A Mobutu in our midst? Quotes from Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz

As I grow older, I realize that I am beginning to pick interest in interesting things in books. The themes that stay long in my mind as of now are most likely things such as failing to tell someone a character is in love with that they are than corruption, the lisp in the protagonist’s speech than her immigration blues or the fact that a character speaks words twice all the time than religious riots. There is something human and particular about such things, and my interest is nowadays geared to such things.

Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, the author’s first book that recounts the times of Zaire’s leader for thirty two years is not the type of book in which you would expect trivial details as the ones I mention above, but I am moved mostly by Mobutu’s story as a human being than anything else. Since reading the book, I have been wondering about the personal lives of rulers, the influence of their family backgrounds, the circumstances of their growth and rise to power, their relationships with family members and what happens to them when they are no longer in power.

Dear reader, you will forgive me, but I have found so many similarities between former president Mobutu Sese Seko’s manner of doing things and in some very personal effects, and a current president of one of the neighbouring countries to the country the Leopard skin cap wearing man used to lead. Be it the family rule with relatives doing official duties with or without positions, the army of fixers and middlemen, the crowd-exciting theatrics, handing cash in envelopes and sacks to praise-singers, charming opponents sometimes with cash, harassing those that can’t be bought, a tight control of the military and ethnic composition of the same, a seeming non-plan of succession amidst hints on family succession plans, the manipulation of subordinates by playing them against one another, twisted economic policies, doing puppet work for Western powers, let me not go on and on.

I have also of late started feeling that this same leader who is alive and shall not mentioned may actually be besieged and not in much control as it may seem, and he may in the end be betrayed and humiliated by those we (including he probably think are close to him, but I am ignorant about the actual state of affairs in the palaces, so ignore my speculation.

Mobutu Sese Seko (photo: Wikipedia)

Mobutu Sese Seko (photo: Wikipedia)

Below are a few excerpts from Michela’s book that stayed with me.

American and Belgian Interest in the Killing of Lumumba

“… the CIA director himself had told Devlin that Lumumba’s removal was an ‘urgent and prime objective’, an instruction that presumably could have covered anything from encouraging Lumumba’s rivals to topple him by legal means to funding a coup. Now Washington moved to direct action. Shortly after Mobutu’s takeover, Devlin was advised by headquarters that ‘Joe from Paris’ would be coming to Leopoldville on an urgent mission. ‘I was told I’d recognize him, and I did. He was waiting at a café across from the embassy and he walked me to my car and we went to a quiet place where we could talk.’ The man was a top CIA scientist and he had come to Kinshasa with a poison for Lumumba. Devlin, he said, was to arrange for it to be slipped into the prime minister’s food, or his toothpaste. The poison was cleverly designed to produce one of the diseases endemic to central Africa so that Lumumba’s death would look like an unfortunate accident. ‘Jesus Christ, isn’t this unusual?’ was Devlin’s astonished reply. Joe from Paris acknowledged that it was, but said authorization came from President Eisenhower himself.” – Page 77

“The whereabouts of Lumumba’s body have never been identified. It was probably hacked into pieces, the head dissolved in a vat of sulphuric acid by a Belgian clean-up team sent to remove all traces of the assassinations. But another, even more fanciful story has done the rounds: that Mobutu’s collaborators, terrified that Lumumba’s spirit would live on after his death, asked a witch doctor how to destroy his supernatural powers. On his instructions they divided up the body, and hired a low-flying C130, and flew along the borders of their huge country, scattering the pieces. This was the only way, the marabout has said, to prevent Lumumba’s spirit reassembling and returning to challenge his former friend.” – Pages 78-9

Political Charm and Oratory

‘He was a speaker of genius,’ said a Congolese journalist who was a student at the time. ‘I would go unwillingly, because I didn’t really approve of Mobutu. But as soon as he began speaking, we would be swept away. We’d stand in the sun for hours, but the time would slip by without you noticing. If you study those speeches now, in the cold light of day, you can see there was almost nothing in them, they were full of inconstancies, gossip and tittle-tattle. But he knew just how to speak to the people. He would tell us nonsense and we would believe him’.” – Page 89

