Charles Onyango Obbo
From revolutionaries to partisans; how NRM’s men became ‘the boys’
Posted Wednesday, January 9 2013 at 02:00
Something truly remarkable has happened in Uganda, and reveals a lot about how the country continues to change.
For the first time in a long time, the country went through several months without a new district being created! Also, not only have there been no stories about districts with incomprehensible names being created by President Yoweri Museveni, neither have I heard of any part of the country threatening to go to war if they were not given a district.
I am tempted to bet my index finger on this: If you got the “Great District Creator” Museveni, and put him and some of the brightest Ugandans in a television quiz without prior preparation and asked them to name all the districts in a trot, none of them would.
Something else has also happened. These days you go for weeks without reading or hearing on TV a story about a Local Council chairperson (from 5 to 1). Also, if you asked a regular primary school kid what Local Defence Unit (LDU) means, she will most probably not get it right. Some weeks back, General Salim Saleh made a complaint that would have been very strange just 10 years ago. He lamented the fact that there had been no local government elections.
Some years ago, the more hysterical Ugandans were making alarms about how the country was becoming a “communist style” nation, with an LC official at every corner monitoring even when you went for a bath, and that a time was coming when to date and marry the woman of your choice, you’d need some NRM mandarin to give you permission. That there would be no village path you could walk without having to show your ID to an LDU or paying the blokes a bribe. And, in a grand finale, we would all have been corralled into 250 districts, each with its array of District Intelligence officers tormenting us.
This giant NRM “communist state” has been a mega flop. Question is why?
First, it illustrates the limit of the patronage state experiment. The NRM Big Men sought to buy support by creating as many “eating points” and distribution outlets as possible, which is what the LCs and districts later became (we should remember that in the early years the LCs – then called Resistance Councils – actually played quite a useful role). The LDUs were, strategically, an attempt to soak up demobilised soldiers and co-opt restless youth into state structures so that they would not be available to be recruited by regime opponents. However, the return to multiparty politics actually did soften national tension, considerably reducing the prospect of uprising. To appreciate this fact, is to understand why with the return to multiparty politics in 2005, the last vestiges of resistance by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army inside Uganda collapsed totally in 2006. This allowed the UPDF to take off to do peacekeeping in Somalia the next year.
If you look at what’s happening in Kampala; the Walk-to-Work protests, the activism of the Opposition in Parliament that gives it clout well beyond its members, you might think that political temperatures have risen considerably. They have in Kampala, because multiparty politics transferred all the political contestations from all over the country and concentrated it in Kampala. The countryside though is largely poor, apathetic and cynical – even apolitical- with all the NRM-contrived structures rotting away and its functionaries going hungry like the rest. We got to this point because the logic of patronage meant that the new supporters of the regime were the ones who were allowed to eat the moneys for districts, schools, hospitals, and civil servants up-country in the long chain that is supposed to deliver it downstream.
The corrupt chain replaced political mobilisation. With that the NRM finally stopped being a revolutionary movement, and became a traditional political party. Money from the Treasury and Bank of Uganda, which is what fuels the patronage pipes, can only go so far. You need what TIME/CNN’s Zakaria Fareed calls “earned wealth” – from modernising farming, innovation and creation of new industries, not oil or minerals. However, that doesn’t happen with the kind of corruption Uganda has. All this is good.
Many illusions have been shattered. We have learnt that nation building isn’t easy. That the groceries that come through the patronage pipeline soon end, and before long it’s only the ‘Big People’ in Kampala eating. That “bringing services closer to the people” through districts might sound seductive, but the reality is that the districts often bring nothing. The Big Brother state many NRM feared was building has ended in a whimper. Ugandans are much wiser, and our land is now fully fertile for democracy in the future. The irony is that for that to happen, the NRM needed to be corrupt. The revolution needed to eat its own intestines.
firstname.lastname@example.org & twitter@cobbo3