Kampala- The majority of us and many other citizens across the country belong to the post-independence generation. I, for one, was born five years after independence. I lived through Idi Amin’s reign of terror and the failed political transition following the 1979 liberation war.
While I followed the elections of 1980, I was fairly young to understand its credibility and the implications of a flawed electoral process managed by a flawed electoral body under a government that was bent on cheating both the process and the outcome.
That election produced a contested outcome and sparked a five-year rebellion that delivered the incumbent President. Without a doubt, we also now know that the sporadic episodes of violence and unmitigated electoral fraud that characterised the 2001, 2006 and 2011 elections that went to the NRM as the highest bidder make the organisers of the 1980 elections appear saints.
My central argument here is that Uganda was ready for transitions of all forms in 1996 but we failed, not because we didn’t think it was important, but because we lacked the leadership that is central to manage such a process. Transitions can be of different forms and scale. For example, transitions can be social, economic, technological or political.
Without a doubt, under President Museveni, Uganda had achieved the basic foundations required to make the different forms of transitions necessary. But we failed then and up to now.
The promulgation of the 1995 constitution, no matter its numerous imperfections, represented a grand new bargain that constituted the new social contract between us the citizens and those who sought our mandate to lead us. The promised transition from bush heroes to leaders failed. Instead of leaders, we got rulers.
Instead of transformative leaders, we got transactional leaders that buy everything from power to votes. We transited from a period of absence of a constitution to a period where we had a constitution but without constitutionalism. We transited from a period where there was no rule of law and now we find ourselves in a period where we are ruled by law but still without the rule of law.
Uganda was ready for a social transition in 1996 but we failed to seize the opportunity or worse still, the opportunity was robbed from us by the same people who delivered the 10-Point Programme. We can credit President Museveni and the NRM for the Universal Primary Education programme and now the Universal Secondary Education programme. But doing the basic things is not what makes nations great. We are failing to transition from mass welfare programmes to investing in nurturing and developing talent that increase opportunity and move our country to the frontlines of the knowledge-based economy.
Uganda was ready for an economic transition in 1996. During that year, we had the first elections after 10 years of NRM rule.
Candidate Museveni won. We expected that he would use his electoral mandate to establish a smart efficient government that was necessary to facilitate Uganda’s economic transition because for 10 years Museveni had provided the leadership that laid the economic foundations for sustainable development and economic prosperity.
Traditionally, countries transition from nature-based economies that are dependent on the mercy of nature to industrial economies that are characterised by mass production, service based economies dominated by service industries and finally to knowledge economies ruled by innovation and creativity.
This is the transition that Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yu delivered in 30 years. But it is the transition that Africa’s strong men from Harare to Kampala, Malabo to Younde, and Tripoli to Cairo – with huge deposits of oil and strategic minerals, have failed to deliver.
In Uganda, the smallness of our ideas and regime-survival driven economic interventions (bona bagaggawale, entandikwa, and other forms of taxpayer-financed campaign programmes) have produced a boda-boda (pedestrian) economy and two decades of joblessness growth.
President Museveni jumping from one village to another to commission a water tap in Mbale, launching a feasibility study for a 3- MW hydro power plant somewhere, visiting a family in a remote district, producing 60 trays of eggs per day are what still drive our economy. Commissioning a car park with Members of Parliament cheering on or jumping on a bicycle in a rural district is good politics but cannot transition an economy from nature dependency to the modern digital economy.
No better transition
This explains why our political transition has failed. President Museveni has been in power for 29 years, more than half the period when Uganda successfully transited from colonial rule. The similarity between Museveni’s 29 years and the 23 years before 1986 is that we have not achieved an orderly political transition from one president to another or from one political party to another. This is our greatest tragedy as a country. In the last 29 years, the only political transition Uganda has made is the transition from Museveni to Museveni.
Nations that have succeeded in transitioning from one president to another give us good lessons. In Zambia and Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda and Mwalimu Nyerere and Nelson Mandela organised transitions from themselves. But these were humble men full of humility.
In Kenya, President Moi yielded under intense pressure from the citizens who demanded his retirement. In Egypt and Libya where a similar situation arose and those strongmen resisted, they blew themselves up with whatever they had built.
In Zimbabwe, Uganda, Equitorial Guinea and Cameroon where the regimes have bought off the citizens through patronage, cronyism and pre-bandalism, the regimes will survive but their legacy will not last long.
To manage a peaceful political transition, we have to overcome four important obstacles; Absence of an independent and credible electoral commission. Uganda has to reconstitute the current electoral commission into a credible national bipartisan institution that commands respect across the political divide;
Absence of credible political parties; Political parties are important vehicles for political expression and representation. We must demand that all political parties adhere to standard rules built on the foundation of internal democracy.
A citizenry that is trapped in poverty amidst claims of sustained economic growth. We must mobilise everyone across the country to shun the existing political patronage and turn ourselves into active defenders of democracy.
We must get rid of the participation of President Museveni as a candidate in the presidential elections. The effect of a Museveni candidature is that all state institutions and resources are mobilised and deployed to support his candidacy and ensure victory. The fusion between Museveni, the NRM party and the state organs guarantees an unlevelled political contest.
And for NRM that claims to be a mass party to fail to provide an alternative presidential contender for three decades now, it means something is fundamentally wrong with the party, its membership or both. And this is not good for Uganda.
President Museveni has done great things for Uganda for which he will always be remembered. But Muammar Gaddafi’s example has taught us that the legacy of a great leader does not lie in how many bridges and dams and roads he builds; it lies in the quality of institutions that he builds to sustain his legacy even when you are long out of power.
Ugandans do not like President Museveni because of blood relation, but for the great things he has done for the country.
Therefore there is no higher expression of love for him than to help him marshal sufficient courage and accept that great leaders are not those who rule for a long time but those who know when it is the right time to leave power. And to all Ugandans, there is no higher patriotic duty that we have than helping our President retire peacefully and help Uganda solve its single biggest problem which Museveni told us in 1986 that Africa’s greatest problem is leaders who overstay in power.
The author is the former executive director of ACODE