On Ugandan Soft Power

I believe that the strongest power a people can have is soft power. Forget the military. Forget technology. Real power is in the culture. Everything else follows. The fact that I am writing this in English is evidence of someone else’s soft power. But the fact that it will be translated into other languages to make sense to more people shows that there is not only one powerful culture today. Increasingly, we are learning Chinese (there are Chinese notices, with English translations at the Ugandan office of the President complex), eating Chinese food, watching Chinese movies among other manifestations of Chinese cultural power. So, where do we lie? We are neither English, nor Chinese. Where is our soft power?

This morning, I was discussing Nollywood movies. Making the point that when Nigerian filmmakers reflected rural African lives in film, they tapped into a market that had not been exploited before. They inadvertently made the point that our rural existence was not under-development in need of some GDP figure induced development. They were building on African soft power. Something that latter-day ‘modernists’, ‘development theorists’ and ‘Turn Africa into Europe’ activists did not see. Some of them who noticed the influence of Nollywood immediately attacked the industry, claiming that those movies were not of high quality.

Nkem Owoh

Nkem Owoh, one of the popular actors in the Nollywood industry: Photo from answersafrica.com

But where did they get the idea of quality from? Can culture be low or high quality? Where do we get standards for culture? Can we use standards of one culture to judge another? Can there be universal standards? So, since the advent of Nollywood on our screens, we have since heard more and more Nigerian music, we consume more and more Nigerian Literature and the agbada is common outside Nigeria, worn by non-Nigerians. Nigeria has its problems, and I think their political leadership could develop some sensible cultural diplomacy policy, but they have some soft power going for them, that in economic terms, they are now graded as a top emerging economy alongside Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey by economist Jim O’Neill, who coined the MINT acronym. My argument is that it is all in the soft power they are developing themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously.

I want to be understood in context. Some Nigerian policies like Fashola’s, of washing Lagos of the poor and New York-ising it, are regrettable but I feel that the stronger Nigerian soft power grows, the more the politicians and policy makers will smell the coffee. So, who makes soft power? Cultural producers. Writers, Filmmakers, Musicians, artists and more of their tribe. These are the people we should look up to, if we want to actually develop. I use the verb ‘develop’ carefully. Not to mean turning Africa, into a Europe, but growing in confidence of ourselves, and who we are, the way China has, Turkey, Norway etc.

Development is being you. Being us, ourselves and dealing with others, comfortable in our skins, setting our own standards, negotiating as equals, when interacting with others, exchanging, not imitating and mimicking. For if we mimic and imitate, we shall never get out of the shadows of the originals we are copying. The imitation can never compare to the original. We have to be the originals of ourselves, to develop. Thus, when we are defined as poor, we need to question the standard used to measure poverty. Indeed, what is poverty to us, may be wealth to others, and what is wealth to them, may be poverty to us. This means that we can’t have a universal definition of poverty. Thus, we need to step out of others’ definitions, for us to develop. Development starts with defining the concept for ourselves.

So, is there hope for the British-created Uganda? Where does our soft power lie? Are we just a done and dusted deal? You will rather find a bat flying during daylight than find a Ugawood film screening at Cineplex. Our bookshops will have books from Europe and America, and our own books hidden somewhere at the back of the store. I can go on and on and whine. But that would be unfair. Let me talk about music. While I grew up, in the 90s, Lingala was the thing. Awilo. Pepe Kale. Olomidde. Do those, of my generation remember Bamusakata? Obangaina? Ekimbeewo? And then, listen – the bang – Mama Mia! And now we can safely say that Ugandan music is gaining character. P-Square may be played on our radios, but Chameleone is king. Do not mention Bieber. That is a far-cry. But let me mention that I am talking in generalities. We still know of a tiny sector of the population that consumes Western culture at all costs and hold their noses high against Ugandan culture. But the numbers speak. The music industry sustains so many other sectors of the economy and is gaining ground in influencing politics and other things. You know our 27-years and counting ruler is also listed among our rappers, right? But is this enough?

Jose Chameleone

Joseph Mayanja,a aka Jose Chameleon, one of Uganda’s popular musicians

What if, what is happening in music happens for the movies? And thanks to the television stations supporting the Ugandan movie industry. What if it happens for the literature? The sky can be the limit, right? But we must first legitimise the tastes of ‘the masses’. Not to suggest that they are illegitimate. But, that we need to produce for them. The music industry at a point was lamenting that our people love South African and Congolese so much to listen to Ugandan music. But when they started producing more and more, what did they find out? That our people were just being starved of their own culture. As the Bible says, the harvest is plenty, the harvesters? And we claim to be under-developed!

