Faith in native consciousness

The writings of Ugandan lawyer David Mpanga are both literary and legalistic, rooted in African conceptions of storytelling and self-determination.

Street views in Kampala. Image credit Simisa via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

Ugandan political events at the turn of 2006 did not make much sense. Retired Colonel and medical doctor, Kizza Besigye, had just returned from exile in South Africa. He was jailed as soon as he returned, on accusations of rape and treason. This was in the middle of his second presidential campaign against Yoweri Museveni, who had ruled Uganda for twenty years at that point.

Besigye’s rape trial was covered extensively by the leading Ugandan daily newspapers almost verbatim. The sharp wit of one of Besigye’s lawyers, David F.K. Mpanga was unmistakable. His words were carefully chosen, his sense of the metaphor deadly. Even the judge, John Bosco Katutsi borrowed Mpanga’s words in his judgment acquitting Besigye of the trumped-up charges while lambasting the prosecution for wasting his valuable campaign time. The trial judge himself put effort into crafting not just a powerful but also a beautiful rebuke of the Museveni state. He concluded:

Let me end this discourse by borrowing some words from Lord Brougham’s speech in defense of Queen Caroline some 300 years ago. The evidence before this court is inadequate even to prove a debt, impotent to deprive of a civil right, ridiculous for convicting of the pettiest offense, scandalous if brought forward to support a charge of any grave character, monstrous if to ruin the honor of a man who offered himself as a candidate for the highest office of this country.

The story of the Besigye rape case proved that the beauty of the spoken and written word is central to the practice of the law. That trial showed that practicing the law does not only need creative writing abilities but is, in and of itself, a form of storytelling. Literary prowess makes a good lawyer, and judge as well. Law is a form of literary practice. The two are inseparable.

About five years following Besigye’s acquittal, his lawyer, David Mpanga, started writing a column for The Monitor newspaper. For those that Sylvia Tamale has called “Black letter law formalistic positivists” in her book, Decolonization and Afro-Feminism, Mpanga’s newspaper column is seen as separate from his legal practice. For them, writing and literature are a distraction from, or a lesser hobby than what they regard as the serious practice of the law through litigation and transactional advisory work.

On the other hand are literary purists who also dismiss newspaper writing as not creative enough and therefore not worthy of literary consideration. For these outdated purists, Mpanga’s column doesn’t make him a “writer,” in a tradition of lawyers who cross over into the literary. The literary purists define literature in a narrow way that limits it to poetry, fiction and drama. They begrudgingly pay attention to the oral tradition, thanks to the work of Pio Zirimu who defined its literariness as “orature.”

Peter Leman in his brilliant Singing the Law: Oral Jurisprudence and the Crisis of Colonial Modernity in East African Literature builds on Zirimu’s pioneering work on orature and Tamale’s disapproval of the Black-letter-law formalistic positivists. Leman analyzes the critiques of time and modernity that informs British colonial law in East Africa expressed in the orature of Okot p’Bitek, the drama of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the prose of Nurrudin Farah. For Leman, not only can written literature carry the art of orature, but orature is also a vehicle for indigenous African law. He calls this, oral jurisprudence. Seen from Leman’s challenge to the literary purists and the Black-letter-law formalistic positivists, David Mpanga’s newspaper column is literary and at the same time a practice of the law.

The Politics of Common Sense: Philosophical and Blunt Reflections on Uganda and Yonder, is a collection of short essays that Mpanga wrote between 2006 and 2016. It also includes two essays by the author’s father, Andrew Fredrick Mpanga, written in the 1960s. Mpanga’s book puts to shame literary purists who argue that newspaper columns lack in literariness. Mpanga doesn’t only possess a powerful command of the metaphor, he is also a master of the oral folk tale, the ordinary common sayings, and witticisms of Kampala’s streets.

For example, to make an argument on empiricism, Mpanga summons the fable of “Ndiwulira” (I will know it when I feel it), the stubborn weevil that refused to listen to warnings to get out of the maize cob and ended up boiled with the maize. The Ndiwulira fable has passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition and has become a metaphor in common Luganda for refusing to heed advice, and for repeating history by those who don’t learn from the experiences and wisdom of others. This is orature at its best.

