Peace or Justice? The false post-election choice Ugandans are being offered

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The Uganda Electoral Commission Chairman, Eng. Dr. Badru Kiggundu announces the 2016 Presidential Results: 

One of my favorite bible verses is Deuteronomy 30:19: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Here is a short background to these words, spoken to Israelites through Moses. If I was to use today’s Urban slang, we would say that before God, the Israelites had become a pain in the a— with their relentless sinning. God has saved them from the Pharaoh. He had split the Red Sea for them. He had dropped manna from heaven when they had been hungry. Yet they had continued to warship other gods, commit adultery and all the other stuff that is abominable before God. Now God was restless. He had once wiped his human creation off the earth with the flood some years earlier due to similar stuff. He didn’t want to destroy them again. Now he was becoming restless, and was expecting them to be reasonable, hence these words. God was literary pleading with them to stop sinning or he was going to destroy them. The choice was theirs. The previous one or two chapters clearly define the wrath under the “Death, curses choice” and the happiness under the “life and Blessings” choice. The ball was now in their court. And he didn’t stop there. He gave them a hint on what the best choice to make would be. “Choose life”, he told them. You will read the bible on your own if you want to know what happened afterwards.

Which brings me to the 2016 presidential election and its immediate aftermath.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was this eerie calm. The ‘winners’ were not celebrating. The losers mourned only in hushed tones. It was remarkable. Almost like the proverbial calm before the storm. It was clear that one group felt that in the result that had been announced, they had been dealt an egregious injustice. Also obvious was that the announced winners knew in their heart of hearts that they had been handed something they had not entirely deserved; even though they would never say that they didn’t deserve at least a significant chunk of that vote total to justify an outright victory.

The regime, well knowing this, was out in force with its military to silence any of these silent voices from erupting. Any threat, both real and imagined, had to be crushed.

As this was going on, there were endless calls especially from the regime and regime friendly corners for people to “be calm” and to “remain peaceful”. Which was strange because by and large, that had been the spontaneous, almost instinctive response by both the victor and the vanquished.

Even before the election, there had been a rallying cry from religious institutions, civil society organizations and some foreign embassies for  everyone to “Choose Peace”. One of the social media campaigns was hashtagged #IChoosePeaceUG. These calls for people to “choose Peace” while noble at its core and in its intentions was a little suspect to me. Was this a veiled threat instead of a call for peace? Wasn’t this implying that if we don’t choose peace there would be war?

In the bible passage above, God had offered the Israelites those choices because of the wrongs people had done and it was his way of demanding repentance from them so he could atone their sins. Ugandans on the other hand are asking; “what did we do to this regime to deserve this tyranny of choice being offered?”

Yes, it’s a given Ugandans want peace. But they want justice also. And freedom too! Instead of giving them peace, freedom and justice, the regime and its supporters want them to choose one of the three. Be peaceful and submit, or you will be crushed! They seem to be saying. In response people are saying Yes we will be peaceful but we also want justice to prevail, and to live free!

Peace, freedom and justice are not and cannot be mutually exclusive. They must go together. One cannot exist in the absence of the others! So yes, Ugandans want peace. But they want freedom and justice too. They want a fair electoral system. They want their vote to count. They do not want their fundamental right to vote to be an exercise in futility.

As shown in the tweets above, While Some Ugandans say there must be freedom and justice before there is any true peace, others are making clear the price to pay if Ugandans  ‘don’t submit to the peace being offered’ (By the way, I am a huge fan of Mrs. Maggie Kigozi and very much respect her opinion)

When you study any people that have been wronged, be it someone whose vote was rendered inconsequential, an employ who has been unfairly dismissed, or a spouse whose significant other has been unfaithful to him/her, there is a similar pattern in initial reaction: silence born out of disbelief of what just befell them. They might stay quiet for a while. That doesn’t mean they will stay silent forever or that they will never take action. A close friend of mine told me a story of his wife’s reaction when she found salacious messages in his phone from a young female workmate of his. These messages were unsolicited, he told me, and he had never replied to them. The wife simply kept quiet. Day one, two, up to a week. The man was confused (not of what had ‘switched her off’ – of course he knew), but what the hell the woman was thinking. The man’s fears grew into hysteria. Is she planning to kill me in my sleep? Is she leaving me? Such is the tyranny of silent treatment. It can be worrying to the person it is directed to. That’s of course when the target has a conscience. If our rulers don’t have one, and it’s possible some don’t, then they will miss these signs but that in the long run is to be dangerously stupid.

You may convince the populace to be peaceful by making obvious to them the price of making the alternative choice. But for how long? Time will come when the citizens will not take it anymore. I don’t care how much Ugandans are presumed to be cowardly. That’s what Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians were assumed to be before the Arab Spring. That’s what slaveholders in the 1700s Southern United Sates thought of their ‘property’ until Nat Turner, and Jesse James came along. That certainly was how 1970s-80s Ugandans were assumed to be by the Amin and Obote regimes respectively until those regimes’ days of reckoning came, exacted on them by those very ‘cowardly’ people; the latter by a ragtag group of 27 young men. So don’t underestimate the silent impact of repression on the human spirit. It is always slow, but once time has come, you won’t stop the combustion. Just try to corner a sheep in a dead end enclave and you will see what, it will, in its simple way, do to you!

