Hardly a day goes by without President Museveni opening or launching one project or the other. In recent months, he has commissioned a new suspended bridge over the River Nile in Jinja, an expressway to Entebbe Airport, a series of factories, including in godforsaken Teso, and a new hydropower dam at Isimba.
In any other universe, Mr Museveni would be a shoo-in for election in 2021. His popularity rating would be up in the galaxy dodging satellites in orbit; rivals, in and out of the party, would be talking of their electoral chances in 2026 and beyond. Yet the general mood across the country is cautious optimism among supporters and open cynicism among critics and opponents.
Admittedly, a lot of the latter is inside the elitist urban echo chamber where expectations are much higher and therefore rarely met, and where there is sufficient anonymity online and safety in numbers for people to vent without serious personal penalties.
But it is also evident in the regime’s own response to real and perceived political threats. Opposition politicians visiting towns where factories have been recently opened, or where cooperative societies have recently received handouts should struggle to find enough people willing to give them audience. And if when they do, they would expect to be laughed out of town and escorted to the district boundaries for their own safety.
Yet the police force, which appears to have merely undergone a change of guard rather than a fundamental change, continues to drag Opposition politicians out of rural radio stations and break up their rallies. In 2019!
Thus on the eve of adding another feather to its cap by showing off its starter kit as the national carrier prepares to return to the skies, the government, rather than let its ‘development’ record speak for itself, finds it useful to arbitrarily and perchance illegally cancel a concert by a young musician-turned-politician.
Under normal circumstances, one would expect that any “lies” told at the concert on Sunday would be dispelled by the truth, in this case the arrival of the aircraft the next day. Why pre-empt a relatively good thing with a definitely bad one?
There are several theoretical approaches that might help explain this contradiction. Perhaps the easiest one to explain is the instrumentalisation of political violence. After the blood-stained elections in 2001 and 2006, and the crude massacres of 2009, a lull set in long enough for the 2011 election, which was arguably the least violent and eventful to-date.
But it was only a lull. The Arab Spring and walk-to-work demonstrations that followed the election brought violence back into play, with cunning refinements. The violence would be low-key, enough to cause damage, but preferably not death; it would target the same actors repeatedly until questions were raised about the victims’ own agency in the violence. In other words, enough to hamstring rivals, but not too much to put donors and investors off their eggs benedict at breakfast.
Thus low-intensity violence has become the handmaiden to our electoral politics. Whether it is Resident District Commissioners (RDCs) chasing Opposition politicians out of private radio stations, MPs being bludgeoned inside Parliament or rival presidential candidates receiving electoral results while under custody in far-flung prisons, the political ends have come to justify the violent means, and appear set to remain the knee-jerk reaction to political contestation.
Related, this violence-as-a-political-tool is necessary because the alternative – development for votes – is brittle and vulnerable as a stand-alone electoral vehicle.
As welcome as the big development projects are, few, if any, are free of problematic defects or that haunting sense of builder’s remorse. Some are relatively small matters – the wrong asphalt or polymer on the suspended bridge, for instance – or easy to cure, say by passing a law to allow tolls to be collected from the Expressway.
However, put together with more serious ones – such as building parallel rather than sequential power dams at Jinja, or building dams and then investing in the lines to distribute the electricity – they reveal deeper competence and capacity gaps.
Yet these two hypotheses do not tell the whole story. Increasingly one feels, whether due to regime fatigue or the sheer restlessness of the young people, that if Museveni stumbled over and discovered a mushroom that cures cancer on his farm, many would still fault him for almost stepping on it.
As we shall see next week, the more Museveni builds the physical monuments he craves, the more he erodes the intangible and timeless legacy he once could have had.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. [email protected]