On Authenticity

‘Authenticity is the realization by the Zairean people that it must return to its origins, seek out the values of its ancestors, to discover those which contribute to its harmonious and natural development,’ Mobutu told the United Nations. ‘It is the refusal to blindly embrace imported ideologies. It is, in short, the affirmation of mankind, in its place, as it is, with its mental and social structures. (…) Instead of the European suit, men were to don a high-collared jacket of Mobutu’s invention. Dubbed the abacost (from ‘a bas le costume’ – ‘down with the jacket), and usually modelled in dark brown or navy blue wool, this was no better adapted to the African climate, but it was different. (…) ‘If he had focalized and crystallized his thought by writing it down, there were rich ideas there waiting to be developed,’ insisted Honore Ngbanda, who later became one of Mobutu’s closest aides.” – Pages 90 – 91

The Complicity of the Bretton Woods Institutions in Crippling Zaire’s Economy

“… the reason the report (Blumenthal’s) was significant was not so much because of the information it contained, but because it ended the cosy arrangement in which the Zaireans knew that the international financiers knew, and the financiers knew that the Zaireans knew that they knew, but everyone could carry on playing the game of credits, conditions, targets and standby arrangements with apparent innocence. ‘It was a bombshell,’ acknowledged one World Bank official. ‘The report came out just before we were to meet a Zairean delegation and I wanted to crawl under the table. I couldn’t look them in the eye. What could you say to them after that?’ – Page 193

“The image of the Fund going on bended knee to beg one of the world’s most corrupt leaders to take its money is not an attractive one. It may help explain why in 1987 David Finch, an Australian economist heading the IMF trade and finance department, resigned over the granting of a new loan, claiming the US had applied undue pressure. The programme staggered along, although it 3aas now a tattered. Pitiful scrap of a thing. Kengo had been sacked, and trust in Mobutu’s good intentions had shriveled.” – Page 204

Mobutu, as an American Agent

“Roger Morris, responsible for African affairs at the National Security Council under both presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, once estimated that Mobutu received close to $150 million from the CIA during the first decade or so of his regime. Not all that money would have been originally intended for him. John Stockwell, a CIA man who ran one covert operation to destabilize Angola’s Marxist government through Zaire, logged how Mobutu creamed off part of any consignment destined for Angola, on one occasion in 1976 casually pocketing $1.4 million given him by the US to pay off the rebels. Ten years later, a state department official was still being confronted with the same problem. ‘We’d mostly stick with equipment as if we sent money we knew it would go missing. But even when we were shipping equipment and gasoline, the Zaireans would steal part of it. I don’t think they knew how to do business normally.” – Page 200

Betrayal by acolytes

“Mobutu always tried not to dwell on his acolyte’s hypocrisy. Politicians who denounced him abroad would be welcomed back like prodigal sons. No matter how rude the newspaper article, he never sued. ‘He did a lot of forgiving, because there were a lot of betrayals,’ said son Nzanga. ‘He would say, “Never forget but never take revenge. Because your judgment is not good when you’re harbouring hard feelings.” “But treachery rankled nevertheless.” Page 215

“Before allowing the car to drive off, Mobutu lowered the passenger window and addressed his security aide in a voice that was barely audible. ‘Ngbabda, do you realize that even Nzimbi abandoned and betrayed me?’ the president said in disbelief. Then he burst into tears.” – Page 279

Price of Power on Family

‘We relied on my mother. She played the role of father and mother at the same time,’ said Nzanga. ‘We missed him terribly. We really lacked a paternal presence. For my father it was work, work, work, all the time. Even when we were at the table he would be receiving visitors and holding meetings. He had no personal life. Which is why I want to be around my own two children a lot while they are growing up.’ – Page 268

Busoga is not the Poverty Headquarter and a Saturday with Bwambale in Namwendwa

For all my many years on earth (and they are very many), I had not been part of the groom’s entourage at traditional introduction ceremonies till August 8, 2015. It is a curious fact because I have been a groomsman once (don’t laugh), taken readings at two wedding ceremonies and I have been involved in organizing introduction (the word give-away is problematic) ceremonies in a few occasions. I will not go into details about the briefing involved in preparing to welcome guests to your home, who soon become in-laws. For all that we associate with abakwe (abako in Luganda), you will forgive me for wanting to experience an introduction ceremony from that point of view. All my brothers, by blood, by tea, by alcohol and by water are hereby notified that I am ready to join them as they are introduced to their future in-laws.

Daniel Bwambale Busathiro, a fellow alumna of Makerere University where we met takes the flowers for offering me the first experience of an introduction ceremony from the bakos’ tent. The dress code for the bako was the now Africanised kanzu of Arab roots. There was transport for everyone. There was a meeting point. Despite all the preparation, poor Bwesigye arrived a few minutes late at the meeting point. And just on arrival, realized he had to ride back home for something. The first group left him behind. He had to join the groom himself, and his brother Baluku Rogers for the journey to Kamuli. Let’s talk about Baluku a bit.

