President Museveni straddles the region and the continent like a colossus. Listen to him speak at any of the regional and international conferences and it is hard not to marvel at what seems like his intelligent vision for Africa.
It is a vision in which African countries cast aside the residual yoke of colonialism and march forward with common purpose, their proud people finally rising to look the world in the eye and take their seat at the table of humanity.
It is a vision Museveni wants to start with in East Africa and, to his credit, he has been consistent in his aspirations for a united region. Look closer, however, and it soon becomes clear that what Museveni preaches abroad Museveni rarely practices at home.
Several examples abound. Mr Museveni, for instance, is critical of the small, weak and divided nation states that make up Africa – a problem that a political federation would, in the case of East Africa, seek to cure. Yet he has presided over the gerrymandering of the country into thin, unsustainable slivers as a form of patronage, increasing the number of districts from 39 when he took power to 112 and counting.
A pan-Africanist abroad, at home the President spends his hours engineering small, feudal societies – the Banyala are one of several examples – in a manner of divide-and-rule not too dissimilar to that of the European colonialists in Africa.
Here is a President who speaks disparagingly about Africans who holiday or travel to the West, who proudly lays claim to his heritage and even carries his millet and ghee on some foreign trips. Yet the same President has no qualms about seeking treatment in hospitals abroad for himself, his friends and his family while water is cut off from the country’s largest hospital for non-payment of bills and thousands die of preventable and treatable diseases.
What are we to make of Museveni’s claims to African dignity and solidarity when his security agencies ruthlessly brutalise his political opponents and he himself threatens to send his rivals “six feet under” or to “eat them like a samosa”?
How can one man be so grand, so bold, in his vision of Africa to the world but so petty in his politics at home? One day Mr Museveni is eloquently arguing for a fairer global trading regime for African exports; the next day he is warning an opposition MP over a market stall or handing over money to a defector.
In his short but brilliant eulogy for the late Nelson Mandela, President Museveni managed to sum up, in 800 words, 1,000 years of the struggle of African emancipation. Yet in his speeches at home Mr Museveni rarely rallies his people as a country and is more likely to speak about NRM than Uganda, who remains partisan in his views even on momentous bi-partisan occasions such as the 50th Independence Anniversary celebration?
None of Uganda’s leaders has been as widely-read as Museveni or as intellectual. He is as comfortable discussing the Bible as he is discussing Frantz Fanon’s theories on violence or Jared Diamond’s views on evolution of societies. Yet he shamelessly speaks of the country’s oil resources in personal possessive terms and wards off political rivals in the primitive terms of a hunter protecting his kill after a hunt.
Which of these is the real Museveni? Shall we ever know? There are three words that the President loves to use: charlatans, obscurantism and its Luganda equivalent, ‘okuguumaza’. Why does he use them repeatedly? It would be interesting to know what the Museveni you listen to abroad thinks of the Museveni who rules Uganda.