always good to gather in community to share and be merry.

Yesterday, my family here gathered for a massive feast of classic Ugandan foods - chicken, beef, pork, rice, amatookye (plantines), macaroni, special groundnut sauce, cabbage and more. It was a really great day and we had a lot of fun. Ugandans really have such a strong sense of family, and their extended families are very close-knit. I have really been lucky to have such a great homestay family, the Semakulas. They are really good people.

Now I am beginning the period of my program where I do my independent study project. I am researching current government policy towards peace in northern Uganda (the so-called "military solution") and looking at alternatives presented by opposition parties as the political system of the country shifts towards multipartyism.

I also just finished a piece for The Observer (the Notre Dame student newspaper) that should come out this Wednesday. It is a bit radical and I am not sure I accept all the ramifications of what I wrote, but I think the idea is an important and challenging one. It is one that I have been thinking about a lot since seeing the protests here last week. Well, here it is:

"Inject Potency into American Protests"
To be printed in The Observer on Wednesday, March 30th

In recent decades, protests as a form of political expression in America have become ineffectual, impotent social gatherings. The typical modern demonstration musters crowds in a police-permitted area to listen to speeches they already agree with, sing the usual protest hymns and perhaps march down the sidewalk sure not to bother traffic. And for protests at Notre Dame, add or substitute a prayer vigil and a candlelight march. While these events are valuable at times in rallying activists, they have overwhelmingly become spineless, trivial vehicles for true political and social change.

Last week, I found myself in the middle of Uganda’s first non-repressed opposition protest in twenty years. I have been to my share of demonstrations in recent years, but this one had a very different feel than the typical American rally. To begin, the hundreds of people that gathered at Constitutional Square faced the very real risk of being repressed, imprisoned and even shot by police. In recent history, the police have shot at crowds gathered to protest against the Ugandan government.

The demonstration last Thursday was organized by the Popular Resistance Against Life Presidency, a youth coalition of the different opposition groups here working to stop a constitutional amendment bill that will repeal presidential term limits. Posters at the rally read, "Time out for Dictator in Africa" and "We are fighting for a transparent, non-corrupt government, No to Third Term." One I found particularly interesting read, "Bush, why are you quiet?"

The rally began with speeches at the square, followed by a march to the Parliament down the main roads of Kampala, blocking traffic for almost an hour. The hundreds marched, danced and sang in the streets, while many bystanders on the sidewalk cheered. They marched to Parliament, where they were greeted by a number of parliamentarians from opposition parties.

At the rally, the passion and zeal of the participants was palpable. Their very presence at the protest in such a repressive political climate is a testament to their willingness to sacrifice for their beliefs. One protestor told me they were not afraid of the police. One organizer of the rally whom I interviewed told me, "We have a program of two years to change this government democratically, but if they repress us, we will lose patience and we will be forced to storm Parliament and stage a revolution."

Witnessing this event, I was inspired by the courage of the protestors. By taking to the streets, they were sending a clear, loud message to the political establishment that their demands could not be ignored. And those holding power and even the general public, witnessing the individual sacrifices of the action, cannot disregard such resolve.

The difference between the typical modern American protest and those happening in poor repressive nations throughout the world is that the latter requires individual sacrifice. From Zimbabwe to Cambodia to Burma to China, patriots are risking their own lives, daring to face the barrel of the gun as they stand for liberty, freedom and justice. This is not to praise those nations, but to praise the activists who dare to defy in such repressive cultures. In the United States and many other richer nations, it has become too easy to protest. Consequently, the efficacy of protests has become paltry.

Throughout the history of United States, effectual protests have played a critical role, dating back to the days of the American Revolution when a few brave Bostonians dared to throw tea over a ship. That history runs through movements for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, civil rights and more. In each of these movements that we now celebrate, protest actions played such an important role.

Yet today, when more than five hundred thousand in the United States and ten million people throughout the world took to the streets on February 15, 2003 to protest against the Iraq war, President Bush was easily able to dismiss the gatherings as a "focus group." While it is great that America has become a less repressive political atmosphere that allows protests, a major casualty has been that protests have become trivial in our times.

Activists have failed to intelligently adapt and organize demonstrations to challenge power structures. Even more, concerned citizens have lacked the courage to take risks for their convictions. As result, politicians and the elite have been able to act manipulatively and coercively under the cloak of an open political space. Which is worse: an environment that allows political expression but does not take it seriously or an environment that simply suppresses political action?

Of course, the latter is worse because people die for holding signs or wearing shirts, but the question challenges us to reevaluate the role of protests as a tool of real political action in our nation. If we are serious about changing problems that exist, we have to be serious about the actions we take to challenge them and the systems that entrench them.

This can even begin at Notre Dame, where activist groups have become far too content with prayer vigils or filling South Quad with crosses. In the late 1960s, students took over the administration building, blocked traffic and took other acts of civil disobedience for their convictions. Why can such high-risk high-sacrifice actions not happen today? They must if we are to see real change.

25.3.05

Protests, Part II - Easter Reflections

It is impossible to be apolitical in Uganda these days. For someone interested in politics, there is no more fascinating place to be these days than Uganda. Thursday confirmed that for me.

First, in response to the protest by the pro-Movement people on Monday, the opposition groups rallied for a anti-third term demonstration yesterday.This medley of about one thousand people, represented different political parties and universities in Kampala. It was impressive that they were able to turn out so many people for the event given the history of public dissent in Uganda.

In the past when opposition groups protest, they are repressed by police forces and some people are usually shot. It is a testament to the conviction of these people that they take such sacrifices to have their voices heard. Luckily, there was no repression or violence yesterday, making it the first peaceful opposition demonstration allowed in twenty years.