The briefing

The briefing

This author joined Kabale Trinity College at some point in 2004 for a few months. In those few months, he made friends with a number of people, most of whom were studying the same subjects as he was. Literature especially. And Baluku Rogers happened to be among those. Baluku was the always smiling, never picks grudges with anyone student in class. A bit shy actually. But this author was shy, too. So this morning as we head to Namwendwa, it is discovered that Bwambale and Baluku are brothers. Baluku went to Mbarara University of Science and Technology and eventually settled in Kasese. So, for all the years of knowing Bwambale, poor Bwesigye did not know that the former was a younger brother to Baluku! Doesn’t it say something about a family for one to separately be-friend two brothers without knowing that they are connected? Maybe we can write a script that now ties in the sister/s (*Hides).

We reach Jinja and find the groups that left earlier. Our final destination is Namwendwa in Kamuli. There will be a dressing stop-over in Kamuli town, and then we proceed to the home from which Bwambale has made close friendship. A few bites at Jinja. The road from Jinja to Kamuli is smooth. There is a spokesperson who has to brief all the members of the entourage. We are over fifty people in the entourage. I am excited that there are a number of females in the group. Not because of what you are thinking. It is not that. Because of pseudo-feminist reasons. I know that is not what you were thinking.

There are over ten cars snaking their way to the home. Bwambale’s other home from today. I am in the car with Bwambale himself and his brother Baluku. I am closely monitoring the groom’s mood. He is relaxed, calm much of the time. There are bouts of anxiety but he brings them under control soon. Baluku is his ever jolly jocular self. Making everyone laugh. We arrive. It is threatening to rain. By the way, those theories about rainmakers, are they real? Is there some scientific backing to them? Or is it magic?

We make a queue. One for males, one for females. There are a good number of females. The queues are almost the same height. Orange things are attached to our coats and we are given small hand-held fans. Sura yakko is playing. Some Wiz Kid tunes will be played. There is this young man who is very jolly and dancing ahead of the first group of people from whom we are supposed to choose the real reason for our visit. The young women in green gomesis do not have the friend Bwambale has made in this family. Boys follow. Each group takes gifts from us. And envelopes. A group of old women come. The spokesperson from the home says that these old women were busy digging before they were brought. We are fined for disturbing their productivity with our visit. An envelope. Another group of women comes. Still, the person whose hand in marriage Bwambale is seeking is not seen. I have not seen her myself, ever, actually. I want to ask Bwambale how they met, but of course not in this tent. Later maybe. On our way back.

Bwambale and Baluku and all of us in the bako tent

Bwambale and Baluku and all of us in the bako tent

There is an interesting linguistic mix happening. Bwambale is from the Bakhonzo people of mid-western Uganda, the people of the Rwenzori mountains and the friend whose hand in marriage we are seeking is from the Basoga people of Eastern Uganda, the people around Lake Kyoga. At the beginning we sang the Busoga and Rwenzururu kingdom anthems. There are important people here. This home is connected to Kamuli LC V Chairperson, Salaam Musumba and High Court judge Egonda-Ntende. I love the rhythm of Lusoga.

The last group of the girls in the home appears and the smile on Bwambale’s face is telling. Bwambale had never wore that smile before, in my presence at least. The man is happiness itself. Wiikendi, the song by the now defunct all-girls group Dream Girls plays. It is an oldie by the way. We are old. The spokesperson says that those who want to kugeya the bride are given a special warning. There are lewd remarks made about the bride. I am shifting uncomfortably in my chair when the spokesperson asks her to show us her behind. Things become more awkward for my ears when they ask the bride to tell us what tent she would love saved if the Al shabaab militants were to attack this homestead this minute. Of course you know the tent she pointed at.

The flower with many items

The flower with many items

Then the bride’s aunt is sent to look for Bwambale. Juliana Kanyomozi’s Kyanoonya is playing. And Dindu the folk song follows the awkward moments of Bwambale and Baluku being fished out from the tent where we all are sitting and people drinking wine, Bwesigye drinking juice, others water, eating fruits. The stomachs are having a good time.

The bride returns to the house to take items that Bwambale has brought, all contained in a big flower. I am not sure I like the meanings of many. They reinforce the thinking that a wife is a servant of the husband. Things are being said about Bwambale getting tired of restaurant food, of taking his clothes for washing at the dobbi’s etc. I take things too seriously. When the women in the tent in which we are sitting are to speak, they kneel. I am being told to not over-think these things. It is just culture. Ceremonial. I know for sure that some women have said that they can kneel in public, indeed Shifa Mwesigye in her Crossroads essay says the man better be ready to kneel for her in the bedroom as well.

