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It’s small acts of defiance that gives us chance at survival, By Elsie Eyakuze

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Militaries are fascinating, whether you want them to be or not. While I won’t watch the larger parades of modern-day forces because they are entirely too representative of the threat of violence by the state, I do remember enjoying scenes from the 1980s film on Shaka Zulu that depicted the discipline with which his warriors learned to use assegais, and work in formations that often defeated their enemies. It doesn’t matter how pacific one might be: finding shows of force come wired in the brain.

When individuals “fail” at the discipline, and what this says about the human spirit, is also very interesting. Is disobedience and small acts of defiance that gives us a chance at survival, ultimately? One of the most famous photos from the Nazi era is a huge picture of a crowd.

You have to stare at it to detect the one man who, in a sea of hailing salutes, resolutely keeps his arms down while staring balefully at the camera. He would not comply. I wonder what happened to him. I always wonder what we gain as a whole from the very few who simply say: mh, no thanks.

Take nuclear war. I found out that we have had more ‘incidents’ than are normally told to the general population. I grew up at a time when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not at the forefront of consciousness. The word nuclear had been sanitised, it meant the generation of cheap and plentiful electricity — if we could only crack the secrets of fusion rather than fission — so things were rosy.

Rosy in the modern sense that rather than fearing a cataclysmic act of god-level event to end all things, we go about our regular lives vaguely acknowledging the existential dread that our technology both sustains us and poses a threat. If not an unhinged laboratory leak of some dreadful virus, perhaps it would come from the unhinged command of some dreadful despot. There are a few of those hanging about, complete with impressive ticker-tape armies to carry out their command…

…or maybe not? We might still be here by sheer good fortune. Going back to the nuclear incidents I mentioned, there are many resources available online that tell an interesting story about us and nuclear weapons. Sometimes armies just, you know, lose nuclear warheads. Haha, oops? Sometimes they almost detonate them by mistake, like by dropping a hammer in a sensitive situation.

I mean, I wish I was kidding. But sometimes, when paranoia is running truly high, the difference between a post-nuclear winter and this prosperity we live in has come down to one officer saying: Nah, I don’t think the data is right and we should maybe not initiate the annihilation of the world as we know it. Like one Vasily Archipov did during the Cold War.

It is a wonder that we are still here. In the midst of the worst, hardest moments there emerge antiheroes who disobey for the greater good. I wasn’t trained to do this, but something about this level of courage. Let’s turn the page, and see what small civil disobedience might bring.

Strictly Personal

As a continent, we must confront the emergency of our failure to learn, By Joachim Buwembo

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“As a nation, we must confront the emergency of our failure to learn!” well-circulated news clips showed veteran Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga saying, in reaction to the (lack of) preparedness despite accurate warnings of the floods that by the time he spoke had claimed some 200 lives in the country.

Baba, as Raila is popularly known, must have used the words “as a nation” advisedly for, at the time he was speaking, helicopters were evacuating (wealthy) foreigners from flooded sites as the Kenyan citizens continued drowning.

But Baba might as well have said “as a continent” because of the tendency to watch disaster coming and doing nothing happens in other African countries.

The question then is whether African leaders are doing their best to prevent or contain disasters and, second, the accurately predictable ones occasioned by climate change. The third question is if the best by African leaders is good enough.

If not, then the fourth question is what can be done without alarming the leaders who might become defensive and suspicious of those asking legitimate questions about the protection of life, property and infrastructure. The fifth question is how their capacity to learn can be created by the famous (or notorious) capacity-building workshops.

But, before proceeding, we need to answer a sixth question: Whether failure to learn is an emergency. Failure to learn prevails, otherwise we wouldn’t be acting like the hazards of climate change are unknown phenomena.

I spent a whole year at the beginning of the last decade flying into African capitals from my Nairobi base in service of UNDP and the International Centre for Journalism, training journalists on climate change reporting but, more significantly, lobbying and securing the commitment of chief editors to give priority to the menace threatening humanity.

And there were several senior journalists on the programme, ensuring that the major media in all countries on the continent were reached.

So, even if African leaders were occupied with “more important issues” than climatic threats to lives and livelihoods, if the media had kept highlighting the climate issues beyond reporting about big people periodically meeting in fancy venues to talk about it, the public would be demanding more serious preparedness by their governments. Having to endure senseless but predictable deaths and destruction of infrastructure is, indeed, an emergency.

The seventh question is, who will bell the cat? Who will tell the naked emperors (to be fair some are dressed) that they are naked?

A protocol official who was managing a visiting royal’s schedule once whispered his agonising experience when the foreign monarch overslept after sampling some local somethings, and the mere thought of disturbing the royal sleep was considered sacrilege by the royal entourage, yet the host counterpart was waiting and the clock was ticking away past their meeting time.

The protocol officer had to cause some commotion in the many-star hotel, causing a diplomatic incident to prevent a diplomatic crisis. It takes unusual steps to bell a naked emperor.

Yet the answer to the seventh question already exists: The African Union can, and should, bell the cat. The AU was not created to be a social club for naked emperors; it is meant to make Africa work. But Africa cannot work with the prevailing obstacles to its working: our “Emergency of Failure to Learn!” Don’t abbreviate it, those suffering EFL may think you are talking about a European Football League.

Only last week, Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (Nema) announced to our largely inattentive public and authorities that the pollution over Kampala is approaching crisis level. The Nema boss reeled off some head-reeling data in particulates per million, summarising it by saying the air over Kampala is eight times above WHO’s permissible levels.

