On March 12th, 2021, students at Uganda’s Mbarara University of Science andTechnology (MUST) organised a strike. The strike, the students argued, was both a protest against online lectures and a demand for physical lectures. Notably, science and technology students protested a learning technology that was meant to ameliorate the coronavirus health crisis. One could easily interpret the strike as the result of uncaring students exacerbating the COVID-19 health threat. But how should we interpret the students’ strike at MUST? The strike reveals how state institutions condition(ed) public indifference with regard to COVID-19 response. The students’ strike at MUST was, in fact, a contestation against an exploitative socio-economic and political establishment. While the students’ strike at MUST is only a fraction of the many contestations against state institutional attempts at circumnavigating the threat of COVID-19, it illustrates how seeming denialism is a form of resistance against state power.
The students’ strike occurred within the context of a larger, countrywide sit-down strike by academic staff at public universities, which was organised by the Forum for Academic Staff in Public Universities of Uganda (FASPU). Academic staffs were striking over delayed salary increases promised in a presidential directive six years prior. Despite appeals from the Vice Chancellors of the universities, the Ugandan state, through the Ministry of Education and Sports, argued that the timing of the strike was in ill spirit given the socio-economic challenges related to COVID-19. If students were painted as uncaring for demanding in-person classes, their teachers were characterized as unsympathetic to the Ugandan governments’ financial constraints and unconcerned about the effects of the strike on their students’ education and training.
What do these characterizations of students and academic staff as “uncaring” reveal about the COVID-19 fight in Uganda? And how should we understand the public’s apparent indifference toward the state’s efforts to manage the coronavirus? Is the indifference a form of blatant denialism as some media claimed? I suggest that the contestations against the truth claims on COVID-19 are primarily contestations against state power. I argue that the production of truth claims about COVID-19 by state institutions simultaneously conditions public indifference with regard to the pandemic’s effects. The state however framed the indifference as recklessness.
“Ssi ka Corona”: Affirming a Crisis, Contesting the Approach
In September 2020, as the Ugandan state responded to the coronavirus crisis, Eric Opoka (alias Eezy) released a somewhat controversial song: “Tumbiza Sound.” What did the song say? In the song, Eezy encourages a DJ to increase the volume of his music, especially because the police are not around. Although the song is laced with some careless lyrics, such as encouraging people to go drink at the bar during the pandemic, we should not ignore the song’s socio-political context. Through the song, Eezy contends that he was only revealing how the government’s guidelines are not feasible, since they do not take into consideration the way people have to actually live. With the lines, “Ssi ka Corona/Tetujja kwetta twetuge mbu ki/ Mbu olwo Corona” [It can’t be for Corona/We won’t commit suicide/Just because of Corona!] Eezy attempts to channel the thoughts of many Ugandans, further critiquing the mishandling of the situation and the exaggerated state force used in managing the pandemic. The song insists that people are not ready to commit suicide because of Corona. Interestingly, the people are ready to take all possible risks for the sake of giving their life a meaning. Eezy proceeds thus: Mitima gyakaluba/Tetulina bitengo/Twali twapipira/Naye kati twabivaako [The hearts got hardened/ We no longer tremble/ We were first scared/ But now we gave up]. Eezy’s lyrics represent the attitudes of many Ugandans – from the commoners to the elites.
In response to the song, the state accused Eezy of misinforming the public and fomenting recklessness with regard to COVID-19. The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) subsequently banned the song. In the days that followed, the Law Development Centre (LDC) summoned eight of its bar course students to a disciplinary committee for dancing to “Tumbiza Sound”on the LDC premises. Public appeals saved the students from a suspension. Yet, would Eezy’s song, for example, also be reason behind the MUST and FASPU strikes? Why did the Ugandan government blame Eezy for the public indifference?
In what follows, I argue two central points: first, I suggest that the state and state institutions were themselves responsible for conditioning public indifference to COVID-19; and second, I propose that this indifference in fact functions as a form of public resistance to these very state institutions. Indeed, I argue that the indifference expressed by the Ugandans can be viewed as “active inaction” – a form of survival protest that exposes institutional weaknesses. Specifically, I theorize Ugandans’ active inaction with regard to COVID-19 as an expression of a sustained critique of the neocolonial and neoliberal state.
Uganda is widely considered to have had one of the most successful COVID-19 interventions. But what exactly was the state doing? Although COVID-19 presented a threat to both the state and society, the state imagined itself as the sole saviour of society, deploying what Micol Seigel (2018) has recently theorised as ‘violence work.’ In assuming a paternalistic role vis-a-vis the public, the state deployed its colonial and modernist regalia: violence. Beginning in March 2020 the state imposed nationwide curfews, enforcing them with torture and the threat of death. Further, under the guise of protection, the lockdown became a tool for the ruling government to suppress dissent from Uganda’s political opposition. As COVID-19 cases rose, the state called for a general election, despite demands from public health officials and citizens alike to postpone the election until the virus could be contained. The state’s response was to introduce what it dubbed a ‘scientific election’, which put in place strict health guidelines for voting.
