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The other side of integration: Invisible people who live on East African leftovers by Charles Onyango-Obbo

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The advantage of a country that is not as big as the Democratic Republic of Congo or Tanzania is that you can buzz around it quickly. In three days, we dashed from the Uganda-Kenya border, north to the Uganda-DRC border, and west to the Uganda-Rwanda border, taking in as much of the Northern Corridor as we could.

Making this journey is a study of how East Africa’s long-distance truckers have shaped the routes they have driven for decades. Many towns on the Northern Corridor were born because truckers stopped there to rest. Little restaurants, tiny bars, and a thriving commercial sex industry often followed.

There are also the small things, often overlooked, that comes to be — especially when the sanguine practical-mindedness of the long-distance trucker collides with the fluidity of the border peoples.

Lwakhakha is a trading town at the Kenya-Ugandan border. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was famed as an uncontrollable free cross-border trade (to the powers that be, smuggling) town. In recent years, the Uganda government has poured money into quite a good road to the border, and it has grown into a significant border crossing for the trucks ferrying goods from Kenya to South Sudan and the northwest Democratic Republic of Congo and returning from there.

One will notice young men clutching plastic bags lined up on the left side of the street to the border crossing into Lwakhakha on the Uganda side. A rush will break out when a fuel tanker approaches. One lucky lad will jump onto the truck and sit on the toolbox or any perch he can find as it drives along. Quickly, he will siphon fuel from someplace — it seems the tank — and jump off just as the truck hits the borderline.

It looks like theft until you realise you are the only one paying attention to it. The truck driver is seemingly unconcerned, only hinting he’s aware of what’s going on by slowing a little bit. The townspeople don’t pay attention, and the police at the borderline act like they have seen nothing.

Another fuel tanker comes, another rush, and another, and another. After a while, each of the young men has several polythene bags full of fuel that they will sell to the boda boda (motorcycle taxis), local workshops, and generator owners.

What is happening is that the folks on the lower rungs of the East African Community food chain are feeding on the leftovers of regional trade. The trucks will have delivered fuel to depots and filling stations in Uganda, South Sudan, and DRC and are returning with remnants in their tanks. Additionally, now that they are nearing home, they can afford to donate a litre or two from their supply to the East Africans who have been consigned by economic difficulties to be bottom feeders.

There is an elaborate network built around these leftovers on the Northern Corridor. From the northern Ugandan city of Lira to the northwest city of Arua, which is near the DRC border, as you drive in, every now and then, you will catch a few jerrycans placed discreetly on the side left, which the valves of the returning fuel trucks will be facing.

The operation at Lwakhakha will be repeated several times, with everyone taking their turn to suck a few helpings of the fuel remnants, leaving some for the comrades ahead.

In this way, the crumbs that fall off the East African high table find their way into the stomachs of the thousands of folks who are invisible to the eating chiefs.

It’s a subset of a vast system, some of it not so benign. On the way to Arua is Pakwach town, nestled along the western bank of the Albert Nile. For reasons hard to fathom, in the first half of the 20th century, before independence, colonial borders became set in stone. Many Kenyan Luos migrated to Pakwach, forming one of their largest communities outside Kenya. Some say they came to fish. Others that they came to build roads and ferries.

Apparently, Pakwach is a blurry borderline that marks a happy zone for the East African car theft network. When a car is stolen from Tanzania or Kenya, and it enters Uganda, you can recover it — until it crosses Pakwach. When it does, kiss it goodbye. It is almost certain to disappear in a vast underground universe stretching from the Uganda borderlands and covering the sparsely governed extensive territories of DRC and South Sudan. A DRC or South Sudan plate will be slapped on it, and it crosses the borders, where it is again registered.

As the now deceased Eriya Kategaya, who was Uganda’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for EAC Affairs, liked to say, East Africa’s thieves formed a federation years ago as the politicians were twiddling their thumbs over regional integration. In that northern Uganda-DRC-South Sudan axis, they have created a vortex where things mysteriously disappear.

