Uganda has seen many political scandals over the years. However, none last very long in the collective public psyche (do you remember Danze or the junk helicopter scandals?) Most scandals end with the aggregation of blame to the lowest rank possible, so that big crocodiles are spared and the small fry get roasted. There might be an official commission of inquiry, like the Ogoola Commission into the Global Fund, and even a few prosecutions here and there but no scandal ever really threatens the foundations of power.
The revelations of transcripts of tape recorded conversations between General Kale Kayihura and NRM youth mobilisers are a political scandal of sorts. The stolen tapes mostly confirm what many have known and have been saying for a long time. Over the last 10 years or so, the Uganda Police Force has said and done many things that have shown that it is a partisan actor in the political arena. We have also known for a very long time that massive amounts of public funds are surreptitiously channelled into buying political patronage. Lastly, we have known for a long time that a lot of what passes for intelligence gathering and reporting in this country is actually the trade in gossip, rumours and tittle-tattle. So the contents of the tapes that have been made public are not surprising.
What the tapes have done though is give us tangible – and now permanently recorded- evidence of the things that we have previously deduced from observation of several events. We now know with some certainty, which ministries are being used as political slush funds and who the slush fund manager is. From the tapes we have learnt the current market rate of one and half hours’ worth of gossip about who goes to Amama Mbabazi’s house for tea on the verandah. It is also now undeniable, that the Inspector General of Police thinks that the Prime Minister of this country is a thief and a liar who does not deserve to be in high office. So which rational and honest person can now deny that we have fundamental dysfunction at the heart of government?
Yet despite all this, my gut instinct is to suppose that this scandal will go the same way as all the others before it have gone. It will be a headline item for the next few weeks but will then fizzle out and be forgotten in time. When the tabloids have squeezed every possible headline out of it and scream about new secrets leaking on the front pages only to serve up rehashed stories from FRONASA in the 1970s, we shall know that the scandal has died just like the others.
But this one may be different. Time and fate have very mysterious ways of unravelling things and making even the most imposing, purposeful and seemingly invincible political juggernauts appear small, pedestrian and ham-fisted. If one were to compare the body politic to a human body, the most dangerous and fatal conditions often manifest with the smallest and most innocuous of symptoms. I don’t mean to scare you, but that little itchy bump on your skin may be the first sign of a malignant and aggressive skin cancer. In much the same way, the thin end of earth shattering political scandals is most often a completely insignificant and easy to miss event.
Take the Watergate scandal in the United States, for example. The scandal, which was to end in the impeachment and resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon on August 9 1974, started with the arrest of five men who had broken into an office building on June 17, 1972. The men hadn’t just broken into any office; they had broken into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, the national headquarters of the Democratic Party in the massive Watergate Office Complex. Police investigations revealed a link between the five burglars and Richard Nixon’s presidential re-election campaign. Dogged investigative reporting coupled with patriotic whistleblowing and a Senate inquiry yielded more evidence of abuse of power by people around the president in seeking to get him re-elected. Eventually Nixon was taken down because of his deep involvement in a criminal conspiracy to cover up the affair.
The last straw for Nixon came when the US Supreme Court ordered the public release of several transcripts of tape recordings of conversations held in the White House, which had been made on a tape recording system that president Nixon secretly installed. That is how the Watergate scandal started and its impact on American and world politics was so huge that the suffix “gate” has become synonymous with political scandals all over the world.
So what started as a burglary gone wrong, ended up in a change of administration. I do not think that we shall see anything of that magnitude here, the press is too servile and Parliament too confused and pocketed to carry out the kind of scrutiny that was brought to bear upon the Nixon administration. But it is still too early to tell what the true impact of what some are now calling Kayihuragate will be.
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