The authorities and public continued yawning.But the Nema fellows dutifully put it clearly that air pollution is now the world’s single leading killer, claiming six to seven million lives annually, about the same number Covid killed in two years, and far more than malaria, HIV, road accidents or anything you can think of.

Nema named Uganda’s top polluters that kill 31,000 a year as vehicles, boda boda, and domestic cooking (charcoal and wood).

When we overcome the EFL and start tackling our EFT (not electronic funds transfer but Emergency of Failure to Think), we may direct the huge electricity quantities we generate but don’t consume to free cooking energy for the urban poor and to mass public transport, thus addressing the identified top causes of death in Uganda.

Nema can talk on but, for as long as we don’t handle our EFL and EFT, their alarm bells won’t move us.

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:buwembo@gmail.com

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Strictly Personal

If I were put in charge of a $15m African kitty, I’d first deworm children, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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One of my favourite stories on pan-African action (or in this case inaction), one I will never tire of repeating, comes from 2002, when the discredited Organisation of African Unity, was rebranded into an ambitious, new African Union (AU).

There were many big hitters in African statehouses then. Talking of those who have had the grace to step down or leave honourably after electoral or political defeat, or have departed, in Nigeria we had Olusegun Obasanjo, a force of nature. Cerebral and studious Thabo Mbeki was chief in South Africa. In Ethiopia, the brass-knuckled and searingly intellectual Meles Zenawi ruled the roost.

In Tanzania, there was the personable and thoughtful Ben Mkapa. In Botswana, there was Festus Mogae, a leader who had a way of bringing out the best in people. In Senegal, we had Abdoulaye Wade, fresh in office, and years before he went rogue.

And those are just a few.

This club of men (there were no women at the high table) brought forth the AU. At that time, there was a lot of frustration about the portrayal of Africa in international media, we decided we must “tell our own story” to the world. The AU, therefore, decided to boost the struggling Pan-African New Agency (Pana) network.

The members were asked to write cheques or pledges for it. There were millions of dollars offered by the South Africans and Nigerians of our continent. Then, as at every party, a disruptive guest made a play. Rwanda, then still roiled by the genocide against the Tutsi of 1994, offered the least money; a few tens of thousand dollars.

There were embarrassed looks all around. Some probably thought it should just have kept is mouth shut, and not made a fool of itself with its ka-money. Kigali sat unflustered. Maybe it knew something the rest didn’t.

The meeting ended, and everyone went their merry way. Pana sat and waited for the cheques to come. The big talkers didn’t walk the talk. Hardly any came, and in the sums that were pledged. Except one. The cheque from Rwanda came in the exact amount it was promised. The smallest pledge became Pana’s biggest payday.

The joke is that it was used to pay terminal benefits for Pana staff. They would have gone home empty-pocketed.

We revive this peculiarly African moment (many a deep-pocketed African will happily contribute $300 to your wedding but not 50 cents to build a school or set up a scholarship fund), to campaign for the creation of small and beautiful African things.

It was brought on by the announcement by South Korea that it had joined the African Summit bandwagon, and is shortly hosting a South Korea-Africa Summit — like the US, China, the UK, the European Union, Japan, India, Russia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey do.

Apart from the AU, whose summits are in danger of turning into dubious talk shops, outside of limited regional bloc events, there is no Pan-African platform that brings the continent’s leaders together.

The AU summits are not a solutions enterprise, partly because over 60 percent of its budget is funded by non-African development partners. You can’t seriously say you are going to set up a $500 million African climate crisis fund in the hope that some Europeans will put up the money.

It’s possible to reprise the Rwanda-Pana pledge episode; a convention of African leaders and important institutions on the continent for a “Small Initiatives, Big Impact Compact”. It would be a barebones summit. In the first one, leaders would come to kickstart it by investing seed money.

The rule would be that no country would be allowed to put up more than $100,000 — far, far less than it costs some presidents and their delegations to attend one day of an AU summit.

There would also be no pledges. Everyone would come with a certified cheque that cannot bounce, or hard cash in a bag. After all, some of our leaders are no strangers to travelling around with sacks from which they hand out cash like they were sweets.

If 54 states (we will exempt the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic for special circumstances) contribute $75,000 each, that is a good $4.05 million.

If just 200 of the bigger pan-African institutions such as the African Development Bank, Afrexim Bank, the giant companies such as MTN, Safaricom, East African Breweries, Nedbank, De Beers, Dangote, Orascom in Egypt, Attijariwafa Bank in Morocco, to name a few, each ponied up $75,000 each, that’s a cool $15 million just for the first year alone.

There will be a lot of imagination necessary to create magic out of it all, no doubt, but if I were asked to manage the project, I would immediately offer one small, beautiful thing to do.

After putting aside money for reasonable expenses to be paid at the end (a man has to eat) — which would be posted on a public website like all other expenditures — I would set out on a programme to get the most needy African children a dose of deworming tablets. Would do it all over for a couple of years.

Impact? Big. I read that people who received two to three additional years of childhood deworming experience an increase of 14 percent in consumption expenditure, 13 percent in hourly earnings, and nine percent in non-agricultural work hours.

At the next convention, I would report back, and possibly dazzle with the names, and photographs, of all the children who got the treatment. Other than the shopping opportunity, the US-Africa Summit would have nothing on that.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3

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