The rain falls just before we handle the eating matters. So we postpone till it reduces. My female neighbors are hungry actually. We eat when the rain stops. Bwambale’s face is shining. He is one of the happiest human beings at this point in time. The talk in the tent is that his friend is beautiful. People are talking about her curves. God! Even women in the tent are talking about how ‘sexy’ she looks. I am not saying anything, to be honest. I am listening. Observing. Recording, someone is accusing me with her eyes. There is a side conversation about love and marrying outside one’s class. I do not know how it starts, where it starts from, I think I remember, it starts from the fact that these introduction ceremonies follow the partners’ agreement about marrying each other anyway. I would love the tension in a ceremony where we do not know if the girl, or her parents will say yes. The uncertainty. There are perspectives on the whole issue that I am loving. Okay, a perspective that I am loving.

Bwambale's widest smile ever

Bwambale’s widest smile ever

It is dark. We have to return to our homes. The wedding ceremony will follow. The launch is on August 30, 2015. Why do people call Busoga poor? At least not Kamuli. At least not Namwendwa. We were many kilometres deep into the interior of the region and I can bet the television set that I do not own that there was nothing close to poverty that I saw, smelled, heard, felt nor tasted.

Congratulations Bwambale on being introduced and wishing you all the best in your marriage. Even though I will miss the wedding because of travel things, I am glad that I was with you as yours introduced you to her people. Some people say that the bachelors in the groom’s entourage should ordinarily socialize well enough to find their own partners in the process, I think they need to provide a guide. Or maybe poor Bwesigye did not realize that some people were busy socializing properly because well, he thinks he has his prayers somewhere. We shall see.

Bernard Sabiti’s Take-down attacks the person rather than Andrew Mwenda’s Argument

By James Ephraim Mundekyere 

Mundekyere

So Andrew Mwenda is a pseudo-intellectual, an intellectual fraudster, imperialist agent and hypocritical! WHY? Because he, in his recent rebuttal published by Aljazeera, advised President Obama to mind his own business and to stop lecturing African presidents on matters of Human Rights and Good Governance, so the argument goes.

Whereas initially, I for one, would have gathered no interest whatsoever in responding or commenting on social media in the manner that I have, Bernard Sabiti’s reaction to Mwenda’s rebuttal provided a somewhat different dimension from all the other comments on the same, and the mood and attitude with which it was presented, inspired or rather prompted me to say something regarding his own line of argument. Admittedly, it is typical for social media users to express their opinions in diverse ways and many times out of context. But that should be expected because by its very nature, on social media, anything goes just the cafeteria style. Therefore, the reactions to Mwenda’s rebuttal against president Obama’s comments during his recent visit to Kenya a few weeks ago would not have bothered me and indeed I had read so many of the comments that various people were making on Facebook, and I had ignored them thus far because most of them were simply emotional expressions and attacks on Mwenda, absolutely devoid of objective content and hugely lacking in academic discipline and respect. However Bernard Sabiti’s ‘’Taking Down Mwenda’s Pseudo-intellectualism’’  was a little differently presented.

By ‘’Taking down Mwenda’s pseudo-intellectualism’’ I suppose that Sabiti presumably implied that he himself is an intellectual, and therefore irritated by Mwenda’s pseudo-intellectual ways was compelled to ‘take him down’. It is strictly on the basis of this that I want to respond.

Sabiti’s claimed analysis is indeed not a response to Mwenda’s argument, rather an attack on his person. But why am I saying this? To answer this question, let us subject his argument to a logical test; logical rules of inference and specifically the rules of deductive reasoning. Perhaps a little explanation about deductive reasoning is necessary here for those of us who may not be familiar with logic. Deductive reasoning is a logical process in which multiple propositions (premises) which are believed to be true provide strong evidence for another proposition (conclusion) which should by all means be true if the premises are true and vice-versa. It is impossible in deductive logic for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false and the reverse is true.

If the premises for a deductive argument are true as well as the conclusion, the whole argument will be valid while if the premises are true and the conclusion is false, the whole argument will be invalid. In the same way, if any one of the propositions of a deductive argument (whether it is one of the premises or the conclusion) is false, the whole argument will be invalid. In deductive logic, however, arguments can be valid insofar as conclusions derive from the given premises but it is at the same time possible for valid arguments to be unsound as with regard to their content.

