Kampala- New Year’s messages of United States President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union delivered on January 1, 1989 arguably set the baseline of appreciating the importance of speeches heads of State deliver to usher in the New Year.
President Gorbachev said at the time: “Seeing out a year gone by and ushering in a new year is always a moving experience. Each time, we take stock of the past year: happy about some things, sad about others, and hoping that many of our concerns will be left behind as we cross the threshold of the year and that our wishes will be fulfilled in the coming year.”
His counterpart President Reagan, in a message intended for the Soviet Union asserted: “The New Year is a time of hope and renewal. Never have these qualities of the spirit been more necessary than now, as Soviet Armenia begins to heal from its wounds.”
Those speeches came against the backdrop of a December 1989 declaration by both leaders of the end of the Cold War and in 1991, the two were partners in the Gulf War against Iraq, a longtime Soviet ally. In essence, the New Year’s message sets the pace and tone for the nation, giving a sneak peek into what lies in our leaders’ tool boxes.
On December 31, 2017 President Museveni and top contender for the number one office, Dr Kizza Besigye, sent out their New Year messages to the country, one speaking on live telecast from his country home in Rwakitura, in Kiruhura District and the other circulating his message electronically by email and social media.
Their messages speak to the hearts and minds of Ugandans, and in a way set the tone of what the socio-political and economic landscape portends for a country that emerged from a hotly contested election in 2016 and the controversial constitution amendment in 2017.
Both leaders spoke to a nation whose conscience was bruised and shaken following the chaotic process preceding the Constitution Amendment Bill moved by a backbencher that chiefly sought to remove the 75-year age cap on the presidency from Article 102(b) of the 1995 Constitution and an early in the year annihilation of dissenting voices from Rwenzururu Kingdom in Kasese District.
In his speech, Dr Besigye, who sought to cut the mark of a composed leader otherwise portrayed as perennially angry, credited the country’s sports fraternity and appealed to the optimism and resilience of the Ugandan spirit, said 2017 was, “largely a year of belief and uncertainty; of depressing and frightening moments”.
President Museveni on the other hand acknowledged the year had a number of challenges.
So what does this year offer, reading into the lips of the two leaders?
Whereas Parliament pushed through the Bill, with NRM’s numerical strength securing its victory, the President is yet to assent to the legislation.
The legislation will certainly be challenged in the Constitutional Court as lawyers such as Mr Yusuf Nsibambi await the President’s signature on the Bill.
The attention will then shift to Deputy Chief Justice Owiny Dollo in whose court the battle for the soul of the 1995 Constitution will be staged.
Dr Besigye, as did Forum for Democratic Change party president Patrick Amuriat Oboi, promises a continued engagement over this amendment that has largely seen the international community stand with arms akimbo and look on from the fence unlike the 2005 amendment to lift presidential term limits that attracted noticeable international attention.
In his speech, the President saluted the 317 MPs who voted in support of the Bill, saying: “I want to salute the 317 MPs who defied intimidation, malignment and blackmail and opted for a flexible Constitution to deal with the destiny issues of Africa instead of maintaining Uganda on the path of unimaginative, non-ideological, neo-colonial status quo.”
By doing so, Mr Museveni noted, “they enabled us to avoid the more complicated paths that would have been required. The 317 MPs have played a crucial role at this historical junction (masanganzira) just like the 28 cadres of Montepuez, Mozambique played in the formation of the Fronasa Army, the 43 fighters with 27 rifles played when they attacked Kabamba [barracks] and the 232 MPs of the 7th Parliament played in opening up the term limits that have enabled Uganda to cover more ground.”
However, Dr Besigye said: “317 MPs, working against strict instructions of 85 per cent of Ugandans, motivated and inspired by greed on one hand and ignorance of implications of their actions, voted against the Constitution they swore on oath to protect and defend. We have a duty to carefully reflect on the actions of Members of Parliament, interrogate their political motivation, make appropriate plans to remedy their error and restore our constitution.”
First, what did the President mean by, “they enabled us to avoid the more complicated paths that would have been required?”
In 2013,while addressing a press conference to announce plans for that year’s Army Day, which falls on February 6, the then Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Aronda Nyakairima (now deceased), said the military would not allow “bad politics” take Uganda back into turmoil.
The then Defence minister, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, said there was a possibility that the army could assert itself should the politicians in Parliament continue “not showing seriousness that they can solve the problems”.
Around the same time, Mr Museveni had been quoted telling MPs at Kyankwanzi that the army would not allow confusion in Parliament, if it persisted.
