When Bill Clinton as a sitting US President spoke about the “new breed” of African leaders, he was confident a handful of relatively younger presidents on the continent were reform-minded.
The understanding was they would not behave like the ‘old guards’ who considered it a right to rule for life because they led the struggle for their countries’ independence. These ‘big men’ imprisoned opponents they could not kill or bribe, lived lavishly as majority citizens wallowed in poverty and offered perks to secure soldiers’ loyalty.
Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi – feted by Mr Clinton in the “new breed” league – either staged a coup or shot their way to power following a bloody guerilla war.
But they promised reform and inspired. For instance, Mr Museveni in his inaugural 1986 speech said Africa’s problem is leaders who overstay in power. He, derided Presidents on the continent who flew to attend UN summits in New York in private jets while leaving in their backyards citizens walking barefoot and jigger-infested.
Thus Uganda assumed a special place in the West because under Mr. Museveni, the country imbibed structural adjustment programmes that IMF and the World Bank prescribed and enforced with rigour as the right medicine for its struggling economy.
Liberalisation returned foreign investors to Uganda to revive collapsed or ailing industries, making available scarce essential household items and creating private sector jobs. The Ugandan economy grew uninterrupted at about 8-9 per cent per annum.
The Bretten Woods institutions in turn rewarded Kampala with more loans and debt relief, without asking or answering the question why a well-performing economy would fail to service its debt.
Because the country was recuperating from a ‘sick’ economy and tumultuous political period, the promulgation in 1995 of a liberal Constitution coupled with restoration of the rule of law as well as human security in most parts of the country put the former guerilla leader in his own class and endeared him even to critics.
As such it surprised a little – if at all - that a US President labeled Museveni one of Africa’s “new breed” leaders. Does that appellation hold true today?
“Yes,” said Presidential spokesperson Mirundi Tamale. “If you want to know that Museveni qualified and still qualifies as a ‘new breed’ (of) African leader,” Mr Tamale said, “You need to revisit where Uganda was before Museveni became President in 1986, and the socio-economic transformation since then, which is the context in which Bill Clinton made that statement.”
Many things in Africa have changed since Clinton’s 1998 visit, dubbed the most ambitious ever by a sitting American President, and since he left the White House in 2001. Gaddafi is dead and buried at an undisclosed location after more than 40 years in power. And Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, is now a military general, his wife Janet Kataha a cabinet minister and their 38-year-old son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who formally enlisted in the army only in 1999, a colonel and commander of the powerful and elite Special Forces Group.
The President, in a coil of fate, cruises to New York in a Gulfstream V plane to attend UN meetings while jiggers kill villagers in the eastern Busoga region. He had presidential term limits scrapped in 2005 to keep in power cumulatively now for 26 years - a period within which the US has had five different presidents, two of whom served two terms of four years each!
In Kampala, soldiers were rushed onto the streets to protect Museveni’s 2011 February victory and court had previously ruled that the 2001 and 2006 ballots he won were rife with irregularities.
Economic growth is crawling at a 3.2 per cent, roughly three in every 10 Ugandans live in abject poverty, external debt has according to official statistics piled to more than $4 billion (over Shs8 trillion).
Mr Clinton on Saturday learned firsthand the desperation of rural Ugandans when Senior Two student Bill Clinton Kaligana, named in his honour during a visit 14 years ago, told the former US leader that his mother could not afford his $76 per-term tuition ($228 per year), and asked for his help.
The prevalence of HIV/Aids, which Museveni was credited for scaling down from roughly 27 per cent to about 5.6 per cent, is again on the rise as the application of the successful Abstinence, Be faithful and use Condom (ABC) model flounders.
“Museveni lied to Ugandans and the outside world that he was a reformer,” said Nandala Mafabi, the Leader of Opposition in Parliament. He said the President is like “a wolf in sheep’s skin.” “He has destroyed the country which is why Uganda is being labeled [by western think tanks] a failed state; the roads are pathetic, service delivery is at its worst and only corruption thrives, Nandala Mafabi said, “Museveni cannot be a ‘new breed’ leader.”
When everything good initially associated with Museveni appears to fall apart, one institution key to statehood remains strong, respected internationally. It is the army (UPDF) that has beaten 27 domestic rebel groups and continues to shine on regional security assignments.
According to Mr Robert Tabaro, a political scientist who lectures Public Administration at Kyambogo University, Ugandans are divided whether Museveni is a builder or destroyer. “Some say he has done a lot, especially the relative peace that has allowed economic growth while others, particularly academics, think he has outlived his usefulness.” One man across the Atlantic knew that the President, in power since 19986, could not be trusted entirely.
Current US top diplomat for Africa Johnnie Carson, wrote about Mr Museveni’s thirst for power in the Boston Globe on May 1, 2005, shortly after Clinton acclaimed him a “new breed” leader. Mr Carson noted that the corrupted removal of presidential term limits, the safeguard for peaceful transfer of power in a country that has only known violent regime change, “cast Museveni as just another African president unwilling to give up power”, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Why? Mr Carson opined then that the President’s reluctance to abdicate power was likely “motivated by a desire to protect those around him, including his son and half-brother, from charges of corruption for alleged involvement in illegal activities”.
It is such a paradox that Mr Carson, as chief of Barack Obama administration’s diplomatic engagement with the continent, flies to Kampala regularly to confer with Museveni on wide-ranging issues, including regional security operations and democracy. When this newspaper asked him if he felt Museveni of 2011 was a worse dictator than that of 2005, Mr Carson said the US considers him a “duly elected President of Uganda”.
Mr Mirundi said people speculating that the President no longer fits the bill of a ‘new breed’ African leader have forgotten fast his “extra-ordinary contributions at the time he was labeled so; reforms that look ordinary today.”
So is Museveni, as Bill Clinton proclaimed 14 years ago, still a “new breed”?
When he re-visited on Friday on charity work, the former US President eschewed doing or saying anything political. And journalists covering him were not given an opportunity to ask, among other things, if he thought his political prophesy about Museveni, who stood by his side in Entebbe and praised him as Africa’s true friend for signing the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), was indeed of the political fibre he saw in 1998.