After many months of hibernation, this blog is now ready to face the world again. If you live in Apac and you like writing, and would like to reflect publicly about all things Apac, Langi or Ugandan, why not become a writer for the blog???

Just write an email to apac.blog@gmail.com, and we will fashion you with a username so you can become a contributor to the blog.

With many good wishes,

The Editor


Back stabbing. Character assassinations. Plots to undermine fellow elected politicians or fellow civil servants. And, crucially, thinking 20 steps ahead. These are the ingredients of Apac Politics. This district in Uganda, where 0.2 per cent of the households have access to electricity and 0.1 per cent of the adult population holds a diploma or a degree, provides ample study for a contemporary Macchiavelli, while Kasparov could learn a thing or two from those at the epicentre of the eternal conflicts.

The district council is comprised of councillors from (the governing) NRM party and, overwhelmingly, (the opposition party) UPC. (Some say this explains the total lack of interest in the district by the central government.) The executive committee is headed by District Chairman, Hon. Nicholas Opio Bunga, a retired teacher. He selected his fellow resident of Inomo sub-division as his Vice-Chairman. His council includes two councillors who have stood out in the past year: Apac’s very own ‘Jack the Zipper’, Hon. Malakwang, who attacked two women with a scissor for wearing trousers (see previous blog posts), and the councillor for Ibuje, who smashed the glass front of the district notice board because his private construction firm failed to secure a public contract. Neither culprit was disciplined by the Hon. Chairman, ‘father of the district’. These are the least of the council’s antics.

A month ago, staff at Apac Hospital went on strike. Peaceful collective action in Uganda is rarer than Hummers on the streets of Kampala, so eyebrows were raised. Doctors, nurses and assistants protested the ‘disappearance’ of their 30 per cent salary top-up, paid by the WHO, and designed to combat the rampant desertion of essential health workers from northern Uganda. According to the council executive, the money had appeared on an account, but nobody had ‘remembered’ what the money was for, and so had been ‘disappeared’. (The district receives 27 billion shillings annually from the central government, and so should be used to keeping track of bank statements…). It is widely believed – and not disproved – that the money was ‘eaten’, ‘privatised’. Neither the Chief Finance Officer, nor the Secretary for Finance or the Chairman offered to explain the matter. Nobody offered to pay back. In the end, the top-ups were partly paid.

Who checks the checkers? The powers and excesses of the district civil service are, in theory, checked by the council. But what happens when councillors have an interest in not checking key civil servants? The answer, according to the democracy school, is for the population to register their dismay through the ballot or by revoking the powers of their representatives. Both are provided for in the Ugandan constitution. But before the population can act, they need to know about the abuses of power. In this sense, knowledge is power. The police and the inspectorate of government can of course investigate on the basis of suspicion, but rarely do; the radio can broadcast any events and discoveries, but is owned by a sub-county politician; and the civil society can demand for accountability. All these actors are either under-capacitated or compromised, and often both.

The Chief Finance Officer answers to the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), the head of the district civil service. But in a coincidence of perfect timing, Apac has been without a CAO for the past months. The Deputy CAO – upon the refusal by the CAO of another district (Kotido district) to accept his transfer to Apac! – was appointed as Acting CAO by the Ministry of Local Government. But the executive committee of the council wrote to the Ministry to oppose this appointment and the Ministry has hesitated to identify the head of the civil service, the implementing arm of the local government.

In Uganda, every district has a Resident District Commissioner, whose responsibility is to monitor the implementation of central and local government services. In Apac, the RDC had to step in to sort out the hospital crisis. As he reports directly to the President of the country, and in the absence of an angry electorate, he was one of the only people with sufficient powers to put pressure on the council and the civil service to find the missing resources so the hospital could call off the strike.

In this patriarchal and old-fashioned society, the scapegoat of the hospital strike has been a young doctor, one of only two doctors (the hospital is nominated to have seven). Since the collective action took place, he has been at the receiving end of intimidation and character assassination. Perhaps the voters will register their disappointment with the district leaders. Until then, old men in positions of power and authority have a great time doing entirely as they please.