Proximity has also led to local subversion. There are weekly battles in Arua as the police and Uganda Revenue Authority chase down unregistered or Congolese-registered boda bodas. In Bududa, a busy town inside Uganda not too far from Lwakhakha, there are many Kenyan-registered boda bodas. There, they no longer wage war against them. There is a parallel universe there, where borders don’t exist. It looks like the future of East Africa 25 years from now.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans» Twitter@cobbo3

Strictly Personal

TID Samia does not proclaim her tigritude but she pounces, By Jenerali Ulimwengu

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Here goes another nostalgic musing of days gone by, when intense intellectual exchanges would take place long-distance across the African continent without losing their immediacy and urgency.

At times these were traded in soft and gentle blows like rose petals lovingly blown this and that way, mostly in good part.

Once, for instance, Wole Soyinka declared that “a tiger does not proclaim his tigritude; he pounces (on his prey)”. Wole was then referring to the philosophy of Negritude, which had come into vogue through contributions by such luminaries as Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesare, and Okot p’ Bitek.

The implied criticism was of people proclaiming themselves as heirs to a certain consciousness of being Negroes, or more politely, African, instead of just going about doing their thing that would set them apart and distinguish them as heirs of “Africanity” with those vaunted qualities of empathy, hospitality and humaneness.

Pouncing big time.

It is about Wole that I am moved this week in this space. Also, it is about a local tiger — rather a tigress — that is not too eager to proclaim her tigritude, but is doing the pouncing big time.

In Tanzania, President Samia Suluhu Hassan has been doing a demolition job on Magufuli’s legacy without proclaiming that she is doing anything other than trying to run the country the way civilised countries are run. And she is winning plaudits for her efforts as more and more people are increasingly exposed to the evils of the Magufuli years.

Most dramatically, recently she opened up spaces for political parties to carry out their political activities openly, something that Magufuli had ostensibly banned without any legal basis.

Ganning political activities

I say, ostensibly because legally no one can ban political activities in this country whose constitution — obsolete as it is in other aspects — allows so categorically.

But that has been our plight — that despite the constitutional and legal provisions in place, a maverick politician managed to rule over this country much as a military dictator does, like, say, what Iddi Amin Dada did in Uganda in the 1970s.

The ban on political activity has been lifted by Samia and, in this sense, there is a return to normalcy. Even the police are apparently learning something new: That there can be opposition rallies without teargas!

 And now the bombshell. Recently, Samia shared with us another insight into the nefarious activities of the Magufuli years. The departed president had mobilised a whole battery of unscrupulous lawyers and police officers to impose an extortionary regime on judicial proceedings, in clear violation of what they were taught in police college or law school.

Spurious charges

Between these branches of “law enforcement,” innocent people would be arrested on spurious charges — a darling was “money laundering” — which were deliberately made “un-bailable” just to make sure once one was arrested one had no way of avoiding incarceration.

From there, Magufuli’s legal goons devised something they called — rather disingenuously — plea bargaining, which was really a shakedown programme to extort money from people who were forced to buy their freedom, much like the mafia bosses force the families of their victims to save their loved ones’ lives by coughing up the dough.

People paid, sometimes by selling family silver, just to be free, and maybe find a way of starting life over again.

Lining their pockets

Some of us suspected these crooked individuals engaged in these arrangements were lining their pockets, because we did not see any public good they aimed to advance. Now we know we were right, it was all a scam, if Samia is to be believed, and I see no reason not to believe her.

Simply, the money, and this was in billions upon billions of shillings, cannot be traced in any state coffers where such payments, if legit, should have been deposited. It was spirited away into bank accounts, we are now told by the president, in China!

Now the president has set up a commission to look into this great scam of the Magufuli years and to identify the culprits and set the records straight, with a view, I hope, to punish those involved and make whole those robbed of their money through the spurious “plea bargaining” thievery.

