One way of devaluing a medal – or any other prize – is to give it to virtually everybody, like Uganda’s so-called 50th National Independence Golden Jubilee Medal, recently awarded to all sorts of big people (many of them deceased). From Presidents and Speakers of Parliament to bush war fighters; from professionals you had forgotten to self-appointed apostles. So, what if your favourite hero was not on the list?
However, two controversial names attracted considerable interest. Dr Milton Obote, who ruled Uganda twice (1962-71 and 1980-85), was on the list, and Field Marshal Idi Amin (1971-79) was left out. People who claim to understand the thinking of the ruling clique have been telling us that Obote led Uganda to independence, built hospitals and so on.
On the other hand, celebrating the part Amin played would be to contradict everything that the NRM had fought for. In short, Amin was so wicked that none of his actions could redeem him.
Now, unless you are completely charitable, this argument smells of naked hypocrisy. Why?
Everybody knows that although Mr. Museveni participated in some of the action against Amin’s rule, he was a rather marginal figure. When the Tanzanian forces routed Amin in 1979, very few Ugandans had even heard of Museveni or his FRONASA. Almost definitely, the Tanzanian forces could have sorted out Amin without Museveni’s help; indeed also without the Oyite Ojok/Milton Obote rebels, if the questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity could be ignored.
It was the war the NRA waged against Obote’s second rule (1980-85) that defined Museveni. And if we believe his account, the trigger was the rigging of the 1980 general election that returned the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) to power. By rigging that election, in conspiracy with Paulo Muwanga and the security forces, Obote had in effect usurped the democratic power of the Ugandan people. This was the top official reason Museveni went to the bush. All the other reasons were secondary.
So, if Museveni’s ultimate enterprise on the battlefield was not against Amin but Obote, fighting a war in which ordinary Ugandans lost more lives and property than under Amin, followed by years of absolutely unforgiving propaganda portraying Obote as a monster, how can Museveni now, as the Fountain of Honour, turn around and convince us that there was something about his foe that makes him deserve the Golden Jubilee Medal more than Amin?
Rather, with the NRM now wallowing in almost all the sins that plagued UPC rule, the regime understands that it has lost the high ground from which it vilified both Amin and Obote. But since Obote always put up a pretence that he ruled as a properly elected leader, just like Museveni, it seems expedient to hold him a notch above Amin, who ruled by the undisguised force of arms.
Secondly, Amin has a much narrower constituency than Obote. Many of the prominent UPC youth of Obote’s first rule have been lured or bought by Museveni. They are now aging ministers and presidential advisers.
But somewhere in the corners of their hearts, and among their clan and ideological fraternities, an attachment to UPC and Obote lingers on; and Museveni wants all these people to remain in his camp.
Branded only as a soldier, a Moslem and a member of the small Kakwa tribe, and his comical reputation colouring even these three identities, Amin can be “isolated” more easily than Obote.
So, in Amin we are given a villain to justify Museveni’s cause, but without risking as much support as would have been the case if the NRM had continued treating Obote cruelly.
Finally, lumping together Obote and Sir Edward Muteesa, the late Kabaka of Buganda, makes a statement. To the Central Region (Buganda), where Obote remains generally unforgiven for treating Sir Edward shabbily, and where Museveni fought his war but is steadily losing support, the message is: Go hang.
Allan Tacca is a novelist and socio-political commentator.