Apparently – and this is difficult to understand – the warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel movement which is killing thousands of civillians in the DR Congo and South Sudan and have turned his war against President Museveni into a regional conflict, has a son… called George Bush! Perhaps Kony named his offspring in honour of a fellow strongman whose name he heard all the time on his satellite radio in Garamba Forest. Or, he felt inspired by the fact that his rebel army was listed on the list of terrorist movements globally, which George W. Bush initiated. Or, he shares the Acholi love for grand history-making names, as described below. Or? You tell me.

Ugandans have an affinity for grand names, whether of the famous or the infamous kind. High-profile members of the public are Livingstone Okello Okello, a Member of Parliament (Chua County/Kitgum District), Chairman Mao, the chairperson of Gulu District, Ethan Musolini, a motivational speaker and CEO of Success Africa, and Ronald Reagan Ukumo, also Member of Parliament (Aswa County/Gulu District). Imagine that Mao has a meeting with Reagan and Livingstone in Parliament, it must happen quite often as they are all three Acholi political leaders, Mao at the district level and Reagan and Livingstone at the national levels. Or that Musolini gives business tips to Mao…!

We are sure to see a lot of Barack and Michelle coming up soon. The other day I met a man, who had just become a father for the first time. His daughter was to be Sasha, after Obama’s second-born.

Other things are already named Obama. Across the country there are numerous Obama Supermarkets and Obama Hotels. And Apac has its own Obama Mudslide on the daily Apac-Kampala bus:

The new mudslide on the Felista bus that ferries people between Apac and Kampala

The new mudslide on the Felista bus that ferries people between Apac and Kampala

The Juba Peace Talks look unmistakenly failed. The past 20 days the government has renewed its military offensive against the Lord’s Resistance Army, together – it claims – with the Congolese and South Sudanese military. According to the government, the attacks were aimed at forcing Kony back to the negotiating table, after having failed to sign the peace agreement five times. Well, Operation Lightening Thunder did not compel Kony back to the Peace Talks; I am not sure anyone believed they ever would.

The UPDF, the national army, have hit various LRA camps in the heavily forested Garamba National Park in north eastern DR Congo, but somehow Joseph Kony and his fellow insurgents seem to leave these camps in good time. Rather than divine intervention, it is, of course, likely that the LRA is assisted by a source of insider information about any forthcoming attacks. The UPDF says today that they have killed 13 insurgents in total. The media has not been allowed access to the sites, so there has been no independent verification of events.

Independently verified has, however, been LRA’s retaliatory attacks on civilians. Which is probably the most worrying aspect of the renewed war between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army. The latter has attacked a number of villages in South Sudan, DR Congo and in the area bordering the Central African Republic; last week 45 people were massacred in a church 10 kms from the town of Doruma in DRC.

It is difficult to get a clear overview of the figures involved. Aid agencies estimate that over 400 civilians have been killed, Caritas quotes a figure of 486. The tabloid paper The Red Pepper reported that 65,000 people have been internally displaced since the attacks began almost three weeks ago.

On Friday morning they attacked trucks in Tori and Yei, South Sudan; and Friday night they were back in the forest, attacking the chief station of the Garamba park rangers. The Red Pepper claimed to know that they were heading south towards Uganda.

People in Apac remember the fact that the LRA, after the government’s Operation Iron Fist against its bases in Sudan in 2002, re-invaded parts of Northern Uganda and came as far south as Lira, Apac and Soroti! Their reach of these districts signalled their strength: Lira, Apac and Soroti are hundreds of kilometres from the Sudanese border; the most southers of these three districts, Apac is situated almost in the middle of Uganda!

If they could do that in 2002, the question remains, will they be able to again? Access to information – independently verified – seems as important as ever: In this region, where governments certainly appear to be unable to protect their own citizens, information is the most important means of protection.

