Wednesday, January 19, 2011



By Jerry Okungu

Nairobi, Kenya

January 19, 2011

People power can be a great thing. It can force dictators to vacate the comforts of their palaces and seek refuge in foreign lands. It is proof enough that being Commander in Chief with a special elite force as guards to a dictator do not count much when the people’s willpower to change their circumstances has reached tipping point.

When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in the Tunisian capital in protest against perpetual unemployment despite having been to university, little did President Ben Ali imagine that the incident would set the ball rolling for his ouster. Yet, that is exactly what came to pass. A suicide incident ended the 23 year old presidency of the Tunisian leader. It goes to show how our elected leaders, once in power , can be out of tune with their electorate.

Interestingly, Ben Ali is not the first African or world leader to be deposed and forced into exile. Many dictators in our lifetime have traveled the same root before. President Marcos and his wife Imelda fled Philippines due to people power in the last decade of the 20th century. Idi Amin of Uganda together with his wives and children had to take refuge in the same Jeddah in Saudi Arabia now hosting the Tunisian former president after facing the wrath of Ugandans and Tanzanian soldiers in 1979. A few years later, the same man who took over from him, Milton Obote had to flee the same way when the people’s anger could not be contained. He finally died in exile in the Zambian capital.

As the Mohammed Bouazizi revolution catches fire in North Africa, we have seen similar matyrs setting themselves ablaze for freedom in Algeria and Egypt citing similar grievances just days later. And the fact that these events are taking place in the Arab North Africa should be telling us something. It would appear like the culture of suicide bombing where young Muslim Arab militants have strapped themselves with explosives to cause mayhem among civilians in the past is taking a new twist in the Arab North. Young people there are sacrificing themselves in protest against bad governments that are insensitive to their plight. The question to ask is this; are dictators in the continent listening?

Closer home, Sudanese opposition leader, Hassan Al Turabi is in problems with the Khartoum regime. He has been arrested because he supposedly supported the food riots that rocked Khartoum the other day. Yet if the ordinary Sudanese are rioting because life is getting unbearable, one expects a sane government to deal with the hardships affecting its people rather than use guns and teargas to suppress the suffering lot. Yet this seems to be the easier option for regimes that are in power for themselves rather than for their people.

At what point will African leaders realize that suppressing people is more expensive than listening to their grievances?

Why are our leaders so eager to violently break any protest and even kill if necessary in order to remain in power? It is because power is sweet and its trappings can be addictive. Once inside there, most of our leaders dread the prospect of being outside again.

As Ugandans go to the polls, two things are emerging clearly; that indeed Yoweri Museveni may retain his presidency with a convincing majority. I say this because according to reports coming from campaign rallies, and if those huge crowds are a measure of M7’s popularity, then it is a foregone conclusion that the man is retaining his State House residence in Entebbe. What is more; if one of his presidential opponents, Hon Mao is campaigning for an NRM candidate in some parts of Uganda, then it is a foregone conclusion that NRM will retain power; only the margin remains to be determined.

Another thing, the campaigns have been largely peaceful, even more peaceful than the recent Tanzanian elections. I therefore do not see why Uganda should import fresh consignments of teargas in readiness for the elections when Kenyans are facing starvation. Please Ugandans , give us that money to buy food for our starving brothers in drought affected areas instead of wasting it on teargas because this year, your elections will not be violent.

Elections are supposed to be battles of the mind and wits and as such do not require police preparations for battle. All they need to do is to prepare to maintain the peace in a civil manner and to ensure electoral malpractices do not occur.

This election in Uganda brings to mind a pattern we should change as East African Community members. It looks like every year one or more partner states hold elections. In 2007 Kenya held elections just a year after Uganda. Three years later, Rwanda and Tanzania held their elections. The same year, Kenya held its referendum on the new constitution. Now it is the turn of Uganda to hold its new elections in a month to be followed by Kenya mid next year. These elections mean that the region is permanently on an election mode at the expense of the East African agenda. Can partner states decide to have all elections the same day same year as they have been doing with national budgets? Just thinking aloud!