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Strictly Personal

Make I beg, Nigerians beware the disinformation campaign, By Jenerali Ulimwengu

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You have heard it before, everything in Nigeria is BIG! Home to the largest population on the African continent and boasts the world’s biggest Black population — some 200,000,000 souls — Nigeria does everything in superlatives.

As a young man in the 1970s, I once arrived in Lagos to read in the local daily that a convoy of 250 tractors had been offloaded at the port and driven towards the Ministry of Agriculture, but lost their way, never to be found.

After a time, I got accustomed to that type of stories, some of which were given special colour by brilliant journalists such as the legendary Peter Enahoro, who wrote the hilarious How To Be a Nigerian. Look it up.

Sometimes you laugh with the brothers and sisters, sometimes you cry along with them when misfortune strikes, also in a BIG way. Like when 200 schoolgirls were abducted in Chibok a few years ago, and many people were wondering how such a large number of young women could be transported across such spaces incognito.

Along the way I got into contact with another BIG phenomenon from Nigeria in the shape of the incomparable Tajudeen Abdul Raheem (now sadly passed), whose infectious laughter accompanied every story he told, whether about the infamous “Letter 419” or some big man being transported in a plane cargo haul by his kidnappers, who happened to be state officials bringing him to justice.

Fuel queues

The yarns are legion, and they are all BIG. In Nigeria, even a fuel queue at a pump station can resemble a political rally. And that is in the leading exporter of crude oil in Africa!

One may also want to consider the story about President Muhammadu Buhari’s office at State House being invaded by rats, which ate up all the carpets and curtains, and this after cleaning and fumigation had been done in there to the tune of $5,000.

As the local press reported, “After im no dey for office for about three months, rodents don cause plenty damage for di furniture and air conditioning units wey dey for im office and dis na why dey work from home.”

Ever watching for something new from that source, and never being disappointed, I have been dutifully following news stories about the rise in the peddling of fake news amidst the current political campaigns for the general election slated for next month.

Now that cannot be anything to crack jokes about — in Nigeria or anywhere else — as the consequences of anything going wrong can be very BIG indeed.

Fake news

The place of fake news is going to be important in the Nigerian polls, just as it is important in all our countries elections. Basic to our reality is that almost of our political actors are inhabited by the most primitive desire to take unwarranted advantage of their opponents and get themselves into positions they do not deserve by any means possible, fair or foul.

To achieve this objective, no slander is too low, no lie too base, no calumny too crass as long as it does the job of bringing in votes.

In many volatile situations on the African continent, this could lead — in fact, has led — to physical violence and permanent antagonisms.

It is now reported in the country that fake news has been “weaponised” by political operators bent on doing their opponents in. The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) has said that this past week.

Its head, Idayat Hassan, has warned that the extent to which actors were engaging in fake news, disinformation and hate speech was alarming and called on all participants in the electoral process to undertake issue-based campaigns.

“These include challenges in the security and economic sectors, and its result of governance, such as education, health, power and agriculture, among others,” Idaat said.

Distractions

“Debates that prioritise religious and ethnic division only serve distract citizens from making informed decisions while voting, especially since these issues do not discriminate along religious or ethnic lines.”

Needless to say, what she is doing in giving such a statement is standard practice in all our countries at such times, but very little attention is paid by political operators who regard every election as a zero-sum game in which one either wins or loses, nothing else.

The industry of disinformation and fake news has been greatly empowered with the advent of the digital age and the new platforms that have enabled anonymity and thus lessened responsibility.

At least with the traditional media, individuals had their runaway whims checked by a number of gatekeeping devices at every stage of news processing. With social media these have disappeared and the unscrupulous purveyors of fabricated news are having a field day.

Reports indicate that in this coming election there will be 95 million registered voters and 1,400 positions to vie for, figures that reinforce the idea that everything in Nigeria is indeed BIG.

The more reason to heed what Idaat has been saying. Any disruption in this mammoth exercise by anyone seeking undue electoral advantage could lead to BIG wahala. That is much worse than rats forcing the president to work via Zoom because his furniture has been eaten.

Make I beg, no fake news-o!

Jenerali Ulimwengu is on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: jenerali@gmail.com

Strictly Personal

Umeme, grain and coffee: Why Kenya should fear Uganda’s economic gamble, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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Uganda, the 1990s shining Africa poster boy for privatisation, is engaging in what could be East Africa’s biggest economic liberalisation reverse gear. Last year, the Uganda government formally announced it would not renew the contract of electricity distributor Umeme in 2025, when its concession expires, and that it will form a state-owned entity to take over its business.

The government’s main criticism of Umeme is its margins are too high, so it has failed to lower electricity costs, and the expensive rates have hobbled Uganda’s industrialisation ambitions. Umeme counters that it is just a distributor, and the high electricity costs are passed on from the power generators.

In two years, the debate will be resolved. Uganda will be in the midst of campaigns ahead of the January 2026 election, when President Yoweri Museveni, weighed down by the wear and tear of 40 years in office, will likely be bidding for a record-shattering ninth term, with his son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, among those trying to wrestle the crown from his head. It will be the worst possible timing because incumbents rarely make the most enlightened decisions during heated election campaigns. As the West Africans say, there will likely “be a lot of cry.”

Distribution concession

Umeme was formed in 2004 when the government of Uganda granted the distribution concession to a consortium belonging to Globeleq, a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Development Corporation of the UK, which held 56 per cent, and South Africa’s now inept utility corporation Eskom, which had 44 per cent. In 2006 Eskom exited the consortium, and Globeleq became the sole owner of Umeme.

