Sunday June 1 2014

So, what keeps leaders long in power?

By Timothy Kalyegira

The most widely discussed political development in Uganda last week was the by-election in Luweero. The Woman MP seat was won (or retained) by Brenda Nabukenya of the Opposition Democratic Party.

The significance in this victory was that Luweero is supposed to be an emotional and historic stronghold of the ruling National Resistance Movement party.

To lose this seat in Luweero, as I commented last week, was equivalent to the former President Milton Obote or a parliamentary candidate backed by him or the UPC party losing an election in Bushenyi in western Uganda at the height of Bushenyi’s fanatical support of the UPC and Obote in 1980.

The stinging humiliation of the loss in Luweero prompted President Museveni to write a letter, published by the media, in which he blamed the Opposition parties of rigging the vote.

The main Opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, and the DP laughed off the president’s claim. The chairman of the Electoral Commission, Badru Kiggundu, insisted that the election had been free and fair.

The myth of Museveni’s invincibility
The police had deployed heavily in Luweero and used teargas on Opposition supporters a few days before the election. The President twice flew to Luweero to campaign on behalf of the NRM candidate, Rebecca Nalwanga.

But in less than a week, Brenda Nabukenya, who in 2012 won the same seat by only 35 votes in the first by-election when the seat fell vacant after the incumbent Rebecca Nalwanga was found guilty of voter bribery in the 2011 polls, now retained it by a margin of more than 16,000 votes.

The Opposition usually regarded as weak and divided was able to coordinate its campaign. Teams of agents from the DP, FDC, Uganda Young Democrats (a youth group affiliated with DP), the protest group Suubi and others run a smooth campaign that turned out voters and kept watch over ballot boxes.

Kiggundu, whom many in the media and the political opposition tend to regard as a puppet acting on Museveni’s orders, was able to stand by the result in spite of the President’s letter alleging rigging in Luweero.

If Museveni can be defeated in an area of significant historical value to the NRM and he can do nothing about it and most importantly, rural voters no longer seem afraid of him or the police, what is it that allows him to rule Uganda so arbitrarily for so long and this same population is passive about it?
The complacency of society
The only plausible answer to a complicated question is that societies allow themselves to be exploited by their leaders. It mostly had to do with human selfishness and narrow-mindedness.

The main goal and concern during every waking hour of most citizens in most countries is how to advance their own interests.

There usually is a long gestation period between the time the public or significant sections of the public first notice dictatorial tendencies in a leader or a regime and when the abuse of power or oppression becomes sufficiently annoying and an emotive issue for a large enough section of the public for citizens to actively decide to do something about it.

Uganda is now in the early stage of this tipping point, where politics and the abuse of power by the leader are the main national and personal frustration for the majority of citizens, over and above football, television soap operas, making or chasing money.

That is the main reason incompetent or dictatorial regimes often tend to last a long time in power, but when the end comes it is embarrassingly sudden.

What seemed like an invincible regime, backed by a powerful and loyal military and the state machinery comes crumbling down and all the reprisals and use of force the population had been afraid of for so long do not happen when it seemed as if the desperate dictator would use them.

We saw this in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt in the last three years.
Usually everyone is left wondering why this sudden end did not take place many years earlier.

Soldiers, the police and the intelligence services work under orders that they are not to question. This robot-like trait in the armed services is the dictator’s weapon.

Many decent, law-abiding citizens and civil servants go about their daily routine, having managed to seal off their consciences from the uncomfortable truths they encounter or hear about every day, their view being one of “Well, I am only doing my job.”

To this day, Germany is still haunted not so much by Adolf Hitler’s mass purges and atrocities as by the silence of the cultured and sophisticated German people.
Hitler ordered the Germany army into an ill-advised invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Crushed by the bitter Russian winter and a determined Soviet Red army, the defeated Germans marched 2,000km back to Berlin in freezing weather without once questioning the bizarre their semi-insane commander-in-chief.

In a certain way, too, is the remarkable and unthinking loyalty of the United States army. Since the Vietnam war from 1965 to 1975, tens of thousands of US servicemen have died fighting in clearly futile and often illegal foreign wars, but not once has there been a mutiny in an American army unit.

In his introduction to the 1951 edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, University of Glasgow professor of English Language and Literature Peter Alexander wrote that behind the dark drama of human history “we have the cowardly or malignant complacency in our natures that tolerates such wickedness.”
Shakespeare in his tragedy King Lear summed up this disturbing trait in humanity in one sarcastic line: “A dog’s obey’d in office.”

As dictators or governments discover to their surprise, you can put an idiot, a rogue, a total incompetent in office but society made up of well-educated citizens will follow without question.

What usually slowly destroys nations and civilisations eventually is not the dictatorship of a leader but the tyranny of conformity, indifference and complacency of the majority of what is termed “good citizens.”
The relatively easy way in which the people of Luweero defeated Museveni is an indication of how what most of us fear is not as big or great or threatening as it seems.