The rally began here at Constitutional Square at 1 pm. Different groups mustered on the field with their homemade signs (different than the highly-organized government protest on Monday), whistles, trumpets and passion. And there was so much passion. People were shouting, dancing and yelling. They kept saying 'agende,' which translates: 'he goes.' The 'he' being Museveni. Signs read: "We are fighting for a transparent, non-corrupt government, No to Third Term," "Time out for Dictator in Africa," "Donors We Still Need You," and "Museveni shame on you for the third term."

When I interviewed a few of the students, they were fiery and committed, claiming that Museveni is "changing the constitution to entrench a dictatorship." They criticized the Movement's tactics of intimidation and violence, not allowing true democracy. One guy told me, "We have a program of two years to change the government democratically, but if they repress us, we will lose patience and we will be forced to stage a revolution...We cannot be slaves in our own country."

The passionate group listened to speeches at the square by a number of MPs in the newly-formed opposition group, the Forum for Democratic Change. They then marched to the British High Commission, followed by Parliament. It was quite a sight to watch this mass of people move across the main streets of the city, cheered by many on the sidewalk. In a society where the political space can be stifling, this event was highly hopeful. The courage of these who dare to challenge the powerholders through the democratic process is highly inspiring.

Earlier in the day, I visited with a Parliamentarian from Soroti District in northern Uganda. She is also a member of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change. She told me about how government military approach to the northern conflict is only perpetuating the conflict, pushing more and more people into IDP camps. The people in her area overwhelmingly desire a peaceful amnesty approach to end the conflict. She told me that violence never ends war, it only attacks the symptoms of the problem. The FDC is promoting a platform of national reconciliation leading to a national dialogue that it believes can stop some of the harsh, violent regionalism in Uganda.

Later in the day, I ended up having coffee for two hours with the vice-chairman of the FDC, which was definitely one of the highlights of my time here. He was an extremely friendly and welcoming man, but more than that, he was a principled visionary really committed to the good of this country. He told me how northern policy is not putting the plight of the people first. He then told me about how FDC seeks to establish democratic processes and institutions in this country to provide true security. "We believe the security of the weak is only in democracy and freedom."

He told me, "One thing this country needs to see done is to entrench democracy because our politics have consistently been the politics of taking advantage." He said the FDC is trying to speak about values, not criticism. And he is hopeful that if the government does not use violent, they can succeed in pushing constitutionalism and winning the election. The big challenge now for FDC is to get funding just to move around the country projecting their message and vision. They are up against a foe that controls all the money and power in the state.

There are certain people in my life that I have met that have left me in awe, such as Desmond Tutu. This man, Honorable Professor Ogenga-Latigo is added to that list. I left coffee filled with hope and inspiration, a big contrast to how I felt on Tuesday after witnessing the ineptitude of Parliament. It was truly an honor to meet him and speak with him. Politics is a dirty business, but it can be a source of good and hope with the right principles and a vision that puts the good of the people first.

Sometimes I wonder why some of us go to churches on Good Friday when we can see the crucifixion of Jesus all around us in people dying of diseases, poverty, corruption and violence. If we open our eyes, we are certainly not lacking to see injustice. I just wonder where we find Easter, though, in such a troubled world.

For me, I saw such hope in a man daring to defy the odds and sacrifice tirelessly for the good of his people. We need such Easters of real-life hope that arise in our hearts and minds to push us towards action for a more just and humane world. We have far too many Good Fridays everyday all around the world.

23.3.05

About the Author - A Break from the Political Madness to Look at the Personal Madness

Some people have been writing me telling me they want less political journalism in my writings and more about how I am faring personally in the pearl of the continent. To me, that is quite boring, but I will appease them with a bit of personal jibberjabber here for a moment.

So, I am well. Or as well as can be. Truth be told, I find myself now torn in the midst of a land of contradictions and seeming paradoxes. On the one hand, I am depressed. I am still haunted by what I saw in the North, which totally overwhelmed me. I am still disgusted by the mismanagement, repression and corruption of the state her. I am still outraged at the slums, the poverty, the disease that run rampant throughout this place. I am still shocked that the international community can be silent and even complicit in systematic crimes. When you amass that all together, it poses a bleak picture, highlighting the worst of humanity.

Yet, while I despair, I also enjoy. I am enjoying myself immensely. I love this land and I love the people, who are funny, friendly and passionate. I still cannot help but smile when I begin to descend down the steps into old taxi park, the center of all madness. I love the fruits, I love my homestay family, I love what I am studying. Every morning, I want to get out of bed and see what this day will bring. And the whole experience is empowering, it accentuates for me how much power we hold as small individuals to learn, to criticize, to work for change in hopeless situations.

Maybe the best word for my current feeling is wonder. Last weekend, I was sitting on the banks of the Nile River, eating an avocado, peanut butter, cheese and tomato sandwich, and just thinking about the enormity of the world. Every night when I walk to my home, I look out on the African sky, and the stars always strike a chord of awe. When I stop and think, I realize how small and insignificant we are in world of such complexity, diversity and enormity. It's awesome, really.

So I am well or as well as one can be in a troubled world where kids are being abducted, raped and killed just 100 miles north of you. And I am loving living here, though it is very difficult and trying day by day. Such tension really. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of "creative tension" that he believed brings about real change and growth. So maybe I am growing or even changing.

Nadia Stekfo, my dear friend now rabble-rousing in Washington D.C. said it best in an email to me: "It's a strange, strange world." And it truly is. That's about all I want to say definitely at this moment.

21.3.05

The Story of a Booming Ugandan Protest and a Wannabe Journalist

As I have written many times before, Kampala is a a bustling city full of suprises. Today, I walked upon my latest surprise and story - a massive, lively political protest for the repeal of term limits in the Ugandan constitution. I was on my way to get a haircut/beard trim, but my facial hair will have to wait another day because this protest was too much to miss.