The fact that part of the LRA consists of abductees makes the issue exceedingly complex. Over the past two decades, the Ugandan and South Sudanese governments failed to protect their villages and to prevent the abduction of children and young people; now these same governments want to kill the LRA insurgents, including the victims-turned-soldiers whose abduction they failed to prevent in the first place. But if they do not attack – and eradicate – the LRA, the government claims, there never will be peace in Northern Uganda.

Right now, people who happen to live at the intersection of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and north eastern DR Congo seem to be most at risk. It is a tragedy that these are three failed states. Although the prolonged existence of the LRA has always has regional aspects – funded by Sudan to destabilise Uganda – it now has become a regional destabilising force as it finds its victims at the margins of three – or four?- basket cases of African Governance.

Only the gods will know what 2009 has in store for this region…

In Apac and with few exceptions, male surnames begin with O and those of females begin with A. The names are Luo. The word, Lwo, has entered the vocabulary of many non-Africans in 2008. The year began with ‘ethnic riots’ between the Luo and the Kikuyu of Kenya, and ended with a certain Barack Obama, partly of Lwo lineage, winning the US elections.

In the immigrant country of the USA, it is virtually impossible to judging a person based on her surname. Is a Rice white or black, poor or rich? But in Uganda, the ethnic make-up of somebody is instantly determined on the basis of his surname: Anyone with an O-name is from a northern tribe, those with K-names are likely to be Baganda, and those with M, N, T-names are probably from western Uganda. The political history of colonial and post-colonial Uganda has contributed to the charged nature of surnames beginning with O, Luo names.

The British recruited Luos and other northern tribes into the army, and favoured the southern tribes with the education system and the civil service. The country’s first president (1966-70), Milton Obote, was a Langi from Apac, whose politics alienated many non-Luo people, particularly the Baganda. When Idi Amin took control of the state (1971-79), he eliminated many Luos in the army, to prevent a come-back for Obote. Obote did come back (1980-85), but was toppled by Tito Okello, who lost (or ceded, depending on your persuasion) power to Yoweri Museveni who remains president to this day. His rule has been challenged twice in insurgencies by Luo militants, led by Alice ‘Lakwena’ Auma and Joseph Kony. The willingness of Luos of different tribes to mobilise behind Obote, Okello, Auma and Kony has given rise to the perception that these tribes are inherently militaristic, easy to mobilise, fearless, strong and – dangerous…

The New Vision newspaper reported today that Ugandan MPs had celebrated the election of Obama: “Conspicuously, names of most MPs in attendance, started with the letter O. From opposition leader Ogenga Latigo, [to] Odonga Otto, Okupa Alijah, Otafiire Kahinda, they were all there. Others adopted the letter O, to suit the occasion. Deputy speaker Rebecca Kadaga became ‘O’daga, Igeme Nabeeta became ‘O’beta.”

It appears that there is such thing as the ‘Lwo factor’ in Ugandan politics; and in the political sphere, perceptions matter. Here in Apac, many feel that the national army could have eliminated the Lords’ Resistance Army if it had wanted to; and furthermore that it served the government to keep the Luo in check by its ‘own’ insurgency. (The counter-claim is that the LRA received financial support from Luo abroad.) Exiled Lwo Olara Otunno claimed in 2006 that the IDP camps in northern Uganda were so badly protected and serviced, that they aimed to eliminate the 1.5 million camp dwellers. President Museveni was among the first three heads of state to congratulate Mwai Kibaki upon winning the (disputed) Kenyan elections, defeating the Lwo opponent, Raila Odinga. And when the media earlier this year focused on the regional distribution of high-level state jobs, it emerged that ‘northerners’ occupy seven per cent of positions of power in the state despite constituting 19 per cent of the population of Uganda.