The man put in charge of this enquiry is a respected former Chief Justice and experienced investigator of murky affairs internationally. It is my hope and belief that he will shed as much light as possible on this, but already from where I sit, it has a horrible stink.

Pouncing

The tigress in Dodoma has not been proclaiming her tigritude, but she has surely been pouncing. Some of us would probably have climbed to the rooftops to proclaim, declaim and pontificate. But now we are called upon to encourage her to pounce some more and expose the rot at the core, and continue the demagufulification of Tanzania.

I hate praising politicians, for you never know what they do next but for now at least, going back to Wole, I declare Samia TID — Tigress in Dodoma.

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

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Strictly Personal

The poetics of Bola Tinubu’s palm kernel, By Lasisi Olagunju

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Listen to Senator Bola Tinubu Wednesday last week in Abeokuta: “If you want to eat palm kernel, put a stone on the ground; put a palm nut on it, take another stone and smash it on the palm nut. The nut will be cracked and the kernel will come out.

You can see that it is not easy to get palm kernel to eat.” The Yoruba who watched how he strung his words together and the histrionics while saying what I translated above would say I have not done enough justice to how he said it. They should just forgive me.

Tinubu, super-rich city boy, must one day tell us who taught him how to crack nuts and eat palm kernels. It is intriguing that that was the imagery he used in describing his aspiration to be president of Nigeria. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the poetics, the rhetoric and the metaphysics of that Abeokuta outing.

Our fathers have several other ways of saying what Tinubu said with that imagery of force and devotion. They say also that a palm seed that would become palm oil must have a taste of fire. They foreclose shortcuts for the axe to the honeycomb.

Every axe that must have a taste of honey must lose more than a tooth. Tinubu remembered to add that too on Wednesday. He was a delight to watch.

At the very beginning of time, someone had a dream that he was cracking a heap of palm nuts. Where every dream is a warning, every question seen at night must be answered in the morning. The dreamer went to an elder for insights into what he saw.

He was reminded of the strength of his character but was told that he talked too much and needed to bridle his mouth. He was told that he was in a tough situation that needed tact and strategy garnished with loads of patience and composure.

He was told that he might be pursuing a goal that might not be entirely profitable – like picking and cracking nuts with diseased seeds. Senator Bola Tinubu’s latest Abeokuta declaration interests me. He was loquacious but I don’t think he was tactless. He believes he is working hard at getting the presidency of Nigeria because it is his turn.

But, he thinks his friends in his party’s government are sabotaging his efforts with the power he gave them. The man I watched in Abeokuta looked increasingly frustrated but defiant. He employed the imagery of palm nuts and two stones to describe his engagement with next month’s election. Elections are truly a palm nut-cracking process.

Cracking palm nuts is a very deep Yoruba way of coding wars and snatching victory from the jaws of hard labour. Ojú bòrò kó ni a fi ngba omo l’ówó èkùró (You don’t snatch the seed from a palm nut by being gentlemanly).

That was Tinubu’s description of the “superior revolution” he said he is staging with his candidature in the February 25 election. Tinubu understands perfectly what he is into. I am not sure his supporters do.

Still on the rhetoric and the poetics of Tinubu’s politics. His words impale; his dance steps taunt the enemy. Whenever Senator Tinubu speaks in his distinctive Oyo-Yoruba, I hear poetry in his (in)eloquence; I see verses in his allusions even as he drags his words.

He is always at his best speaking in the language of his fathers. He may be awful in singing, but he is a devastating user and connoisseur of Yoruba war lines. Where he is from, every General has a drummer, singer and chanter of words of adulation and provocation.

Tinubu, in Abeokuta, ordered his war bard, Wasiu Ayinde, to sing against his enemies: “K1, bèrè ìlù; ìlù òtè (start to beat drums, drums of war/intrigue/rebellion); pèlú àyájó nlá; àyájó nlá ni kóo gbé lé won l’órí (Seal it with a big, strong spell, place it on their heads).” My people say song goes before a war; sometimes it incites the enemy to rash defeat.

