The characterisation “new breed of African leaders” was a word that captured wide imagination in African politics.
This crop of leaders – Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi – beaconed something new of a kind that then US president Bill Clinton saw.
The leaders, Mr Clinton foresaw, would be pacesetters in the disorderly African politics; the understanding was they would not behave like the ‘old guards’ who considered it a right to rule for life because they led the struggle for their countries’ independence.
With the benefit of hindsight, the characterisation was used [often] by the Clinton administration to point to America’s newest allies on the continent, whose countries were previously troubled by coup d’états, dictatorships, wars and civil strife.
This “new breed of leaders” had cut an early image of reformism. They despised Africa’s strongmen who imprisoned opponents they could not kill or bribe and lived lavishly as majority citizens wallowed in poverty and offered perks to secure soldiers’ loyalty.
Twelve years earlier, for example, President Museveni had promised a “fundamental change in the politics of our country” at his inaugural speech in 1986.
Besides ridiculing “leaders who overstay in power” whom he described as the source of “Africa’s problems”, in the same speech he went further to scold presidents [on the continent] who flew in private jets to New York to attend UN summits while leaving in their backyards citizens walking barefoot and jigger-infested.
Of the quartet, all former rebels who snagged power by the gun, only Meles Zenawi is out of poverty and has since passed on. He died in 2012 from the Belgium capital, Brussels. He certainly would still be president were he to be alive.
President Museveni, the incumbent for 30 years, was declared winner of the February 18 election with 60.7 per cent. President Kagame is set to run for a third term in office next year after 98.4 Rwandans gave a “yes” vote in favour of the constitutional change to allow him.
In Eritrea since 1993, president Afwerki is still going strong at 70. He has held no election.
No doubt their countries are much better now. They are relatively peaceful. Economies have grown by threefold coupled with general improvement in the human development indexes.
Mr Clinton himself has since been succeeded by two presidents; George Bush and Barack Obama [outgoing], who have both served two four-year terms. So how would he rate these leaders he famously called “new breed” today?
Gone are the days
Early this week, the United States’ permanent representative to the UN, Ms Samantha Power, removed diplomatic gloves to launch a blistering attack on Great Lakes regional leaders, singling out President Museveni whose actions she described as “a risk to Uganda’s future stability” due to his government’s worsening repressive behaviour and on Mr Kagame, whose government has been accused of intolerance to dissenting voices.
These leaders, Ms Power noted, have diminished democratic credentials, suffocate civil liberties, violated their country’s laws and citizens’ rights with impunity while manipulating the laws to stay in power.
She was addressing the 15-member UN Security Council, the world body’s most powerful organ, on conflicts in the Great Lakes—a regional bloc whose membership include Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
Mr Okello-Oryem, the State minister for International Affairs, asked whether those “darling” days are gone, says: “What Uganda does not want are lectures from anyone, especially on how to govern themselves.”
To describe him [Museveni] as a “new breed” leader, he says, was just “pampering” but which the head of state does not need.
“He does not need titles, accolades or such sugary descriptions, especially from America for him to rule. They keep on lecturing us about governance as if their systems are perfect,” Mr Oryem adds, “but such lectures are relics of colonialism and backwardness.”
Uganda assumed a special place in the heart of the West because under Mr Museveni, the country implemented structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) that the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and World Bank recommended and enforced with rigour as the right medicine for its struggling economy. This set in liberalisation, which attracted many foreign investors to the country.
Then in turn, the Bretten Woods institutions started pumping in money in form of loans, grants and debt relief packages. Everything they [the West] suggested, Mr Museveni was willing to listen and put in practice.
But Mr Oryem says, “That is not to suggest that he is a puppet; he is a President of an autonomous country that can now make its own decisions. More still, Ugandans made a decision on February 18. Shouldn’t that be enough for them?”
“We know what is good for Uganda and we [the government] give [s] it to the people,” he says.
What is clear though is that Mr Museveni and Mr Kagame ran relatively clean governments at the time Mr Clinton bestowed onto them the accolades. Rwanda had just emerged out of a genocide which Mr Kagame almost single-handedly and his guerrilla RPF ended, while the West looked on.
Mr Museveni, two years earlier to the Clinton visit, was fresh from the elections in which he polled a 75 per cent victory. The elections were fairly credible, according to observer reports, and reflected popular will. The government in part also had a line-up of credible socio-economic programmes and was clear where and how Western loans and grants would be best used.
Fast-forward a year later, Dr Kizza Besigye, now a leading Opposition figure for the last 16 years jumped out of the NRM, accusing the party of having derailed from the same fundamental objectives that had in the first place compelled them to wage a guerrilla war in 1980.
Since then, it has been a bumpy ride for government, with many ills once sugar coated now coming to the fore.
