Few things about Ugandan politics of the last year have proved fodder for online jokes like the December 4 anti-corruption walk, that is to be led by President Yoweri Museveni.
A video compilation of the mega scandals in Uganda of the last 30 years, had someone saying the pile of graft was the mountain the anti-corruption walk was climbing. Three decades in power have their price, with several observing that given the corruption record of his government, the anti-corruption walk was “corruption walking against itself”. And so on, and so on.
The anti-corruption walk falls in the strange mix of fatalism and denialism that has swept parts of Africa in recent years. In 2015, with the Zambia currency in the gutters, President Edgar Lungu held national prayers for the exchange rate to stabilise. A headline mocking the exercise said “Gave save the Kwacha.”
As he knelt to pray, Lungu actually had the answers to improving the performance of the Kwacha in his clasped hands. And as Museveni walks, he will have the answers to ending Uganda’s runaway corruption, as Paul Simon might have sung, in the soles of his shoes. But, perhaps, he won’t reach for them.
There’s still a silver lining, though. The very fact that the President is leading a march, suggests that we haven’t fallen over the cliff – though we are on the edge. That there’s a recognition that corruption is corrosive, and a need – even as a cynical public relations ploy – to signal that there’s still a desire to fight it. It’s, close, but not yet Mobutu Sese Seko levels.
The question then has to be asked, how have Museveni and the NRM come to a point that they have to resort to the weapon of the weak, a protest walk, to make a point against corruption in a country they have not only ruled for 33 years, but dominated comprehensively?
Beyond the inevitable property grabs that the NRA rebels undertook in the bush to survive (rebels have done that all over the world from time immemorial), there are deeper structural reasons.
The NRA/NRM purposed to end impunity, presidency for life, murder and terror, and introduce democracy. We don’t have to go into how well done they have on those accounts, the evidence is all too glaring.
However, it was all underpinned by a determination to end and reverse decades of abuses, predation and extortion by a northern Uganda elite and militariat of the south. It was a redistributive logic, which essentially justified seizure from a sinful north, to the long-suffering south. This was the context in which the plunder of cattle from the north and northeast during the wars there, happened. The thieves were noble.
Luckily, with time, that idea was repudiated – particularly as far as it involved cattle, something which we have always been more willing to make amends for, than over killing each other.
But the idea of the noble thief, had taken root. Thus when the liberators turned looters, the argument was that it was better to have them busy stealing public funds, than in the bush fighting another rebellion.
Before long, the benefits extended to the Opposition – armed and unarmed. A murderous rebel leader would be brought in and showered with groceries if he would promise not to return to making war, and a civil Opposition leader would be allowed to gorge on public goods, if he supported the government.
As the NRM expanded beyond its bush-era social base, and became a national party of sorts, the “original” NRMs and “historicals” started to complain that the revolution they had fought for was being hijacked by Johnny-come-latelies, and they were being marginalised.
To keep them happy and in the fold, they were allowed to loot.
And after 2005 when Uganda formally returned to a multiparty system, things got more complicated. With NRM facing increased political competition, and as Museveni’s political currency depreciated with every other year, he clung to power, the price for keeping loyalty and recruiting new support became higher.
Peasants and other folks were allowed to encroach on forests, take over and farm – and even settle – in wetlands. Police were ordered not to enforce laws against boda bodas, and during elections, ruling NRM politicians spread out urging squatters to stay put on people’s land – in exchange for their electoral support.
All these things carved a massive illegal road in the heart of the law of the land, a road that was tarmacked with graft.
Corruption and illegality became the bedrock on which, especially, the post-2005 Uganda is built.
And Museveni has to take responsibility for being the architect – or at least, a senior partner in the political firm that designed it. An anti-corruption walk might be a cry for help, an oblique repentance. However, redemption won’t come easy.
But, even the road to Damascus, starts with one step.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com