What Tinubu asked of his bard is invocatory; he asked for an invocation, a summoning of the elemental principalities to come and fight his foes. It is getting clearer that what we are watching (or about to watch) is not a ‘small thing.’

But who were/are the ‘them’ so deserving of the spell and imprecations of the warlord? And why ‘Ayajo’? Why not ‘iwure’ (blessing) for the sea of bald heads at that rally? Why imprecations and not prayers for his enemies to have a change of heart?

Tinubu’s imagery of one stone down, one stone up and a stubborn palm nut between them reminds me of a ‘war’ over rocks between two towns in present Osun State. In cracking hard nuts, stones are for man as rocks are for the gods.

When a rock is stacked on another rock, my dictionary says I should call it a cairn. But a cairn is man-made; this one in contention was made before man was made. Here, the people had two huge rocks, one on top of the other, standing on top of a hill.

Like the current north-south fight over the presidency of Nigeria, these two coterminous communities fought over the ownership of that hill and a war was imminent. Some elders, with sense, thought there was a more sensible place to resolve disputes other than at the war front. The feuding peoples should meet at the foot of the hill, the place of friction, and do it as their fathers did.

Every appointed day must arrive and so was it with that day. The day broke, with plenty of orin òtè and ìlù òtè, the feuding feet met at the base of their object of discord. The kind of spell Tinubu asked Wasiu Ayinde to hurl at his enemies last week in Abeokuta emitted from the mouth of one of the sides. “May the top rock ‘ré lu’lè’ (fall down) within seven days if this land belongs to me,” the king of one of the feuding towns invoked those words.

The other side nodded and the warring parties went home. At the dawn of the seventh day, the top rock was down the hill. The spell-casting town is Iragbiji, a community ten-minute drive from my own in Osun State.

The fall of that rock was the end of the ownership dispute but the victorious town, from that day, added a valiant cognomen to its name: “Iragbiji Olókè méjì,/t’ako t’abo l’órí aagba/Òkan yí lu’lè ó kù’kan (Iragbiji, owner of two hilly rocks,/ Male and female, one on top of the other/ One rolled down, leaving the other).” Read that ‘oríkì’ again. A rock must fall for a side to win.

The first time Tinubu climbed Abeokuta’s Olumo Rock and sensationally reminded us of how someone from the north lu’lè one, two, three times like a mágùn victim, my mind went straight to that cognomen and the “ó lu’lè” refrain in it.

When Tinubu, last week, called for àyájó (spell) on his enemies, I remembered it was one ‘ayajo’ that felled a hill in that part of Yorubaland.

Tinubu was angry in Abeokuta because of petrol and the naira. We are angry too because of those two items but the reasons for our anger are not the same as the politician’s. Tinubu says fuel and money have become as rare as masquerade’s excreta because of him.

He thinks his creations in government are setting him up for a crushing defeat in the February election. But he is one of the stones cracking our palm nut. Whether he is the up stone or the down stone, he is no friend of the people’s palm nut.

He cannot be allowed to extricate himself from the consequences of the government he foisted on Nigerians. Because of politics, the earth is scorched and they say we must endure the pains of their vain feud. As I write this, the streets are in hunger and existential angst.

There is no money, there is no fuel, there is no electricity, no water. Yet we must live through these times because an election must be won and lost next month.

“In Osogbo, husband went out to queue for fuel; wife went out to queue at the ATM. Both returned in the evening. No money, no fuel.” I saw this post at the weekend on the Facebook wall of a former commissioner.

The lot of the couple in that post has been the lot of millions across the country in the last one week. There has been power failure for several hours; you need fuel for your generator; petrol stations won’t take old notes; their POS terminals aren’t working; you can’t get new notes at the ATM; you go inside the banking hall and get paid with old notes which get rejected in the market.

