Exactly 33 years ago today, while standing on the steps of Uganda’s Parliament, with the Holy Bible held high in his right hand, a young Yoweri K. Museveni took the oath of office as president of Uganda. The formalities dispensed with, the triumphant guerrilla leader spoke to a desperately hopeful people and to a world longing for salvation of an African country that had gone to the dogs.
Museveni’s confident, but humble speech was disarmingly seductive to millions of ears that were ready to receive. He spoke without notes. The first nine sentences of Museveni’s speech sealed the romance that millions of Ugandans had had with their brave suitor.
“No one should think that what is happening today, or what has been happening in the last few days, is a mere change of guards (sic),” Museveni said. “It is not a mere change of guards (sic), I think this is a fundamental change in the politics of our country. Because, in Africa we have seen so much change that change has become meaningless. It’s no longer change, but merely turmoil. This group getting rid of that group, and that group doing worse than the group it got rid of. Now, please do not count us in that category of people.”
“The National Resistance Movement, I think, is a clear-headed movement, with clear objectives and with good membership – with good membership. I think it makes a very big difference, from the situation in which we were, where the very people in power were, they themselves encouraging evil instead of trying to combat evil. I think this is a slightly different situation.”
The assembled crowd lapped it up, giddy with an optimism that the long night of blood and state collapse had finally ended. A beautiful dawn was upon them, heralded with song and dance by young guerrillas that had just brought Museveni to power.
Soon it would be sunny days in a land governed under a 10-Point Programme that was supposed to become one of the greatest documents of the land, exalted alongside famous documents that had shaped the fates of great nations. The transcript of Museveni’s speech, sent to us by snail mail, would not reach us in Toronto for more than a week. Like the edited and expanded version that was published later, together with his other speeches, in a book titled What is Africa’s Problem?, what we read left us blissfully weakened.
Desperately in love with a man who had embodied our dreams for more than a decade, and deaf to cautionary comments by those who knew him much better than we did, we were as vulnerable as many love-smitten damsels had been through the ages.
Like a handsome prince, his sword suspended on his belt, and his poetic torrent designed to weaken his prey, Museveni charmed us into a state of voluntary surrender. He was the great Don Giovani, manifest as the casa nova of East African politics, the new Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Zabanga – the conquering cock that left no hen unturned.
In that weakened state, with our self-protective skepticism fully suspended, we eagerly received our political lover’s whispers with a tenderness that left no room for caution.
“The people of Africa – the people of Uganda – are entitled to democratic government,” Museveni declared. “It is not a favour from any government: It is the right of the people of Africa to have democratic government. The sovereign power in the land must be the population, not the government. The government should not be the master, but the servant of the people.”
We wanted the sweet words. So, our lover let loose with more, steadily weakening us, hypnotising us, hitting the sweet spot exactly as we wanted.
“The security of the people of Uganda is their right and not a favour bestowed by any regime. No regime has a right to kill any citizen of this country, or to beat any citizen at the roadblock. We make it clear to our soldiers that if they abuse any citizen, the punishment they will receive will teach them a lesson.”
He was not yet done with the seduction. A prince he may be, having endured a baptism of fire in Luweero, but he was a humble one, terribly allergic to the extravagance of the fool, and the insensitivity of royalty among struggling commoners.
“We want our people to be able to afford shoes,” he said. “The honourable excellency who is going to the United Nations in executive jets, but has a population at home of 90 per cent walking barefoot, is nothing but a pathetic spectacle. Yet this excellency may be busy trying to compete with (US president) Reagan and (Soviet leader) Gorbachev to show them that he, too, is an excellency.”
Change had come! To drive his point home, our prince charming allowed himself to be frequently seen drinking from a Uganda-made metal cup, donning simple Kaunda suits and driven around in affordable automobiles. He condemned the extravagance of Gen Tito Okello Lutwa, his predecessor, who had bought “furniture worth £500,000 for one house.”
And then there was corruption! Our conquering hero was going to slay the beast with an irrevocable swiftness that would become the standard for the continent. Like Sundiata Keita, the famous emperor of Mali, our hero would mold a great nation of intoxicating freedom, human rights and unstoppable progress.
Thirty years later, fully cured from the conjuror’s sedation, and the romance long faded in the mists of deep disappointment and heartbreak, one notes that a four-year-old boy who was playing in Kampala’s Kamwokya slum as Museveni seduced us from the steps of Parliament, is now enduring the very human rights abuses that our hero railed against 33 years ago.
Last year, that boy, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, now a man and Member of Parliament – was nearly killed by Museveni’s soldiers. His democratic rights are severely restricted. His supporters are harassed for wearing red. Among his grievances is the deep economic disparity in a land whose resources have been sold to fortune hunters.
The little boy of 1986 struggles for a fundamental change, not a mere change of guard, even as Museveni prepares to start his seventh term in office, his personal rule anchored with support by heavily armed partisans, obscene patronage and foreign “investors.”