President Yoweri Museveni’s State-of-the-Nation Address last week revealed both what was right and what was wrong with our country. There is no doubt that Uganda’s macro-economic state is miles ahead of where it was 33 years ago. The regular visitor to Uganda over the last three decades has been treated to a progressive transformation of the country’s landscape.
Examples include excellent all-weather roads that have replaced potholed cattle paths that tested the endurance of Ugandan motorists for decades. Hydro-power generating plants, factories, luxury hotels, changed skylines of urban centres, private schools and universities, numerous cars on the roads, boda bodas (motorcycle taxis), mobile telephones in remote villages, increased animal husbandry, agricultural and fishing exports, easy banking and convenient money transfer facilities – these are just a few examples of a changed economy.
Then there are the tens of thousands of annual graduation parties and numerous Hollywood-style weddings and funerals that have defined the Museveni era as a period of flagrant display of real and imaginary wealth! One easily understands the President’s uninhibited four-hour self-congratulatory speech last Thursday.
We shall not be detained by an examination of who has really benefited from Uganda’s economic miracle; who actually controls the economy; the long-term cost of selling the country to foreigners; and the miserable state of the majority of the citizens who survive on the margins; the country’s high indebtedness and the rapidly growing but impoverished population.
What struck me most in Museveni’s speech was an off-the cuff remark that, on the surface, was aimed at the Democratic Party (DP). In what some may have considered his usual humorous aside, the President grumbled about those who had been challenging his policies and actions. “DP is nothing without Museveni,” the President declared.
Left unsaid was the President’s belief, shared by a large number of his courtiers, that Uganda is nothing without Museveni. It is a view that has been affirmed by manipulations of the country’s Constitution to lift presidential term and age limits, and the State’s terror against those perceived to pose a political threat to Museveni’s rule.
It spoke volumes that, after 33 years, the President still believes that a major political party – and the country by extension - is nothing without him. It was a self-condemnation by the President. A person who creates conditions that make him indispensable is not a leader.
This personalisation of the State is at the core of Uganda’s problem. The country may continue to appear to be secure, stable and superficially successful but, by the President’s own admission, Uganda’s life expectancy is dependent on his. The moment Museveni yields to the inevitable ravages of age or death, the great achievements of the last three decades may come crashing down.
Without taking away from the efforts of the President, his team and, above all, very hardworking men and women of Uganda, I hold the view that Uganda is like the house of the foolish man that Jesus talked about in Matthew Chapter 7: 27, “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
That is why many of us believe that Uganda’s security cannot be sustained with guns, but with genuine freedom and democracy. The most important and urgent engagement is to build a country founded on true justice, constitutionalism, and a vigorous entrenchment of institutional governance, accountability and people-based power.
A just country founded on a sound democracy and its institutions is akin to the house of the wise man that Jesus talked about in Matthew 7: 25. “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”
History has many examples of countries that superficially prospered under undemocratic regimes, but crumbled following the death of their rulers. Given space limitation in this column, only three examples will suffice.
Under the 33-year presidency of Felix Houphet Boigny, the Republic of Cote D’Ivoire was one of Africa’s most “stable” and prosperous countries. His death on December 7, 1993 was quickly followed by state collapse, then civil war and destruction of much that the wise man had repeatedly celebrated in his speeches.
Then there was a country called Yugoslavia, which was ruled by Marshal Yosip Broz Tito for 36 years. Tito successfully kept disparate ethnic nationalities in a union that he ruled with benevolent dictatorship, akin to that which Museveni has inflicted on Ugandans. Under Tito, Yugoslavia was a powerful player on the international stage, complete with the capacity to offer foreign aid to newly independent countries.
In the aftermath of Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia collapsed, civil wars followed, and the fairy tale story morphed into one of the last century’s worst rivers of blood. Yugoslavia is now six countries.
More recently, Venezuela, a country that has the world’s largest oil reserves, enjoyed an economic boom on account of the high oil prices in the early years of this century. President Hugo Chavez, who was severely allergic to democracy, used the money to improve the conditions of the poorer citizens of Venezuela. However, his disregard for justice and institutional governance created deep instability.
Then things fell apart. The oil price collapsed, and Chavez died of cancer in 2012. The country began a steep descent towards anarchy and collapse. Today, Venezuela is a dysfunctional country, at war with itself, sitting atop its vast oil resources.
Uganda’s current state should not be measured in terms of its macro-economic indicators, but its preparedness for life without Museveni. At the age of 74, the biological clock points towards a reality that not even a great guerrilla fighter can alter. None of us is immortal. None of us is indispensable. Uganda will be around long after Museveni is no longer its ruler. Then what?