Social Networks: Blessing or Blight for Uganda?
In the East African of September 10th 2011, Article; Gravedigger problem: How Museveni’s very success is now bringing him down; Andrew Mwenda resurrected an old debate. He opined thus; “Museveni has always argued that the problem with “pre-capitalist” societies is that political struggle tends to get polarized along “unprincipled” lines of religion, tribe or even clan. The counterpoint to this, Museveni has always held that in capitalist societies, politics is polarized around “principled” issues of an economic nature; wages, prices and public policies. His stated objective was to transform Ugandan politics from a contest over identity (religion, tribe and clan) into a contest over “real issues” that impact the lives of people; things like trade policy, fiscal policy, foreign exchange policy etc.”
Mwenda argues that President Museveni’s transformative politics have produced new social forces; “traders and vendors, bureaucrats and politicians, students and industrialists, Twitterati and Facebookers, thieves and saints, money making churches and money losing ones; and it has produced the Red Pepper. All these groups are now competing for space in the new Uganda. The old religious, ethnic and clan groups have not gone away, but they are dying, rapidly becoming a thing of the past, yet Museveni is still stuck with them”.
The article makes interesting reading; I don’t dispute the power and necessity of modern day ‘principled’ organizing. But by plainly faulting President Museveni for sticking with “pre-capitalist” groups that organize around identity, Mwenda falls into the same trap of simplistic analysis that absurdly views traditions, cultural identities and networks in past tense.
Far from being antiquated, these networks are very much alive and kicking, mediating the lives of millions of Ugandans every day. To view them in fossilized terms and pre-reason is inaccurate, intellectually flabby and patronizing, and fails to grasp complex and often contradictory realities that give meaning to and shape the thinking of many people in Uganda today.
Mwenda’s articulation in support of Museveni’s ideological thoughts while faulting his actions fails to contextualize Museveni’s on-the- ground working conditions. I tend to think that over the years, as President of Uganda, Museveni has become more pragmatic. He now realizes that pre-capitalist societies’ tendencies are not all necessarily backward and archaic. What he has not learnt though, is how to leverage the good in these ‘pre-capitalist’ networks beyond politics and harness them as platforms for transformational information, capital mobilization and wealth creation.
A pragmatic shift would grasp the opportunity in traditional forms of reference and organizing, even as they are mediated and evolve by changes. If Museveni had embraced this view, he would not view, for example, Facebook and Twitter social platforms as displacing ‘pre-capitalist’ networks such as ethnic or religious identities, but instead as powerful networks that engage people. By not appointing Facebookers and Twitterati into his cabinet, Museveni missed a powerful opportunity to keep up with emerging manifestations of change.
Identity based movements are of course fraught with potential dangers. They can turn essentialist, and breed discrimination and extremism. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda serves as a poignant reminder of what can go horribly wrong. Religious and ethnic extremism engineered by opportunistic leaders and elites also drove post-independence Uganda into unforgettable bloodshed.
Yet identity cannot simply be wished away or consigned to bins of history in embarrassment. Nor has identity based organizing only been negative. For example, in a number of compelling cases where ethnic and religious identities have promoted alternative economies and livelihoods that we can learn from and harness. Take for example the success in business of the Uganda Asian community. On the whole this group has a way of scouting business opportunities for each other. They are also keen, especially when it comes to deployment of social sanctions to enforce business ethics within their merchant community. They also have unrivalled pedigree for frugality. For sure, not all Ugandan Asians are successful business people, and among them there are no doubt those who struggle. But that does not wash away the lessons that one can learn from successes; we can learn something from their capability to organize using but moving beyond identity.
The Ayimara, one of the largest Andean ethnic groups scattered across South America, has similarly organized for success. The Ayimara are a sophisticated informal international network of kin and a highly developed commercial circuit involving truck drivers, custom policemen, border smugglers, wholesale dealers and retailers. These networks and circuits are based on and controlled by more or less visible ethnic lineages that constitute a ‘parallel’ structure to the formal – national and international - market which has been able to carve out a rather powerful and autonomous economic space in which indigenous practices and values are often reconciled with advanced economic know-how.
For example, in 2009 the National Electoral Court (CNE) of Bolivia was in a crisis, failing to raise 1000 generators needed for electronic registration of voters in rural areas. After heated pondering, state agents chanced on an Ayimara woman electronics dealer in La Paz market, the lady used her Ayimara network to deliver 1000 generators in two days! Nico Tassi, in his unpublished paper “The Other Side of the Market: Indigenous Economies in the Global Arena” argues that while the State may not like Ayimara informality, from their own perspective it helps the Ayimara reduce business costs associated with government bureaucracy, and deal with control of market information and managing competition from multinational capital, often subsided by governments.
My point is not to argue that Ugandan state should establish economic models based on the Asian or Ayimaras, but rather to point out that the basis of success here, past and present, even as it evolves is worth reflection.
One wonders how identity-based groups and alliances such as biika bya-Buganda can think and act beyond Engabi, Emporogoma, etc and avoid extremism and adjunct social tensions. What would it take for Nkooba za Mbogo, Basoga Nsete, Bahororo of Mpororo, Banyari of Rwanyambari, and Bakimbiri of Nyeibingo to use cultural ties to develop other ties that enhance economic wellbeing?
In the Uganda body politic, too many of my friends and myself veer towards self-defeating cynicism. How can we as a people move from cynicism to optimism? Might one answer be learning from those who have succeeded?
Ugandan are generous. Witness the wedding meetings many of us attend, where people are willing to contribute because marriage is an important cultural ritual or other interests. What if these gatherings met to mobilize venture funds or business startup capital for their kith and kin, and outside friends, instead of begging for external aid?
By Morrison Rwakakamba
Manager, Uganda for Twaweza East Africa. This article represents his personal views.
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