The bleeding victim in a police cell or a mourning mother of a freshly slain son sees through the outer beauty of the State and beholds the evil of deadly killers and oppressors that would have been at home in the old regimes of “useless people”
Cycle of repression. My hope and prayer is that we never witness the collapse of another ruling regime in Uganda. Better to have a democratic and peaceful transition to a genuinely transformative and law-abiding leadership. We must break our disastrous cycle of repression and violence.
Madness, just! That is my reaction to the “flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly,” to borrow from Joseph Conrad, that is at the centre of the Ugandan ruler’s court. How else do we explain the continued State violence against civilians, complete with killing of non-combatants, and the incarceration of dozens of people, including members of Parliament, on trumped-up charges of treason?
The State’s unleashing of bullets and kibooko (caning) upon hapless citizens of Arua were acts of acute madness that earned the rulers a place of honour in the chamber that houses memories of Uganda 1971-1986. More than two weeks later, the world continues to receive video and still images of government forces assaulting protestors and journalists.
Clearly, Uganda’s rulers have forgotten the words of a man whose ascent to power promised a permanent end to State violence against citizens.
“The security of the people of Uganda is their right and not a favour bestowed by any regime,” Yoweri Kaguta Museveni stated immediately after being sworn in as president on Wednesday, January 29, 1986. “No regime has a right to kill any citizen of this country, or to beat any citizen at a road block.”
“We make it clear to our soldiers that if they abuse any citizen, the punishment they will receive will teach them a lesson. As for killing people – if you kill a citizen, you yourself will be killed.”
Speaking to Acholi elders at Acholi Inn, Gulu, on Wednesday, March 12, 1986, Museveni pressed his point, referring to the State of affairs during what he called “the regimes of useless people like Obote, Amin, Okello and Muwanga” when Uganda “had become a byword for murder and tyranny.”
“Ugandans had become so dehumanised that when we took over Kampala, the first thing people did was to thank us that they were no longer being killed, as if being killed was the normal thing,” Museveni said. “One lady who came to Kampala from Moyo District through Zaire, told me that it was so surprising that our soldiers were so humble, you would not think they were soldiers. I told her that our soldiers are trained and compelled to be humble to the people and show their ukali (harshness) only to the enemy. The spear always points to the enemy, not to its owner, or the person it is supposed to defend.”
Those were days of hope and great promise, when one allowed one’s imagination to relegate tales of State violence and repression to the history books. The arrival of Museveni and the NRM/NRA in Kampala heralded the beginning of real Uhuru (independence). We could now meaningfully and honestly sing our national anthem and make the promise that we would lay our future in Uganda’s hand, united, free and, for liberty, together we would always stand.
Unfortunately, the great promise was an illusion, one we embraced because we desperately needed to believe, and because we needed a tranquiliser – any tranquiliser -after years of pain, blood, extreme fear, anarchy and hopeless exile. By the end of the 1980s, some of the NRA soldiers were murdering and raping non-combatant civilians and looting property in Acholi, then Teso, even as we in the south of the country celebrated the joy of kasita twebaka otulo (peaceful sleep).
In the intervening years, fits of murders and mass beatings by government soldiers, police and State-sponsored militias became frequent in every part of the country. The advent of pretend-democracy ushered in an era of State-sponsored violence and complete erasure of the words of our conquering hero of 1986.
On the surface, things still look good in Uganda. People still go about their business and pleasure pursuits without much fear, especially those who keep their anti-Museveni opinions private. New mansions and cars, glittering schools and church buildings, beautiful roads and a busy Entebbe Airport, goat races and all-night entertainment, mobile phones and multiple radio and television stations are many miles ahead of the economic and social collapse that expedited the fall of the “useless regimes” of the past.
To be sure, on a good day, the army and other armed organisations are friendly and different from their predecessors. However, the bloody terror that the ruler’s subjects endure at the hands of these same organisations when their assaultive services against political opponents are required punches a large hole in their collective reputation. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness resides at the source of the Nile.
No doubt many soldiers and police are disciplined and innocent. Museveni and his armies are in full control of the country. However, one is reminded of Reverend Abraham Zaribugire’s sermon about the rot under a beautiful surface. Zaribugire, one of the finest Rukiga-Runyankore preachers of the East African Revival Movement, often quoted the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 23: 27-28: “Muryakareeba, imwe abahangu b’eiteeka n’Abafarisaayo endyarya! Ahabw’okuba muri nk’ebituuro bisiigirwe einoni, ebireebeka gye eruguru, haza omunda biijwire amagufa g’abafu n’obujunde. Naimwe aheeru nikwo mureebeka omu bantu oti muri abahikiriire, haza omunda mwijwire oburyarya n’obubi.” (“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.)
The bleeding victim in a police cell or a mourning mother of a freshly slain son sees through the outer beauty of the State and beholds the evil of deadly killers and oppressors that would have been at home in the old regimes of “useless people.” Happily, not all is dark for the people of Uganda. They can find hope and comfort in the words of a man who fought for the liberation of man from domination by other men.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on October 21, 1987, on the subject of the arrogant rulers of South Africa, President Museveni said: “Oppressors have always been overestimated throughout history until the hour of reckoning… Who has ever succeeded in holding back the forward march of history? How many regimes of oppression which had greater power has history witnessed collapsing? Therefore, the African people and the whole world need not be cowed.”
My hope and prayer is that we never witness the collapse of another ruling regime in Uganda. Better to have a democratic and peaceful transition to a genuinely transformative and law-abiding leadership. We must break our disastrous cycle of repression and violence. Only Museveni and his courtiers have the key to peaceful accomplishment of that objective.