CoronaUganda#1 Mzee and Us

Confined to Northern Uganda, cut off from the world as most public and private transport is currently banned, we are taking the opportunity to update our website again after a very modest activity in this area in recent months. The current lockdown is therefore an opportunity to describe the situation in the country a little more closely, which we will try to do with a little more assiduity in the coming times.

The subject of this first article is the astonishing long-distance relationship between President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (Mzee, Sebo, M7 or the “Old Man” as many call him here) and us. His numerous appearances on television to address the people to spread information, give advice and impose measures have indeed given us a new sense of closeness, oscillating between astonishment, a certain tenderness and a dose of suspicion.

A Style of His Own

In the nature of things, it is rare that the schedule is adhered to. Imagine Justin Trudeau announced at 7 p.m. and only showing up at 7:40 p.m., the cameras pointed at a desperately empty chair, the presenter trying as best he/she can to furnish the room while he/she waits. And the difference does not stop there, far from it.

Museveni is adressing the nation for the umpteenth time

Mzee was quick to point out the lack of discipline among Ugandans as the only reason why he had to impose restrictive measures. Since it is enough to wash one’s hands well, avoid being spat in the face and not touching one’s eyes, nose or mouth, he believes that only neglect and carelessness will lead to the spread of the virus. And to repeat, tirelessly, how he developed an unstoppable technique during his years spent waging war in the bush. One hand for public affairs, the other for private affairs, and it’s done.

It must be understood that Museveni is addressing Ugandans, who generally prefer a more colourful language to solemn speeches. What confuses us is probably the best way to reach them. It is more like a grandfather lecturing his grandchildren than a president addressing his people, but this impression is probably the result of our cultural blinkers, which we cannot completely get rid of.

A Sense of Priorities

Recently, Mzee got angry at all the people in Kampala who discovered a sudden passion for jogging, putting the rest of the population at risk, according to him. He promised to share a video showing how to exercise at home, which is available here (for those looking for some inspiration): While the video made a huge buzz on social networks, with some even promising him their vote in the next election[1], some were quick to point out that it is FINALLY a promise he keeps, and that it’s much harder to jog indoors when you live in a dwelling of 7×6.5 square metres. Still others see it more as a way to show that Grandpa is still in shape and that at 73 years old he is still physically fit to lead the country.

Mzee is showing how to exercise

Not a word, however, about the corruption affair that is shaking the country, undoubtedly the first in a long series[2]. Some high-ranking officials in the Prime Minister’s office are accused of having truncated the purchase of food for distribution to the most vulnerable by raising prices for a few suppliers at the expense of cheaper ones. The media are nevertheless talking about a $1 million UDS surplus going into the pockets of a few, instead of into the stomachs of those who will soon starve to death if nothing concrete is done.

And since we are on the subject of food distribution, which is essential since millions of Ugandans lost their source of income from one day to the next because of the measures and were unable to reach their villages so suddenly (some walked more than 40 kilometres for this purpose, but not everyone can do this), an important point also prompts us to question Sebo’s motivations. Indeed, any politician caught distributing food will be prosecuted for attempted murder. The official reason evoked lies in the crowds that this could generate, contrary to the principle of social distancing. All blows being allowed in politics, none could however see it as a way to prevent certain political opponents from making a place for themselves in the sun, the national elections being scheduled for early 2021.

On the other hand, Museveni was nonetheless quick to condemn the violence committed by law enforcement officials against those who ignored the measures, whether by will, necessity or ignorance. He did not hesitate to refer to the police officers who engage in beating with sticks as “pigs”, somewhat confusingly encouraging them to still enforce the law, but within the limits of the law. However, many cases of basic human rights violations at the hands of the authorities continue to be heard, and it remains to be seen whether and how those who commit them will be punished. Indeed, there was a case of 16 police and army officers who were promptly sent to jail for a raid on a commercial sex trade establishment, where 38 men and women were beaten and verbally assaulted, and the women were forced to roll around in mud and spread mud on their genitalia.

Police brutality in Kampala

An Optimism That Leaves One Doubtful

Mzee seems confident that Uganda will be able to nip the virus in the bud and that the country will not see the spread of the virus, contrary to the many international experts who predict difficult times ahead in sub-Saharan Africa. According to him, it is the Western way of life that is at the root of the current misfortune. By “putting people in tubes” (he seems to be talking about subways) and “abandoning old people in care homes”, we should not complain that we will end up seeing the unfortunate consequences.

If he is surrounded by a competent scientific team, including Health Minister Dr. Ruth Aceng who is trying to clarify Museveni’s ambiguous messages, one wonders whether this view is not a little naïve, or even downright dangerous. It could nevertheless be a strategy aimed at not provoking more fear than necessary, especially since it is essential to avoid the outbreak of popular revolts, which would undoubtedly end up in bloodshed, as is sadly customary in the region.

Convinced or not that the virus will be swept away as easily as he says it will, Sebo still imposes a heavy toll on his people, the reality of which sometimes seems far away to him. For example, by forcing female market vendors to stay overnight, a measure that is far from being respected throughout the country, how can they fulfil their traditional family role, which is so crucial? By banning private transport, how can patients in need of emergency care reach health centres when they are tens of kilometres away? We could go on like this for a while longer… Let’s hope that Mzee is right and that the virus is contained, otherwise we may well see the consequences of the cure prove even more dramatic than the disease itself.

A saler sleeping at the market

The Final Word

In conclusion, in a few days’ time, we will surely be entitled to a presidential address to inform the population about the follow-up to the measures in place, some of which have been limited to April 14. There is a good chance that they will be extended, despite the series of negative tests conducted in recent days. We’ll surely get a few stories dating back to 1978, some harsh criticism of those who don’t take precautions and some mockery aimed at Europeans, and maybe even a little song (it came close the last time). It will be a question of deciphering the message once again, a little game that we’re happy to start playing since in the end Mzee also makes us smile a lot and, whatever we say, it feels good. Probably the calm before the storm…


[1] Which, by the way, speaks volumes about the state of Ugandan democracy

[2] Corruption is endemic in Uganda and affects all strata of society. There is no reason for this to subside in times of crisis, quite the contrary, making it even more difficult to put measures in place.