To contextualize quickly, there is a major debate going on in Uganda over a constitutional amendment to massively overhaul the 1995 constitution. The biggest piece of this "omnibus" bill is to repeal term limits, allowing President Youweri Museveni, leader of the country for the last 19 years, to seek reelection again in the 2006 elections. Museveni, the leader of the Movement (the major dominant political entity/party in Uganda) has control of the army and loads of money, allowing him to dominate the political landscape. The truth is that he has certainly done much good for the country in 19 years, bringing economic growth and stability. Many of the people, conscious of Uganda's dark violent history pre-1986, support him out of fear of instability.

Yet, Museveni and the Movement have resorted in recent years to oppressive, corrupt and coercive practices stifling the political space in Uganda. A case can and is being made by some brave Ugandans that it is time for serious change. More than that, however, many argue (as I did in a recent editorial that you can see earlier in the blog) that changing the constitution to repeal executive checks and balances will only lead to dictatorship and further political oppression. The debate is now in Parliment and dominates the newspapers here.

The "third term campaign" (also called the kisanja - banana leaves as symbol of the third term) has received loads of support from the existing political establishment. Today, the protest I saw was a mass of a few hundred people, many draped in kisanja leaves, holding signs supporting Museveni. Many of their signs were calling for foreigners to stay out of African politics (in recent weeks, many in British Parliament have made strong statements against the constitutional change). Signs included some of the following messages - "Museveni is a Freedom Fighter not an Actor," "We Fought for our Freedom, we died as you looked on, keep off," or "We are tired of neo-colonialism." Interestingly, all of the signs were handed out to the participants by the organizers of the rally.

After gathering, the few hundred (called a few thousands by organizers of the demonstration that I spoke with), marched to the British High Commission near Parliament, where they submitted a letter of protest and demanded the British high official to address them. When they were refused at first, they threatened to storm the gates. Finally, an agreement of sorts was reached, stopping potential violence. The people moved to Parliament, where they rallied for some time.

The mob was highly passionate - they were dancing, yelling, holding signs and marching. The majority of the crowd were university and secondary students. Acting like a journalist, I interviewed a few of the university leaders as they marched. One told me, "Power belongs to the people...no other foreign countries should interfere in our affairs, power belongs to us and we will decide how our government works." Another leader told me with a fire in his eyes, "This is an independent state, and no state should intervene according to the UN charter...we will not sit back ad watch foreigners impose their will on us...We are people, we are the critical mass, and we will determine the direction of our state."

It was fascinating to be there to watch this event and talk to these people. Uganda stands in muddy political waters with a major contentious debate that is firing up people on both sides. Of course, only those kisanja supporters are given the freedom to protest and express their views publically. The opposition protests have been suppressed, violently at times. The Ugandan political space is highly oppressive with the powerholders exercising their will openly to ensure that their voices dominate the arena. If you want to know my take on the debate, read the article I wrote two weeks ago.

That was the highlight of the day. In other news, I am focusing my research on the question of how multipartyism is presenting (or not) alternatives to the current government military approach to peace in northern Uganda. I am really excited to get immersed in that starting next week after we finish Luganda exams this week.

Cheers across the rivers and lakes and seas.

20.3.05

Reports from the East

Well, I am back from eastern Uganda after quite an eventful and trying week. I will just try to give a few highlights here. Best wishes to all of you across the globe.

The majority of the week was spent in rural villages, where each of us lived and researched in pairs. I lived in Yala Village in Buyengo Parish in Busia District, an area that lies right on the border of Uganda and Kenya. Almost all of the people in the area have relatives across the border. There are many intermarriages and trade across the border is quite prevalent. Actually, my area of research was the dynamics of this border trade. Ugandans transport a number of food products, such as maize, cassava and fish to Kenya, while a number of consumer products (ranging from soap to molasses used for the local alcohol) are transported from Kenya to Uganda. On our second day there, we crossed the border to see this trade first-hand. As we crossed the border (a series of plank bridges over swamp), we saw a pack of monkeys jump across the trees.

The majority of the people in rural eastern Uganda live in huts made of mud with thatch roofs. We lived in such huts, which was quite an experience because we shared the home with a random assortment of large spiders and other miscellaneous insects. We spent the days meeting with a whole range of people - fish sellers, shopkeepers, peasant farmers, traditional doctors, cattleherders, craftmakers, teachers and more. It was really insightful to see how the majority of Ugandans (and even most of the people in the world) live, work and relate in poor rural communities. Without such an understanding, it is foolish to even come to the table discussing development, international trade and all these other macro issues that dominate elite forums. I was so impressed with the local knowledge and skills that people in this community possessed. I think we have a tendency to stereotype the rural poor as ignorant, incapable and misguided. So untrue. It is their knowledge and capacity that should always be the foundation for true, sustainable development. There are countless examples of local people organizing themselves in groups to start successful economic initiatives, challenge political structures and solve massive problems.

The week was difficult, but full of so many funny moments and stories - drinking millet beer in a hut with the village men (they drink with long wooden stick straws from a communal bowl), hearing ancient stories from a 96-year old woman in the village, racing Ugandans barefoot as hundreds of primary school children cheered us, being swarmed by hundreds of schoolchildren fascinated by muzungus (white people) and so much more. I am not sure I am cut out for the rural life, but I will never forget the events of the last week.

Before traveling to Busia, we visited Sibi Falls in Mbale, also in eastern Uganda. These waterfalls in the midst of fields of bananas and coffee were absolutely stunning. On our way home from Busia we also visited the Nile River in Jinja town. It was such a rush to sit on the banks of the Nile, watching the rapids as we ate peanut butter, avocado, tomato and cheese sandwiches. Did I mention that the fruits here are godly?