This narrative of deliberate marginalisation or silent persecution is alive today, in the north. Such feelings are often felt most strongly, and articulated most frequently, by those in the diaspora. Yesterday, a letter from Canada to the editor of New Vision, thus argued that “Over the years if you were of Luo background in Uganda and Kenya you were likely to face this silent hatred, cynicism and even ridicule because of your Luoness. After the overthrow of Obote I, some people had to change their Luo names to make them look non-Luo. For example from Okobel the name was changed to Kobel to remove the ‘O’ to protect such a person from easy identification… In East Africa, the election of Barack Obama brings home a revolution to not only all citizens, but particularly to those who are Luo who had felt despised for no apparent reason, except that they are Luo. Barack Obama’s election should be significant and therapeutic to all, especially the Luo in Uganda and Kenya who had been suffering from the trauma of being invisible and isolated.”

Obama’s ascendancy brings hope, to some, of a Luo revival. While the election of Obama was made possible by a sense of nationhood in the US, in East Africa the event is interpreted through the lens of ethnic or tribal differences.

You would think that the phrase ‘fake accountability’ was an oxymoron: how can something provide accountability and then fake it at the same time? Well, it is very well-known concept here in Apac. In fact, I was yesterday asked to contribute to it! Fake accountability is when accountability is doctored, made up. It is mainy ‘paper accountability’ – receipts, attendance lists, quotations – that are falsely made up; ‘physical accountability’ is more difficult to doctor as it concerns real things on the ground: whether the contract is performed, whether the purchased item physically exists, whether something is available?

Yesterday I attended a dialogue meeting organised by an NGO. It was a fruitful exchange of ideas (and blame) between CSOs and Lower Local Government officials, both elected and appointed, with the aim of ensuring that Apac district will perform well in the up-coming Local Government Assessment. Every year, Apac fails the assessment, and thereby loses 20 per cent funding from the Ministry of Local Government. Which means 20 per cent less spending on public services. The underlying reason for this constant struggle to pass the assessment’s minimum criteria is the nature of governance in Apac.

Following the end of the Cold War, and particularly the way in which it ended, the donor community and Western governments thought it wise to democratise Africa from below: the invested heavily in a civil society, which was supposed to keep the state in check. As the civil society thereby stands conceptually opposite the state, it is often supposed to be substantially opposite too – but, it is not… Often, the civil society mirrors the public sector, perhaps because the underlying reasons for public conduct are societal.

Yesterday, as I signed the attendance list for the dialogue meeting – a list that would constitute part of the evidence that the event actually took place – I was handed another attendance list. That of another meeting, which never had and never would take place. But for which money was already spent. The list would be presented to the donors as proof of expenditure on transport refunds, lunch and sitting allowances for the participants. Four people had already signed the document, with or without noticing the discrepancy in meeting titles.

The list was never circulated further, and the first sheet was thrown away. Wisely or unwisely. You see, the organiser of the fictitious event is a relatively powerful person in Apac. Paradoxically, the meeting was themed good governance in the civil society sector.

The no. 1 ingredient that almost all donor-recipient relationships contain is the need for the recipient to feel a sense of ownership. Ownership of the project or programme. Of the development process or initiative. Of a change process which has only become possible because of a factor from without: the idea, the rationale, the money, the equipment.

The million-dollar question is: it is possible? It is possible to define the (often narrow) parameters of funding, select the recipients, fund the programme – and at the same time transfer ownership of the objectives, activities and entire process to the recipients?

Ownership means that the (local) recipients own the project and determine a range of factors, from recruitment of project employees to budget allocations. It assumes that you take better care of things you own, that you become more dedicated because you own it.

But the donor often needs to satisfy her own donors, whether governments, larger organisations or the general public in the West, and therefore does not feel that she can let everything be determined by the (new) owners. Because, what if the recipients take decisions with which the donor disagrees? Should the latter step in and ‘remind’ the recipients of the ‘right’ path, the objectives of the partnership, or should she stick it out, risking that the project takes on unforeseen or undesirable dimensions, becomes subject to non-liberal local dynamics, or is used for private rather than public gains? If the answer lies somewhere in between these two options, the question remains whether a path between donor control and local ownership exists at all. And, if so, which amount of donor control would disable the sense of ownership?