Dear Andrew Mwenda

Dear Andrew M Mwenda,


You have become the news itself in recent times in a very interesting way. You constantly talk of intellectual engagement and debate in a way that restores hope for those who stop at listening to you, and ignore what your detractors say. I am one of those who love reading a well-reasoned argument and I have enjoyed reading those from you. I have of course also enjoyed reading and listening to your chest-thumping jokes, like the 2005 one, where you called Museveni a villager and called yourself a better President, and a security expert. Most recently, I loved your assertion of self-definition. You are Andrew Mwenda’s version of Andrew Mwenda, not what your fans and detractors perceive you as. Admirable.


Andrew Mujuni Mwenda is Founder of The Independent magazine – Photo byJeniffer Cheung, taken at Yale University 

So, what is my problem? Why am I writing to you? I seek knowledge. I come to you for some elucidation on some things you have been saying/writing in recent times. The talk about occupying ‘intellectual’ spaces. The ‘worship’ of everything Socrates, (maybe even his fart?).


One of my friends Aaron Aroriza questions what it means to be an intellectual (while disqualifying himself from the tribe of intellectuals). I know that this is an old debate, and a definition may not suffice soon. But what do you mean Andrew, when you refer to ‘intellectual spaces? What context are you thinking of? In a European/American context, the debate is a non-starter. Those spaces are clearly demarcated. Capitalism has appropriated them to sustain its unsustainable non-human self. This is why you are ranked among the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy etc. As you know, Daily Monitor, or even your own The Independent does not have such rankings for Uganda’s thinkers, or the Global Thinkers for that matter. So, when you speak of intellectual spaces, do you want to define Uganda’s media space as such?


I do not want to offer the universities and other academic institutions as the closest we can come to finding Western intellectual spaces in Uganda. I assume that you and I agree that Makerere’s ambition of not becoming herself, but a Harvard of Africa (a duplicate of sorts) is misguided and very sad. This is what brings me to your fanatic worship of Socrates. I agree with some of the notions that the man espoused. Indeed, because of the education I have received, the Athens of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates is attractive. But is it good for me? Is it good for the Ugandan context? Is it even relevant?


 is Mwenda becoming a Ugandan Socrates? 

I want to refer back to your views about the ‘Development’ of Kampala as a city. You have been full of praises for Jennifer Musisi’s policies of ‘developing’ the city. I call this phenomenon the New-Yorkisation of Kampala. I do not want to go into the colonial mindset, the civilise those who are not like you way of thinking. Turn everyone in the world into a shadow of yourself. Define development as the Westernisation of the world. I once read from Charles Onyango-Obbo, that Kampala may have a poor sewerage system because we have small pipes, meant for light White pupu, yet our people eat very organic and heavy foods thus their waste is too much for the small European pipes!

Andrew, when you refer to intellectual spaces, do you think of the thinker who knows that Socratic ideals may not be relevant to them and their society and thus have evolved their own ideals, which do not earn them a Foreign Policy Thinker ranking? Do you think your Batooro ancestors did not develop models of thinking? Do you think their organisation of society was thoughtless? I assume that you actually hold your ancestors’ philosophy and knowledge in high regard (my assumptions may be contradictory though). When you go to rural Tooro, do you see traces of ancestral philosophy, and organisation of society at play?


I will tell you of the Kiga. Whenever I go to Nyanja, where I grew up, I see things that have been written in books about the Kiga of old, still alive in how society is organised there. I have argued elsewhere that the success of the Local Council courts in our communities is due to the similarities these courts have to ancient justice systems, like the one the Kiga enforced. My thesis is that defilement, robbery and other cases are most likely to end up at the LC 1 court, because the courts espouse an idea of justice closer to the people’s philosophy than what the so-called ‘formal’ courts enforce. Of course the formal system came by force, let us call it the European system, and so did the education system, and indeed did Socratic ideals. The superiority undertones of these culturally specific systems could not allow them to see the humanity in the systems that the colonised organised themselves under.


Today, we see communities that still live by the systems and philosophies we have ignored or written off. They have evolved of course, but they have not turned into ugly imitations, mimicry of Western societies. We however pretend not to see them. The post-colonial state built on European ideology, and irrelevant to majority of its citizens works for the interest of those who created it. Not the Batooro, nor the Bakiga. Whenever the state makes a policy that is a little similar to our people’s philosophy, the policy works, even when the World Bank and other implementers of Euro-American hegemony oppose it. The LC justice system is the typical example. Andrew, does the intellectual space you refer to fit the society you live in? Does it even exist? Is it worthwhile, to create it?


I know that many are quick to label those they do not agree with as pseudo-intellectuals, so I will deliberately not say what I do for a living, because such titles are probably what blocks an important discussion we should have about our contemporary African society. You may not reply my letter Andrew, but I beg that you think about it. I trust my elder brother Simon Kasyate to remind you to look at it.


Yours sincerely;

BBM (also known as Furayide)