There is so much more I could write and hope to write about the last week. I am back now in Kampala for the next three weeks. This morning, I slaughtered my first chicken (my family keeps hundreds of chicken as a small business for some income). This afternoon, I visited a photo exhibit about the northern conflict, which brought back a lot of the images and words and stories I experienced when I visited camps in Lira two weeks ago. It is horrific how such atrocities are happening just miles north of us here, and yet you can be in the rest of Uganda and have no awareness of it.

Awareness - it is so crucial in a world of such complexities and diversity and enormity. It is so easy to be blinded to things happening right around us, not to mention things happening all over our world. Yet, awareness is the great challenge of our lives. It is a way of living more than an end state. It is an attitude, an attitude that a troubled world deeply needs.

11.3.05

Opening Our Eyes to our Destructive Thinking

So week six in Uganda is coming to an end. It is wild to think I have been here that long. Luckily I have learned a lot of the language and the city, which has opened my eyes to this place so much. I am sure the coming days will bring more and more eye-opening. Really, is that not what our lives are meant to be about - constantly opening our eyes more and more to the Truth of ourselves, our relationships, our world?

This Sunday, our group heads to the east to live in rural villages and conduct research. It will be a challenging experience, but definitely an eye-opening one. I will probably be out of contact for the week, but will report in once we return to Kampala on the weekend.

Two quick reflections - 1.) In the newspaper, one columnist wrote a phenomenal article on how foreign aid is actually doing more harm than good by supporting corrupt, dictatorial regimes in many nations. Aid, whether consciously or not, is so easily manipulated by existing leaders to maintain their power and control. In many poor countries, aid makes up more than half of the government's revenue. Without that revenue, many governments would fall apart. The question then is whether it is better to work within a stable status quo or allow natural events of uncertainty to prevai. Of course, the whole debate is complexified when we look at the world of power politics, and how aid often is in the interest of powerful countries because they promote structures of political and economic dependency. For example, the United States will give countries aid and trade as long as they use it to be part of U.S. trade agreements with U.S. partners. Aid often creates greater inequality and exploitation in poor countries. So, one has to wonder whether aid could be used in a more effective way to promote real, sustainable development for the poorest of the poor?

2.) There has been some writing in conservative circles of Europe, especially Britain, that Africa should be recolonized to fight the poverty, wars and suffering that currently exist. This is unbelievable and horrifying. Obviously these commentators completely ignore the harsh realities that happened and still happen as a result of colonialism. We are talking about genocide, slavery, brutal massacres, exploitation, etc? How can we be so historically ignorant to even discuss such things? Really such debate stems from a failure to seriously evaluate and read history. Further, voices from poor countries are suppressed from the debates. BBC did a special on the future of Africa, and only had one African on a forum of four. Why are the rich pool of scholars and commentators from Africa ignored? Our very way of analyzing and thinking can be destructive.

Well, cheers to all and best wishes from Kampala. Some food for thought today.

10.3.05

"Standing for Liberty in Uganda" - Upcoming Column

Below is my latest piece, a column coming out in the student newspaper of the University of Notre Dame next Wednesday. It is about the controversial and destructive debate to end presidential term limits in Uganda. This issue is dominating the newspapers here in Kampala.

"Standing for Liberty in Uganda"
Observer Column for March 16, 2005

Dear President Bush,

In your second inaugural address this January, you said, “Today, American speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore our oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

When I first heard these words I found myself highly cynical. While the language of ‘freedom’ has certainly been a priority of your administration post-9/11, I find our continued and even strengthened allegiances with nations such as Pakistan, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Israel to be quite hypocritical. Not to mention that I consider our actions in Iraq and Iran to be less-than freedom-guided.

Yet while we may disagree on the means, I do believe, Mr. President, that you are committed to the end of a world of freedom. Thus, I am writing to you to ask you to live up to the words you proclaimed this January. In the country of Uganda, the United States has an opportunity to stand for democracy and freedom. We must seize the moment.

In Uganda, the Parliament is currently debating an omnibus constitutional amendment bill, which will eliminate the established two-term limit for the presidential office.

Advocates for the so-called kisanja (the symbol to end the term limits) argue that President Youweri Museveni, the president of Uganda since 1986, has done much good for the country and should be allowed to continue to bring prosperity to the country.

It is indisputable that Museveni has done much good, but it is also indisputable that the removal of term limits will be a massive blow to constitutionalism, democracy and rule of law in the “pearl of Africa.”

Since the debate began almost a year ago, Museveni and the so-called Movement (Museveni’s party that controls political and military power in Uganda) have been using tactics of suppression, propaganda and fear to gain the support of the population. They have repressed opposition voices. Just recently, the army beat up five opposition parliamentarians when they attempted to visit camps in the north for internally displaced peoples.

The newspapers here have reported that Museveni gave out five million Uganda shillings to every MP that promised to support the constitutional amendment. The Movement is also openly funding and training military youth brigades to work in the campaign.

Tactics of corruption and intimidation have scathed the parliamentary debate, basically ensuring that Museveni and his supporters will get what they seek. The people of Uganda, still conscious of the violent dictatorial regimes of Milton Obote and Idi Amin in the 1960s and 70s, choose stability and security over freedom and rule of law. When Museveni’s people frame the debate in terms of whether people are better than they were eighteen years ago, he will always win out of politics of fear.

On the surface, a repeal of the term limits is harmless, especially if it is allowing a popularly supported ruler to remain in office. However, the dark narrative in Africa of elected rulers overstaying their rule and becoming violent dictators is too vivid.