Things are bad and are likely to get worse even with the two-week extension of the deadline for old naira notes to die. But why would our husbands insist that after February 17, 2023, old naira notes outside the bank vaults remain unredeemable forever?

The law says the CBN can “issue, reissue and exchange currency notes from time to time” – that is what Section 18(b) of the CBN Act says. It also says the CBN can, at any time, “call in any of its notes or coins on payment of the face value thereof” – after giving reasonable notice.

But the same law (Section 20(3)), says that even on the “expiration of the notice”, and after it has ceased to be a legal tender, an old note or coin “shall be redeemed by the bank (CBN) upon demand” – except it is “mutilated or imperfect” (Section 22).

The law sets no time-limit for the redemption. But our CBN yesterday set February 17 as the limit to satisfy the demands of this provision. I think the February 17 limit is unlawful. You can also read the CBN Act; it is available online. The makers of that law are not stupid. They followed what the civilised world does when in similar situations.

In England, the £20 and £50 paper notes ceased to be legal tender on September 30, 2022 but the system continues to allow those still in their possession to exchange them for the new polymer notes. Check the Bank of England’s website, it is there: “30 September 2022 was the last day to use our paper £20 and £50 notes for retail purposes.

However, there is no need to worry as withdrawn notes can always be exchanged at the Bank of England for new notes at any time after this date.”

Whatever elite mischief the government wants to cure with the naira redesign should not be to the sorrow of the ordinary Nigerian. Tinubu alleged in Abeokuta on Wednesday that the currency redesign was an act of sabotage against his aspiration.

He spoke with so much courage and, watching him, I was so pleased that someone from my place was staking his all for what he wanted. But, the fuel-and-naira speech was all about him; he had no word for the stranded and the grounded; the high and dry and the down and out. And, like Julius Caesar, he is more than one person; he is not an ‘I’ but a ‘we’ with an intelligence superior to his enemies’. Listen to him: “We are too smart.

We are brilliant. We are courageous. We are sharp….This is a superior revolution and when I tell you, you know what I mean. You know me. We are going there to win.” And he wrapped up everything with the defiant refrain: “A maa d’ìbò, a maa wo’lé (we will vote, we will win).”

If a proverb sounds like it is meant for you and you keep quiet, it means you are afraid of a fight. President Buhari countered the narrative at the weekend that he would not leave “the poorest of the society” to their own fate as they suffered the pangs of a measure which he said in November last year was designed to stop politicians from mobilizing “resources and thugs to intimidate people in any constituency” in this year’s elections.

And, on Sunday, he hosted the CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele, in Daura and made adjustments that extended the life of the old naira notes by 10 more days. Will Tinubu thank Buhari for this gesture? The presidential election is February 25; the naira note deadline is February 10. Tinubu and Buhari are warriors in the mould of Shaka, the Zulu – they do not take prisoners. But the people are groaning and dying.

Shakespeare in King Lear describes those who suffer the violence we suffer from our husbands as flies in the hands of “wanton boys.” Elechi Amadi in his The Concubine says we are grasshoppers in the hands of these same “wanton boys” who “kill us for their sport.”

The warring APC elephants are no different from Shakespeare’s and Amadi’s ‘wanton boys’; they crush us just for their politics. But, can I ask Tinubu and Buhari to read the epic of Mazisi Kunene’s Emperor Shaka the Great? Shaka was the young prince for whom “the shadows of the past dissolved in the new sun” and he “grew proud and generous and full of confidence” and became king.

He was the king who believed that in every war “victory must be final” and the “enemy must be chased and trapped in his own home” and destroyed; it is only then “he shall not raise his head again.”

Shaka was powerful and popular; then he overdid things and lost the ground that gave him strength. Because the Zulu king lost his mother, life and living were decreed halted with a screech. “There shall be no ploughing and no reaping,/ No cows shall be milked throughout the land;/ No man shall sleep with his wife in the year of mourning;/ No woman shall be pregnant in the year of mourning.” That decree took Shaka’s plane into a turbulence he never quite recovered from.

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