On Tuesday night, we saw President Museveni pull off one of the best performances yet in his self-cast role as the clever but cynical Grandfather-in-Chief. This was episode 12 in Season One of ‘How not to waste a crisis’, the new series on UBC by Covid-19 Productions.
The early jokes in the set were flat, even the in-studio audience struggled to pull off the canned laughter. But as he warmed up and the gig went on, he got better, as did his lines. Half an hour in, it became clear that this wasn’t one of those performances with policy directives baked into the storyline.
This was a power play, but of a particularly clever type. On the one hand, it was the kind and generous grandfather praising his grandchildren for not causing too much trouble in difficult times. There was rare praise for the Uganda Peoples Congress, which, over the last decade, has become a (very) junior partner in the ruling coalition with NRM, and there was even some reluctant praise for the media.
Yeah, like seriously!
It was all so mushy, we could all have been up there sitting on Grandfather-in-Chief’s knee, looking up to him in besotted admiration while he made faces and pinched our cheeks.
But the real Oscar-worthy performance was on the flip side of the coin where, without
breaking sweat or pulling any stunts, Mr Museveni was able to have the gallery eat out of his empty hands.
Take, for instance, his comment about the Police arresting Opposition MPs for distributing food while allowing NRM legislators and ministers to do so unmolested. To the unobservant, this was statesmanship rising above partisanship, for which the Nobel Peace Prize committee in Oslo ought to be contacted urgently.
But the president did not condemn the treatment of MP Francis Zaake who, for at least the second time in his short political career, was brought to court to take plea while prostrate and in pain after apparently being tortured under police custody.
The president did not, of course, ask the Police to also torture NRM MPs, but he once again – and there have been several opportunities – refused or failed to completely condemn torture and order for sanctions against those responsible for it.
But there were other bigger fish to fry.
Despite apparently negotiating a face-saving climb down over the controversial Shs20m given to MPs last week, he threw Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga under the bus while beseeching the public not to lynch the MPs who took the money.
There are legitimate concerns about the payment to MPs, which we need not go into detail here, and the pain is fully self-inflicted.
But to see MPs who were encouraged exactly six months ago to collect a Shs29m ‘incentive’ now put out to dry over a similar off-balancesheet financial transaction is brilliant, albeit cynical politics.
But the real genius is to take Shs10b out of a supplementary budget of about a trillion shillings and make 40 million Ugandans keep their eyes glued to that while the much larger sum floats downstream in broad daylight. This trick is up there with magicians pulling rabbits out of hats. Well played, Gramps, well played!
For good measure, Gramps threw in two other scenes. His reference to telephone conversations with counterparts in Kenya, Tanzania and even Rwanda over the crisis was a tip of the hat to donors and those who watch the geo-politics of the Great Lakes region.
But perhaps the most significant yet had to do with the economy, which the President believes is sufficiently resilient to ride out the effects of the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Most economists and anyone with an understanding of aggregate demand will beg to disagree, but the signal from the top appears to be that there will not be an economic stimulus package – certainly not a big one – should the lockdown begin to ease in the coming week or two.
In plain English: If the lockdown is lifted without a stimulus package, not only will the government have gotten away with not helping struggling businesses to stay on their feet, it would have done so by also separating those with deeper pockets with some of their cash through their very generous donations to the coronavirus response.
It is like one of those street performances that leave you mesmerised – until you get home and discover that your wallet is missing! Mzee alipanga; give him the Oscar already.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fight. firstname.lastname@example.org