The jury is still out, I’m afraid.

This morning, the radio read a statement which highlighted Democracy Day, a recent addition to the long list of international days. In 2007 the UN Generally Assembly apparently adopted the day, defining democracy as a

“universal value based on the freely-expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of life.”

The statement was translated into Lwo by the newsreaders, who were apparently struggling with the vernacular terms for some of these words. The influx of new concepts from without seem to have taken place too quickly for leb Lango (the tongue of the Lango) to adopt. So the news piece was about elections, a small part of the wider notion of democracy, rather than about an opening up of the political space and the participation of citizens in local decision-making. These things happen. The word for Treasurer in Lango, for instance, translates into ‘keeper of the money’… a rather misleading term, particularly when one considers the fact that there is so much corruption here.

Across the globe, meanwhile, American keepers of the money either filed for bankruptcy or flagged their warning signs. But the global village was not so global as for this news to travel all the way to Apac where life went on as usual, and people called the radio with comments and lamentation. It shall be interesting to see if the shocks of a global financial crisis are felt here in this seemingly isolated part of the world.

Is it because Uganda has been a donor darling since the early 1990s? Or because the civil society is marked by poverty of ideas? Or perhaps because everybody wants development and nobody wants change (see previous post).

Whatever the reason, the civil society sector in Uganda can be summarised by one word: workshopping. Or ‘workshop hopping’. Civil society activists hop from workshop to workshop, at their regional capitals or, mostly, in Kampala:

To be consulted on a particular issue, such as the new NGO Amendment Bill or the indictment of the LRA leadership by the International Criminal Court. To be sensitised on a value that is deemed important, such as rights-based approaches to development or gender equality. To discuss issues that confront their own sector, such as NGO accountability. To have their capacity built in, say, decentralisation policies or stakeholder analysis methodologies. To be briefed about a new funding opportunity such as an EU development programme. To engage with the local or central government in ‘dialogue meetings’.

This culture of workshopping has generated three challenges:

  • The need to translate workshop knowledge and ideas into real work, at desks and in fields across the country.
  • The need to follow up the resolutions and ways forward generated at the workshops; to see how far things go once the participants leave the hotels, conference centres and community halls.
  • The need to de-monetarise knowledge and skills. At the moment, workshop participants get, expect and rely on transport refunds, per diems, out-of-pocket facilitation, allowances for accommodation and dinner… you name it.

The other day, a Head of Department at the Apac District administration lamented that his department cannot get community members to attend his meetings, sensitisations and workshops because he does not have a budget for the various forms of ‘facilitation’ which they expect. Farmers leave the meeting on, say, new farming technologies or value addition once they hear that there will be ‘no facilitation’ such as a transport refund or an allowance. It is a real problem.

During most workshops, the first session will concern ‘Expectations and Fears’. It is common to hear participants list ‘transport refund’ as an expectation and ‘not enough facilitation’ as a fear, after which the workshop organisers will have to explain which levels of ‘facilitation’ their budget allows.

One day, I gave a lift to Kampala to four workshop participants. We reached the conference centre earlier than planned; the invitation had just told up-country participants to register in the evening, so as to be ready for the morning session on the following day. They complained that the workshop organisers probably only had booked dinner for them, and not lunch. That now they would have to meet the cost of the lunch themselves. Perhaps they forgot that if they had been in Apac, they would have had to buy lunch for themselves; or that my lift had saved them the transport cost, since they would get a transport refund at the end of the workshop.

Their thinking, it seems, indicate that in Uganda there exist a culture of workshopping, a particular set of seemingly self-evident practices and interpretations of life and the world. It is so central to the whole NGO set-up of this Equatorial country, that this blog will explore its many aspects over the coming months.