Elections have been held in 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016. Only the 2011 elections received favourable reviews from election observer missions. The rest have been written off with various phrases, suggesting they were devoid of elements of “free” or “fair.”
Former US ambassador to Uganda (1991-1994) Johnnie Carson, who also later served as assistant secretary of state for Africa, once wrote about Mr Museveni’s thirst for power in the Boston Globe on May 1, 2005, shortly after Clinton acclaimed him a “new breed” leader.
Mr Carson noted that the corrupted removal of presidential term limits, the safeguard for peaceful transfer of power in a country that has only known violent regime change, “cast Museveni as just another African president unwilling to give up power”, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Now 71, the only huddle in his way to appear again on the ballot paper in 2021 is the constitutional age limit of 75. The discussion currently is whether, just like Article 105 met its fate, the age clause will survive.
In Eritrea, Afwerki is described as “Africa’s Kim Jong Un”. In the book The African Garrison State: Human Rights & Political Development in Eritrea, the authors Kjetil Tronvoll and Daniel R. Mekonnen indicate that he enjoyed popular support in the early days of his rule.
National and international observers expressed a strong degree of optimism toward positive development and democracy, but that is all long gone.
“Today Eritrea is characterised by one of the world’s worst dictatorships,” the duo write.
The country has been under his party’s rule since independence from Ethiopia, and after being voted its first “elected” head of state in a UN underwritten referendum, that was the last the country has ever witnessed voting.
In May 2008, he was quoted to have declared that his country could hold elections in “three or four decades” or longer because they “polarise society vertically”.
Disturbingly, the once “new breed” leaders have all since moved towards the class of Africa’s power hungry strongmen, and in the essence are almost indistinguishable from the characters they once loathed to be associated with.
On the list of the longest serving presidents on the continent, President Museveni ranks in the fifth position, Mr Afwerki in the eighth position and Mr Kagame in the 13 position.
‘West’s opinion doesn’t matter’
Generally, only a handful of leaders on the continent have lived up to expectations and handed over power peacefully. These include Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, once a military ruler, Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano and a few others.
Makerere University political science don, Dr Juma Okuku, bringing the point home, avers that the Western powers [be in China or Russia in the East], do or say certain things because they want to achieve something.
“When they called Museveni a new breed leader they were looking for his devotion, and indeed he has lived to it.
He has advanced all their interests in the region, mainly on military fronts and in all honesty no one else can guarantee that,” Dr Okuku says.
But from the way the elections played out in his disfavour, Dr Okuku, says: “Now they are stuck with him. They nurtured him, he built a strong military on which he rides his control, but even when they are tired of him they cannot do anything about it.”
“The best the Samantha Powers of this world can do is stand at the UN podiums and talk. For them it’s not the human rights they claim to stand for here, not democracy, nor the health of our politics. It is about interests.”
For Mr Kagame at times described as “benevolent dictator”, it is very “hilly dilemma” like the headline in the recent issue of The Economist screamed: “Should he be backed for providing stability and prosperity or condemned for stifling democracy?”
Besides ending the genocide which played out as the Western powers led by US, UK and the powerful United Nations stalled over a possible intervention, he is also credited for turning around the poor country.
With fewer natural resources to play with, income per capita has doubled since 2000 and economic growth has been averaging around 7.5 per cent over the past 10 years, the Economist said.
The country is better than Uganda in ICT, among least corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International and the UN Human Development Index shows the country had improved by more than any other country over the past 25 years.
But the man at the helm of all this is not ready to go, known for being intolerant and is accused of cracking down on foes, even abroad.
Should he be left alone or pressured out? The same question applies to President Museveni.
Dr Yunus Butanaziba, a lecturer at Nkumba University, subscribes to the thought that African countries and their citizens have transitioned and reached a point to make their own decisions that should be respected by the West.
“For Ms Power to say that Museveni is a threat to Uganda, her statement is unjustified but also not qualified,” Dr Butanaziba notes. “It is simply clear that she was either misinformed on the occasion just as they [Western officials] have been on several other occasions.”
One of President Museveni’s undoings is the mistreatment of the Opposition figures in the country, which Ms Power singled out as an example.
Dr Besigye, under unofficial house arrest since voting day more than a month ago, and his attempt to regain his freedom through the courts, encountered a headwind after a higher court recalled his case file on the eve of a ruling on the matter.
Dr Butanaziba asked if this was not already black and white enough, he says: “Uganda’s democracy is simply growing. The government has priorities and there are means of achieving of them.”
That United States is reading from different pages with Great Lakes countries is not unusual. What remains a paradox is that they will continue working with the same governments, however bad they are. After all, on the continent leaders seem generally to be thirsty for power.
“That is what they call diplomacy,” said Col Shaban Bantariza, the deputy executive director of Uganda Media Centre, a government communication house.