Digital evangelist Onyango-Obbo on Rwanda, EAC, media and beyond

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Recently, The New Times’ EUGENE KWIBUKA caught up with experienced journalist CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO, the Executive Editor for Africa and Digital Media for the Kenya-based Nation Media Group. Onyango-Obbo shared his views on various issues, ranging from Rwanda’s recovery and EAC integration to media and society in general. Excerpts:

Can you introduce yourself to our readers? Some of them may have read about you in the newspapers, but who is Onyango-Obbo?

Charles Onyango-Obbo is an East-African and Ugandan specifically. I am a writer and a chronicler of African History. I also like referring to myself as a digital evangelist. I am an editor with the Nation Media Group. I do our Africa and digital media programmes and I am a friend of Africa.

You have visited Rwanda many times and you are here today, how would you describe this country?

You know, my story with Rwanda starts in October 1990 when the RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front) crossed the Uganda-Rwanda border to start a campaign to return home.

I watched that whole process unravel and watched them get the arch together. I was in Kigali at that time and I saw the Genocide, I saw the pain. I was first a journalist with The Weekly Topic in Uganda and then the Daily Monitor, where I was one of the founders.

So, you filed the RPF stories for the Monitor?

Yes. We saw the difficult moments, the moments of triumph, and the pain. This was a country that was totally broken. It was distressing and difficult to see the Rwandans trying to rebuild a community and a life, it’s amazing.

It is sometimes difficult to be objective when you saw Rwanda in 1994 and you see it today because it’s almost miraculous. I know there is still a lot of pain in this country and conversations about Rwanda’s future are ongoing. It is not easy to deal with such a difficult history. But at least you have a country worthy talking about and in the evenings, people go back home to a meal and a roof over their head. I mean, it’s really an incredible story.

Having been in the print media for many years, what do you have to say about the future of this business given the current threat of the internet-base media

You know there are some lessons which I have learnt over time. One of them is that there is virtually no African country with a history of conflict and civil war that has a successful newspaper industry.

Uganda is actually one of the few but its industry is not as big as Kenya’s or Tanzania’s which did not experience civil war. If you go to Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, most of these countries have a history of conflict and are not doing well with newspapers. My own science is that a newspaper requires an unbroken tradition in trust in personal sources.

I think war breaks the level of trust that is necessary for newspapers to work. It’s almost futile to have newspapers in societies that have a turbulent history. It’s rather better to look for opportunities in broadcasting because in broadcast, people hear a voice and connect easily.

It’s easier to connect with people on radio and television because people need to see you before they can trust you. So, there are a lot of opportunities in broadcasting but, even better, I think Rwanda offers the best opportunity for digital media.

What kind of journalist you would be if you were a young Rwandan journalist?

I am a much older person but right now, all I think about is mobile sites, websites, all those kinds of new platforms. If I were a young Rwandan journalist, I would even consider offering a mobile phone use alert.

Think about something as simple as having people subscribing for little things like a Ramadan schedule, just a mobile text message. You do not need to have a marquis, grand website. You do not even need to have a sophisticated mobile phone. Just enough to do a text service and you get people to subscribe for the equivalent of a few francs a day.

That’s what I would invest in if I was a young Rwandan starting  media operation today.

You mean Rwanda should go online in terms of forming a market for news?

Yes. Think of a news cooperative bringing together people working online. They can run a big website and you give everyone a portion of their preferred trends like business, technology, and all kind of things. If different energies can be brought together, I think something wonderful can happen here.

What are the challenges facing the print media today?

You know, I was talking to some comrades in South Africa; their market (newspaper industry) is shrinking by 15 to 20 per cent every year. This means that within five years, newspapers may not be a profitable venture. If you take one of the newspapers in South Africa, let’s say The Sunday Times, it is circulating about 450,000 copies but they lost 50,000 copies in just one year alone. So, if they keep losing 50,000 sales annually, it means the business will have shrunk by more than 50 per cent in four years and will no longer make commercial sense.

We are beginning to see the same thing in Kenya. There is no more new uptake of readers and the advertising has shifted away from print. So, our own analysis is that in Kenya, which is the most mature market in the region, we have probably no more than three years. After that we will have to push all our energy in digital and we are doing that now.

We have a digital division; our budget for next year is very aggressive around developing apps and all sorts of innovative things around the web and mobile phones.

You spoke about telling the African story at the just concluded media dialogue in Rwanda, what is that African story?