Despite the state’s commitment to protecting voters, government officials, including the Minister of Health, unashamedly flouted their own health guidelines, while others from the Prime Minister’s office squandered the funds raised for dealing with the health crisis, which compromised their moral position and further undermined public trust. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, who chronicles people’s experiences of state-mandated quarantine, notes the arbitrary and ineffective implementation of quarantine. In “Escaping from Quarantine” (this series), Spire writes: “while I would ordinarily condemn the escapes from quarantine, I did not really blame those who sneaked out” (Ssentongo, 2021: 48). The state’s public health response became a theatre of crisis management, performed through the enforcement of quarantine rules and austerity measures, rather than driven by public health priorities. It is in such a context that Eezy’s song was produced.
Given how Ugandans interpreted and perceived the state’s approach to the crisis, we can begin to understand why several sectors of society would protest against public health measures. Such an understanding is crucial to thinking through vaccination hesitancy or the refusal to wear a mask, issues which have been given little attention in African contexts. For example, in Uganda, people who oppose public health measures do so also from a place of negotiating survival. In this context, where daily survival comes before safety, people express a general indifference with regard to COVID-19. In The Wretched of the Earth (1963), Frantz Fanon describes how survival within an impoverishing system is sought by ‘any means necessary.’ In some circumstances however, when individuals conceive the tide of state power insurmountable, desperation often sets in. At the extreme end of this desperation, Hussein Walugembe, a boda-boda rider set himself ablaze and died at Masaka Central Police station when police officers pressed him for a bribe. How should we think of Walugembe’s act? When survival is thought impossible, even suicide becomes probable.
Nonetheless, we can understand Ugandans’ refusal to adhere to public health measures, in part, as a mode of survival. To return to the case of MUST students, the shift to online learning as a purported strategy to contain the virus quickly became a tool of extortion, due to the tuition fees that students still had to pay, despite not benefitting from any in-person instruction. Students also incurred additional personal costs, such as Internet fees, in order to access class material. The strike was therefore a protest not only against the university but also against their material conditions and the economic and political systems in which they are entrenched. Indeed, as Mahmood Mamdani observes in Scholars in the Marketplace (2007), commercialization – “the subversion of a public institution for private purposes” – remains the bane of higher education in Africa (viii). Mamdani emphasises that commercialization, stimulated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), “[erodes] the institutional integrity of the university from within” (x).
The MUST and FASPU strikes are therefore not only rooted in but also representative of the larger crisis in higher education, while at the same time protesting the economic and political systems perpetuating it. In fact, Mamdani has observed that, “the African university, in other words, began as part of the European colonial mission, a precursor of the one-size-fits-all initiatives of the World Bank and the IMF. And so it continue[s], until decolonization” (LRB, 19th July, 2018). Neoliberal policies flourish within particular political contexts. Formerly colonised states have been the most assaulted, and postcolonial thinkers like Kwame Nkrumah foresaw the challenge. Thus, in a context where telecommunication companies overcharge for Internet usage, where universities mine students for money, and where the state emboldens extortionist operations, the students’ voices were a localized protest against an exploitative system from which they benefited little.
How to Not Convince Citizens
The Ugandan case in the fight against COVID-19 further illustrates how both state solutions that suspend the participation of society and state mishandling and punitive methods of enforcing solutions only invite contestations. When Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, publicly took the AstraZeneca Vaccine as part of a campaign to promote vaccinations, many Ugandans doubted that the jab was real and saw the whole event as a political stunt. The mistrust was not uninformed, but rooted in the fact that the president had previously cast doubts on the vaccine. At the heart of Ugandans’ doubts thus lay the question: When did the president change his mind, and why didn’t he officially inform the public? The society is always learning its mischief from the state.
That states have to convince citizens to secure their lives should tell us more about how the citizens have come to mistrust their states during the COVID-19 crisis. Nonetheless, the Ugandan society’s indifference to COVID-19 remains a response to immediate and inherited socio-economic and political circumstances. COVID-19 did not suspend the crisis of neoliberalism but steamed it up. COVID-19 did not impend repressive neocolonial political establishments but rather it enhanced them. For Uganda, the ruling government’s mismanagement of the health crisis, and the continued operationalization of neoliberal and neocolonial policies inspired forms of indifference within the masses. The Ugandan case has not been exceptional in comparison with other postcolonial African states. For many African governments, there has been a contestation of the state’s strategies in alleviating the threat of COVID-19. Understanding the history within which the contestations unfold is central to navigating the crisis faced by states grappling with COVID-19.
Jacob Katumusiime Mwine-Kyarimpa is a PhD Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Makerere University. He majors in Cultural Studies and minors in Political Studies. His research interests are in religion and politics, social movements, political violence, decolonization and postcolonial studies. He is presently researching the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG) and the 2000 Kanungu Inferno. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Mwine_Kyarimpa
Africanews, Redaction. 2021. “Scepticism as COVID-19 Vaccination Campaigns Begin Across Africa.” Available at: https://www.africanews.com/2021/02/04/scepticism-as-covid-vaccination-campaigns-set-to-begin-across-africa/
Baragona, Steve. 2021. “As Vaccine Confidence Grows, So Do Concerns About Doubters”. VOA. 18th February.
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