East African nations need to learn to crawl before they run

Oh dear. President Bashir is in the news again and, yet again, the news isnt positive. Not only does he have to deal with an International Criminal Court arrest warrant, global pariah status, a rebellion in the Kordofan region, Darfur, a diplomatic issue with Kenya and let’s not forget the small matter of how to deal with the newly independent South Sudan, he now is getting a bit of a pounding from members of the East African Community (EAC) as well. For you see, Sudan wants to become a member of the five-nation bloc, something that EAC founding members Uganda and Tanzania vehemently oppose. Addressing his country’s reservations, the Ugandan Minister of East African Affairs, Eriya Kategeya told the Daily Monitor, a Ugandan daily, that “we (Uganda) rejected their application after looking at several issues like their democracy, the way they treat women and their religious politics and we feel they don’t qualify at all”.

Well, I don’t really want to get into all that because, truth be told, it’s unwise to throw stones when you yourself live in a glass house. Personalizing the EAC application process isnt the wisest thing because and I might be wrong so correct me if I’m wrong, there is a framework that EAC members agreed upon years ago. This framework is the one that Rwanda and Burundi followed to become the newest members of the regional bloc. So, I have to agree with the stance of the Rwandan, Burundian and Kenyan governments that Sudan’s candidature must follow earlier agreed-upon protocols. So, if Sudan is to gain or be denied EAC membership, let it be through the EAC process and not through media pronouncements. Doing so is undermining what the EAC is all about, collective decision-making.  But I want to talk about a more fundamental issue; why do we want to expand the EAC in the first place?

I know that expanding the EAC is the flavor of the month for some, but I’m begging our regional leaders to slow it down. Don’t call me insular, naïve or an enemy of African integration because I am not. However, I do believe that you must consolidate what you have before you attempt to take on more things. And let’s look at what a small EAC hasn’t accomplished yet.

Have you heard of the East African passport? I have and I’m sure a lot of you have as well. How many of you have actually ever seen one in use? I haven’t and I’m pretty sure that many of you haven’t either. Especially because it’s only issued by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, not Rwanda or Burundi. It can only be used in the EAC and nowhere else. And this is despite the fact that it was launched 1, April 1999. More than a decade later, it’s as dead as a Dodo. Maybe we should be putting in more effort in this, rather than admitting more nations.

What about the East African Monetary Union? I’m still waiting for the East African Shilling but I’m barely hearing any news on that front. And truth be told, seeing just how panicked Europeans are because of the issues within the Euro zone, I’m wondering whether a single currency is a good idea. What about the plans for the East African Federation? I barely hear a peep about it and I’m wondering whether it will see the light of day either. What about the proposed single East African tourist visa? It would boost all of our economies but even this uncomplicated issue hasn’t been resolved.

I think that the EAC has a lot of its plate right now and, truth be told, its finding it difficult to finish the initial portion it gave itself. I think that our leaders should concentrate on fulfilling the goals of intergration before they attempt to add more nations into the ‘family’. I’m not against the ascension of other nations, but I have to ask, won’t it simply add to some of the deadlock that we already see?

A Kigali Entertainment Zone is an idea that I could raise a glass to

Kimihurura is one of the quietest neighborhoods in Kigali right? Wrong. Despite what a real estate person will tell you, Kimihurura isnt the kind of place to stay in if you want a good night’s sleep, every day of the week. Between the construction workers making a racket every morning right outside my door, the noisy school kids, who think it’s perfectly normal to scream like banshees as they go to school, and the Topsec security guards, who chant their way through their early morning drills, I haven’t had a quiet morning for years. But I made peace with the entire morning racket because it worked as a great alarm system; I’m always awake and out of bed before seven. What I’m finding hard to stand is the evening festivities that have become part and parcel of my life here.

From Thursday to Sunday, booming music emanates from a rather shady looking drinking hole called ‘Agape Bar’. It’s all well and good when I’m out of the house and out on the town, but it gets rather frustrating when I’ve decided to have an early night. Especially on Sunday when I have to get ready for the coming week. I’ve tried to talk to the bar’s owner but to no avail and I’m trying not to blow my top, march into it and forcibly shut off the racket. And barring that, call the Police hotline and report a serious case of noise pollution.