Repealing the accountability mechanisms in the constitution will only further weaken a deteriorating culture of constitutionalism that reeks of corruption and mismanagement. Many argue that Museveni’s hold on power has exacerbated the conflict in northern Uganda, a violent war that has left more than 1.6 million people displaced and hundreds of thousands killed, raped and abducted.

Just over a year ago, Ugandans voted to open the political space for multipartyism, hoping the political system would evolve into a culture of pluralism and transparency. The governance crises highlighted by the kisanja debate show that Uganda is far from such a political culture. Many believe that Uganda, with its blatant regional inequalities, stands at a watershed moment with mass violence lurking in the future.

If this constitutional amendment omnibus bill passes, it will totally transform the constitution of 1995, a constitution constructed in one of the most democratic fashions in all of Africa. The 1995 people’s constitution will become Museveni’s constitution, once again a political piece of paper easily manipulated for power politics. More and more, the barrel of the gun is substituting legality as the source of political legitimacy.

It appears inevitable that the amendment will pass and Museveni will be given another term and even more. The only hope that this tragedy can be averted is if international donors, whose donations make up more than 50% of Uganda’s revenue, utilize their power to pressure the government. The United States as a major donor in Uganda has a rare opportunity to exercise its power in the name of freedom. Not through bombs and wars, but through intense diplomacy and economic clout.

In this age, we have to recognize the resounding effects that a myriad of actions and inactions by the United States have throughout the world. Americans, contacting their representatives to demand action, can stand for liberty and justice in Uganda. By applying our power in positive ways, the United States can truly be a voice against oppression and injustice in the world.

Here in Uganda, many are daring to stand for liberty. President Bush, will we fulfill your pledge that the United States will stand with them? I certainly hope so.

8.3.05

Happy Women's Day, and a Brief History of the Northern Conflict

First off, Happy International Women's Day! Being here in Uganda makes me realize how far we still have to go in achieving justice and equity for women. Let alone appreciation. Women in Uganda really are seen and treated as second-class citizens, especially outside the urban areas. Yet, while such blatant sexism exists throughout the world, I think it is the cloaked sexism that can be even more frustrating. For example, in the United States we think we have reached a level of gender equality. We certainly have made leaps and gains, but women still made only $0.70 to every $1 made by a man in the same line of work. Well, perhaps this might be a day to be constructively gender conscious and reflective. A day that could spur changes in attitudes, norms and behaviors. So, celebrate Women's Day!

It has been nice to be able to have a few consistent days writing in this blog, especially after my intense experience this weekend in Lira town. These days, I am studying grassroots development with an organization called Uganda Change Agent Association. UCAA trains people in a methodology of participatory, self-reliant development. It preaches conscientization, which awakens people to be critically aware and action in their lives and communities. Witnessing their change agents in rural communities has been challenging my cynicism about development. They are doing amazing work, helping people in rural communities to help themselves. Their approach seems to be the way for true, sustainable development - participatory, grassroots, self-reliant development from the bottom-up.

As promised, I also wanted to write a little about the conflict in the north, explaining briefly its historical roots. The north-south divide really extends back to the colonial period, when the British used the Baganda (south-central region of Uganda) as their colonial administrators. Thus, the Baganda, received lots of development aid and power, while the northern regions received little to no aid at the time. The harsh colonial structures gave rise to massive regional inequalities that persist today. Post-independence in 1962, the north gained power with the regimes of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, both of which were dictatorial regimes that violently suppressed the southern regions of Uganda (and the northern regions in some cases).

The tumultuous history of Uganda in its early decades set a precedent where rebellion or "going to the Bush" to fight violently for power became an accepted part of the political system. Thus, when Youweri Museveni and the NRA took power in 1986, many of the Acholi (northern ethnic group) formed rebel groups to fight against his southern-dominated regime. Museveni's army also terrorized the northern areas during their struggle for power. Museveni's NRA overtook the northern military groups, however some remained in the "bush" fomenting violence among the northern peoples. Over the next five years, that splinter group molded into the Lord's Resistance Group, an apolocalyptic-spiritual movement with unclear political objectives, led by the infamous former general Joseph Kony.

Since 1987 or so, Kony's small army has abducted children, forcing them to participate in his war as child soldiers. His army has also been terrorizing the northern regions, forcing people into IDP camps and killing hundreds of thousands. Museveni has shown little interest in peace, intentionally withholding aid from the north and showing little respect or security for the IDPs. Many believed that Museveni was the major impediment to peace. Of course, the conflict has changed over time, with many complexities.

However, there are really two aspects to it: 1.) a massive north-south divide with the northern people having major grievances towards a government that has blatantly ignored and oppressed them and 2.) a war between the brutal LRA and the innocent northern peoples, most forced into IDP camps. There have been significant peace efforts recently, but fighting has continued.

I have to stop there for now, but I will write more and fill in gaps in coming days. It is a horrifyingly complex conflict, deeply in need of international attention, pressure and action.

7.3.05

Hear the Cries of IDPs in Northern Uganda

Uganda is home to one of the greatest paradoxes in the whole world. While relative peace and economic growth happen in the south, central and western regions of the country in a way hailed by much of the West as the success story of Africa, one of the most brutal and horrific conflict in modern human history wages in the northern regions. As I have mentioned before, more than 1.6 million people are pushed into IDP camps, where they face starvation, fear, insecurity, lack of clean water, lack of basic sanitation, poor or lacking housing and the worst of conditions. Hundreds of thousands more have been killed, abducted and raped. The whole picture is atrocious. It is hard not to vomit.

