On Tuesday, Daily Monitor ran a pithy front-page headline: ‘Museveni masks lockdown.’ It was a most thoughtful and cryptic capture of what had happened in the Monday evening presidential address about new measures for a gradual lifting of weeks of lockdown.
For the perceptive reader who had keenly watched/listened to Museveni’s address, the Daily Monitor headline delivered two core messages, which both created enormous confusion prompting Mr Museveni and his handlers to make a follow-up address the following evening.
The first message was that the President had ‘masked’ or created a cloud of uncertainty and ambiguity on when and how the country was to return to some semblance of normalcy.
Rather than communicate clearly what was to come ahead, whether or not citizens will go about their business after weeks of stay-home orders and curfews, the ruler had instead left many guessing and confused.
In masking the lockdown issue, and this is the second meaning in the headline, he introduced the mandatory requirement of wearing facemasks, declaring rather incredulously that everyone was to wear strictly the government-distributed masks.
The most absurd bit of the latter message was that the masks were to come out of one producer and available in two weeks to more than 30 million Ugandans. No Ugandan manufacturer has the capacity for such a huge output, in fact, perhaps no producer in the world can churn out more than 30 million masks in two weeks.
Worse, the Ugandan government simply does not have the logistical sophistication and infrastructure to distribute even something as small as a facemask to tens of millions across the country.
Mr Museveni’s routine briefings and updates on preventive guidelines for the nation in the face of the pandemic have been as bewildering as breathtaking.
To be fair, Mr Museveni is not alone in this saga of miscommunication and the dearth of clarity on matters to do with measures and steps for countering the coronavirus pandemic.
Only recently, the British prime minister put out a vaguely understood reopening plan while the Indian prime minister too has had to deal with a similar fate of confusing communication.
The common theme here is that the whole world is grappling with an unprecedented pandemic, one that unleashed enormous fear and trepidation. As I have argued here in the last few weeks, even the best of health specialists and scientists know precious little about the full spectrum of this public health menace.
However, unlike other political leaders around the world who too have to make do with tentative information and experiment with unclear policies here and there given the uncertain situation, Mr Museveni has a few problems peculiar to him, which make it difficult for him to communicate clearly and persuasively. One is idiosyncratic and the other is political.
At a personal level, Mr Museveni has a knack for long and imprecise lectures. Yet, even in normal times, not many people want to sit through more than an hour of a monologue speech. I am a teacher, so I know this all too well.
In this moment of social anxiety and economic anguish, when people are worried about their livelihoods as they remain tucked in lockdowns, the last thing they want to entertain is a three-hour lecture, moreover one that did not start on time.
On another front, politically, Museveni faces a dire situation. For long, there are sections of Ugandans who consider him an illegitimate President, not validly elected despite Supreme Court pronouncements to the contrary.
He is in power legally since he commands the power of the State and can do anything that grants him legal cover, however immoral and illegitimate. The real source of his authority is not necessarily the popular will of the people, but rather the command of force and finance.
This means he has a huge legitimacy deficit, making his rule precarious. Managing a crisis situation, therefore, is dicey as anything could potentially set in motion events that may threaten his rule.
This must have been the rationale behind an otherwise illogical declaration that all facemasks were to be distributed by government and produced from one manufacturer – there has to be the latent fear of masks being used as tools for political mobilisation.
Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).