Bernard Sabiiti

Having the above in mind, let us see whether Sabiti’s argument is valid or invalid by subjecting it to the rules of inductive logic. We shall begin by identifying the different propositions (premises and the conclusion) from his argument. Since the author has not given us any other reason for branding Mwenda a pseudo-intellectual other than the fact that Mwenda, in his rebuttal advised president Obama to mind his own business, let us see what logical structure we can construct from this type of argument.

  • Premise 1: In his National address to Kenya during his recent State visit to the country, President Obama, in his speech talked a lot about matters of Good Governance, Human Rights and the penchant for African presidents to cling onto power.
  • Premise 2: While responding to President Obama’s comments on matters of Good Governance, Human Rights and the habit of African presidents to hold onto power, Andrew Mwenda advised Obama to mind his own business since the State that he represents is not any better.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, for Mwenda to respond like that, he is a pseudo-intellectual and a hypocrite.

Looking at an argument with such a logical structure, we can draw a few pointers.

  • Premises 1 and 2 are indeed true.
  • Whereas premises 1 and 2 are true, the truth value of the last proposition (conclusion) cannot, in strictly logical terms be ascertained. Indeed, the conclusion doesn’t seem to be deriving from the two premises. It bears nothing in common with the premises and appears to be coming from nowhere in the whole argument set-up. In addition, the truth or falsity of the conclusion cannot be appropriately ascertained-neither Sabiti nor any other individual can in logical terms affirm that Mwenda is a pseudo-intellectual since the word itself can be judged as a purely subjective opinion not a matter of truth.
  • Back to our rules, since the premises are true and the conclusion is not, it is logically correct to infer that Bernard’s argument is invalid.
  • Not only is the argument is invalid, it is as much fallacious. His supposed analysis is an attack on the person rather than the argument he advanced. This is a fallacy (error in reasoning) of attacking the person and not an assertion that they have made.This fallacy can take different shapes: it can be abusive, associative or circumstantial.

It is without much effort easy for any amateur logician looking at the author’s argument to see that the argument is heavy with content which is being spilled with an intellectual attitude and mood but which is nonetheless lacking in intellectual discretion and discipline after all. For a strictly intellectually active response would not require for the author to make lamentations about how Mwenda is not an intellectual. Any reader would not need to be told rather they would be able to learn for themselves as they interact with an argument.

It is too easy to detect from the choice of words that Sabiti uses. From his very Headline: ‘’Taking down Mwenda’s pseudo-intellectualism’’ right from onset indicates that the direction of Mwenda’s argument has been lost on Sabiti as he straightaway aims for the person. Whereas more intellectually meaningful words such as; Uncovering, Unearthing, Revealing, Unpacking, Disclosing could have been handy, the author chooses and I think rightly, ‘taking down’ as his preferred title which explains his immediate state of mind. He is charged, ready to take down his perceived threat. Taking is what happens in fights not discussions. He attacks Mwenda, the person when he should have aimed at engaging with Mwenda’s argument.

If the objective of the author was to show that Mwenda is not an intellectual that he ‘masquerades’ to be, it would have been inevitable that the author assessed his subject’s rebuttal against President Obama’s speech, subsequently giving us reasons drawn from the various areas in his argument where he lacks on the skills and qualities of a legitimate intellectual. Simply claiming that Mwenda is a pseudo-intellectual will not help someone seeking to understand why you are making such a claim as much than giving a justification for your assertion would which the author by-passed.

Sabiti concedes that Mwenda possesses a gift of oratory and as such he compares him with other renown orators such as Hitler, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini e.t.c. By such a comparison, the author is only attempting an insinuation that Mwenda does things that most people of such a personality as his do. Such argument is typical of the fallacy of attacking the person in which attention is shifted from one’s argument to their relationship, likeness or association with others. In a similar way, one can be accused of standing to benefit from the prevailing state of affairs. This is clearly seen when Sabiti tags Mwenda and ‘’his dictator friends’’ hypocrites who manipulate situations such that they work in their favour.

Sabiti claims that Mwenda employs Whataboutism, an old trick used by political propagandists in the former Communist Soviet Union. He uses this trick to evade reality. Whether this is something to believe or not, the most interesting in Sabiti’s argument is that he himself albeit I think unconsciously uses the same trick to drive his point home. In his last paragraph, he contends that Mwenda has changed from the person that he used to be. The present Mwenda is a political weapon (I think that is the insinuation) employed to protect and promote the interests of those who sustain him through his analyses. Ipso facto, the author is far too inside the territory of Whataboutism trick than he would have imagined. One may ask how? This is how; when Mwenda writes and demands that President Obama should mind his own business because he is no better position to lecture African presidents on the need for Good Governance, and protection and promotion of Human Rights, Sabiti retorts by saying: What have you to say hypocrite? You are an intellectual fraudster as well as a pseudo-intellectual. You do things to benefit your own interests and those of your bosses. You never used to be like this but now you have changed and exist for yourself and your dictator friends!!

