Sampling Political Temperatures in EAC States as the New Year 2016 Unfolds

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Pope Francis
Pope Francis

In Summary: As the new year 2016 unfolds, do the varying political temperatures pertaining in each  EAC state reflect whether our political leaders  listened to the unified message of the incarnation of Jesus and Pope Francis with mindfulness or they simply heard it as part of a routine physiological function?

By Samuel Muwanguzi

As we welcomed and celebrated the New Year 2016, East Africans in the Diaspora, those in our respective countries of origin, and the world at large, were reminded that we belong, and are subject, to political, cultural, social, economic, and spiritual authorities which, in large measure, guide and shape the way we live and even think. These authorities may exist in the form of governments, religions, cultural institutions, etc. When we celebrated Christmas a week ago, we were reminded that the Jews and the early Christians before us believed that the coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was meant to restore worldly justice, unity, and peace. While their expectations and aspirations were not exactly why Jesus came, they reflected the spiritual, social, cultural, economic, and political realities of their times.

Today, with Christmas messages still fresh in our minds and the New Year 2016 here, the political, cultural, social, economic, and spiritual authorities in addition to external environments prevailing in East Africa, as was the case with the Jews and early Christians, are, to a reasonable degree, guiding and shaping our lives and thoughts. Mindful, also, that at all pulpits, members of the clergy reminded congregations to   engage in practical acts of love toward their neighbors as Jesus did. To that end, a reflection on how the various authorities in each EAC member state are helping or defying the illumination of our secular understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to restore justice, unity, and peace is of essence.

Coming in the wake of the recent visit to Kenya and Uganda by Pope Francis, themes of love and justice that highlighted the passing holiday season offer an opportunity to take stock of how policies and actions of our respective authorities in East Africa are consistent with, and responding to the coming of the Messiah and the Pope’s message of compassion toward the poor, the politically marginalized, and the socially underprivileged. As East Africans, did we listen to the cohesive message of Christmas and Pope Francis with mindfulness or we simply heard it as part of a routine physiological function? A sample of the political environments prevailing in each of the East African Community (EAC) member states suggests varying degrees of political temperatures that are defying the wet ElNiño climatic conditions sweeping through the region.

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya
President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya

Peering into the prevailing political order in Kenya, the largest economy in the region, the temperature is relatively calm with sporadic heat waves as general elections in the country are over two years away. However, before the end of the year, news about the malignant cancer of corruption again captured the imagination of the entire nation, developing partners, and, of course, Kenyans in the Diaspora. Worse, isolated acts of terrorism visited on this leading tourist destination in Africa and the lingering repercussions associated with terrorism are giving the otherwise amiable president Uhuru Kenyatta some sleepless nights. As the president grapples with terrorism threats, corruption in his government and other contradictions inherent in the Kenyan polity, his critics have turned them into cannon fodder to stalk the fire in a rather lukewarm political environment.  But both corruption and terrorism conspire to make the poor poorer, the weak weaker, and contradict the unified theme of love inherent in the incarnation of Christ and the Pontiff’s message to Kenyans.  As the New Year 2016 unfolds, scanty evidence suggests that authorities in Kenya heard, let alone listened mindfully to what he said.  

President John Magufuli of Tanzania
President John Magufuli of Tanzania

A sneak peek into the Tanzanian political climate, the most populous and second largest economy of the five EAC countries, the political temperature is that of excitement following the election of Dr. John Magufuli “the bulldozer”. He is the fifth president since the country attained independence on December 9 1961. His leadership style is sending corrupt bureaucrats into disarray and is giving renewed hope to this largest country in the region but whose poverty levels are shockingly higher than the other five except her northern neighbor, the troubled tiny Burundi. To his credit, President Magufuli has embarked on an anti- corruption campaign and his participation in cleaning of streets in Dar es Salaam on Independence Day was viewed as a symbolic gesture to cleanse the corruption he inherited. So far, his declared fight against corruption has swept aside the electoral malpractices that highlighted the process and effectively sanitized the controversial cancellation of election results in Zanzibar. Whether he will manage to sweep away the ‘socialism of corruption’ that replaced Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s ‘socialism of poverty’ before his first 5-year term in office expires in 2020, he deserves a benefit of the doubt. One may reasonably assume that president Magufuli heard the Pope’s message. As to whether he was listening mindfully, time will tell.