As I wrote yesterday, I traveled to two of the camps in the Lira district on Saturday, two camps in the municipality called Starch Factory and Erute Camp. In both of the camps, I was welcomed because the only hope for these people is that the international community will act. They believe justifiably that the government will continue to ignore their plight, and they fear that peace will not come anytime in the near future. I was able to interview some of the camp leaders, getting the following quotes and thoughts:

"We have no food. People are starving everywhere. The World Food Programme comes, but only distributes food to vulnerable peoples, like orphans, the disabled and the elderly. Yet, we are all vulnerable people. Starvation is the number one problem here."

"There are many abducted children in the camps, presenting major psychological challenges. Actually, everyone here is psychologially traumatized."

"Our roofes are broken, and when it rains, it soaks through to the mud where people sleep."

"We are a hopeless people. In many ways, we are already dead."

"The government has no plans for us. Even our local leaders have not come to visit the camps."

"We will support anyone right now as long as they get peace."

"Waves of people tried to return to the villages, but they were all killed and abducted. We have no hope of returning home. Even in these camps, we don't feel safe."

"I greatly fear for the generation of our children. Their future is totally blocked. Their future is ruined. Our children are paralyzed."

It is truly awful and disturbing. Today, I am still vividly haunted by these words and the horrific images that accompanied them. How can people be forced to live in such despair and degradation? And how can we remain silent aware of such mass suffering? More than images and quotations, however, I find myself acutely recalling my own feelings walking through the camp - wanting to break down and cry, feeling hopeless and miserable, needing to vomit. I have never seen anything so violently dehumanizing in my life.

Like I wrote yesterday, I continue my plea to all who come across the blog: spread the awareness, donate money and most of all, contact government leaders to put pressure on action for peace in northern Uganda. When I was leaving one camp, I told the people that I will return in April to conduct interviews (and I will be for one week), and one man said to me, "I hope we will be alive when you return."

6.3.05

To the North and Back - Oh, the Horror

I am not sure I am really ready to write about this, but I will give it a try. Yesterday, I traveled north to Lira district in the north of Uganda, a district that has been affected deeply by the Northern conflict. Thanks to a contact at the Red Cross, I was able to tour the camps for internally displaced peoples in Lira town. Due to the 18-year old conflict in Uganda, more than 1.6 million people are displaced. The number killed, abducted, raped, kidnapped and psychologically traumatized is unknown, but easily in the hundreds of thousands.

The camps were by far the most horrifying site I have ever experience in my life. Never have I seen conditions so unhuman. In the first of two camps I visited, people were living around an abandoned factory. Some live in one-room mud huts with broken straw roofs (one household to a hut, even if the household includes 13 people). In these huts, people sleep on the dirt ground, even on nights when the rain soaks through their broken roofs. The majority of people, however, sleep outside on the ground in the dirt, or on the hardwood floors of the factory. I saw families living in and around dirty, rusty machines; children playing around in the soot, mud, putting trash in their mouths. In these camps, most people are starving. Most have had family members abducted or killed by the Lord's Resistance Army. Some children who were kidnapped and abducted by the LRA have returned to their families in the camp, presenting huge psychological challenges. Everyone in the camp faces massive psychological trauma. The families would all like to return to their homes, but if they do, they know they will be killed and their children abducted by the LRA.

The pain of these people is immense, yet their needs remain basic: jerrycans, blankets, tarps for roofes, food, basic medicine, pit latrines, clean water, educational services for their children. Yet, these basic needs remain unmet. The people I spoke with have no hope that peace will come or the government will suddenly start caring about their plight. Their only hope, according to them, is the international community, but they are not holding their breaths. They are a hopeless, forgotten people, too aware that they may not even make it until tomorrow.

As I listened to the leaders of the camp and walked through them, I wanted to cry, to vomit, to break down. When I finally got back to my hotel, I fell on my bed, having trouble breathing or controlling my thoughts. It was traumatizing just to walk through these camps and see that there are people in the world actually living in such conditions on the brink of mass death. It is hard for me even now to put the images and my thoughts into words. In the coming days, I will post some of my interviews at the camp on the blog, along with putting the conflict into a context for it truly is a complex, dark affair with many criminal parties, a long history and most of all: countless victims.

If after reading this you want to help, I recommend donating to the Red Cross specifically for their relief in the Northern Disaster. Yet more importantly, contact your local representatives (emails, letters, phone calls) to tell them to look into what the United States (or whatever country to hail from) can do for peace in northern Uganda.

3.3.05

Now on the streets tonight, the lights grow dim - Second Mass E-Update from Kampala

In today's newspaper, there was an editorial on the Somalia crisis that began with these Bruce Springsteen lyrics -

"Blood brothers in the stormy night with a vow to defendNo retreat no surrenderNow on the street tonight the lights grow dimThe walls of my room are closing inThere's a war outside still ragingyou say it ain't ours anymore to win..."

I could not help but smile that Bruce Springsteen finds his way into sub-Saharan African political commentary journalism. Only the Boss. On that note, Nsanyuse okulaba! It is nice to see you. Or in our case, nice to be able to write to you across miles thanks to the global technological revolution. There are internet cafes all over Kampala, but their speed is frustratingly minimal and the power is unreliable. There is nothing that has brought me closer to the brink of breaking a computer than composing an email for an hour only to lose it when we lose power. Well, such is life in Kampala - power comes and goes, but life keeps on keeping on.

Since I last wrote, our group traveled to Rwanda. My first impression and the biggest surprise of Rwanda was its immense beauty. We crossed the border to find large rolling green hills, full of fields growing tea and corn. Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, was striking, a lovely city literally on a hill. Yet, Rwanda remains a haunted land with a dark history culminating in the genocide just eleven years ago that left more than 800,000 people dead in under 90 days. The weapon of choice was the machete. Walking through the Kigali Genocide Museum, all of us were completely overwhelmed by the images and words - children slaughtered by machetes, dogs feeding on piles of corpses in the road, thousands of dead bodies on the floors of churches, a baby breastfeeding from her dead mother, endless skulls and bones and death and an aware, yet silent international community. When we entered the final room that holds skulls fractured by machetes, it all hit home - this mass slaughter of human life really happened and real people were butchered. Just eleven years ago.