The failure by both literary purists and Black letter law positivists to imagine capacious interpretations of what literature and legal practice entail is what Mpanga tells his readers results from taking extreme positions. Mpanga is wary of extremes. “(A)void extremes. Always be moderate in your views, actions, and pronouncements. Instead of adopting extreme positions, always seek the middle inclusive ground.” This moderate attitude comes through most eloquently as Mpanga argues for the self-determination of what he calls “native communities” within the colonial state.

The starting point for Mpanga’s desire for native self-determination within the colonial state of Uganda comes early on in the book. He writes: “(W)e have not developed a central nervous system as a nation. We have not learnt to feel each other’s pain. Each native community has tended to essentially look out for itself and to count only its own dead and wounded.”

But why are native communities in pain in the first place, before they feel each other’s shade of the pain? Mpanga knows the root cause of the pain. He tells us that: “The 54 states that make up Africa today are, with the singular exception of Ethiopia, the result of European intervention.” So the states created by Europeans are the primary cause of pain for native communities. The colonial state is an infrastructure of pain, to the native. The fundamental question for Mpanga then is: “How can we create viable nations and regional blocs if we still adhere to our native nationalities? How do we harness our native nationalities to the effort of building modern viable states in the 21st century?”

Soon enough, Mpanga reminds us that there’s “a particular emerging trend—the collapse of the colonial states.”  It never leaves his mind that “colonial borders exist for a reason. They protect Western political interests.” Mpanga argues that “the basic thing that should be the cornerstone of any truly African superstructure (is) our African heritage in terms of history, culture, philosophy, concepts and values.”  His call is for Africans to overcome the maligning and neglect of native social and political structures and consider them as the natural building blocks of new African political superstructures.

Mpanga argues that out of native social and political structures, still pejoratively referred to as “tribes,” large functional confederations should be created through a new native African consensus. This new order that reflects who and what Africans really are as peoples shall replace the weak, failed, or failing colonial states. He argues for new African states anchored in and guaranteed by native African society and not United Nations or African Union charters;  that when Africans own their states and they reflect who and what they really are and aspire to be as Africans, rather than try to make them pale imitations of Europeans, they shall become capable of articulating and protecting their political, economic, social and cultural aspirations in the 21st Century.

For Mpanga, a pan-Africanism that is based on the flag independence of colonial states is unviable. Efforts at African regional integration (for example the East African Community–EAC) therefore do not satisfy Mpanga’s desire for self-determination unless they indigenize. Mpanga says that a viable EAC “must be an answer to challenges that face East Africans and not simply be a mimic of foreign regional blocs or a vehicle for egotistical interests.”

Mpanga also challenges an African nationalism that is built around a colonial state. He argues that “the nationalism that was promoted before and after Independence was based on an alien and essentially Euro-centric premise that all things native to Africa are primitive and backward.” He adds that “Uganda is not a strong and happy nation because it is built on a fundamentally false premise.”  Mpanga’s moderate proposal, which avoids the extremes of abolishing Uganda or abolishing native communities, is that native communities are harnessed toward the task of nation-building: “We have to use native materials in the construction of durable African states and Pan-African supra-states–larger more internationally viable units made up of the smaller ‘emotionally satisfying homes of the human spirit.’”

Mpanga wants the state reconfigured “so that it may work better in the interests of the native peoples of Africa.” Don’t abolish the state. Don’t abolish the native communities, and political and social institutions. Do not abolish anything. This, he says, is a commonsense position. It is also a moderate position.

Mpanga’s faith in moderation and native consciousness is so total that he declares that “the native spirits of the peoples of Uganda shall remain steadfast and unbowed. Our native charm, entrepreneurial spirit, ingenuity, hospitality, and ability to work around obstacles will continue to provide buoyancy for our country.”

There is reason to believe him.

Further Reading