A Moment of Political Truth
Uganda’s capital Kampala is caught in the rising heat. This year it is not just the sun being right above the equator in March.
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First published: April 04, 2005
As Kampalans move about, each caring for his or her concern, business goes on as usual. To the layman on the street, the politics of transition are clearly far from his daily immediate survival concerns.
“Kisanja” is the most recent political slogan used to mean “another term” for President Yoweri Museveni. The word originates from “essanja” which is Luganda for “dry banana leaves”. Crowds demonstrating their support for a third term for the president are normally clad in dry banana leaves.
On March 31st, 2005, on the streets of Kampala, for the first time we saw fresh banana leaves from those opposing the third term. As one man carried a bundle of fresh banana leaves, a number of anti-kisanja activists scrambled for a pick. The majority took up the green banana leaves because, as the opposition, they had to look like the complete opposite to get the attention of letting everyone know that they wanted change. A heavily armed anti-riot police battalion confronted this small group of demonstrators. The rest is press reports of tear-gas and running battles on the street.
The “Kisanja” melodrama of symbolism continues. The architects of the kisanja assert it is a great symbol of manhood used in some eastern parts of Uganda in circumcision rituals, and add that it is a great benefit to the farmer in mulching plantations. Others insist it stems from the traditional use of dry banana leaves for shelter and beddings during funerals rights or mourning periods referred to as “lumbe” in the central districts. Then there are those that believe the word emanates from the use of these dry leaves as beddings for the much-anticipated night when a woman accommodates her polygamous husband.
The joke goes in these parts that an old woman says “essanja” is as good as useless as a source of fuel. It cannot make a cup of tea, and that the best it does is start a fire in huge flames that die out in a split second with little ashes.
On 31st March an anti-kisanja activist stood his ground amidst the teargas fracas, to explain the fresh green leaves hanging down his neck; “I wear fresh leaves as a symbol of strength, young blood, fresh brains and in brief, capability. That is why I stand to say goodbye to this old fraternity in the government. Those guys have run out of ideas and have decided to start looking for self-actualization. What they have done is enough. What they have not done, even with another term, they cannot do; even given a fifth term,” the activist continued to yell as tears rolled down his cheeks from the teargas. He continued to run to the next corner of the street.
As the debates rage on, the Minister for Defense Amama Mbabazi, dubbed by the press as “super minister”, was chief guest at the launch of a music album: “Kisanja Album”. A bumper harvest season for the artists; be it to sing a welcome song or farewell song for a president.
Is the president actually headed for a third term standing? Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, a retired army commander who asserts is presidential material for the upcoming 2006 elections, put the question forward, “I believe the president owes the people of Uganda an explanation about his stand for a third term. This would make it much easier for the opposition. If he sits back quietly, he leaves confusion among the people.” This was an army officer who, on retiring, joined an opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). As the president continues to keep mum about third term, the demonstrators and opposition wonder if their efforts are time wasted. And back to the dilemma – is the kisanja issue a brain-game strategy or a raw deal?
The street scene of 31st March was not of games. The steamy debates were carried straight into the commuter taxis/mini buses, the so-called “matatus”. There was an uprising of words and ideas. A young lady with red eyes from the teargas, just like the good number fellow commuters, sparked off a conversation with an angry outburst. She had just survived the anti-riot police attacks on one of the streets.
Commuter taxi or "matatu" in Kampala.
“The president has kept quiet. Why should the police beat up demonstrators and those not in the act as if we were thieves?” She burst out as she squeezed herself into the last empty seat in the taxi.
“Do you know what you are talking about? ” Exploded a man in the back seat. “They have a right to demonstrate… but within certain limits and if they go beyond these limits, why not teach them the hard way?” He bellowed. The whole taxi was aflame with arguments and counter arguments hurled at one another.
Is this an advent of a moment of political truth? These taxi commuter emotions were unlike the past “to whom it may concern” attitude on Kampala streets. “If I can get something to eat, look after my family, move around without being robbed and run my business smoothly, then those against the third term are better lost than awake,” was another commuter’s opinion.
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First published: April 04, 2005