The musueum is also very informative about the awful history that made genocide basically inevitable. That history begins with ruthless Belgian colonizers who accentuated and constructed a politicized ethnic divide between the Tutsis and Hutus. Over the first 50 years of the 20th century, European colonizers and Christian missionaries pitted the Tutsis and Hutus against each other, creating resentment and economic inequity. Conflict, based on ethnic-economic lines, ensued over the following decades, leading to the genocidal events. A small group of Hutus employed effective propaganda to order the masses into genocidal frenzy. The international community stood silent, especially as a result of decisions by the United States and France to prevent United Nations action.

The challenge today as we look upon that genocide is to look forward and commit ourselves that such will happen 'never again.' Yet, genocidal events continue throughout the world (see Sudan, Chechnya, Burma) even today as we stand silent. Many of us have the power to lobby our policymakers and leaders to speak out and to take action for those who are powerless in such situations. Even more, we have to become aware of what causes genocide - harsh colonial structures of economic exploitation in the case of Rwanda - and fight such policies that create conditions where mass violence is inevitable.

After our time in Kigali, we continued on for a few days to Mbarara, a nice little city in southwestern Uganda that is home to much agriculture and some tremendous NGOs, especially the Red Cross that is working in refugee camps for Rwandese and Congolese refugees. We then traveled to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we saw lions, elephants, warthogs, tons of birds (QE is home to 1/6 of the world's bird species), gazelle, buffalo, hippos, crocodiles and more. Those of you who know me well know that I am not exactly an animal-lover. Nonetheless, it was quite a thrill to see all these animals in their natural habitat. Minus the warthogs; those devil-animals would not get away from our hostel.

Since returning to Kampala, I have been studying Luganda and grassroots development. I am also spending a lot of time developing my independent study, which all of us in the program work on for the final six weeks that we are here. I am going to be studying the relationship between the Northern conflict and the constitutional third-term debate ongoing in Parliament, looking at the situation of vulnerable peoples from the conflict and the north-south divide in Ugandan politics. I am really excited, and the project is really taking off.

In the last two days, I have found myself in the halls of Ugandan Parliament and in the newsroom of The New Vision, the major government-sponsored newspaper in Uganda. For the latter, I wrote an editorial about the constitutional debate, which hopefully will get published in the next few days (cross my fingers). If you're interested, its posted on my blog with some other stuff. As for Parliment, I made a contact with an MP who is head of the Legal Committee and representing Gulu District (northern Uganda), who is going to guide me a bit with my research. Both trips were quite a rush.

Well, there is so much more I could and would like to write, but I fear this email is already too long. Yet, it gives you a little look at what I have been up to here in East Africa. If you're interested in more, I am trying to keep my blog reasonably well updated, especially with stuff about ordinary, daily life and happenings in Uganda. Thanks to everyone who wrote me emails, and please keep sending updates from wherever this email finds you. I apologize for not being able to respond much, but these computers are ridiculously slow.

Well, siiba bulungi ne sula bulungi. Have a good day and night! Best wishes from the pearl of Africa.

Parliamentary Affairs and Newsrooms - Wicked cool.

Well, the last two days have found me in both the halls of the Ugandan Parliament and the newsroom of The New Vision, the major government-sponsored newspaper in Uganda. With the latter, I submitted my editorial for the newspaper. They brought me back to the newsroom to meet with the Features editor. I saw lots of reporter typing away in a frenzy to get the paper out. Very cool. And then today, I went to Parliament to meet with the Honorable Jacob Oulanya, an MP from Gulu (northern Uganda) who is giving me guidance on my independent study project about the third-term debate and the northern conflict. The Parliament building is pretty impressive, and it was also very cool to be there meeting with the head of the Uganda Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee. Each day here brings new surprises. And being a foreigner makes research so easy and exciting, because we have amazing access to leaders and powerful institutions in the society.

A Day in the Life of a Muzungu

Cheers from the pearl of Africa. Someone in an email asked me about my daily life here, so I thought I might give a quick look at such. By the way, muzungu means white person. As we walk the streets here, people are not bashful to call us muzungus. In some remote areas, people have never seen white people before, so they are shocked at our skin color. Skin color is something that is openly talked about and used as a descriptive tool here. It is quite a contrast from our post-race "colorblind" America, where we shy away from racial talk because we fear being labeled racist. Of course, Africa does not have the dark racial history that we have in the states.

Well, I wake up at 6:30 to take my morning bath (scooping with my hands from a bucket of water). My brothers and our houseboy (many middle or upper class Ugandan families have house help from rural communities who are paid to help with cooking, cleaning, etc. - in our house, Geoffrey works with the chickens) feed the chickens in the morning. The chickens usually start making noise at 6:30, so getting up is never too difficult. Then, breakfast for me consists of tea (coffee if I am lucky) with lots of sugar, a piece or two of bread and maybe some groundnuts.

And then I make a walk down to the main road in Kansanga (the district of Kampala proper in which I live) to catch a taxi (these big white-and-blue vans that hold 15-20 people and drive like crazy). The taxi ride to Old Taxi Park in Central Kampala takes about 50 minutes with the morning traffic, which is always gridlocked between 730 and 830. The taxi park is quite a sight as I have written about in past postings. I always buy a copy of The Monitor, one of the two main newspapers in Uganda at the taxi park, and then its on my way to Makerere University.

