Saturday, May 14, 2011

Public relations Ugandan-style

When Stuart and I first announced that we were planning to come out to Uganda for a couple of years, many of our friends said, 'But is it really safe?'.  The categorical answer to that is, of course, that yes it is, for mzungus, that is.  It is certainly true that when most Britons think of Uganda the first picture which pops up in their heads is that of a dangerously out-of-control Idi Amin murdering his own people, humiliating foreign officials and expelling the Asian business community.  This is a pity as all that happened a long time ago and was over by the beginning of the 1980s.  I'm not sure how many of us were aware of the terrible civil war which followed shortly afterwards, for with Amin's going so did all the newspaper coverage which had focused on the popular representation of him as a psychopathic buffoon.  Uganda's gradual struggle out of chaos was far less newsworthy.  Successes such as its fight against AIDs and its introduction of universal primary education before any other African country never really hit the European headlines.

Well, Uganda is certainly hitting the headlines now, though not across all media sources.  The BBC, which has journalists stationed here, provides a steady drip drip of news stories.  We hear a lot on the BBC World Service's Network Africa, but the most notable stories also get as far as the UK broadcasting service.  The Guardian and The Times also give reasonable coverage to the big stories, like the elections in February and the recent walk-to-work protests.  Other media outlets have been rather less attentive.  We are surprised by the lack of interest shown by The Independent and Channel 4, for instance, probably an indication of the thinness on the ground of their reporters.  We are not surprised, however, by the lack of stories in the red-tops, not enough buffoonery for them - until now, that is.

So what have all you international readers been reading about and even, perhaps, watching over the last month?  Well, obviously, the walks-to-work.  Most Ugandans do this anyway as they cannot afford public or private transport.  The protests have been arranged to support them in their struggles to make ends meet and feed their families during a period of soaring food prices and fuel increases which make public transport even more unaffordable.  Unfortunate comments from Ministers like the one who said that Uganda is not a welfare state and hence is not responsible for feeding its people have been quite widely reported.

These protests are not much different from the sorts of protests which take place in the UK, USA and other western countries.  In fact, they have been much lower key than the mass rallies we are used to.  The difference is that when we westerners take to the streets we are not often beaten publicly by policemen, thrown into the back of pick up trucks, carted off to jail or shot in the back as we try to get out of the way of trouble.  Uganda is quite an insular country and not many people know that protests such as these are standard forms of public demonstration in the west, often with politicians in the lead just as in the walks-to-work here.  Even I have been on protest marches in the UK, as have a number of my friends, and, of course, my children.  None of us could, I think, be classed as dangerous radicals.   I think my Ugandan colleagues and friends would be horrified if they knew.  Middle-class Ugandans tend to stay out of public protests, which is unfortunate as it leaves the field to those with less education and self-discipline.  Ugandans seem to be surprised when protesters who are being beaten by policemen respond by throwing stones.

Ugandans seem to have been brought up to think that any sort of public protest is wrong.  The dominant culture here is one of 'telling': pastors tell their congregations what to think, teachers tell their pupils and political leaders tell their voters.  People who think for themselves or behave differently from the majority are seen as quite threatening.

Consider, for example, the general view of homosexual relationships between adults.  It is surprising how many people believe the nonsense about Europe and America wanting to 'make Uganda homosexual'.  Why we should want to do that, I have no idea.  There is also a silly rumour going round that homosexuals 'recruit' young people.  How you 'recruit' young people to do something which is not in their physical and emotional make up defeats me.  There is even a story that students are paid to become homosexual. Ostensibly Christian pastors actually rant about homosexuality during heterosexual marriage services.  I cannot imagine anything less appropriate or more unwelcome to the bride and groom.  The idea is, of course, that repeated 'telling', or brainwashing, works.  It's a pity that the movers and shakers of Uganda don't show as much interest in stopping child rape, a far more widespread, damaging and pernicious activity than consenting adult homosexuality.

And, of course, the obsession with homosexuality and the mercifully-delayed Parliamentary Bill have become news stories in Europe and the USA, almost always presenting a very negative picture of Uganda.  Indeed, Alan Smith, a Scottish Member of the European Parliament, is proposing that all European aid to Uganda should be axed if this Bill become law.  He asks how long the rest of the world can go on supporting a country with such a poor record on human rights.  Europe is the biggest donor and the withdrawal of aid would have an enormous impact.  Not a great public relations success for Uganda.

A similar 'own goal' has been the political furore in the last few days.  Kizza Besigye was clearly disappearing from the public scene.  Indeed, his party had already held discussions about who was to replace him as his tenure as party leader is up.  If the government had simply ignored him and his supporters, the protests might well have fizzled out.  Instead, by over-reacting they have given them wonderful publicity.  A great PR coup for the Opposition.  The debacle resulting from the cancellation of his flight back to Uganda from Kenya resulted in him returning just at the same time as the President's swearing-in.   The massed crowds of supporters were even observed by foreign dignitaries, including African heads of state.  Guess which received most attention on the web and from the international press, Besigye's return or the Presidential swearing-in?  Right.  Another PR coup.

People across the world have been watching as Ugandan police (including military police, for some reason) beat inoffensive bystanders, fire tear gas canisters and spray live ammunition over harmlessly enthusiastic crowds.  Interestingly, some of the Ugandan press have been applauding the police for their restraint.  Well, I suppose it was restrained compared with some of their previous outings.  Only one person seems to have been killed on Thursday and 37 injured.  Small beer by Ugandan standards, but quite startling all the same to the international audience.   In fact, also among the victims were ten or so journalists, those who write for the independent press.   They were beaten and their cameras smashed.  Difficult to argue that they were throwing stones: they don't have enough hands. Interestingly, it turns out that the Ugandan police and army are being trained by the British and Irish as part of UN and European aid - not very successfully by the looks of things.  So the call has also gone out for that form of aid to be axed as well.

However, my opinion is that the most impressive 'own goal' was the spraying of decent respectable Opposition politicians with pink paint.  There they were, besuited and conventional, bent double under the force of the attack.  Pink paint landed on parked cars whose owners had nothing to do with the protests.  Poverty-stricken pavement vendors were also sprayed and their wares destroyed.  And the photographs swept the globe.  They even reached the red-tops: multiple pictures in the Daily Mail and the Mirror and in every single major international newspaper.  This deliberate attempt at public humiliation of the people's elected representatives has ended up humiliating Uganda herself.  The country deserves better.

What will the long term results turn out to be?  Well, the Financial Times and other serious newspapers have been wondering about the impact on foreign investment.  Tourism websites are concerned about the impact on foreign visitors.  Would you want to visit a country where you might be tear-gassed, beaten, shot or covered in pink paint just for being in the wrong street?  I don't think so.  Own goals indeed.  A public relations disaster. Once again potential investors and tourists have started to ask the question, 'But is it safe?'.

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