Transcript from Ekimeeza fieldnotes:
In today’s Ekimeeza, one incident that stood out was the president, who addressed the people on labor-day through television and said that Uganda has not made a lot of progress economically because the people have a luxurious lifestyle. The big discussion that followed was whether the private toilet driving along the president’s 24-car convoy could be considered too luxurious.
The example of the toilet car certainly gives an idea of the waste and over- luxurious lifestyle of the president, yet, people at the Ekimeeza pulled the toilet-car topic out of context by discussing which of the 24 cars was the toilet-car, what could be other irrelevant cars in the convoy and if the toilet car always drove along with the convoy. More half the participants touched upon the topic of the toilet car, all with their opinion about the appropriateness of the vehicle. The ruling party supporters present at the debate started accusing some other participants of having cars and thus being luxurious and the whole discussion turned into a row about minor issues.
When instead of a disapproval or support of the single ‘toilet car’ issue, a more objective and statistically sound claim had been made, like the actual amount of money spent on the president’s personal luxury, there would have been less confusion and less subjective debating possible. Numbers and facts give people the ability to build an argument and puts the personal opinion of the speaker along the sidelines.
In my last TH!NK post I started analyzing the discourse used during the radio-talkshow Ekimeeza, where citizens meet in Kampala to engage in an open debate about social and political issues. Lose accusations are common and juicy stories seem to be used much more than concrete facts. This can be attributed to both the availability of numbers and statistics and civilians’ ability to interpret numerical data. The lack of basic mathematical knowledge can have far reaching implications for a society. In Uganda this lack of basic math skills among the population shows with most money transactions, where calculators are used as soon as counting to 10 does not suffice. As a test I now and then ask people to estimate the amount of chicken in a pen or the amount of bottles of coke in a fridge, most of the times they are either way off or will just tell me that they really do not know.
Another explanation for the large amount of subjective and unfunded arguments in the political discourse at Ekimeeza is the sheer absence of statistical figures. During my interviews with radio stations and politicians this was a recurrent issue. There are very few numbers available, so arguments in a discussion tend to refer to incidents and memorable events. It is not the amount of money the convoy of the president costs a day and what percentage of the national budget this constitutes in a year, but the topic of discussion is the incident that there is a toilet car driving along with the convoy. Although both arguments indicate that the president may be spending excessive amounts of money for personal luxury and comfort, the numerical argument cannot be as easily contested, forgotten or mixed up with other arguments.
In a survey I did among 33 participants of the Ekimeeza I asked what sources they used to prepare for the discussion at the Ekimeeza. The great majority answered their main sources were Friends, Newspapers and Radio shows. TV was to a much lesser extent used as a source and internet, books or other sources were hardly mentioned. I also asked how they could access independent statistical data. There were four people who mentioned parliament as a source of statistical data. Some sittings of parliament are screened on TV and the general public is sometimes allowed to attend at the sittings. Three people came up with the internet and the rest could not name an independent data source which could provide statistics. It must be said that a lot of people that filled in the questionnaire did not seem to understand what ‘independent statistical data’ was. Some of the answers were: ‘by talking to friends’ or ‘by observing people’. Yet there was nobody who could mention an agency or publication that could supply them with statistical data.
The fact of the matter is that not only the general public and the Ekimeeza speakers seem to rely on newspapers and radio as basic source of information; even politicians use excessive amounts of unfunded arguments to state their claims. Not only does this become evident at the Ekimeeza where MP’s and sometimes ministers come to speak, also in the television program that broadcasts live from parliament it shows that politicians are not required to have expert knowledge on the matters they are responsible for. A typical speech seems to revolve around the tactical posturing of the individual speaker, where in one monologue alliances are established, affiliations are confirmed, the personality of the speaker is promoted, the chairman is appreciated and a personal opinion is given. Some speakers are very skilled in this sort of speech, but in the meantime, very few people benefit from this kind of discourse.
This is part of president Museveni's motorcade, the toilet car is the sixth vehicle..