Florence Brisset-Foucault – Talkative Polity

My son turned nine years old on Thursday. It is hard to imagine that my wife and I have been parents for nine years. I remember how I did not feel prepared for the responsibility of parenthood back then. It is odd because my wife and I had good jobs, we owned a house and were university graduates. But the enormous responsibility of parenthood was overwhelming. And yet people around the world with far fewer resources than we had will rise to the challenge every day. What is overwhelming about parenthood is not the mechanics of caring for a child. People can learn to change a diaper or feed a child without the responsibility of parenthood. It is not the financial burdens of feeding another mouth although this can make other responsibilities a far greater challenge. The greatest challenge of parenthood is the sense of obligation to care for a small, helpless human being who depends upon you for everything. It is the obligation to not simply protect but to help them grow and learn over time. This is a shared obligation of parents all over the world, across different cultures. And while my privilege may erase some of the challenges of parenthood, the overwhelming sense of moral obligation is universal. And yet people around the world find a way to meet this challenge.

Democracy is another obligation humanity shares. It is an overwhelming commitment to find ways to work together as communities and states. But is it any more overwhelming than the obligation of a parent? Democracy places obligations and responsibilities on elites and citizens. Everyone must remain committed to its success for democratic governance to work. And while it helps to have a good job and to own a home, these are not reasons to deny a parent the obligation to care for their children. Nor is it a sufficient reason to believe people are not prepared to govern themselves.

The ebimeezas of Uganda reflected an innate desire for inclusion. But they also reflected the way that inclusion is often found in the exclusion of others. They marked the emergence of an independent political institution unique to Uganda. A new framework for relationships was established. New sources of authority arose. People found a new avenue to form a new sense of identity that shaped their sense of personal self-worth.

It is amazing how Western audiences have remained largely ignorant of the ebimeeza. I tried to look up the word on Wikipedia and found nothing. It reflects how little Western audiences understand about African politics. Even the term African politics belittles the range of diversity and complexity found throughout the continent. Americans believe they are somehow alone in the challenge to establish a multi-ethnic political system. They forget much of the world also faces the challenge to form multi-ethnic and often multi-lingual states.

Florence Brisset-Foucault brings to life the unique institution of the ebimeeza in her book Talkative Polity. She explores the cultural context of Ugandan society that made the ebimeeza possible. Different ebimeezas fostered different audiences not just from the venue, but even the language of the discussion. Club Obligatto fostered a more cosmopolitan and geographically diverse audience because the debates were held in English while others were in the local language. Nonetheless, there were similarities across the ebimeezas. The audiences were typically educated and came from the professional classes. Women were allowed but were a small minority.

An ebimeeza was a public debate held at a club. They were independent of any formal organization but were highly structured. Each speaker had strict time limits. Speakers alternated between those in favor and those against a given topic. The chairman acted as a moderator and held significant authority over the direction of debate and its content. Speakers who violated rules were suspended or even expelled from future participation. Moreover, the debates were aired on the radio, so their influence extended beyond the event itself. Yet this element also constrained speech due to regulations imposed on the media.

The ebimeezas began in 2000 at Club Obligatto and lasted until they were banned in 2009. They held a nebulous place in the political system during that time. They were never entirely embraced nor fully distanced by the government. Members of parliament, cabinet ministers and presidential advisors were known to attend the ebimeezas. Their presence helped to legitimize the event even if they chose not to speak. President Museveni even came to Mambo Bado twice, including once during the 2005 presidential election campaign. After his first appearance, “he sent twelve cabinet ministers to answer some of the questions people had asked him the previous Saturday.” The ebimeezas were a recognized channel to reach the public. Even though the audience was not reflective of the broader Ugandan population, they were highly influential, especially because they were broadcast over the radio.

Brisset-Foucault uses her introduction to place the ebimeeza into the context of political theory. They set the tone for the rest of the book. The subsequent chapters elaborate on different aspects of the ebimeeza. She establishes the historical context and dives into it as a sociological phenomenon. But she explains early on, “This book relies on the principle that the exercise of power is intertwined with social relations and should thus be studied from the analysis of society.” Thereby, the personal interviews and depictions of experiences in later chapters become a necessary component to understand the larger political environment of Uganda through her exploration and study of the phenomenon of the ebimeeza.

Because the ebimeeza is so alien from the Western political experience, it offers a small window into a different political system with its own political culture. Those familiar with the history and politics of Uganda will have more to say about her analysis of the people and political system. My personal readings on Uganda are limited, so it was eye-opening to learn about the political divisions in Ugandan society. Western political scientists often imagine a divide between liberalism and authoritarianism, yet Brisset-Foucault did not find evidence that this was the dominant divide in Uganda. Indeed, she has a complex and nuanced view of politics where “consent is not univocal and total” and where “there is a ‘vast range of relationships to authority’.”

Nonetheless, the ebimeeza does reflect the democratic desire for political inclusion. It reflects the fundamental desire for political participation. And it reflects a hope for an alternate pathway towards greater influence. She gives accounts of stories where speakers found hope for a meaningful career that was made possible through the participation in the ebimeeza. It established a new sense of identity which conferred a sense of self-respect from their ability to persuade others. Political parties and politicians courted the speakers of the ebimeeza. Political parties even trained and groomed speakers for participation in the ebimeeza.

Yet the importance of the ebimeeza also relied on its ability to exclude others. Brisset-Foucault describes Ugandan politics as highly pedagogical where politicians believe their role is to teach the people rather than to represent them. The speakers of the ebimeeza did not see themselves as an extension of the people. They saw themselves as distinct from the public in education and social class. Speakers distinguished themselves in style and dress from the people of the rural countryside. A speaker was expected to make their points directly without an appeal to their personal background or family in contrast to traditional Ugandan speaking styles. The debates were highly formalized and even reflected the debating societies of universities. The ebimeeza became a source of political inclusion for university graduates who were underemployed and unfulfilled by the opportunities in contemporary Ugandan society. It allowed its participants to set themselves apart from the rest of society. It gave them space to carve out a sense of importance and self-worth unavailable in a restrictive political system.

Takis Pappas refers to liberal democracy as an elite project. The ebimeeza brought about the development of a new political elite that was independent of the government. But it is unclear whether its evolution would have brought about demands for greater political freedom in the political system or whether it might have brought about a new political elite who challenged Museveni’s regime without hope for further democratization. Museveni brought an end to the ebimeezas in 2009. Its development and history are important for the study of democracy. Catherine Herrold has written about the different conceptions of democracy in Egypt among the Bedouin peoples and the presence of democratic institutions in authoritarian political systems. It remains difficult for theorists to conceive of a nonwestern democratic political system because the West has developed a package of political institutions well-designed for democratic governance. But it is important to look beyond the United States and Europe to understand democracy. There is so much to learn from the institutions which naturally develop in nonwestern political environments. Democracy is not an import from Western political culture. It is something people intuitively understand. Indeed, democracy has naturally emerged throughout human history in a variety of cultural contexts. The challenge is to develop institutions to embody this innate desire.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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