My favorite Ugandan

My new favorite opinion columnist is the Ugandan commentator Charles Onyango-Obbo (who I have cited previously - see 'Togo situation so-so' below). His recent work can be found here, see also this archive of his articles written between 1995-2002. It's full of gems. Some highlights:

Why is the use of bikes widespread in poor Asian countries, but not in Africa? Onyango-Obbo explains:

The scooter and small bike is ubiquitous in Bali as in most of Asia…Beautiful girls ride their own scooters, and are also carried by their boyfriends on their tiny bikes. Apart from demographic and social realities, no doubt the petite hips of the Asian women and men make scooter travel possible. The belly of the Ugandan male and elephantine hips (much loved no doubt) of some of our women make this form of transportation impractical for many.

Honestly, has Thomas Friedman (who some absurdly call the American Charles Onyango-Obbo) even once said anything as insightful or entertaining?

You read a lot in the Western media about how governments should work in third world countries, as it takes no talent and only superficial knowledge to catalogue deviations from the ideal. Onyango-Obbo provides practical explanations on how to to achieve the best results in less than ideal conditions:

Factions usually arise in Uganda as a clash of political sub-cultures during a struggle for power among the educated and half educated. But it is also important that there be an ineffective official or legal opposition. In Uganda, the mainly multipartyist legal opposition to Museveni's Movement are ineffective in part because of their own internal weaknesses, and also because of the suffocating anti-party laws. In these situations usually one of the government factions functions as a kind of opposition. Secondly, and more importantly, these factions in banana republic democracies are the real checks and balances on the power of government, not Parliament or the Judiciary...If you have a dictatorship or half-democracy dominated by only like-minded people, be they all educated or all illiterate, they will unite and wreak havoc. The best form of government in a situation like Uganda's where there is no full democracy therefore is a regime where there is rule by competing factions of very educated, half educated, semi-literate, illiterate, sophisticated, and uncouth men and women.

His explanation for why some countries are rich and others poor is unique, and deserves further investigation:

It seems reasonable, then, to conclude that a country that has both a tradition of long inefficient funerals and rumbling plays can never prosper.

Onyango-Obbo asks why ‘backward’ societies admire militaristic dictators, and gives an answer most columnists writing for American newspapers are afraid to even think, let alone publish:

My own sense is that the less industrialised a society, the more fascinated it will be with military parades and war paraphernalia. Weapons resonate in very intimate ways with them because it's not too long ago that, as hunter and gatherer societies, their forefathers put food on the family mat, and conquered hostile neighbours with spears, a weapon kept in a hallowed corner of the family hut, not in an impersonal armoury somewhere else like today's modern weapons.

Think of it, when the "great" African warrior and king Shaka Zulu lived and conquered with spears between 1785 and 1825, the Industrial Revolution was going through possibly its most definitive stage in England.

In fact, most columnists writing for American newspapers are afraid to even describe backwards countries as ‘backwards’.


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