ActivismArt NewsEditorial

If you’re trying to tell the pulse of a country, listen to its artistes By Benjamin Rukwengye

In his last book, There was a Country, Chinua Achebe, chronicles his experience of the Biafra war. Talking about the role of art in the context of a society’s needs, he says, “There is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless.” It is as if to say the privilege of talent comes with an obligation to speak out against injustice.

You do not have to look far back to find evidence that art has always provided a great outlet for the oppressed to be seen and heard by their oppressors and everyone else. Everyone born or raised in the 80s and early 90s, including the Zontos ones effecting arrest against comedians, was raised on apartheid protest tunes by greats like Miriam Makeba, Lucky Dube, Yvonne Chakachaka, Brenda Fassie, et al.


Closer to home, Bebe Cool (Surprise! Surprise!) before he started mobilising for the NRM, was recording songs to protest the dire economic straits and unemployment and blaming it on the fact that “they are giving all the jobs to their people”.

In Kawuna, to erase all doubt as to who “they” are, he goes on to name “them”, complaining that from the housekeeper to the driver, to the minister, “they” have taken the jobs. But this is all of 20 years ago, so you would think that things should have gotten better, right? Well, not quite.

When access to opportunities and resources isn’t equitably spread around, you end up with a pseudo merit system. Just so you do not miss the point, when done reading this piece, please download the Makerere University list of government-sponsored students and browse through the first couple of pages. Let me not bias you with tales of what you will find and instead tell you why arguing merit is a load of tosh.

In instances where only one group can afford to send their kids to good schools where they, who actually do not need government-sponsorship, will still get the cut-off required for it, and be the ones most likely to get top jobs and run successful businesses.

Now imagine this cycle, replaying over three decades. What do you think you would find, if you conducted an equal opportunities study in both the public and private sectors to ask which tribe is most likely to get a job, win a contract, get promoted, escape justice. It doesn’t have anything to do with merit but everything to do with decades of access to resources and networks.


When John F Kennedy took over as president of the US in 1961, he appointed his younger brother, Robert F Kennedy (Bobby), as Attorney General. ‘Bobby’ was probably the more favourite of the brothers, a civil rights advocate, and is widely regarded as an icon of modern American liberalism, whose assassination in 1968, on the verge of clinching the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, was met with great sorrow.


Although his tenure is widely viewed as the period when the US attorney general’s office had the greatest power and subsequent office bearers have had their work (unfairly) weighed against his, it is interesting what lawmakers did, six years later.

An Federal Anti-Nepotism Statute was passed, stating that “A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official,” and recommending that violators would not be entitled to pay.

Going after those who are protesting tribalism and nepotism when you are providing them with all the ammunition they need to go on is an exercise in futility. You aren’t very clever if you don’t see this; and even worse if you are bent on denying it. You aren’t very clever if you think people will not talk about it; and even worse if you think arresting them will make the problem go away.


Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.