Peace or Burst

There has been this myth that Ugandans, for the desire to maintain peace and physical security given our history, will do anything they can to not cause trouble. But as Amama Mbabazi asked at the second presidential debate, what peace is it when people are sleeping hungry? What kind of peace is it when 83% of our youth have no jobs. Noooo, Peace is not merely the absence of war, Albert Einstein once said. “But the presence of justice, of law, of order…”

In his 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychologist Abraham Maslow put forward what is now popularly known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. Often portrayed in form of a pyramid, with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top, the theory is used in sociology, psychology, business and personnel management to day.

Maslow hypothesized that a human being’s basic needs must be met first or what he called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs, before one can aim for self actualization. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense.

Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. He however also warned that these desires do not necessarily happen in a sequence and noted that some people, even without the physical needs may aim to make something out of themselves.

Uganda is still ranked among the poorest countries in the world by the United Nations and we are in the gutter on most human development indices. Just at about election time, there were news reports of people dying of hunger in Karamoja. Is this the picture of Peace, our peace mongers want Ugandans to envision?

But even if these physical needs were fully met, that would be no reason to expect a people to be content and submit to repression. Higher ideals of freedom, self determination and actualization become urgent among all people at a certain point. It is a natural desire, inherent in every human when it is born. There is no level material largesse or inducement that would ever fully replace the need for freedom.

When Syrians erupted against the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad in 2011, they were not hungry. Syria’s development indicators then (and even now) place it near among those countries you would call “middle income”, which is where our rulers are telling us we will be in the year 2040. But the yearning for freedom tramped all the physical comfort. Some will argue that “see where that self determination efforts has turned the country into” and I agree that indeed revolutions are not the answer for everything. The post Arab spring picture from Tunisia to Syria is messy. But I don’t think reasonable leaders should give that as a threat to their people to continue subjugating and relegating them to a life submission to dictatorship. If anything, the post Arab Spring Middle East should be a wake up call to our leaders of legacies not to leave behind. It should lead to humility among them, and create a desire to compromise and dialogue with their foes.

There are thoughts among political commentators worldwide that may be what Africa needs are “ benevolent dictatorships”  (a form of government in which an authoritarian leader exercises absolute political power over the state but is seen to do so for the benefit of the population as a whole. A benevolent dictator may allow for some democratic decision-making to exist, such as elections but never meaningfully relinquishes his grip over the people. He may stamp out corruption, and provide services to the people. In return, the people are not to question his authority). Well, fair enough. But what if you have a dictator that neither cares about his people’s wellbeing nor is interested in sharing power?

 Conclusion

I will therefore end with this: these frequent calls for Ugandans to “First, Do no harm” are shortsighted and the peace they are being told to maintain is not sustainable in the long run. This aphorism cannot, and should not be shoved down the throats of Ugandans. It is deceptive, unsustainable and only postpones the problem.

The peace people think exists in post 2016 elections Uganda is what even the bible calls “False Peace”. Peace at the expense of freedom and justice is no peace. It’s a farce, a mirage. Patrick Henry didn’t say “give me freedom or death” for nothing. You cannot claim to live in peace when you are in chains.

The dangers of false peace are many. It may soothe our anxieties now but so long as it simply postpones underlying problems, it cannot be sustainable. For many years world powers looked the other way as Adolf Hitler embarked on an unchallenged scheme preparing Germany to control Europe. In what is referred to as “Appeasement” by historians, they looked on as he broke every close of the Versailles treaty that had demilitarized Germany after it had caused World War One. With the horrors of the great war still fresh, they didn’t want another war. Hence their “peace at all costs” measures which ensured they would not challenge Hitler even as he invaded country after another, led to the Second World War in which 70million people were to die.

Even Pope Francis recently denounced “false Peace” which he said “comes from the devil”. Speaking to youth groups at the Vatican last year, he encouraged them to learn how to discern between this peace and the genuine one. True peace, he said, always comes from Jesus, and is sometimes “wrapped” in the cross, while the other, false peace that only makes you “kind of happy” comes from the devil.

“We have to ask for this grace to distinguish, to know true peace,” the Pope said, explaining that while on the outside we might think everything is ok and that we’re doing good, “way down inside is the devil.”

The peace that Ugandans are being told to keep in the wake of the 2016 presidential election therefore is a false peace. The alleged winners of the election must give an olive branch to  the alleged losers. There must be an effort on both sides to make sure that the perceived injustices by the different protagonists in the election are adequately addressed. Otherwise the threats of ‘crushing’ those who are in disagreement with the election outcome can work only for a while, but don’t bode well for the future of this country.

Email me on bernardsabiti@gmail.com

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