Last week, in an address to judges of various courts, President Museveni returned to his long-standing theme of accusing the Judiciary of being too liberal with bail for suspects and pressing them to tighten the conditions for the granting of bail.
He warned the Judiciary not to “provoke” him. “Who does he think he is?”, asked Busingye Kabumba, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Makerere University, while appearing on NBS TV’s “Morning Breeze” show to discuss the President’s threats against the Judiciary.
Alarm has spread through Uganda’s legal fraternity at this speech, the latest signal of an ever-expanding dictatorship and erosion of civil liberties. The real threat here is not in another invasion of the High Court by army commandos as happened in 2005, but in the integrity of the Judiciary itself and the susceptibility of some among them to blackmail.
Museveni was speaking to an audience he knows well. Many well-meaning Ugandans see dignified arbiters of the law, before whom we stand when they enter the chambers.
But to the political operator, cynic and former intelligence officer that Museveni is, he knows too well who in the Judiciary takes bribes or who is easy to compromise with money and flattery. The way he works, one’s vices are an important asset to State House. Records are kept of these bribes, to be used at an appropriate future time.
Many prominent Ugandans fear to speak out against Museveni’s excesses, not because they are afraid of being arrested but because they know that as soon as they become vocal, their secrets, be they sexual, years of tax evasion, importing expired goods and defrauding banks will be made public by Ugandan intelligence.
A middle class has emerged over the last 28 years which has been built largely on fraud, forged university papers, bouncing cheques, tax evasion, dealing in expired goods, bribery and illegal kickbacks. Museveni knows this all too well that this includes officials of the law.
However, the good thing about Museveni is that he is as indisciplined as most Ugandans. Most Ugandans have the impression of Museveni as a tough soldier who doesn’t drink or smoke, sleeps only a few hours, his mind always focused on the long-term and very good with detail.
He is some of that, like historical and factual detail and the not drinking. He will talk sternly during a speech and give the impression that he means what he says. But he is not as focused and single minded as he appears. Give it a few weeks and he will either have forgotten what he said during his speech to the Judges or a whole range of other distractions and activities will take up his mind, making him fail to carry through his threats.
His aides, who in theory should prompt him or carry through with his threats, themselves live like the rest of the urban Ugandan population --- always in a hurry chasing this or that “money line”, caught up in traffic jams, watching English Premier League football, organising weddings and supervising a personal house under construction.
The reason Uganda is not quite a police state is not because Museveni does not wish it to so be, but because he and his aides, military and intelligence officers simply lack the personal discipline like the East Germans or Soviets to follow through with tiny detail.
In April 2005, the Daily Monitor published the recollections of former President Milton Obote in which he accused Museveni’s NRA of masterminding massacres in Luweero Triangle in the early 1980s and trying to make it appear as if it was carried out by the UNLA government army. An angry President Museveni threatened to sue the newspaper and the then managing director Conrad Nkutu. It is coming to nine years since that threat was made and nothing has ever come of it.
In August 2005 at Kololo Airstrip during memorial prayers for deceased South Sudanese leader John Garang, Museveni angrily threatened the news media, warning that it “must stop, completely” any discussions on regional and national security. Andrew Mwenda, hosting the “Andrew Mwenda Live” talk show on KFM and who insinuated that the Uganda government was culpable in Garang’s death, was arrested and KFM shut down for a week. But this did not faze the media.
Sure enough, that apparently threatening speech was soon forgotten and in no time the media was back, even more than before, discussing and speculating about regional security.
Following the fire that gutted Buganda’s royal tombs at Kasubi in March 2010, an angry Museveni issued a warning to those who were suggesting that the fire was started by his operatives. “My hands are itching”, the President said, “to get hold of anyone who spreads that rumour.” Nearly four years later, the rumour is still very much alive in Uganda and as far as we know, no itching hands have seized any conspiracy theorists behind the rumours.
Two newspapers, the Daily Monitor and the Red Pepper and two FM radio stations KFM and Dembe FM, were shut down last May over an alleged letter on their premises from the renegade General David Tinyefuza. Drama followed over the course of 11 days in which Uganda’s very media freedoms seemed to be under threat. They were re-opened and the public expected that they would be so badly muzzled as to no longer report any sensitive matter. What do we see instead? The same news stories unearthing government scandals and abuse of power.
That’s the way Uganda works: a dance, a tango between the Executive and the Parliament, then one between him and the Judiciary, between him and the media and civil society activists.
In the immediate aftermath of a declaration by President Museveni, it always appears as if darkness at noon is upon us, only for him to lose interest in his own threats, the pressure eases, and it’s another day for you and me in paradise. So this latest threat by President Museveni against the Judiciary not to “provoke” him will pass into irrelevance within a few weeks.
The President will be on to other pressing matters like receiving credentials from an incoming ambassador, the NRA anniversary day on February 6th, a Valentine’s Day date with the First Lady, some regional summit on South Sudan, handing envelopes of money to district officials and “opinion leaders” and so on. The Judiciary should go about its business, sticking by the letter and spirit of the law and life will go on.