I bet that the people who live close to the Papyrus Bar and Restaurant, which was closed a few months ago by the Gasabo District personnel, aren’t sad to see the back of it. I was often there on weekends and I always felt sorry for the people living close by. Cars honked incessantly, bar fights spilling out into the street were common and the music being played was deafening. So, despite the uproar from some people, I totally understood the issues at hand. Same goes for another popular Kimihurura hangout, Sundowner Bar and Grill. It’s located smack in the middle of the residential area and on Friday frustrated residents, obviously on their last tether, called in the National Police who then immediately shut down the music. The clients were unhappy, the owners were unhappy and truth be told, the only happy people were those already in their beds.

Gasabo District officials have been closing all sorts of establishments since the turn of the year and no one’s really that happy. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. In the Kigali Master Plan, there is a diplomatic quarter, a Central Business District, Hotel Central and open spaces. I suggest that the City Council includes a ‘Bar and Nightclub Central’.

In many cities around the world, certain areas are designated as ‘entertainment zones’. For example, a certain number of streets are full of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and strip clubs. While I don’t think that we will see strip clubs any time soon, I think that the idea of a centralized entertainment zone is a great idea. Police will find it a lot easier to patrol it and prevent crime (just imagine, instead of putting up road blocks all over town, traffic police could simply put one right at the furthest ends of the zone; it would be a great deterrence to drunk driving).  It would be better for the bar owners, who would see an increase in customers because people could bar hop easily. And people like me, living in the residential areas can enjoy their peace and have a restful night’s sleep.

Raze the damn buildings. As the great Confucius says, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs”. Oh, and while you’re at it, stop torturing the Ghaddafi’s

I visited the ultra-modern Kigali City Tower last Saturday and did a spot of shopping at the newly opened Nakumatt in the building. Even though it’s not totally finished it’s obvious that this building is well on its way to being a Kigali icon- kind of the way the Sears Tower is a symbol of Chicago. Kigali City Tower is swanky, modern and promises to bring something new to the local scene, either through enhanced shopping experiences, job opportunities and entertainment. I know for a fact that this one building will see thousands of people walk through its doors on a daily basis; I certainly will be one of the multitudes. However, there is one problem that I think needs immediate attention.
Anyone that has lived in Kigali for longer than a month knows that Saturday morning is the one time you can be assured of ample parking in the city centre. Or is it? This maxim, which I had always thought was factual, was found to be faulty. I could barely find parking space and there were traffic bottlenecks right in front of the Rubangura building. Let’s imagine the scenario where the thousands of people shopping and working at the City Towers try to drive towards it; the road will become gridlocked and chaos will ensure. And truth be told, this area isnt the only one that will suffer this plague; I can see the entire Kigali Central Business District in similar gridlock.
The reason for the gridlock is similar, no matter where you go. The original architects of Kigali’s road system never envisioned the day when the city could have up to a million inhabitants, with tens of thousands of vehicles. Now, Kigali is becoming a metropolis in the true sense of the word but the problem is that it still has the road network system (at least downtown) of a town, not a city. I have a solution for this, road extension and to hell with the consequences. While whole-scale road extension will mean razing down buildings right, left and center (with the high costs of expropriation thrown in for good measure) I cannot, for the life of me, see another way forward. The status quo is simply not going to work, either in the middle or long-term. In fact, it barely works today.
While some will say that I’m being draconian, I can only see one other alternative. Kigali City Council (KCC) can demarcate certain areas in the Central Business District as car-free zones. That way, they won’t have to spend money increasing road size and paying expropriation fees. The only problem with this solution is that it would be totally unworkable. How would people get close enough to the Business District to walk to work? Where would they park their vehicles? And how would the city residents receive the news? I doubt that the taxpaying citizens would allow such a proposal to see the light of day.
So, to cut this long story short, I’m urging KCC to bite the bullet, raise a few billion francs, talk to the various building owners, expropriate about ten meters of property on both sides of the road, call out earthmoving equipment and extend the roads. In the short term there will be a huge hue and cry from everyone and their uncles, but in the longer term it will be totally worth it in terms of making Kigali the kind of city that its inhabitants deserve to live in.
On a totally different topic, I learnt that Saif al-Islam Ghaddafi, the late Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi’s son, was captured yesterday by Libyan Transitional Council while attempting to flee to Niger. All I can hope and pray is that he will be treated more humanely than his father was and if he is to be put to death, let it be at the end of a court procedure and not by the hand of a trigger happy militiaman.

