Last week, President Yoweri Museveni was in Rwanda for a regional meeting on the Northern Corridor, to attend the country’s 20th Liberation Day anniversary, and to speak at a pan-African Youth Conference.
He was on form. Though when he is doing local politics in Uganda, or is quarrelling with meddlesome foreigners, the President often sounds unreasonable, when he is in element he is still quite scientific. In Kigali, it was the Museveni of his 1992 book, What is Africa’s Problem? While gung-ho about the future of Africa at that point, well before the “Africa Rising” mantra caught on in the last few years, that book was remarkable for its cold rationality and realistic view of what was keeping Africa backward, so to speak.
Generally, Museveni is among the African leaders, if not the leading one, who loves statistics. He has always sprinkled his speeches and writings with them, a good practice that allows ideas to be tested without necessary reference to the character of the presenter.
He spoke of how industry is what will take Africa forward, and railed against the peasant and subsistence economy. He told the anecdote of when he asked the Uganda Manufacturers’ Association (UMA) how many members (and therefore businesses) it had. They had 700.
Then he visited with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) a short while later, and he asked them the same question. The CBI told him it had 55,000 members. Museveni has a way of keeping it simple. Even the most befuddled person in the audience understood him. And, to signal he wasn’t wooly-eyed, he said people talk of Africa’s great hydroelectric potential. How much was that potential, he asked. Well, 350,000MW he answered his own question. The US alone, which now has just about a third of Africa’s one billion population, has the potential for 1,000,000MW he remarked.
And his trademark folksy engagement with the audience is still intact. The thing is that if you didn’t know the kind of graft-ridden government and chaotic nation the President led back in Uganda, you would think from his performance on the international stage that he was the president of Singapore.
So where does this great disconnect come from? Why did Museveni bake a cake and then step on it with dirty boots? Why is a man who can be so thoughtful when he chooses to, elect to run his country like it were a junkyard in a backwater? How can a man who is so engaging on the stage, choose not to govern by a similar persuasive style?
Ugandans who are seeking understanding shall continue to ask those questions for a long time to come, but there were some hints in Museveni’s body language in Kigali—especially if you compared him to his host Paul Kagame.
Just the way the two men sat told volumes. Museveni came on the stage, and like he often does, leaned back and spread his legs out front and stretched them lazily. Not so Kagame. He sat up straight, put his knees together, and occasionally crossed his legs in a regimented fashion. Kagame is ordered and measured meticulously, and he takes the same approach to running his country. Museveni runs his much like his permissive sitting style.
Museveni had a big notebook with yellow pages that were all over the place, and kept beckoning his aide de camp for one thing or the other. Kagame arrived with a folder, his notes printed on white paper, and neatly stacked in. When Kagame came to the stage, you could see him looking quizzically at the empty moderator’s chair beside him. Later after the moderator occupied it, he said he was concerned that he was going to be on stage with an empty chair beside him.
If Museveni noticed the empty chair beside him, he didn’t seem bothered. Rather than focus on sizing up his immediate neighbourhood, his eyes were quickly reading the audience. So you have a tightly structured Kagame, and a free-spirited Museveni.
These two presidents come from the same National Resistance Army (NRA) bush war military tradition, but it is striking how different they are.
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, watching him, I thought I could finally sense a bit of where the disconnect in Museveni comes from. Though, admittedly a brilliant people person who remembers names and faces remarkably well, he still really doesn’t see the trees when he looks at the forest.
Because he seems to have a poor environmental awareness, he probably really doesn’t fully appreciate the criticisms people make of his failures, and the effect (especially hurt) his regime’s actions have on people. It enables him to have a good grasp of the big picture, yes, but it has also made him a flawed leader.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com): Twitter:cobbo3