The regional impact could be significant because, among other things, Umeme shares are cross-listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange. If it unravels, Kenyan shareholders would be left crying in their bowls, and we could be back to the feud over regional assets that followed the break-up of the first East African Community in 1977.

Too messy to swallow

The renationalisation of Umeme will not be unique. Kenya just tried to renationalise cash-haemorrhaging national carrier Kenya Airways but found it too messy to swallow. The recently elected new government of President William Ruto has decided to throw it back on the block.

The difference in Uganda is that Umeme is just the shallow end of the pool. There are other moves to renationalise the very lucrative liberalised coffee sector by granting a near-monopoly to a Vinci Coffee Company, owned by controversial and shadowy Italian “foreign investor” Enrica Pinetti, to process and export Uganda’s coffee. That would take Uganda back to the early 1990s when the disastrous Coffee Marketing Board was disbanded.

A similar move is being made to give the Grain Council of Uganda, on paper a non-profit membership organisation, the kind of sway over the country’s grain last seen in the colonial era.

The force behind the Grain Council is the otherwise amiable president’s younger brother, retired Lt-Gen Salim Saleh (Caleb Akandwanaho), a sly operator who is the second most powerful figure in the land. A nationalist and statist, Saleh has led a quiet but effective assault against laissez-faire liberalisation, which he argues has mostly benefited foreigners and left Ugandans with only holes in their pockets. He has taken over a large chunk of the country’s agricultural budget and several “development” functions under the amorphous state-created vehicle Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) that he heads and inserted disciples in key national economic institutions.

Return to old roots

This state of affairs is a dramatic return to old roots. Uganda launched the first of a series of economic liberalisations in the 1990s that were deemed impossible in Africa at the time and anathema in the hyper-nationalist traditions that were entrenched in post-independence Africa.

It was the first country in Africa to radically liberalise its foreign exchange market and still maintains one of the least-interventionist approaches to the money market on the continent. It was also the first in East Africa to pass laws that gave the central bank extensive independence.

It was the first on the continent in the early 1990s to liberalise the fuel market and scrap fuel subsidies. Again, in East Africa, at least, it is the government that meddles least in setting the price of gas at the pump. When fuel prices skyrocketed everywhere following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, it alone was the East African government to flatly refuse to even consider a fuel subsidy and price cap, as all the rest of the EAC states did.

Price of food

Uganda, too, is the country where the price of food is most considered none of the government’s business. When Ugandans read stories and political fights over maize in Kenya, and the government setting the price, to some of them, it sounds like a tale about an alien planet.

The country and economy that Uganda is today are about to change. Some of the changes have to do with the politics of the Museveni succession and how the family and vested interests that have coalesced around the State House view their future security. A lot of it, though, is because of some good things: the rebirth of the EAC; the end of the wars in Uganda and the ushering in of the country’s longest spell of peace; the rebound of a post-KANU Kenya; and the Rwanda post-genocide recovery.

If there are two people in East Africa outside Uganda, who have edged Uganda to the fork in the road where it is today, they are Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and former Kenya president Mwai Kibaki.

The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». Twitter@cobbo3

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Strictly Personal

In honour of Komla African scribes should lead renaissance, By Elsie Eyakuze

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Somehow the only news we watch on the TV at home is offered by the Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation or any one of several Kenyan stations that the person who holds The Power chooses. As a result, I have been on an imposed “news diet” for a few years now.

It is nothing serious, just a touch of burnout with a soupçon of ennui for flavour. There are newspapers, too, but I am a decade past my paper-chasing days and I have noticed the click-bait flavour of headlines and I don’t like it.

In other words, I am growing older, crankier and particular about my news. This led me to believe that I am bored by the business that the industry might indeed be floundering — a position I do not really hold. After all, my job as a journalism-adjacent writer is to support the news and the people and institutions that bring it to us.

Maintain my optimism

I can’t afford to be cynical. I have to maintain my optimism and commitment, even through lazy editing in Tanzanian newspapers, and ulcer-inducing anxiety over Freedom of Expression when it is threatened.

But, yea, you know, it is 2023 — a year that honestly belongs in science fiction, not in real life. Like you, I get most of my news online these days, in small doses, and only when I want it. I have meandered off the path of keeping abreast into the woods of barely knowing what is going on, and it is has been wonderful for my mental health.

And that would have been that, but an energetic young journalist decided to invite me to the launch of the BBC’s Komla Dumor Awards, which took place last week in Dar es Salaam.

Apart from it being the Komla Dumor Award, there was a clear intention to spark some enthusiasm in Tanzanians to apply for the prize.

Observing old journalists encouraging young journalists while enjoying free snacks was just what the doctor ordered.

I watched young master Dingindaba Jonah Buyoya expertly handle a live recording of a show, saw a lot of familiar faces, and got reminded that journalism “is a calling, a vocation.”

Power of a calling

Nothing will kick the stuffing out of your cynicism like understanding the power of a calling, a vocation. There is a largely positive compulsion that drives people into journalism: Most of them are trying to help. They are hopeless romantics with a vision that the work that they do matters, that it can make the world a better place like a Michael Jackson song. So they take their notebooks and their electronics and venture forth to cover stories and bring them back to us in the comfort of our homes and devices.

If you spend any time thinking about it, this is a pretty radical thing to do. And we cannot live this modern life without the people who make it happen. The Komla Dumor Award is about fostering excellent African journalists, and I know exactly why young Tanzanians are hesitant to apply. I was a young Tanzanian once, I know.

They should take heart: If I managed to charm hard-nosed editors in Nairobi into letting me keep this gig, they can certainly conquer Africa, the BBC, and the world news.

We — I — need that from them more than they realise.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email elsieeyakuze@gmail.com

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