Makerere is the prized university of East Africa, drawing scholars from many countries. Uganda itself is actually a very educated country that puts a high priority on education. I have also found people to be highly politically engaged and conscious here. For lunch, I have rice, posho (this white corn stuff), maybe some beans, maybe some chicken, hopefully bread, and water. After classes finish, I usually go do work on planning my independent study project, visit an Internet cafe and/or hang out with the other people in the program.

I head to Old Taxi Park around 7ish and get a taxi home. Rush hour home is always quite a rush. At home, we only have power every-other night, so some nights find us sitting around torches, talking and playing Go-Fish (my contribution to the family). We normally eat around 10:00 pm (yes, quite late). Dinner usually consists of matokye (plantines), rice, some meat perhaps and some sauce (groundnut sauce is the best) and then amazing mango juice. At first I struggled with the food here, but now I am enjoying it. Most of it that is. And as I mentioned before, my family is awesome. I really love spending time and living with them. I usually go to bed around 12 after reading and studying a bit. So, I crawl under my mosquito net and fight the heat for a bit of sleep.

I am getting a bit worried now because I think I may have lost a long mass email I just wrote. I hate these cafes - so slow and never reliable. Well, so it goes in Uganda - power goes on and off, but life goes on. Cheers again.

1.3.05

Uganda, Denounce Politics of Fear...and the Heat!

The streets of Kampala are crazy, truly crazy - filled with loud music, boda-bodas, cars whizzing by, street sellers, street preachers, taxis dominating the road, shops, construction workers and more and more. I think most people would righly be driven insane walking these streets daily. But I love it. There is such life, even if it is completely chaotic and uncontrollable and disordered. I cannot help but smile sometimes amidst it all.

Things back in Kampala are good. I am still studying Luganda, but also now studying grassroots development with some officials from an organization called Uganda Change Agents Association that does rural, self-reliant participatory development trainings. Quite impressive, especially because they believe so much in conscientization - awakening people to their abilities, capabilities and power to assess, act and reflect on their situation. I am also working on organizing my independent study project, which begins in a little under four weeks. I am meeting with a parliamentary MP in charge of the legal committee on Thursday, and then traveling to Lira Saturday to see the Red Cross at work in some camps for internally displaced camps. My topic is converging on something relating to the relationship between the government and vulnerable peoples from the northern conflict, especially IDPs (there are over 1.6 million of them in northern and central Uganda).

In other news, I am submitting an editorial to the major newspaper here, The New Vision. My academic director really encouraged me to do it, and I hope it will get published. It is nothing special, but I thought I would post it below. Well, best wishes across the globe. Peace.

Uganda, Denounce Politics of Fear
1 March 2005

“Don’t change horses in midstream.” This famous maxim coined by the 16th president of the United States Abraham Lincoln is the very concept that duped the American electorate into giving George W. Bush a second presidential term. Now, the Movement is employing the same simpleton logic to push through a constitutional amendment that will ensure President Youweri Museveni a third (arguably fifth) term and perhaps more.

Just four months ago, Bush stunned much of the world, defeating Senator John Kerry by over three million votes. Yet, Bush’s triumph was less surprising if we acknowledge the “war president phenomenon.” Namely, that a leader in times of war and instability can exploit the fear of the masses to ensure electoral victory. Bush, operating an effective propaganda machine, convinced the American people that only he could keep them safe, secure and prosperous.

Today, President Museveni is using the same line of attack to win the constitutional kisanja debate, which will ultimately entrench his regime for years and even decades to come. Employing a basic utilitarianism, Museveni wants to reduce complex constitutional and electoral debates to one question for the Ugandan people: Are you better today than you were yesterday? Or even cruder: are you better today than you were 18 years ago?

Just like Bush, Museveni suggests subtly and even explicitly at times that only he can bring safety, security and economic growth for Uganda. Speaking to the conflict in the Acholi region, the Movement contends that Museveni is on the brink of peace, but a change in direction or leadership will see the whole process crumble. This propaganda might ring hollow to the discerning ear, but to a people who still acutely remember the horrific years of the Obote and Amin regimes, they resonate.

This is not to say that Museveni has not done much good for the people of Uganda, for he most certainly has. It is to argue that no leader who is genuinely committed to the democratic freedom and prosperity of the people should use politics of fear for personal ambition. By seeking to change one of the constitutional elements that was widely agreed upon as critical in 1995, the Movement is disgracing the very political movement that brought hope and freedom to the nation after decades of turmoil.

Beyond this constitutional attack, the Movement has also acted blatantly to curtail and intimidate voices of opposition. Countless examples have been reported in these news pages in recent weeks. Stifling voices of dissent and opposition is an affront to the people of Uganda who deserve a truthful, open political debate on such relevant affairs. Not to mention the right to free and fair elections.

Healthy, viable democracy cannot prosper in an environment of fearmongering, intimidation and propaganda. Fear cuts through the very fabric of a society, destroying any space for transparency, accountability and freedom. Throughout human history, political and social cultures of fear have been the swamps from which violent and inhumane dictators have arisen.

For Uganda to arrive at a brighter future, it must be directed by the collective will and voices of the Ugandan people, not an unaccountable oligarchy. The triumph of rule of law over personal politics is always a victory for the common good. The challenge for all true patriots is to awaken the masses, especially those isolated in rural communities, to demand political transparency, constitutionality and truth. The challenge for politicians is to listen.

Uganda, like all strong democracies, needs a “transitional moment” where a peaceful transfer of power takes place. Such a historic moment should happen next year. Americans in 2005 succumbed to politics of fear, but I have hope that Ugandans in 2006 can do better, assenting to a bright future of liberty and hope.