The President doesn’t need to solve each and every damn issue

DN International, one of the many real estate development companies in the country, is in the news for the all the wrong reasons. Not for providing good, affordable housing as it should but rather for fleecing its customers. The gist of the story is this: DN International got an Rwf 848m loan from Fina Bank and then used the money to construct 19 housing units in Masaka, on the outskirts of Kigali. The deal that real estate developer and the bank struck was that the bank loan would be repaid after each unit was sold at Rwf 55m. Things got a bit fishy when customers paid for the uncompleted houses and didn’t get titles for their houses and got fishier still when DN International didn’t use the money they received the clients to repay its loan. Well, as it is the banks right, it will auction the houses on November 18.

Well, to say that the homeowners (at least that’s what they thought they were) are incensed is an understatement. They are guilty of nothing except perhaps paying for the houses a tad bit early. I, however, have an issue with the manner in which they are seeking redress. Some of the DN International clients are talking about seeking President Paul Kagame’s intervention in this matter: hoping that His Excellency will halt the auction. Their desperate appeal to the Head of State, while understandable, is wrong and sends the wrong message. What they are asking is that the President halts a totally legal act; in other words, they are asking him to go against his oath of office, where he promises to protect the Constitution.  But even if they weren’t asking him to do anything patently illegal I would still be against it.

To call our President ‘strong’ would be an understatement. He’s on top of so many things that I get a headache just thinking about all the work he does. Throw in a tweet of two (he’s on the social media platform Twitter as much as I am, and I got time to burn) and what we are seeing in action is nothing less than herculean effort. But just because the man has energy in spades doesn’t mean that people should take it for granted. And honestly, the Masaka homeowners are asking for too much.

The DN International-Fina Bank-home buyers debacle is a private sector issue and I cannot fathom why the State should involve itself in it. And what bothers me the most is that the 19 clients have a way to redress their issue; the solution is called a ‘court house’. Instead of running around like headless chickens, talking to the Ombudsman and whatnot, they should seek a court decision halting the auction until the matter is solved, either through mediation or court ruling. It’s as simple as that.

I think that their appeal for the President’s aid is a symptom of a disease that Africa has, the “Big Man Syndrome’. For too long, citizens have assumed that their problems could only be solved by the man at the top and no one else. This was probably because the top dogs wanted to be the ‘system’ itself.  It made the electorate directly dependent of them, not the state, to provide services and what not. But this isnt what Rwanda is about now.

The President has said, on countless occasions, that he’s more interested in building institutions that work for each and every citizen. These institutions will not provide services because someone is influential or related to the right people but rather because a tax payer has demanded this service.  While it might be difficult to change this mentality, maybe what we should do is to test our institutions and see if they stand up to the challenge. I feel quite confident that they can.

Give High School kids comdoms, what is the harm in that?

Sometimes adults get things right. And at other times they get it wrong, extremely wrong. It is my belief that the Ministry of Health’s communiqué on the use of condoms in secondary high school is one of those ‘extremely wrong’ moments.  The communiqué, published on Wednesday, sought to clarify the government’s position on whether it should avail condoms in the country’s high schools in order to fight against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.

In the communiqué, the Minister of Health, Dr Agnes Binagwaho said, “the Ministry of Health would like to make it clear that our position as a government is to encourage sexual reproductive health education in our secondary schools, aimed at opening the minds of our youth to the dangers associated with early sexual encounters as opposed to distribution of condoms. The young generation still in secondary school should be mindful of the dangers associated with early sexual encounters and strive to adhere to the preventive measures recommended within reproductive health education curriculum, which will provide life skills and empower them to say no to sex until the right time”.