For a country, which since 1962, has witnessed leaders resort to the army, including to guarantee controversial legislations such as the 1966 ‘Pigeon Hole’ Constitution, the 2013 sentiments by the President, his Defence minister and army chief rung a bell in 2017.
Security forces were deployed to eject charged MPs protesting the amendment that would allow the president to run for office again in next election.
Whether these are the ‘complicated paths” the President alluded to is hard to tell but seeing as 2018 promises to see a continuation of the political see-saw, the mind’s eye cannot be spared the multiplicity of possibilities.
From the passion and exuberance with which the President spoke, and the uncanny comparisons of the MPs to the self-styled freedom fighters of old, he speaks from a position of deep conviction that he, like Africa’s legendary leader, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, is on a mission to salvage Africa.
In his address, he dismissed the life presidency talk offhand, saying: “I heard some people talking of “greedy” politicians. Greedy for what?
What material benefit do I get from being involved in government? In the last 52 years, I have either been working for no pay or for little pay. May be those people talking mean “greedy” for sacrifice.”
The new year, at least from the passion with which each side spoke to the heart of the Uganda’s political question promises to start from where 2017 ended.
The seven-year term for the presidency, unlike that of MPs, requires a referendum which will most likely come in 2018 and promises to attract as much chaos as the passage of the bill.
The Opposition, itself reeking of internal differences, organisational challenges and the realities of taking on an entrenched regime, appears hell bent on trying what they can, to tackle the system, if not to change the flow of things, at least to give Museveni a run for his money so he bags victory the hard way.
Both President Museveni and Dr Besigye appreciated the challenges of the day, albeit speaking in tongues at the junction of how to fix the same.
For instance, both spoke about the crime in the country, with Mr Museveni saying: “One challenge was crime where our young women were targeted by criminals. A total of 23 young women were killed.”
He said the murderers were taking advantage of a gap in the security infrastructure in the form of absence of cameras in the towns and along the highways and also inadequate forensic equipment (tracing criminals through blood-samples, finger-prints.
Dr Besigye on the other hand said: “Interestingly, most of the murders happened in Kampala Metropolitan area where the greatest percentage of the regime’s security and intelligence apparatus is concentrated.
The failure to protect citizens, at best exposes the inherent weaknesses of the national security system, and worst shows the system itself is infiltrated by rogues and criminals with capacity to cause havoc.
The year 2017 started against background of horrific and gruesome massacre of people of Rwenzururu Kingdom. The effects of the two-day joint UPDF and police assault against Rwenzururu Kingdom loyalists will remain another deep sore on our country.”
Spate of killings
Whereas Mr Museveni attributes the problem to logistics, Dr Besigye’s diagnosis reads like a reminder to the country of what the President himself noted at the vigil of slain police spokesperson Andrew Felix Kaweesi, directing police chief, Gen Kale Kayihura, to weed the institution of criminals.
The country ended the year with the extent of criminal gangs running the police playing out in the court martial and the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) exposing layer after layer, the corrosive rot of the institution under whose watch horrendous human rights violations and outright criminality happened.
Whereas Dr Besigye spoke to the unresolved murders, from Masaka, Entebbe to Muslim clerics, the President assured the country of safety.
Yet the Masaka killings, as with those in Entebbe remain unresolved, the President spoke to the crisis of increasing insecurity of the Ugandan.
For the ordinary Ugandan, the two principals spoke to their own situation, one regurgitating the promises of the NRM 2016 manifesto and the other spelling doom.
In respect to food security, President Museveni downplayed the extent of the problem saying: “The other season, we had La Nina (little rain). There were shortages of food in some areas.
Overall, however, Uganda had enough food. That shock spurred us on our previous intention to start irrigation efforts so as to insure our agriculture against the erraticness of the weather. “
Dr Besigye said: “During the year 2017, more than three million Ugandans were directly hit by hunger and nearly 10 million experienced food shortage. This huge national crisis was a result of decades of poor planning, relentless destruction of the environment and perpetual under-funding to the agriculture sector.
With December harvests in most parts of Uganda, there is likely to be some relief but the problem will persist. My prediction is that we shall, continue to experience food crises unless we make deliberate plans at the earliest moment to establish the reserves.”
He added that besides high food prices, this year will see higher prices for virtually all commodities and utilities.
“Fuel prices will likely go up, electricity tariffs will go up, water bills have already been increased and generally the cost of living will be unbearably higher for ordinary citizens, yet majority have no jobs while the few with jobs will remain underpaid,” Dr Besigye said.
In essence, Dr Besigye’s picture of a gloomy year contrasted with Museveni’s trademark “the future is bright” narrative. Ugandans will be watching to see who of the two leaders is reading the situation more accurately.