Museveni’s dilemma of power and powerlessness

President Museveni. PHOTO/PPU

What you need to know:

  • President Museveni is both a powerful and powerless leader. On one hand, he has been able to hold onto power for three-and-half decades with negligible challenge to that power.
  • On the other, he is unable to stamp his authority on his own officials and has been reduced to publicly lamenting.

No day seems to go by without the news media not reporting either a major corruption scandal or an instance of gross incompetence in the NRM government.

There is nothing the government does – poverty-alleviation projects, registration exercises, infrastructure programmes or policies – that can start and end without an instance of nepotism, wasted resources or stolen funds.

At the heart of all this is a paradox: President Museveni as both a powerful and powerless leader.
On the one hand, he has been able to hold onto power for three and half decades with negligible challenge to that power both domestically and regionally.

So secure is he in power, in fact, that he can enjoy the luxury of deploying about a third of the army in countries as far afield as Somalia, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan on various peacekeeping missions.

Publicly lamenting
On the other hand, this same leader who is secure in office seems unable to control his own government. Increasingly, he is unable to stamp his authority on his own officials and has been reduced to publicly lamenting just like any other citizen.

Huge sums of government funds are looted, it makes it to newspaper front pages, he obviously reads these headlines, threatens to take action, but that’s as far as it goes.

He announces Covid-19 lockdown measures, his own officials are the first to violate them, and he can do nothing.
If there is anything that puzzles Ugandans, it is this paradox about Museveni.

What explains it? We would have to go back to the 1970s and 1980s to understand the root cause.
Museveni, as we all know and frequently hear, is obsessed with history. He studies it, observes it, pontificates about it, draws lessons from it and acts on it.

More than anything for him is the importance of power and alongside that is the question of how to hold onto it without facing a military coup or coup attempt. Everything else is secondary.

Something about the thought of coups troubles him. Most coups in Africa since the 1960s were masterminded and carried out by once-loyal officers.

The assassination in October 1987 of Burkinabe head of state Thomas Sankara in a coup masterminded by his close confidante Blaise Campaore seems to have haunted Museveni, who at the time was just over a year and a half into power.

In his 1997 memoir Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni shows a tone of bitterness at betrayal by comrades more than any other emotion.

Given that many African coups were planned or funded by foreign powers, the question was, what could he do to make sure he did not fall victim to such a coup planned in foreign capitals and carried out by his inner circle of military commanders?

Loyalty to one’s ethnic and blood kin run much deeper in Africa than loyalty to the state or the government.
From his own 15-year experience as a guerrilla from 1971 to 1986, officials in the governments and armies of Idi Amin, Milton Obote and Tito Okello worked secretly for his Fronasa and NRA groups.

Upon assuming state power, it was never far from his mind that people who could serve a government in high offices but act as double agents for the guerrillas fighting Amin and Obote could do just the same to his government.
Museveni concluded that the only people one could count on not to betray him were blood relatives. 

This is how Museveni’s brother Salim Saleh came to be a staple at the heart of power, whether or not he held a formal government position.

When he came of age in the early 2000s, Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba joined the army and inevitably was deployed in the presidential guard.

Janet Museveni’s 2011 memoir My Life’s Journey mentions many relatives and personal friends from the 1960s who would go on to hold important jobs in the NRM government. In that sense, the formula of loyalty above all else has worked perfectly for Museveni. 

The second thing he realised was that even with loyal relatives serving him in key offices, that wasn’t enough. 
The African mentality views success primarily in terms of the acquisition of physical property, especially a car and a house.

Once the typical African, be it peasant or professor, has a car and house, that African’s restlessness is usually eased. He or she can relax and want little more in life.

And yet the salaries paid by the Uganda government starting in 1986 were not enough for a civil servant and security officer to buy a plot of land, a car and own a house.

Thus, the practical need to hold onto power at all costs meant that Museveni had to turn a Machiavellian blind eye to the corruption and misuse of office by his key cadres.

Only after their self-actualisation was attained could they settle down and serve him – and of course, a settled and content army officer is less likely to plot a military coup.

This is how we arrived at the paradox being discussed in this article: Museveni as at once powerful and secure in the long-term goal of staying in power, and powerless to maintain a disciplined and honest government.
It is the same side of the same coin.

The only problem with doing business with or hiring relatives, as many of us know, is how to hold them accountable when they cheat or fail at their duty.
It’s as important for a leader to have the power both to appoint an official as to discipline them. 

For Museveni to constantly blame his Cabinet ministers and parliament for failing him, shows how little he understands the role of a leader even after 35 years in power.

It is the job of a leader to see the overall picture and how that broad picture can be broken down into secondary pictures.

It is for a leader to know what works and what doesn’t and for him to have the knowledge and insight into human nature to know whom to appoint to which position to achieve what results.

Museveni has more power than almost any leader one can think of anywhere in the world. 
He appoints not just his Cabinet but gradually over the last 20 years, practically everybody who holds a senior state job, even jobs that are strictly in the civil service or specialised appointments boards – army commanders, police Inspectors General, the heads of the Electoral Commission, revenue body, Permanent Secretaries, ambassadors, RDCs, there are few public officials today who do not trace their appointment directly to Museveni.

Therefore, he cannot blame the failure or delay of government programmes on officials whom he personally spotted and appointed.

Lately, he has been reduced to angrily denouncing errant officials as “pigs,” but the public also senses that this is as far as he can go. Many urban-based Ugandans now believe that a “mafia,” not Museveni, is in charge of Uganda today.

Who is this “mafia” that everyone refers to but seems too afraid to name? 
Put simply, the “mafia” in present-day Ugandan speak is a group of people at the heart of the NRM state who wield the real power and hold the levers of real influence.

They are untouchable by ordinary institutions and laws of the country and, most importantly, are also beyond the President’s political power or willpower to restrain.

Here, Museveni is increasingly resembling President Milton Obote during his second term in the early to mid-1980s.
From 1980 to 1985, Obote had a firm control over the political government, but little control over the army. Museveni has a near-total control over the army, but little control over the political government.

Because it is armies that stage coups, the section of the state Obote had little control over eventually staged one against him in 1971 and 1985.

Museveni for 35 years has been safe from coups, but the section of the state that he is rapidly losing control over is causing great suffering among the ordinary people.

Poor quality and inconsistent public service delivery, tremendous waste of public resources, delays in paying wages and honouring suppliers, disorganisation within the government on an almost daily basis will be the legacy of Museveni.

The reason why Uganda seemed to work during the eight years of president Idi Amin, even with Uganda under a Western economic boycott and a breakdown of internal economic production was that Amin had control over both the military and the civilian government.

Even if he remains in power for another 20 years, Museveni might never have the control over the state that Amin had.