Wednesday March 27 2013

No rebels in Uganda. It’s just an old lizard doing its thing

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Uganda never ceases to amaze. The last few weeks there have been reports of attacks on Mbuya barracks, killing of soldiers at a watering hole near Bombo army barracks, and attacks on police posts.

On one side, all sorts of government and security officials have come out either to deny, denounce all the reports as “reckless” rumours, or confirm parts of the reports and reassure the country that they are not a threat.

On the other side, some Opposition Ugandans and President Yoweri Museveni’s regime critics have seized on the reports as proof that his government is in crisis and is about to fall. So what’s up? I think there is too much focus on the players (who are behind the attacks?) rather than the game (what is happening and why?).

Those with even a mild sense of history will find this all familiar. As this column noted some years ago, these “rumours” always come at a time of tension and uncertainty in Ugandan politics, or before there is a dramatic political event.

In the late 1960s after Obote fell out with Kabaka Freddie Mutesa, attacked the Lubiri, and abolished the 1962 Constitution, a state of emergency was imposed in Buganda. The events that led to the imposition of a one-party State, the attempted assassination of Obote in 1969, and the 1971 coup by Idi Amin had been unleashed.

In most parts of Buganda, the protest against Obote took the form of a mysterious lizard (embalasasa). The country was swept with rumours of embalasasa addressing rallies in taxi parks and markets, and there were big and failed security operations to net the subversive lizard. The embalasasa had the ability to turn into a child, woman, and old man, name it.

The embalasasa returned during the worst periods of Amin, and the might of the State was deployed to apprehend it. This time, however, the embalasasa was not working alone. Oyite Ojok, the charismatic Obote I and Obote II General, who was much-feared by Amin and his people, was also appearing (after entering the country from exile in Tanzania) in various parts of the country, and mobilising rebellion.
Today he was a lizard, tomorrow a cat, the next day a dog.

During Obote II, when Museveni and his rebels were fighting the UPC government from their Luweero base, this time it was Kaguta’s son to be the embalasasa. He too took the form of dog, cat, or the occasional cow. The one that I will never forget is when he allegedly became a rat, got in the Bank of Uganda, slid in the vault, and walked out with a huge sack of money to go and fund his rebellion.

These rumours and mythical lizards are a product of two things. One, when Ugandans try to change their government and fail, they despair and conjure up animals or leaders with magical qualities that has the ability to foil the regime of the day and get away with it, in ways that they themselves can’t.

However, we like to also draw on our Christian history and to present our difficulties as the biblical battle between a little David and a giant Goliath. We are thus able to live with ourselves, by hoping that as little people we shall eventually overcome against the big government and its guns.

Together, these two phenomena have been a signal to those seeking to replace the leader or change the regime that the time to make a power grab is ripe. That the people are despondent and will not sacrifice to defend the regime.

Whether the president of the day survives depends on how he responds. Obote reacted wrongly in 1967 and 1969 and lost power in a coup. He made the mistake again in 1985, failing to reach out to the political opposition (even in Parliament) or to sue for peace with the Museveni rebels – if only to buy himself time to reorganise.

Museveni too is nearly in the same position Obote was – especially in 1970. His reputation tainted by his government’s corruption, he’s facing a country weary of what is quickly becoming an energy-sapping rule. Internally, he presides over a ruling NRM that is beginning to yearn for a new steward that captures its imagination of the future.

Museveni’s “embalasasa moment” is here, but he’s a more adept operator than Obote. For example, in 2007 he moved to reinvent himself in northern Uganda after the defeat of the Lords’ Resistance Army, bagging a decent harvest of votes there in 2011 to make up for the haemorrhage of his popularity in Buganda.
Does he still have any moves left, or he has played all his hands? My sense is that we won’t have to wait too long for the answer. & twitter@cobbo3