From Charles Onyango-Obbo
The Kenya-Uganda milk wars are back. Kenya is blocking imports of milk to protect its local producers, which have been seriously undercut by cheaper Ugandan imports.
This milk thing is about something else. For that we must return to Comrade Omwony Ojwok. At the time of his death on November 11, 2007, Omwony was Minister of State for Economic Oversight, a role he held from 2001 to 2007 after serving as Minister of Rehabilitation in the North from 1999 to 2001. Before that he headed the Uganda Aids Commission. And if you go back even further, Omwony was while the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), the government better known when one of the four-man politicians (including Dani Nabudere, Edward Rugumayo, and Yash Tandon) took over after Idi Amin’s overthrow.
Omwony fled back into exile after the UNLF was overthrown by its military council in August 1980 when Godfrey Binaisa was president. Paulo Muwanga was chairman of the Military Council, and the current President Yoweri Museveni was its vice-chairman.
I will always remember a story Omwony once told me, and this column has been featured in the past. This man, who taught at 10 universities, spoke French and Latin in several languages and lit up as he told this earthly story. When he was studying at Oxford University, he told me that one of his classmates was Somali. They were talking and the guy wanted to know where he was from.
Uganda, Omwony said to him.
What part of Uganda, passed the boy.
Karamoja, said Omwony.
The good Somali was clearly excited about the mention of Karamoja and asked a now confused Omwony which part of it.
As Omwony noted, even when he spoke to friends in Kampala, few asked what part of Karamoja he was from. Here was a Somali in a graduate school in Oxford who pressed him on the details.
So Omwony told him. The Somali guy told him it was amazing he knew about Omwony’s hometown. When he was growing up in Somalia, the place was very popular in his area as Somali ranchers said it produced some of the toughest cattle. Historically, before the colonial borders became firm in the post-independence era, ranchers stole and sold cattle along a huge corridor on the east flank of Africa, from the Hornspitze across east and central Africa to wells in Mozambique!
They became very close “brothers” because, as the Somali guy said, he probably drank milk from cows from the kraals of the Omwony relatives. Ugandan cows and their milk then traveled further than Kenya. The fact that milk is a problem says a lot about Uganda, including the way it handles its current domestic status. It is a country that has to export its milk and other things or if not it has to be stolen by ranchers from distant lands, as happened a long time ago. There is perhaps no landlocked country in Africa that feels as uncomfortable in its inner skin as Uganda.
It’s a claustrophobic nation. At least on the rhetorical level, every president of Milton Obote, Amin and Museveni has adopted a pan-African liberationist stance. A few years ago there was a conference in Kampala and some Pan-Africanists declared that Uganda cannot be landlocked because the Nile flows into the Mediterranean! He was cheered to the rafters.
As recently as 20 years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that Kenya, to date the most industrialized economy in the region, would be threatened and locked out by Ugandan milk (not to mention eggs and other products). Milk represents a big change in wealth between Uganda and Kenya. When the Ugandan economy was messed up without powdered milk from Kenya, we drank tea or coffee clean when they didn’t get a fresh supply.
When we were at Makerere University, the South African students who had foreign currency and could travel to Nairobi and back more freely were gods. They brought back Cologne (Brut), music (LPs) and even fancy canned beef.
We could celebrate with the new music. In high school, we would travel to Malaba or Busia to buy soap, toothpaste, and even combs. The fact that we have this role reversal does not tell us so much what has changed in Kenya, but how different Uganda is. It is not the economic and other changes that the Museveni government is happy to announce. In the process, people like the outgoing Vision Group’s CEO Robert Kabushenga and entrepreneurs like Tony Otoa became die-hard farmers. Ugandan milk, the headache for Kenyans, is only a tiny part of the story. Yes, I see that I got myself into trouble here and I have to explain.
Mr. Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter @ cobbo3