resident Yoweri Museveni of Uganda
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda

For Uganda, the third largest economy, a close scrutiny of the prevailing political climate in the country suggests that  the temperature  is rising pretty fast in the fiercest contested presidential election since Gen. Yoweri Museveni took power following a bloody 5-year-bush war three decades ago. It is even feared that the political temperature may get hotter if the  escalating violence in the campaign is  not reversed. Issues of corruption, poor service delivery, and state-inspired intimidation of political opponents have become common rallying cries for the opposition on the campaign trail. These nasty incidents threaten to overshadow the relative stability and macro-economic growth the country has enjoyed during the 30-year administration of President Yoweri Museveni. While presidential and parliamentary elections are set for February 18, whatever will happen weeks after the election results  are announced could either escalate the political temperature or temper it. For now, all actors in this fray, especially those in charge of coercive state agencies should be reminded of the Pope’s message of love and mercy--they should know in their heart that they ought to treat others with love and mercy--as they would also like to be treated.

President Paul Kagama Rwanda
President Paul Kagama of Rwanda

In Rwanda,  the ruling RPF government is still basking in the post referendum political euphoria  following a landslide victory of the ‘Yes’ vote that lifted constitutional presidential term limits. The emphatic victory gifted president Paul Kagame a blank check to run for a third term and potentially stay in power until 2034. Predictably, President Paul Kagame has not disappointed his supporters either. He announced in his new years’ message that he is indeed going to run for a third term when his second term expires in 2017. The no-tolerance to corruption and effective service delivery are Gen. Paul Kagame’s trump cards which are systematically reversing the fortunes of this hilly country that suffered a genocide that left almost one million Tutsi and moderate Hutus killed in 1994. However, the human rights record of this regime and zero tolerance to political opposition continue to dent the image the progressive strides the mountainous country has taken.

Prosperity in a climate where fear and apathy reign, however, President Kagame’s critics allege, neither reflect love, compassion, nor forgiveness.  A political temperature receptive to the Pope’s message that echoed from neighboring Uganda deserves consideration.

President Pierre Nkuruzizza
President Pierre Nkuruzizza of Burundi

The situation in the tiniest and poorest of the five member states, Burundi, is both bleak and gloomy. The political temperature there is beyond fever-pitch. Unless the unfolding crisis is resolved in time, the country may degenerate into a humanitarian disaster or genocide. President Nkuruzizza is not helping matters either. He is as defiant as he was in April when he launched a bid to run for a third term in office. He eventually won the controversial elections and sworn-in during a low-key ceremony in August. The crisis has left hundreds dead and thousands fleeing into exile. President Nkuruzizza has rejected the deployment of an African Peace Keeping Force in Burundi and has threatened to fight them as invaders. In this country where the population is predominantly Roman Catholic, including President Nkurunzizza himself, one would have assumed that they heard and indeed mindfully listened to Pope Francis’s message of love, justice, peace, and mercy during his visit to the region in November. Unfortunately, they did not.

But the varying degrees of hot temperatures experienced in the EAC states do not necessarily suggest that a dark cloud has completely enveloped the EAC regional block.  No. Not at all. While the highlighted dark clouds linger, there is a silver lining on the horizon. Why?   The EAC remains a dynamic investment destination attracting the highest foreign direct investments in sub-Saharan Africa.  Second, all national economies except Burundi are growing at an average rate of over 5% annually. Major challenges that still linger include unemployment, climate change, poverty, modernization of agriculture, unequal distribution of resources, poor infrastructure, etc. The discussion of those is for another day. And where does all this leave East Africans in the Diaspora? To those with the capabilities, this is an opportunity to engage in practical acts of love that help, serve, and transform lives of those back home. Such actions may contribute to the restoration of justice, unity, and peace in our region. For now, let the light we embraced on Christmas continue to shine throughout 2016. A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all!