How can such reaction be described if not Whataboutism? I will leave that question for the reader.

About James Ephraim Mundekyere: James Ephraim Mundekyere is an Assistant Lecturer at Makerere University. He holds a First Class Honours BA (Philosophy) degree from Makerere University and is currently an MA Philosophy Candidate at the same university.

Editors’ Note: Bernard Sabiti this morning published another response to Mwenda, this time concentrating on the issue of term limits. Read it here. This blog is interested in this discussion and we are excited that an author and researcher Bernard Sabiti and James Emphraim Mundekyere are making important contributions to what we view in the large frame as the definition of a Ugandan intellectual space, without the blog editor necessarily claiming to belong to that space.

TAKING DOWN ANDREW MWENDA’S PSEUDO-INTELLECTUALISM

By Bernard Sabiti

We will start with definitions here:
1. Pseudo-intellectual. Noun. 1. “a person exhibiting intellectual pretensions that have no basis in sound scholarship.” 2. “a person who pretends an interest in intellectual matters for reasons of status.” 3. “a person who wants to be thought of as having a lot of intelligence and knowledge but who is not really intelligent or knowledgeable.” 4. “A person who affects proficiency in scholarly and artistic pursuits whilst lacking any in-depth knowledge or critical understanding of such topics.” 5. “A person who pretends to be of greater intelligence than he or she in fact is.”

Writer Marcus Geduld expounds on these definitions with examples. Says he: “Pseudo-intellectualism is a social stance. A pseudo-intellectual wants other people to think he’s smart. He will work towards that goal in the most economical way possible. An intellectual will read a whole book, because his goal is to understand the book. A pseudo-intellectual will read the Cliff Notes, because his goal is to convince people that he’s read the book. And you don’t need to read a whole book in order to make most people think you have. Cliff Notes are more efficient.”
Intellectual fraud on the other hand is willful misreading and or misrepresentation of facts, adopting selective approaches in analyzing issues, disregarding facts that make the intellectual uncomfortable depending in his or her interests. The good thing is, we have Daniel Patrick Moyinhan, the legendary US senator who gave us the famous “you’re entitled to your own opinion not your own facts” quote. Therefore, we can take down pseudo-intellectuals and intellectual frauds using the weapon they fear the most: Facts
One of the most glaring examples of a pseudo-intellectual and intellectual frauds we have in Uganda is Andrew Mwenda. Having been taking this country and the region for a ride over the last several years, he is now being called out, especially after his recent opinion article published on Aljazeera’s website containing his criticism of US president Barack Obama’s speeches during his recent Africa trip (More on this later).

Andrew Mwenda, Founder of The Independent Magazine - Photo by Jeniffer Cheung

MWENDA IS IN GOOD COMPANY

Pseudo-intellectualism, and its more self-respecting cousin, intellectual fraud, have a towering legacy in history. History is awash with world figures whose thrust into national and global prominence wouldn’t have been except for their oratorical and or rhetorical gifts, their penmanship and spell-binding speaking abilities. Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, etc. Some of these giants of history would, as you know, later use their gifts for evil purposes, with tragic consequences of unseen before proportions. The former two used theirs for good and impacted the world positively. The latter two the opposite. But they all shared one thing in common: they could write, speak, or both, compellingly.

Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic invectives and other dangerous views, expressed in his Mein Kampf (My Struggle) biography sounded compelling and even reasonable to some in his day. When he came to power in 1933, the book became a best seller. His oratorical gifts had been identified by some of his superior officers after World War I, making one of them to remark: “He’s a natural born orator. His fanaticism and populism captivates listeners, forcing one to think as he does.” His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, knew he had an asset in his master’s ability to hook his audiences with his words. Most of his sweeping speeches however, contained very weak arguments that would not stand on their own if subjected to fair criticism. Except that there was no room for criticizing the Fuehrer as such an act was treasonous. That didn’t stop some critics from afar from criticizing his views. George Orwell, he of the famous “Animal Farm” classic wrote a drubbing criticism of Mein Kampf in 1940, tearing most of Hitler’s arguments to shreds, much to the Fuhrer’s chagrin. But oh, was he popular! You need to watch those WWII documentaries (available on YouTube) to see the apoplectic and ecstatic responses of his audiences to his speeches, or read about how his Mein Kampf was a must own, given as a special gift to wedding couples, etc. Not all this adulation was forced.
What I am trying to say is that most of the soaring rhetorical stuff, oral or written, once removed from their emotional whirlwinds and platitudinal covers do not stand the test of time when subjected to tough fact-based, academic examination. Some of these views tend to be found incoherent, impractical, or even gibberish. I hope you will not take this to mean that I am comparing Andrew Mwenda, who has not killed anybody, with some of the evil men of history listed above. All I am saying is that just because one has a way with words whether in spoken or written form doesn’t make them smart, or even intelligent.

MWENDA’S ATTACK ON OBAMA

In his 1,065 word article published on the Aljazeera website a few days ago, Mr. Mwenda castigates Mr. Obama for “lecturing” to Africans during his recent visit to Kenya and Ethiopia and accuses the US leader of “flagrant hypocrisy.” He continued the attack with some other accusations on his media platforms to include Mr Obama’s use of Airforce One, his comments on term limits, and other issues. He has received mostly derision but also pockets of praise for this article. In analysing Mr. Mwenda’s charges against Mr. Obama one by one, I will start again with, just like I did in this article’s introduction, some definitions:

1. Whataboutism: a tactic used by the Soviet Union in its dealings with the Western world during the Cold War. When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union, for example on Human Rights, Stalin’s purges and executions, nuclear proliferation, the response would be “What about…” followed by the naming of an event in the Western world. This is a classic example of “tu quoque”, (Latin for “you, too” or “you, also”) the appeal to hypocrisy, a logical fallacy which attempts to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with that position, without directly refuting or disproving the opponent’s initial argument.
2. Fallacy (in Philosophy): The use of poor, or invalid reasoning for the construction of an argument. A fallacious argument may be deceptive by appearing to be better than it really is. Some fallacies are committed intentionally to manipulate or persuade by deception, while others are committed unintentionally due to carelessness or ignorance (Mr. Mwenda, who reportedly quotes medieval thinkers in his commentaries, one of his other silly, not-so-subtle ways of demonstrating to his audiences that he is intelligent, could have read Aristotle’s fallacies).
Whataboutism is therefore fallacy because the moral character or past actions of the opponent are generally irrelevant to the logic of the argument. One of the earliest uses of the technique was in 1947 after then NY governor William Averell Harriman criticized “Soviet imperialism” in a speech. A response in the communist party’s “Pravada” criticized the United States’ laws and policies regarding race and minorities.
Whataboutism is a technique still used by many repressive countries when western nations comment on their Human Rights abuses, bad governance, etc. Indeed the coverage of riots the US such as in Ferguson, Missouri, following police shootings of black men, was intense in Russian and Chinese Media. Even North Korea released statements condemning the US’ treatment of its African American citizens!

Mwenda’s criticism of Obama’s “meddling” in African affairs by pointing to the ills of that country therefore is an old card that shocks no one that reads an occasional book. It’s a fraudulent, deceptive technique that supposes that two wrongs make a right. Malcolm X’s words become relevant here: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against”. Does Mr Obama speaking the truth (on Africa’s corruption, violence, dictatorship) make those issues less important or less true because the person mentioning them is leader of a country that has a not so good historical record on the continent?

Yes the CIA murdered Lumumba. That though was in 1961, over 50 years a go. Is that the reason The Democratic Republic of Congo is still in the doldrums? The US also flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the only country since then where a nuclear bomb has been dropped. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and these other nations currently referred to as “Asian Tigers” were once under similarly brutal colonialism. What happened there?
Yes, the West still has issues such as treating immigrants badly. But they admit to those mistakes and a significant chunk of their society rejects discrimination, at least institutional discrimination. That why Marie Le Pen’s FN, UK’s UKIP and other right wing parties have a hard time winning elections there. But even if they treat immigrants badly, how does that make Africa’s big men’s brutalization of their own people OK?
The US president’s trip to Africa cost American tax payers six million dollars, with Obama hopping on Airforce one so Obama is just as wasteful as the Jet owning African despots he criticizes, Mr Mwenda argues. Now, this is the most absurd of Mr. Mwenda’s criticism of Mr. Obama. America’s GDP per capita is $53,000. Uganda’s is $570. The Boeing Company that manufactures Air force One is an American company, so is General Motors, the manufacturers of The Beast, the US leader’s presidential Limo. Lest I forget, the Gulf-stream Aerospace Corporation, makers of the Gulf-stream Jet, a favourite for Africa’s presidents, including our own Yoweri Museveni, is an American company too. There haven’t been reports of a jigger outbreak in an American city of late. Let the US leader enjoy his expensive, high presidential life because his rich country can afford it. The same can’t be said of our banana republic

WHY IS MWENDA RARELY, IF EVER CALLED OUT ON HIS PSEUDO-INTELLECTUALISM?

