We will definitely need a new language to theoretically make sense of Covid-19 in the times ahead. It is not your usual pandemic nor ordinary natural disaster.
It is close to a world war, but not in the exact sense. World wars, hurricanes, earthquakes or landslides never shut down entire worlds by closing down all borders. Neither do these apocalyptic disasters categorise persons/professions into “essentials” and “non-essentials” at the macro level.
The old Marxist models of classifying societies around workers and capitalists will need revising to put Covid-19 in context. A hitherto innocent term such as “scientific” has moved from being used in reference to “technical,” things or approaches to “symbolic” gestures or simply “small number.” It is also currently a term of control and power. “Scientific” has become the new language of control.
Words such as “quarantine,” which hitherto signified exclusion to control contagion, is now “punishment,” bordering on “imprisonment.”
More importantly, it is also the language of “creating space” for illicit engagements. The saboteurs will have to be quarantined. Again, power and control. And so is the concept of “lockdown,” which is now simple exhibition of power.
What we know for sure is that Covid-19 has created a new world order, not necessarily with new centres of power – at least for now – but with new ways of exercising power, especially in our god-forsaken banana republics. In Uganda, the mantra is, phrased poorly, “the opposition must comply, and the NRM and its associates will do as they please.” Let me demonstrate this more vividly.
If there is anything we could learn from the arrest and torture of Francis Zaake for distributing food to the “poor and vulnerable” in his constituency, it is that Covid-19 safety regulations and related presidential directives applied to only him – and others like him. It is classic Orwellian world.
We now know that since distributing food to locked-down persons actually had political capital, social distancing directives applied selectively. Even if it meant starving entire populations, food distribution had to be centralised so that there is a singular benefactor who should be singularly thanked.
It wasn’t about social distancing that MP Zaake was arrested; otherwise, all of them – Hanifa Kawooya, Lydia Wanyoto, etc.– had to be arrested As it unfolded, those identified as opposition had to comply with the directive, while those aligned with the sitting government would only harvest support under state protection.
Perhaps I exaggerate. There were other opposition politicians that loudly boasted of giving out food to their poor and vulnerable and were not touched. MPs including Semujju Ibrahim Nganda and Asuman Basalirwa even wanted more money for this project claiming the poor and vulnerable were spamming their phones with messages asking for food.
What is interesting is that they not only attended to people coming to their homes – never went into the streets – and had to keep in the public domain for public security. I could not reckon politicians including Col Kizza Besigye, or Bobi Wine walking the starts with vehicles distributing food. We know how this often ends.
There is a related story: while many Ugandans were locked abroad for public safety, an NRM friendly businessman, Ben Kavuya got special clearance for his three family members to return home. They were also cleared to quarantine at a place of his own choosing, a fancy hotel – and not the dungeons that my friend Dr Spire Ssentongo and co. had to brave.
In truth, Mr Kavuya can never be alone. He is the only case that came out in the public domain. There must be many wealthy and regime-blessed Ugandans – and non-Ugandans – who actually received special clearance to return or exit the country for fancy reasons including medical trips to places such as Nairobi. Again, the opposition must comply with the directives.
I set out to write about the forthcoming “scientific election,” but went through that stretch to ease my way into it. First of all, those campaigning or hoping for a postponement of the election will surely be disappointed.
Elections in Africa are not held for the “natives” but, rather, for those in power to get the “mandate of the people.” It is only with this mandate – earned through elections, no matter the details – that African governments can borrow/receive money from the IMF, World Bank, and other major donors including the USA, EU and UK.
But as we move into this scientific elections – whichever way the directives go – on what to do and not to do, the opposition will have to comply. I’m confident NRM legislators will be on the road visiting houses and campaigning. Well, the government has to continue functioning.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.