For the media, 2017 ended with a circular from the mighty Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). Television and radio stations were ‘ordered’ to broadcast live, President Museveni’s New Year message.
UCC’s letter is marvelling if you recall many years ago when Comrade Museveni (now Gen Yoweri Museveni, President of the Republic of Uganda), was a most sought after ‘great story.’ It did not need an invitation let alone an order to savor. People hungered for it. You were the loser if you did not publicise it.
When in 1981 Museveni started his guerrilla war against the Milton Obote government in the bushes of Luweero, his message of hope and liberation, especially on BBC, was very popular. It was also mystical. Lore had it that with only 27 armed men, Museveni had started a war and was putting a whole government to the sword. So mysterious was Museveni that Kampala would many times turn into a farce with people running in all directions, courtesy of rumours that Museveni and his liberators had been sighted making a triumphal entry into the city.
The other exciting gossip which persisted was of Museveni appearing in places dressed in a gomesi or more bizarrely turning into a cat as security agents approached to arrest him! By 1985 as the Obote and the chaotic Tito Okello government after that, was on the last leg, a Uganda pregnant with hope yearned for news regarding Museveni and his revolutionaries. When guerrillas of NRA captured territory in southern and western Uganda, the people of Kampala almost run out of patience waiting for the arrival of the transcendent saviour and his army. Henry Gombya, the Kampala BBC correspondent speaking to Chris Bickerton and Robin White on Focus of Africa, made a name for himself reporting on NRM’s advance to Kampala.
Then Museveni arrived. There was no looting. The soldiers who had no ranks in the people’s army, were very disciplined and civil towards ordinary people, unlike the rough UNLF soldiers. Museveni promised a fundamental change, and a return to civilian rule in four years after the making of a new Constitution. People transparently voted their own leaders at village level and security became the new normal.
Museveni was so close to his people. He always held very lively press conferences at the VIP lounge at Entebbe Airport whenever he returned from abroad. He used a lot of Leninist-Marxist jargon like ‘bourgeoisie comprador.’ The popular one liners usually came alive here. To a question like, ‘are you a Marxist?’ he replied with the question, ‘what is a Marxist?’ and left the questioning journalist embarrassingly stranded. In that cold war era, he gave a novel and believable answer that he was ‘neither pro-East nor pro-West, but pro myself.’
In Museveni, Uganda for the first time saw a leader who moved with a chalk board and explained to the people their predicament like a humble teacher. At rallies, he would call out ministers to answer questions on issues that fell within their docket.
He paid for his drink from his pocket. Chastised past leaders for importing furniture yet Ugandan carpenters also made beds in Katwe. He drank porridge from a plastic cup like a peasant. When he went to the theatre to watch plays like Alex Mukulu’s 30 Years of Bananas, roads were not blocked by security.
Museveni wiped his brow with his military cap. He wrote several sought after articles in the newspapers explaining Africa’s problems, one of which was ‘leaders overstaying in power!’ These writings and speeches were compiled and bound into books which sold like hot cake. Many of his speeches littered with African proverbs and sayings plus self-deprecating humour delivered in a relaxed manner, were recorded on cassette tapes and sold to those who had missed them on the only radio station then, Radio Uganda. Many adopted the habit of wearing their watches on the right hand like Museveni, grew mustaches, later adopted the Stetson hat and a white t-shirt under their shirts or safari suits like Museveni.
If one wanted to chastise another, they would pick from Museveni’s speeches and jargons. You heard things like ‘you are the backward opportunistic obscurantists Museveni talks about. You suffer from a colonial hangover. You will be dumped on the garbage heap of history!’ People went to Kyankwanzi to become cadres of the NRM ideology and follow the correct line.
Then Museveni overstepped the four year mark. The soldiers (now part of a professional army with ranks) who did not loot in 1986, have featured in land grabbing and corruption. Those who did not agree with NRM were tear gassed, beaten, locked up and some killed. The Constitution was amended - lifting the term and age limits giving Museveni lee way to rule forever.
Uganda became a heavy borrower from the hitherto rebuked World Bank and IMF. The dream of building an independent integrated and self-sustaining economy was replaced with the gospel of often predatory foreign investors. The story of ethnic sectarianism, especially in government and security agencies, refused to go away like it was hitherto criticised by NRM.
In other words with time, Museveni went against everything that had made him a darling of the people. So after more than three decades in power, it is very difficult to convince anyone that there is anything truthful let alone new in what the President will say that he has not said and failed to do. You have to cajole them to listen to him.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political
and social issues. firstname.lastname@example.org