The public exchanges between President Museveni and Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi are revealing in many ways, but especially by who is involved, where they are taking place, and what is being argued.
Who: One endearing attribute about Mr Museveni over the years has been his ability to hold his own in a public contest of ideas.
Yet his missives these days increasingly serve to highlight the paucity of ideas and the lack of depth and eloquence among many of his servants whose efforts at rebuttals often fall with the dull thud of unexploded ordnance.
Where: In shifting from mainstream media with its gatekeeping editors controlling public opinion to the free-for-all social media platforms, the conversation, and the myriad rebuttals, level out the power dynamics in a way that is wonderful for the democratisation of power and information (even in this limited setting) but in which the President can only lose.
But it is the ‘what’ that is most revealing.
In his latest missive, President Museveni speaks of the NRM’s ideological roots in the 1960s student movements and the pan-Africanist stand he and his collaborators held in their twenties. He dismisses young upstarts like Mr Kyagulanyi as “indisciplined, uninformed and arrogant”.
A quick read of the counter-arguments – and many have been chomping at the bit to tear into the President’s argument – shows that this is a cross-generational conversation in which two sides are speaking at cross-purposes.
Born in the 1940s, Mr Museveni’s generation was on hand to see or try to answer some pretty big-ticket questions: The clamour for African independence; the emergence of the pan-African movement; the rise of predatory neo-colonialism and its continental quislings; apartheid; the Cold War; and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
To the President, therefore, the big wars of history have already been won; what is left are mopping up battles.
As Francis Fukuyama argued, they lived through the end of history and were the last men standing. Thus to Mr Museveni, history ended and the present began in 1986.
Ugandans born in 1986 see things differently. If they lived in the south of the country and aren’t history buffs, it means nothing to them that Uganda was at war in one form or another for 500 years until 2007.
In fact, while Mr Museveni is right to say “crime is not the same as war or terrorism”, he misses the point: The Young Turks, unscarred by war, are more concerned about thugs with iron bars than by rebels with mortars.
They might never have learnt how to fire an AK-47 or toss a hand grenade, but they fight daily battles of survival, navigating a bleak landscape of few jobs, widespread socio-economic inequality and a dysfunctional system that works for only a few.
They might not know what it feels like to walk through the ruins of war, but many have walked down the Boulevard of Broken dreams, carrying with them their sweat-stained and worthless qualifications, kicking the cans of their unfulfilled hopes and aspirations down unendingly winding roads.
They are not just pan-Africanist; they are global and cosmopolitan in ways their parents will never understand: Few of them can locate Rhodesia on a map, but they know that they are competing against Chinese kids for university places or trying to write better code than some privileged kid in a dorm in Stanford.
And this is the cross-generational puzzle.
The older generation looks back with pride and satisfaction and marvels at how much it has achieved; the younger fellows, comparing Uganda with countries that were worse off than us three decades ago, or themselves with age-mates half the world away who live in countries that work, look back in anger and ask what could or should have been achieved with the same time and money.
The older generation does not trust the younger generation not to mess things up; the younger generation thinks the older generation has already messed things up.
Neither side is entirely guilty or entirely innocent, but this contestation of the political space will have to be resolved in one way or another. History does not have many examples in which the older generation was able to sustainably stave off the ambitions of the young for a long time, and a country in which seven out of every 10 people is aged below 35, is unlikely to be the first.
What is yet to be determined is whether the generational transfer of power will be peaceful or not. That Mr Museveni and Mr Kyagulanyi are fighting with their fingers rather than their hands is a good start.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. [email protected]