I have so many issues with her statement that I wonder whether I will have enough space in this column to fully express them.

Let me begin with this snippet.  She wants to “encourage sexual reproductive health education in our secondary schools, aimed at opening the minds of our youth to the dangers associated with early sexual encounters”. That is well and good. Except, I am left wondering, “what is the point of teaching them about the dangers of early sexual encounters, and then not giving them all the tools to combat these dangers”? Yes, some teenagers will not have sex because they will have had the wits scared out of them with the thoughts of diseases, babies and social stigma. But, having been a teenager once I know that scare tactics aren’t successful one hundred percent of the time. Some teenagers simply want to have sexual relations come hell and high water- which is why statistics show that as many as 614 school girls got pregnant last year.

In fact, the sexual reproductive health education these kids learn can end up causing a problem. For instance, different methods of contraception could be taught, such as the ‘withdraw’ method and ‘counting’ the menstruation cycle (to compute what days are ‘safe days’-when ova cannot be fertilized by sperm). And knowing kids, they WILL try to put their knowledge into action. What happens next? You can all guess.

Honestly, I feel like this policy is grounded in cultural bias and not science. Certainly no parent wants to imagine their teenage sons and daughters having sex but here is a fact that we can’t avoid; we are living in a highly sexualized world and kids aren’t unaffected by this. While it might be unseemly to provide condoms to 15 year olds, what we have to deal with is the facts on the ground and not with the ghosts of a gone by era.

When I was in high school, whenever a fellow had a date he’d go around the dorm room looking for a condom and when he couldn’t get one more often than not he went ‘live’ (unprotected). Teenagers are randy, that is the way they were created and while some will be able to fight off the hormones racing through their bodies others won’t. Some people think that providing condoms encourages promiscuity and maybe they are right. Promiscuity is a moral question, not a health issue. HIV/AIDS, other diseases and unplanned pregnancy is a health issue. I will end this column with this bit of ‘Hard Talk’; people are having sex more frequently and at a younger age but despite this Rwanda’s prevalence rate is only 3%. Know why? Because they use protection. Condoms to be precise.

The wrong person is going to jail for the death of Michael Jackson

If you’ve been stuck under a rock for the last few years let me inform you that the ‘King of Pop’, Mister Thriller himself is dead. Michael Jackson, the man whose songs were the soundtrack of my childhood, died in 2009 preparing for a grueling series of concerts in London that were prophetically named ‘This is It”. His wasn’t a natural death, the coroner deemed the cause of death as ‘avoidable and as a result of a Propofol overdose’.  Propofol, an anesthetic normally used on the operating table, was administered to the pop star by his personal physician Dr. Conrad Murray to help him overcome his chronic and dilapidating insomnia.

For his role in administering the drugs and then not acting fast enough to save Michael’s life, Dr. Murray was indicted and charged with involuntary manslaughter, a crime that could fetch him up to four years in jail and cost him his medical license. Well, five days ago the verdict came back and it was ‘guilty’ of all the charges; he was handcuffed, led out of court by marshals and all he has to look forward to is the judge’s sentence on the 29th of this month. As the guilty verdict filtered out of court Jackson fans, camped outside carrying signs that read ‘Guilty’ and ‘Killer’, started singing and dancing with joy while his weeping sister Latoya said that “Michael was looking over us”. They had got their scapegoat and they could now move on.

I disagree with this verdict and this is why. Michael Jackson did not die of cardiac arrest caused by an overdose of Propofol. An expert inquiry would have fingered not Dr. Murray but rather the Michael Jackson ‘machine’. Let’s look at the facts of this case. Why was Michael, at a ripe old age of 50, attempting to hold a series of backbreaking concerts that everyone thought could possibly kill him? Because he needed the money, simple as that.

