RDL Polaf n°163 – Brisset-Foucault (Florence). Talkative Polity: Radio, Domination, and Citizenship in Uganda. Athens, Ohio University Press, 2019, 344 pages

Talkative Polity addresses speech and politics in Uganda through a deep study of ebimeeza, radio broadcast discussions of social and political questions. Ebimeeza flourished between 2000 and 2009, when President Museveni’s government banned them. Often gathering hundreds of people at a time and reaching many thousands more through radio, ebimeeza and their prohibition, Brisset-Foucault argues, tell us about who can speak and how, and about political subjectivity in contemporary Uganda.

Brisset-Foucault adroitly unpacks this decade-long practice using the tools of ethnography, history and political science. Based on over one hundred and fifty interviews, archival research (written and sound archives), participant observation (and materials such as speakers’ notes, lists of speakers and debate topics), audience questionnaire results and a rich bibliography of secondary sources, she situates the ebimeeza in longer-running histories of politics, media and social distinction that allow readers to see the ecology in which the practice flourished. Brisset-Foucault thus re-orients political analysis from the application of normative concepts of democracy, authoritarianism and media liberalism for evaluating state actions to the dense, historically embedded and socially complex practices of people whose lives, identities and livelihoods confound such neat categories.

The book is comprised of nine chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. It is the result of research carried out by Brisset-Foucault between 2005 and 2013, in part overlapping with the life of the ebimeeza. Using ethnography judiciously in each chapter, she changes her focal length, embracing deeper historical processes and wider social dynamics.

What were the ebimeeza? Ebimeeza is the plural of ekimeeza, a Luganda word meaning “round table”. They were live debates, held typically on a weekly basis. Originating in 2000 at a bar named Club Obbligato, the form quickly caught on, and was taken up by radio broadcasters around the 2001 elections, amplifying their audiences. Ebimeeza then sprouted up all over Kampala and around the country. While most were held in vernacular languages like Luganda and Lutooro, Club Obbligato’s ekimeeza was always in English.

Brisset-Foucault argues that interpreting ebimeeza, which were also referred to as “People’s Parliaments”, as evidence of liberalism or democracy misses why and how they mattered. In fact, they were not in any way fora for popular expression or participatory democracy, but were more like avenues to representative forms of democracy and a space where aspirations to representative leadership roles unfolded. Emerging from elite forms of masculine sociability and schooling, ebimeeza opened out to new constituencies, although they were always marked by those early characteristics, which she describes as “the cradle of an exclusive equality among men of a certain status” (p. 30). At the time Brisset-Foucault was doing her research and circulating audience questionnaires in 2008, clubs were still predominantly male, full of students and post-graduates, their interactions formal and rule-bound, even though the social backgrounds of the participants might have diversified.

Ebimeeza were not free-for-all discussions. Rather, they were highly organised and ritualised interactions in which individuals disappeared behind titles, club organizers delimited debate themes and the physical space in the clubs signalled different hierarchies among the audience and distinctions among the speakers. Speech, too, was an act of distinction, and not everyone spoke. Here Brisset-Foucault draws on cultural and political histories about what constitutes good speech and who may speak. This is particularly evident in her discussion of the Luganda ebimeeza and their relationship to the Museveni state that followed the restoration of the Buganda and other kingdoms in 1993. Brisset-Foucault details how emergent royalists with different educational and social trajectories from the Mengo elites came to use the ebimeeza to support the kingdom and imagine its role and that of its subjects in the national polity.

As a U.S. citizen and an historian of contemporary Angola, part of what fascinated me and rang true when I read this book is the complexity of semi-authoritarianism and political domination Brisset-Foucault details. By adopting a social practice approach, as Brisset-Foucault does, we see how people imagine themselves and make themselves into political subjects. In this story, speech, debate and public oratorical finesse are key elements. Building on the work of Béatrice Hibou and others, she shows us how state-society relations are never unidirectional. Clubs are filled with ambitious, under-employed, mostly male university graduates, with state spies, with political patrons and with businessmen. The commercial and political interests of radios carry the debates beyond their physical confines just as university debating practices, ideas about the dangers of political parties (so dear to National Resistance Movement ideology) and desires to participate buoy the practice.

Ebimeeza were rooted in the idea of discrete forms of political participation, a kind of apolitical politics. Brisset-Foucault traces iterations of this idea through the history of the National Resistance Movement, marked by the prior political regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, in the rules about speaking, both in style and content, through the debates of the royalists over the role of the Buganda kingdom and in the ways radio broadcasters and journalists manoeuvre within and around state policy. We see that the ebimeeza can be political or politically effective both by being a space for political ambitions and influence and because President Museveni twice attended Mambo Bado (p. 122), an ekimeeza on CBS, the radio of the Buganda kingdom.

Radio and media are crucial to Brisset-Foucault’s story. She explores how commercial radio stations developed in the wake of the reforms implemented in 1993. Entrepreneurs, driven by market imperatives but cognizant of state interests, open private stations through processes that demonstrate “the overlapping nature of the private and public sectors” (p. 49). Radio One, founded by Maria Kiwanuka, opened in 1997. It pioneered the broadcasting of Club Obbligato’s ekimeeza. Kiwanuka was politically connected, and yet her motives were commercial. The first journalist-driven station only opened in 2000. For all radio stations, audience taste mattered. It shaped the emphasis on music and entertainment in programming (something that facilitated the entrance of new CBS presenters) as well as talk radio shows. Speaking on the radio became part of the repertoires of those who aspired to lead or to demonstrate their fitness to lead, their capacity to educate audiences: in other words, it became a medium for “staging authority” (p. 115).

I learned a tremendous amount from Talkative Polity about politics, speech, radio and the constitution of political subjectivity in Uganda. Brisset-Foucault’s book offers a rich analysis of contemporary Uganda and an excellent example of how as scholars we can craft depictions that honour the complexities of the lives of those we study and from whom we learn.

Marissa J. Moorman
University of Wisconsin

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