(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, March 3, 2016)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Is this you? Democracy? It’s me, Africa, calling. Can we talk? About us? About our relationship? I mean, are you still interested?
You heard about the recent elections in Uganda? Did you see the commotion? The barricades? The military gear? The insufferable lines and crowds and beatings and even bullets in the heat of the streets? After the vote, did you see the police patrolling to keep the peace?
Hey, did you see those half-dozen officers patrolling at the longtime home of that one Canadian in Uganda? Did you see those black men in brown shirts standing on, of all places, his garage roof? This, while he and his Ugandan friends were enjoying their Saturday night hockey game. One officer had a semi-automatic. Another, a pistol.
The Canadian kindly asked about it: “Are you here to keep the peace? For the Moozay?”
Hello? Democracy? You know the Moozay, the “Old Man,” that term of respect and reverence for Uganda’s longtime president, Yoweri Museveni. You realize that this self-described “Moozay” is back for five more years? This, after his first 30. I know you know.
(But did you see that Canadian smile at those brown-shirted officers when they asked why he wasn’t scoring more goals? “Hey, I’ve been playing for three hours! I’m a Moozay!”)
Hello? Hello? Democracy? Can you hear me?
I mean, I know I’m not Greece. I know Plato isn’t giving seminars on my street corners. Mr. Museveni’s 30 years in power can be rolled into the 169 years held by my continent’s five longest-serving presidents. Look at old Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, 91 now and so out of touch that he recently rhymed off a state of the nation address already given.
I’m thinking about my continental future, one billion Africans now with an average age, remarkably, under 20. What about my young and hopeful men and women and children? Most weren’t even born when some of these olden, golden rulers assumed power. Do you see them?
There they are running from the tear gas and bullets, from arrest; now running again, mad as hell, running after police taking off with ballot boxes that look like they’re stuffed; running again, this time to virtual private networks because their social media services are blacked out during elections for, you know, national security.
Is this democracy? Hello? Democracy? I’m here at the train station waiting for you. Are you still coming? I see your many international observers, shuttling here and there, taking notes, sending letters off. Do you ever read them? Should we still bother?
I realize it could be worse, far worse. I realize you can be thankful for leaders who don’t shoot you in bed before you wake. Remember Idi Amin Dada? Remember Ugandans killed and tortured by the untold thousands, then dumped often enough in the Nile for the crocodiles?
Then after Amin, civil war. Hundreds of thousands more dead. Then, thankfully, the Moozay, that is when President Museveni was less Moozay and more young: a heroic rebel fighter who brought peace and stability and promises to step aside as Uganda’s leader in good time. He would bring you, my love, into the picture. That was 30 years ago.
Hello? Democracy? Is this you?
I mean will most of my nations never see you? Will we never see you bring a peaceful transfer of power? In 54 years, under nine presidents, Uganda has never felt this deep joy. Not once since the colonial powers left. Neither has most of Africa.
(Do you remember us in Zambia, though, in 1991? Remember when a defeated United National Independence Party handed-over power, peacefully, to the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy? What a time we had. And remember Nelson Mandela in South Africa? He moved the entire world and my blood jumped. We’ve had our moments.)
But I need more from you. Democracy, I do. My fantastically-growing populace needs it: my young and not-so-young, my hopeful and heartsick, my people who are filled with such beauty and strength and long-suffering.
Do you care for us? Did you ever care? How much longer will you make us wait?
Hello? Hello? Hello?