About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What can you do for your country?

Why we should stop complaining about what our country has failed to do and ask what we can do

It is very hard to get things done, even at the smallest level. But it is very easy to sit and complain about things. Reading social media, one gets the sense that we have increasingly become a complaining nation, not a doing nation. Everywhere complaints abound of our failing healthcare and education system, of corruption and abuse of office. But one hardly reads a story of what those complaining are doing to change the situation. Are we waiting for intervention from God?

Two caveats: First, complaining is okay if you are doing something about the problem. As Kwame Nkrumah said, “organise, don’t agonise”. Second, accusing our elites of turning Uganda into a complaining nation may be an unfair indictment of our people since social media may not represent the majority of our citizens. It is possible that those who keep complaining on social media are idle (which is another way of saying they are doing nothing). So they have a lot of time at their hands to complain. By implication this means that people who are busy doing things don’t have time to quarrel, heckle, complain, and insult others on social media.

So it was with great inspiration that I read an article in Daily Monitor of January 28, 2015 by Silver Mwesigwa, the speaker of Isingiro district council. Mwesigwa, a holder of a masters’ degree was working with an international NGO and earning good money. He is widely travelled across Africa and the world. But each time he went to his home village, he was saddened at how bad public services were. In 2011 the district had produced only two students in First Grade; most pupils were failing PLE, if they had not dropped out of school. The local health center had little or no drugs while medical personnel were reporting for work late, if at all. There was no clean water.

Like most Ugandans, Mwesigwa could have taken to social and other media to complain about the sorry state of his home district. He would have denounced President Yoweri Museveni and his NRM for their corruption and incompetence. And at one point he did. But none of this would have solved the problems of his community. So he asked himself: what can I do about it? He decided to enter politics and use it as a vehicle for progress. He joined FDC and hit the villages to mobilise people for change.

The local community admired his public spiritedness. The elders, church, business and other opinion leaders approached him with advice. They said the vast majority of people in the community are NRM. If he comes as an FDC, they may not listen to his message; progressive though it was. This shows the irrationality of human nature. When people are fixated with something – a religion, a political party or an individual leader, they may find it difficult to accept change even when they are suffering under its/his yoke. Mongo Beti’s The Poor Christ of Bomba is a powerful statement of this fact.

A pragmatic doer, Mwesigwa joined NRM and contested to be a district councilor for Nyamuyanja sub-county. There is no prestige or money in the position, especially for someone of his education attainment, income level, and professional accomplishments. Mwesigwa ran a very unorthodox campaign. Instead of promising what he would do for voters, he challenged them on how he can help them help themselves. It was clear to voters that he was sacrificing to serve them because his expected earnings were going to be Shs70,000 per month. Voters knew the private returns to him as an individual were almost nothing; the expected public returns to them were likely to be higher. So when he refused to bribe them, they still voted for him.

Once elected, Mwesigwa did not complain about the government or the ministries of health, education, water, works, etc. He asked himself: how can we get our schools to improve their performance. He organised teachers and parents in PTAs and together they began raising money to supplement government grants. In 2014, the school in his village got six pupils in First Grade. The local health center that had six staff now has 32 professionals, including three qualified medical doctors. The local community has clean water – the largest share of the budget having been community labour to dig the trench where pipes passed as they snaked to people’s homes.

I invited Mwesigwa to Kampala and he spent an entire morning with our journalists at The Independent. What he told us was 100 times richer than the 800 words he had written in Daily Monitor. Here, I saw a true leader; a man who sees a problem and instead of sitting idly to complain, folded his sleeves and went to work. He sought government patronage, yes. But most of his success came from mobilising people in his community to do many great things by themselves. Mwesigwa’s genius is that he saw the greatness in his people.
This reminded me of the mayor of Fort Portal, Asaba Ruyonga. Fort Portal does not look like a town in Uganda but Rwanda – the streets are paved and cleaned, the lawns mowed, the flowers pruned, the drainage system works, the trees are planted and garbage is collected etc. Ruyonga did this while he was an FDC mayor in this NRM dominated region – again showing that you do not need to change parties to serve your community. It is a mark of our president’s brinkmanship that Museveni worked hard and won Ruyonga over to NRM so that his party can take the glory/credit – you do not want an opposition leader to set such example.

The lesson is simple but fundamental: Museveni, Kizza Besigye, Norbert Mao, Mugisha Muntu etc. are not going to change Uganda. A mobilised citizenry will. This is not to say that we should not hold our leaders to account and ask them to deliver on their promises. Rather these leaders will only succeed if citizens play their bit as well. Don’t sit and complain. Organise your community to ensure a functioning school, hospital, road, electricity, or water system. If each one of us looks at him/herself as leader and leads wherever they are, our country will be a better place for our children and their children in turn.


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