There are three major factors going for Mr. Mwenda as well as other intellectual frauds in Africa:
1. Very few Africans read
2. Those who do lack the time, means, and platforms of hitting back at them
3. Some do not think it is worth it.
I have read Mwenda’s writings for some time now, both before and after his metamorphosis. As a story teller, he is good. As an analyst of issues, he is not that good, even when he is at his best in terms of impartiality. Many people wrongly think that because a journalist can compellingly tell a story, he can also be a good commentator or analyst of phenomena. That is not necessarily true. His weekly, 800-word “Last word” column in HIS independent newspaper which I occasionally read doesn’t strike me as overly intellectual. I always marvel at the baseless swooning of some of his shallow followers in the comments section. Those who question his intellect he dismisses as Uganda’s “chattering class.” I guess like his dictator friends, he would rather have close to him only those that tell him what he wishes to hear.
I have also looked at Mwenda’s other works including some high profile speeches, writings and presentations over the years, including those presentations he makes at Rwanda’s ministerial retreats. I don’t think anyone has ever critically analyzed them. One that probably thrust Mwenda onto the international stage was his 2007 “TED Talk” in which he riled against Foreign Aid. I doubt anyone ever did a critical analysis of that talk. On the face of it at least, it is a very weak, utopian argument that he makes, not dissimilar to many of his other writings. I know what kind of impact these feel good speeches and writings can have on any audience. I used to get that euphoric, utopian feeling whenever I read such kind of works. When I first read Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad Poor Dad”, I almost quit my Uganda shillings 700,000 a month job the next day. I desperately wanted to make “Money work for me” rather than the other way round. My then girlfriend (bless her) talked me out of it by asking a simple question: “What next when you quit?”. Similarly, I felt mad when I first read Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid”. But I also worked in the Aid Industry and knew of the good that development assistance, despite its obvious limitations, was doing on the very basic level so I had to cool down. These superficial, feel good analyses only impress those that are not far-sighted or critical enough in their thinking or are simply unwilling or uncomfortable to factor in more cold realities by looking at the full facts.

As you all might know, Andrew Mwenda was not always like this. You can retrieve his “Mwenda’s Prison Notes”, an impressive prison diary he wrote when Museveni jailed him for calling him a villager in 2005, to get an inkling on his thinking then. Or you can similarly Google the resignation letter from The Monitor which he wrote to then chief of the Nation media group.
So, what happened to him?

That may be the Million dollar (could be Shilling, Franc, Pound, Euro, who knows?) question.

Bernard Sabiti is a researcher and policy analyst. He is the author of the recently published Uglish: A Dictionary of Ugandan English . He contested for the Bufumbira South parliamentary seat in Kisoro in 2011, the basis his other (not yet published) book, “Look After Me: The absurdity of Uganda’s bribery politics.” He can be contaced on bernardsabiti@gmail.com, or his WordPress blog at Ugandan English (where this article is also published), and on twitter @BSabiti

Editor’s Note: The name Andrew Mwenda is not new to this blog. Check past mentions here, here and here. It is embarrassing that for someone who claims that he is an intellectual, and his legion of fans who cite TIME and FOREIGN POLICY as their references for this ‘intellectual’ status, there is not much credible scholarly work for commentators like Bernard to look at, in trying to understand his non-existent thought. Newspaper columns, mere articles on websites, speeches and presentations however ‘intellectual’ (and Mwenda’s have been described as propaganda before), can’t be the primary products of a thinker. Real intellectuals for example Mahmood Mamdani, Sylvia Tamale, Dani Nabudere, Okot P’Bitek and more don’t philosophise primarily in newspaper articles and TED speeches and not just because TED is a new phenomenon. The newspaper materials are secondary to the primary work, the core scholarship. It’s an insult to real intellectuals when rants published online and in newspapers claim to be the only fruits of intellectual labour a ‘thinker’ can produce. On that basis alone, this blog agrees with Bernard that Andrew Mwenda is a pseudo-intellectual.