The man who, in Thriller, had the highest selling album of all time, some of the most groundbreaking music videos and most attended concerts was broke. Even The Beatles back catalogue, which he had acquired in the 80’s and worth tens of millions of dollars, couldn’t save his hide from the creditors.  So, in one last throw of the dice, London came calling and he heeded the siren call, thinking that his last pay day could keep the enemies at the gate. But I have to ask, “How did he get broke, and where was his family as things got progressively worse and worse”? It’s not as if they didn’t know; goodness, I was over here in Kigali and even I knew that things were getting tight over at the Jackson household.

I think that instead of saying things like “Michael is watching over us”, the Jackson clan and the other hanger-on’s should quietly melt into the background and take a long, hard look at themselves. Their irresponsibility cost a man his life and will cost another man his freedom. I’m certainly not saying that Dr. Murray is innocent, far from it. He shouldn’t have ever given Michael those drugs and, as a medical practitioner he should have heeded his Hippocratic Oath that says that he ‘should cause no harm’.

And, the Legend himself doesn’t get to get off scot-free. What in the world was he doing allowing himself to be injected all that nonsense? What was he busy doing buying Elizabeth Taylor extravagant jewelry? She didn’t need it. And what was he doing having children in his bedroom, children that weren’t his? He shouldn’t have. Where was his own good judgment? This tragedy has many villains and I’m displeased that only two is suffering the consequences, Dr. Conrad Murray. And of course, Michael Joseph Jackson.

An open letter to Danica May Camacho

The birth of a baby girl (or boy for that matter) is always great news for her parents and family. It is a moment to celebrate the miracle of life and regeneration. However, for you, baby Danica May Camacho, born to Camille Dalura, slightly before midnight on Sunday in the Philippines and weighing a healthy 2.5 kilogrammes, the celebrations will come with a pinch of salt. For you see Baby Danica, you have been unveiled as the 7th billion person in the world by the eminent people at the United Nations. Your name, ‘Danica’ means ‘star’ and that is what you are as we celebrate World Population Day. How long you will be in the news is up for discussion, but for now you are a celebrity, you’ve knocked Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian temporarily off their perches and thank God for that.

You are entering a world tethering on the brink of disaster. OR, on the brink of fundamental change.

If everything goes to hell, you will probably never know the beauty of Mauritius or Fiji. Why? Well because global warming would have wrecked havoc on the ice-caps found on the North and South Pole, melting them and increasing the world’s oceans by up to six, seven or even eight meters and thereby drowning all the lovely low laying islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. You will never see a cotton shirt at the store with the ubiquitous tag on the back saying ‘Made in Bangladesh’, because it would have been drowned as well. Forget about Mombasa, Amsterdam and a host of other great coastal cities. If this happens, you must understand that it wasn’t a curse from any celestial being but rather a direct result of your forefathers’ refusal to cut back on fossil fuels. The rise in ocean levels will not be the only consequence of global warming; there will be more extreme weather patterns leading to drought in some places and floods in another, global food supply will take a hit and wars over things like clean water will probably become common. And we cannot forget increased global pandemics.

But, and this is a huge ‘but’, maybe mankind looked down into the chasm and stepped back. Maybe some scientist invents a type of machine that produces clean energy and coal-fired factories become a thing of the past.  This brave new world will be the legacy of my generation, passed on with love to yours.

This new world will be quite unlike the one I currently live in. The world I inhabit is dominated by Europe and North America. The international currency of choice is the greenback and Caucasian, male faces run almost everything. The third world states are nothing but victims in the international system and this is taken for granted by all and sundry. This situation will change for you, I’m sure of it.

You will probably go to university and find that Chinese, Mandarin to be exact, is the language of instruction. That will be because, unlike the United States, the Chinese were be smart enough not to attempt to maintain a global empire and instead used their money to buy each and every major global corporation. And you know the saying, ‘he who controls the money, controls everything else’.

You will look at countries like Brazil, South Africa, Korea and perhaps even little Rwanda and not understand how in the world they could have ever been poor. The United Nations will have done away with the undemocratic Security Council and you will have to read about the Jewish-Palestinian conflicts in history books. The world, which you will raise your children in, will be fairer, cleaner and just simply a better place to live in.

I hope that you live in latter world and this is my promise to you. I will do all I can to make sure that you are able to sun yourself on the beaches of Vanuatu.