Like any other news-watching Ugandan, I was seated in front of my TV watching the glamour and fanfare of the signing of the oil agreements. It was the lead story on all major outlets.
On April, 11 2021, Total signed agreements with governments of Uganda and Tanzania on the East African crude oil pipeline. This event involved the Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu Hassan, making it even more glamorous.
But while most viewers watched the news and celebrated the event—as was framed by the editors for their amiable audiences— my terribly cynical self was on fire. And forgive me, dear reader, I do not trust these folks in government, not just for their cultured dishonesty, but also little exposure to the new world, especially of tech and big business [and their stubborn refusal to understand their handicap].
A signing of any agreement is often the conclusion of lengthy behind-the-curtain negotiations. Important to note is that there are few people smiling around these tables but, rather, mean-looking, self-interested honchos.
When they finally agree to smile for the cameras, these smiles hide extended hours of insults and threats, and sleepless nights of scheming and plotting, concessions, kickbacks, etcetera. We never get to know these wacky details, neither do we get to know the faces of different negotiators. [How I wish the editors tried.]
Through the principal signatories, we could learn a little about who negotiated on behalf of either side. Our elders were right, you can tell one person’s manners, competencies and ambitions from the company they keep.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed on behalf of the Ugandans, and Total CEO, Patrick Pouyanné signed on behalf of Total.
As happens in all market transactions, maximising benefit is the driving force for either haggler. Indeed, it should be without question that Total is in Uganda in search for profits, not friendships nor kindred. This means the Ugandan government ought to ensure that this major world capitalist exploiter of natural resources does not advantage itself at the expense of the latter’s people.
We begin with minister Elly Tumwine because oil is or can quickly become a security issue— especially in literature on oil curses. A couple of days earlier, this powerful-singing minister had noted that, to the chagrin of many, “we,” meaning, all of us Ugandans, can do without the Internet.
Perhaps priding in their decision to shut it down during the election period, the minister philosophised that since the Internet came only yesterday, they have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, and ancient history, that like boda bodas, taxis [sic], the country can do without the Internet. It is a potential threat to national security.
Daily Monitor cartoonist Chris Ogon, in a satirically tough piece, caricatured the minister as desirous of pre-history — worse than the apes. Playing with a familiar silhouette of evolutionary biology, Ogon shows the minister evolving backwards.
While humans had straightened their backs, gotten clothes, aeroplanes and now, WiFi, the minister is on a journey before the apes—and wants to go with entire country. Rigs need no Internet, perhaps.
Enter Matia Kasaija: A friend of mine in the coffee business recently shared with me a 2019 video clip where the minister of Finance acknowledges theirs (ministers and co.) ignorance in the digital world, and how this should worry all of us.
That is because they are old and tired. Despite happening earlier, you could say, Elly Tumwine could never get a more appropriate takedown than this. Discussing digital taxation during the Economic Summit of 2019, Kasaija noted that the digital world was a real challenge for all of them ragtag folks toying with securing the futures of their young compatriots.
“The rate at which the world is moving, particularly the digital world, if we are not in dot-com, we are really finished!” the minister noted. He continued that because the world should be run by the youth, his son was his advisor. [You wonder why not let the more ebullient and knowledgeable fellow do the job].
“Because it takes me time [read, I’m completely ignorant] to think of those things, how to link them, who knows... really we need to be very careful as a country,” the old man lamented jokingly.
Kasaija then dropped a bomb on his friend, Bank of Uganda governor, Prof Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile. The piece makes for classic grim comedy.
In his characteristic conversational character on all serious issues, Kasaija started: “The other day we were talking about cryptocurrency, money moving in air, no one knows it, nobody controls it. I asked Mutebile, do you know it?” to which Mutebile responded, “I do not know it.”
Yes, the governor of Bank of Uganda confessed to the minister of Finance that he did not know much about cryptocurrency. And in case you missed the news, comrade brother, Tumusiime-Mutebile, now 72, recently got himself five more years to run the central bank.
But Kasaija was not done. More was coming. Imploring his audience not to laugh, he sombrely told them that “many things are taking place without the knowledge of government.”
Sadly, the president was the most flippant. While Kasaija worried that chaps at URA would be missing taxes of cryptocurrency transactions, Museveni wasn’t. [Allow me smuggle in the recent Akon visit in this folktale as this Senegalese-American artiste plans to build a futuristic city run on cryptocurrency, supervised by a central bank led by Prof. Mutebile.]
Should I tell you about Total CEO, Patrick Pouyanné and the company keeps? Well, he is 57, and studied at the most prestigious engineering school in France, École Polytechnique. Also, he knows cryptocurrency and could never say exhausting stuff like they can do without the Internet.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.