Cheering up subfusc politicians: A design becoming our national character

By Lukanga Samuel

There’s a type of hard-boiled political operatives in Uganda who always have televisions on in the office – sometimes more than one – permanently set to the news channels and almost always with the sound turned down. You might think that’s because they need quiet to work, and should something of interest appear, they would turn the volume up. But that’s not quite right. This brand of political professionals believe that, when it comes to watching news coverage, the sound is all but irrelevant. What registers with people – with voters – are the pictures used as candidates.

Do these leaders look strong in command? Or weak and hesitant? Are they-as candidates,smiling, brimming with confidence? Or brooding, head in hands? Do they look natural, at ease with ordinary people – or gauche and awkward, a visiting alien from Planet Politician? For any of these judgments, you don’t need to hear the words. The image alone tells the story.

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Politicians are keen on getting people to cheer up, so maybe they should take some of their own advice. The NUP legislators are a rather miserable bunch at the moment. They shouldn’t be. They’re back in government for the first time, shaping policies when for so long they were a party of meaningless, impotent protest. That’s all changed. So why aren’t they more chirpy?

Whenever a lawmaker who is advancing in years appears infirm if not confused in public, and takes some time to convalesce, there are questions about their fitness for office. Difficulties in communicating are not exclusively the milieu of older lawmakers. There’s an awkward gray area between legitimate questions about a person’s health and ageism. Ageist, constitutionally dubious and savvy politics all at the same time.

Take a private letter to the opposition chiefwhip, Hon. Nambeshe, from the party’s leader in Masaka, as a prime example of this grumpiness. He’s fed up of “defending the indefensible” and fears the NUP will “disappear into the annals of history”.

In what will probably prove to be very accurate, he fears “the boil is about to come to a head and burst (probably on election night)”. Can anything save them, and his parliamentary colleagues from the mess they’ve got themselves into? With quandaries like this to ponder, it’s no wonder morale is a little low.

Take heed, NUP. Help may be at hand. All afternoon, a new mass movement to create a happier society is launching itself in central Uganda. Action for Happiness has big ambitions. It aims, eventually, to help the whole world cheer up.

It’s baffled by the fact that, despite improved living standards over the last 38 years, people in Uganda are now happier than they were then. This is a shame, they say; if NUP could boost their happiness levels to those of NRM, we’d have 2.5 million fewer people suffering from unhappiness (however that’s measured).

With families and communities across the country facing uncertain economic times, and big global challenges to tackle as a society, it may seem counterintuitive to talk about happiness.

But on the contrary, now more than ever we need to help people build their personal resilience and create a culture where we are less preoccupied with material wealth and more focused on each other’s happiness and well-being.

This is not necessarily new. Jim Spire has been extremely keen on improving the nation’s mood. Last year he launched a bid to officially measure whether we are keeping our collective chins up via exhibitions. Every day, ministers, officials, people working throughout the public sector make decisions that affect people’s lives.

I’ve said before that I want every decision we take to be judged on whether it makes our country more or less family-friendly – and this new focus on well-being will be part of achieving that.

Do Museveni’s ministers want us to be happy? Not surprising, really, for happy voters are more likely to back the government. Now a new movement is laying out the building blocks of how this change is actually achieved. Their suggestions are interesting and will, no doubt, attract the interest of politicians. But perhaps, just perhaps, they should take a look at using the advice to boost their own daily lives.

In many ways, a coalition government is geared up to making the most of these positives. When asked to “find three things to feel good about each day”, simply saying ‘we’re in power’ repeatedly ought to do the trick. “Look for the good in those around you”? – well, it’s difficult for any politician to do this, of course, but trying to find common ground with a coalition partner is a good place to start. Then there’s that very handy tip, “Thank the people you’re grateful to”.

Jim Spire and Charles Rwomushana should, surely, be at the top of any coalition politician’s list.

The pressures of leadership might find some relief in today’s advice, too, and this doesn’t just mean talking about the very handy hint of having tactics for tough times.

Separate advice from Action for Happiness offers ‘keys for happier living’, based on a review of the latest scientific research. “Take a positive approach; be comfortable with who you are; be part of something bigger,” all tick the coalition’s boxes. But there are others which apply too. Under the heading ‘resilience’, happiness requires finding ways to “bounce back”. And then there’s ‘direction’ – “having goals to look forward to”. Thinking about the AV referendum, rather than the looming local elections, might be the best bet for the coalition’s embattled junior party.

There is a horrible sense that this is just one large big vicious circle, alas. Trust, Action for Happiness says, is a major determinant of happiness in a society. Only 30% of people say “most people can be trusted” in Uganda, down from 60% 3 years ago. In some regions, the current level is still over 60%.

Trusting people on the street is different to trusting remote politicians, but there may be a link here. Can the public really trust politicians who go back on their manifestos and use the cover of coalition government to break their promises?

To renege on their tuition fees pledges, or introduce unexpectedly radical NHS reforms? Ministers might have themselves to blame more than they think for their current miseries. Not that dwelling on that unfortunate truth would help, of course, if they want to cheer themselves up.

The writer; Lukanga Samuel, is a Social Development enthusiast & An Ambassador of Humanity. EmaiL: lukangasamuel55@gmail.com, Tel: +256 785717379

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