I came of age in the late 1990s. It was a momentous time in Ugandan politics. We had raging and brutal rebel activities in the Rwenzori region, the broader north and northeast of the country.
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group committed atrocities in Kasese and the neighbouring districts, their most heinous act being the 1998 attack on Kichwamba Technical Institute in Kabarole District. The rebels burnt to death at least 80 students, more than 100 were abducted. Also, the ADF was blamed for grenade attacks in Kampala around the same time: 1997/8. Barring the ADF activities, the problem of insecurity in Uganda was for long confined to the north, northeast and parts of West Nile. Joseph Kony’s tendentiously named Lord’s Resistance Army created the largest wave of insecurity.
In a sense, we had two ‘Ugandas:’ the largely peaceful, modestly prospering ‘southern Bantu’ and a conflict stricken socioeconomically neglected non-Bantu north.
The people of the greater north saw the NRM regime and its military, the NRA, as an occupying force. This perception derived in part from the change of power at the centre, loosely speaking, from the north to the south, but it was also borne of the reprisals and veiled revenge actions by NRA soldiers on the defeated army of ‘northerners’ and the attendant communities.
To his credit, although our ruler for life intransigently insisted on a militarist route to tackling the northern question, he was able to work on reconciling the people in Acholi, Lango and West Nile with the state armed forces, making the former more trusting of the latter.
At the national level, generally speaking, Uganda in the 1990s made significant strides in having a sober and sound conversation about our politics. As argued here last week, in the end, the NRM played a deceptive game, selling itself as an alternative political system yet, in fact, it was building a one-party state to house one-man rule.
But the debates that took place in the Constituent Assembly, in the pages of national newspapers and even in informal social spaces were anchored on principles not cheap populism, sobriety not salacious sloganeering and public interest not personal scheming.
While the NRM at its core remained a military regime since it had captured power in 1986 through the barrel of the gun, there was a deliberate effort to project an open engagement and critical debate, to allow public officials be questioned and be subject to scrutiny.
When I entered Makerere University as a first year student, the environment I found was one of informed discussion, critical debate and intellectual vitality.
Since the late 2000s, however, Ugandan political discourse has been rapidly deteriorating simultaneous with the sheer decay of the public sector and a gradual collapse of the public spirit. The quality of informed debate has dipped, incompetence in the public sector has worsened and the rush to steal from the public purse has become normalised.
Socially, we are a country whose basic moral fabric is being shredded by rapidly changing demographics and runaway religious contraptions. Our cultural ethos are being blown away by new media and information flows. We have new generations of young people lacking in basic etiquette and bereft of ethic consciousness.
There is an explosion in religiosity that has created all sort of social distortions, misleading beliefs and dubious promises of redemption, both spiritual and material. Ironically, the more ‘religious’ we have become, the less empathetic, less compassionate but more greedy and corrupt we seem to get. This deterioration in the morality of the nation, in the social ethos of the country, to my understanding, is a central cause of the gutter politics now gripping us, and the lack of deep reflection in political discourse.
We have descended into cheap insults; empty slogans have replaced concrete policy positions and superficial punditry has overthrown critical debate. Social media has been a double-edged sword in all this, crucial for democratising access to information and providing platforms for free speech, but equally corrosive as a source of misinformation and a tool for peddling falsehoods.
When all is said, as a student of politics I retreat to what I believe to be the crux of why we have ended up in this sad situation: The use and abuse of State power.
In a poor country like Uganda, the State and government play pivotal roles in setting the terms of engagement and driving the course of national discourse. Those in charge who wield State power can play positive and progressive roles or can wreck the nation and drive it down the drain.
Museveni’s singular focus on ruling for life means he is unbothered by anything else other than keeping a grip on power and is willing to do anything, including upending the moral basis of society and overseeing destruction of the soul of the nation.
Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).