Fighting coronavirus must not benefit only Museveni

Sunday May 10 2020


By Bernard Tabaire

The devious disease that is Covid-19 has locked down the economy — endangering businesses, jobs, and livelihoods.

Not everyone, however, sees gloom. President Museveni for one exulted during a recent national address on the pandemic.

He not only declared that Uganda would emerge stronger, but also crowed about the country’s new capacity to fight on several fronts simultaneously. I use the word fight because, remember, we are in the middle of a war — against a pandemic caused by the new coronavirus.
War. Battle. Frontline. Order. Sacrifice. Defeat. Enemy. We even have a Covid-19 incident commander in Uganda.

Egged on by headline writers in the media, political leaders around the world have cunningly employed martial language to describe the effort to stop the spread of a health monster. It is a way to demonstrate they are in charge and that the crisis at hand is so deadly they need leeway to act swiftly and broadly to save their countries.

It is actually a ploy to grab themselves some wide-ranging powers and cement their authority. Never a bad thing for a politician.

In wartime, we all have to be on the lookout for the clear enemy and for fifth columnists, and to follow orders to save our lives. We are required to behave and do as told or else the war sends us all to hell.


The orders come from somewhere. In our case from the commander-in-chief, also the President of Uganda. Being primarily a political and not a military leader (although it is tricky to tell the difference), our President is happy to command the stage and extract maximum advantage.

He is our leader who is doing everything he can to keep every Ugandan safe. He is doing it wisely — counselling us to not act suicidal by demanding stoppage of cross-border cargo movement to prevent truck drivers from coming in with the disease. A few more restrictions are a small sacrifice if we are to defeat the enemy, just like his guerrilla troops sacrificed in the Luweero Triangle.

Having declared most Ugandans bazukulu in his typical paternalistic style, Mr Museveni has added on supreme leader. He is looking out for us.

National elections are in February 2021. As many commentators have noted, Mr Museveni could not have wished for a better timing for an historic crisis. He is hogging national TV airtime, skilfully stretching out his primetime speeches over two hours on average. Thereafter, we discuss the speeches. Not bad publicity.

Now he does not even have to try to forcibly keep his opponents off the political trail like he has done before. They are doing it themselves — as responsible citizens who must stay home until Mr Museveni says it is fine to go on a walkabout.

For the rest of us, anxiety is killing us. Food is running low. Cash is running low. But we cannot shout too much because just a little sacrifice is still required of us to win the war quickly. There is no dignity in losing. If we misbehave, we prolong the war. War comes with misery. Fact.

How else is Mr Museveni profiting from the moment? As effective chief. In the address referenced at the start of this piece, he boasted about how his government had easily batted away the locusts (although a second, even deadlier, wave is already underway in Somalia/Kenya and may be headed our way); dismantled the floating islands threatening the dams in Jinja; and was doing damage to the Covid-19. Local Ugandan expertise, under his wise direction, has been at the forefront in delivering these successes.

The unstated campaign pitch is that if we stick with him a little longer, this sort of capacity will multiply and make Uganda proud.
If Mr Museveni suddenly cares about general public sector competence, he has to do more. Going by commentary in mainstream and social media, he needs to start by competently distributing quality food rations to vulnerable Ugandans under lockdown.

Second, he needs to ensure that the money and goods Ugandans and foreigners, including institutions such as IMF, are donating or lending to the war effort are used well and accounted for well.

He can then build on that by hiring competent Ugandans on regionally competitive terms. God knows he needs to. “While consistent data to measure sector specific waste are not available, indices that measure the overall quality of the institutional environment on which public investment management is based indicate that the management of public investments in Uganda does not facilitate the achievement of optimal value,” a World Bank report said in 2016.

If only Mr Museveni gave us more optimal value! Will Covid-19 be the thing that changes our sub-optimal curve?

Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.