Uganda is currently in a state of uneasy silence. It is not something many of us talk about, but we are surely aware of it. A naive person or visitor may interpret the semblance of calm in the country as peace or a sign that people have moved on after the grossly controversial elections. There is a danger in this, one that needs serious attention.
I would use the analogy of a rocky marriage to explain the current situation. Sometimes a relationship becomes so suppressive that the wife and children cannot say anything anymore. The husband/father reigns large in a semblance of triumph with abusive display of might.
But only a foolish man will consider such an environment as peaceful. Anyone keen on their safety will know that anything can happen in this state. In this illusion of peace, you could wake up with paraffin in your ears, or beheaded. That’s why such a husband develops high suspicion, even of acts of love. ‘Why are you acting so nice today?’, they would ask the wife.
In his paranoia, informed by manifest awareness of waning love from the wife, the husband’s brutality is heightened. In turn, the brutality attracts more cynicism and secretiveness from the spouse. Tension hits the roof. Trust is lost. Benevolence becomes sinister, because meanness is what is expected.
Currently, the state acts like a jilted lover. They are even suspicious of seeing people engaging in any conversation that they can’t hear. They fear that anyone could be laying some scheme against them. They want to tap into every political conversation or else scatter it. The need to plant spies everywhere has intensified.
The degree of social censorship in Uganda tells a lot about what we call peace. When you utter anything critical of government, your friends and relatives will be the first to warn you: ‘be careful, these people are evil’. Ironically, some of these messages genuinely come from government agents.
We are in a state where everyone is constantly watching their back. Government fears that the citizens want to ‘harm’ it. In turn, many citizens consider government to be dangerous in its self-preservation. Its critics are very careful where they eat.
Fears and rumors of ‘Russian’ poison have infiltrated the populace. Government is always labouring to explain itself that it hasn’t killed another critic. Just like a child denying that it’s not them that licked the sugar, even before anyone asks.
Whether they caused the deaths or not may not be the real issue. Why should government be thought of as a potential threat to its people? It’s because many of its actions invite this suspicion. Why is it that even if a light critic falls to death into their pit latrine, government is in the spotlight?
Of course, there will always be speculation about sudden deaths. However, while such speculation could be totally off the mark with regard to the matter in question, it usually gravitates around some misattributed truth. Just like one who has stolen a goat in the past might be held responsible for a lost cow. Though the accusation could be wrong, it might serve as a reminder for the accused to clear their image and raise their reputation beyond suspicion.
The irony of the current environment is that no one is really safe in it. When both government and citizens think that the other is out to harm them, none of them is at peace. To an extent, it’s as though we are in the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’ where everyone lives under constant fear of their detractors. You need to be super careful to avoid a violent death by whoever finds you to be a threat to their self (power) preservation.
While Hobbes finds this state of fear to have been the origin of government as a regulator of interests, the purpose is defeated when government turns into another fierce trope of clique interests standing in aggressive competition with citizens. It loses meaning.
Take for instance, with all its inherent risks, many countries are increasingly acknowledging the importance of citizen access to internet for educational, business, self-development, and social needs. It’s becoming a basic need whose availability across the board progressive governments are working hard to boost.
In Uganda, because government prioritises its own preservation and looks at its citizens as potential threats, it’s trying to find ways of limiting access to the internet. It thinks, and truly so, that citizens are using social media to mobilize against it - add the paranoia. Thus, having failed with Over The Top Tax (OTT) as a gag tool, they now plan to introduce a tax on all data purchases - increasing the cost of internet. This is the government that promises to take citizens to middle-income status, blocking a critical development avenue because of its tragic combination of greed and fear of its citizens.
Leaders demand for more personal security from the people they are supposed to lead. Haunted by their own ghosts, their behaviour gives away their doubts over their legitimacy. Behind all pretensions, their display of might is an attempt to hide their fear. Their guilt cannot allow them to expect that people can be calm with them.
In the end, fear and all its causes is not a sustainable environment for development. Ultimately, it neither benefits the oppressor nor the oppressed, not even anyone outside this dichotomy.
Those it helps to loot the country live under perpetual fear that their accumulated wealth will be reclaimed once they lose power. Their wealth and worries about its fate haunt the hell out of them every time they imagine themselves out of power.
The oppressed, brutally clamped down by government, go underground. This is even more scary than open opposition. For no one can tell when and how their anger will explode.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.