You see, I take a much simpler view. To me the African story is that the African society has a common history. We have our brilliant moments, we have our dark moments, and we have examples of starring success and examples of monumental failures.

The opportunities to seize the future and to build world leaders are as available to us as they are else where. But that’s not enough. You see, it’s not very many people who until about 15 or 20 years ago believed that that was possible because the African story was told from one angle: a doomed and a hopeless continent. And then when we had the African renaissance, we went to the other extreme in which people said ‘this is Africa’s century’.

When did that (African renaissance) start?

Particularly with presidents Thabo Mbeki (South Africa), Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) and Abdoulaye Wade (Senegal).  It was around 1999 when Mandela stepped down and Mbeki came in. That was the momentum that actually led to the rebranding of the OAU (Organisation of African Unity) as the AU (African Union).

I think it was good for them to be so hopeful and so bold about Africa. But the mistake they made is the same mistake people who thought Africa was doomed also made. They thought Africa can only have one story, one trajectory. After that period, around 2003, is when this whole sort of African story came. People are saying you do not have to say we are doomed, you do not have to say it is going to be our century; we are a normal society.

We might succeed, we might fail, we might take longer to own the century, we might not own it; the important thing is to accept that that is us and that is the story of all societies.

And why do you think that story is not being told enough?

There is always uncertainty when a phenomenon like Africa’s happens. You know by about 2030, Africa will have the world’s largest workforce. Africa will be the largest market in another two or so decades. So, the whole thing is that it is a strange world. It takes centuries for world orders to develop.

It will be the first time the world is dominated by a force that is neither oriental nor European. So, it is understandable that there should be a lot of concern about that. Some people will be in denial, while others will be carried away by the euphoria and excitement. I think we need the proper balance in the next few years.

What does it take for that story to be taken out there?

All we need is for every African to describe their experiences. We need that noise. It is from that outpouring of various African experiences—hopes and dreams and fears—that will constitute the architecture of the 21st century African mind. But it has to come from millions of Africans.

But how do you bring those voices together? Is this where you say we need an online aggregator?

If you are a businessperson who wants to make  money out of it and you are in the media, the media model you would want is an aggregator.

I think one of the most successful contemporary examples of this is The Huffington Post. You see, if I am someone who wants to understand Africa, I do not want to deal with only what information professionals want me to see. I want a lot more, diversity. That’s why it’s important that we have hundreds of millions of people blogging, tweeting, and doing all those things. It’s those trends, the common trends which will allow someone who is standing outside to get a sense of what Africa is all about.

Let’s talk a bit about the East African Community. What do we need to do to ensure that it’s a success?

I think the EAC is already a success. You know, there are two East African Communities. There is the official East Africa of the politicians and there is the silent, unofficial East Africa of the people.

The latter is a very successful story. If you just walk on the streets of Kigali, you will see many Ugandans, and if you go to a barber shop or mechanic shop or a hotel reception, you will meet people who have been all over the place. Basically, tens of thousands of East Africans cross the regional borders every week.

Look at the students at different universities, the campuses are very East African. You know children study all over the EAC region. I think that part (the unofficial) of East Africa is working.  What is probably not working as fast enough is the one of the protocols, the one of the political chiefs (the political framework).

But that one is not going to make our lives better. To me as Charles, all I want is not to have to apply for a visa or to pay visa fees when I come to Rwanda or would like to work in Kenya. So, I think  part of it has really worked. It is the big, super structure that still needs billing. And to me whether it takes five, ten, or fifteen years, it’s not going to make a lot of difference. I think the important part is the connection, interactions between the people, the rubbing of shoulders between citizens of East Africa. That is already happening.

Anything else you would like to say about Rwanda? 

Well, there are always interesting discussions around Rwanda. Is it an African success story? Is it a democracy? Is it a dictatorship? These things go on quite a bit and I think that’s a legitimate debate. But you see, outside that debate, there is something I find more interesting.

Today we have a lot of musicians in Rwanda, there are models, art scenes and people are drawing. This is a country which a few years ago did not even have a cinema hall but now it has a film festival. It’s just incredible. If you see the extent to which individuals have freedom to make a life for themselves and if you think that that’s a very important part of how a society is other than just the question of who is President or minister tomorrow, it is to me a very heart-warming story.

That’s really the part of Rwanda that everyone else perhaps wants to experience. It has shown a society with a remarkable ability to create, to rise out of the ashes.

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