Event Reports

KABAKE! – Interactive radio at grassroots level in Uganda

by Felix Peter Dinnessen, Mathias Kamp
In Uganda like in many other African countries the radio is of enormous importance as a primary source of information for the population. This insight forms the basis for the pro-active integration of radio programs in the spectrum of KAS activities in Africa. During his visit to Northern Uganda the Deputy Secretary General of KAS, Dr. Gerhard Wahlers, got a personal impression of this type of work and could experience with how much enthusiasm community members at grassroots level discuss political topics and put forward their concerns in front of radio microphones.

Wahlers was deeply impressed and excited by these impressions. “Promotion of democracy must not only focus on high-level politics. It needs to focus on the ordinary people and empower them to take up their matters and express their concerns”, Wahlers said during his brief remarks at the debate in Karuma in the North of Uganda. Only if people got the opportunity to raise their concerns and demands their effective participation could be realized, Wahlers emphasized. The radio debates form an important contribution in this context.

The debate was organized by the radio station Mega FM, which is a longstanding cooperation partner of the KAS in Uganda. With support of KAS, Mega FM conducts the weekly so-called “Kabake!” debates at different location since 2003. The covered area includes whole of Northern Uganda with an audience of more than 1.5 million people.

Kabake is a word in the indigenous language Acholi. It describes a forum in which community members come together in order to discuss their problems and find shared solutions. Mega FM and KAS have taken up this concept and have integrated it into a successful and popular radio program. It provides citizens in urban as well as rural areas an opportunity to discuss selected political and social topics in a group. The debate is recorded and later broadcasted on radio. In order to make this possible, a team of moderators and technical staff travels with the necessary equipment even to the most remote communities. “We have acquired an excellent reputation during the last years. The Kabake debate is one of the most popular radio programs in the region”, says Justin Oryem, program manager at Mega FM. “Everybody knows the program. Therefore, it is always easy to mobilize community members for a debate. It is even impossible to give everybody the chance to say something since often hundreds of people show up to participate”. Against this background, a professional organization is extremely crucial. Clear rules and strict time limits for the contributions allow an orderly and constructive procedure of the debate.

Like with every Kabake debate, people came together in flocks in the community of Karuma, a small trading centre close to the River Nile. For the debate they gathered around a big mango tree next to a small catholic church. The tree represents a kind of “political” community centre as people come together here in order to discuss their matters and future plans. In a first debate round, the community members discussed a topic of their own choice. The people in Karuma had chosen the topic of prostitution and its negative effects on the community life as well as family ties. Thereafter, the “big politics” were discussed. The guiding question for the main discussion was: “Should Parliament enact a law to regulate the activities of Faith Based Organisations to regulate their ever increasing number?” Most of the participants expressed a lot of criticism towards the mushrooming small churches which, as they say, would in many cases only follow the purpose of self-enrichment of their founders. At the end of the discussion people largely agreed that the Ugandan parliament should implement a law for stricter regulation of religious associations.

“We are very grateful that Mega FM has brought the debate to Karuma. And I believe that we have presented our arguments in an excellent way”, said Moses, one of the village elders who participated in the discussion. “We know that our politicians tune in to this program as well. Maybe this time they will listen to our demands”. The strong hope of the people to be heard by their elected leaders through the radio is also a result of the disappointing experiences with the formal democratic participation. Often the people feel left alone by their leaders. Consultations hardly take place beyond campaign and election periods. This observation was confirmed by the results of an assessment of the state of democracy at the local level, conducted by the KAS in Uganda last year. The radio debates provide a valuable contribution to fill this communication and accountability gap.

In Uganda around 80 per cent of the people get their information through radio. Radio is the number one medium of information in many countries across the African continent. Against this background, KAS is aware of the enormous relevance of the radio for civic education and the promotion of democracy. This was confirmed by Dr. Gerhard Wahlers: “We recognize the importance of the radio within the African context and therefore the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung will continue to put a particular focus on the radio in our activities in Uganda as well as other African countries”.