Waragi, presidential gifts, and illusion of democracy

Author: Muniini K Mulera. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  •   A new Toyota Land Cruiser may be on its way to Kabaare. If so, expect a welcome celebration, church thanksgiving for the car and declarations of love and gratitude to Mr Museveni. 

Dear Tingasiga:

At the end of drama-free political campaigns and an election last week, Douglas Robert Ford Jr, the incumbent premier of Ontario, Canada, was re-elected with an increased majority in the provincial parliament.  

In his gracious victory speech, Ford invited his supporters to applaud opposition party leaders that he had just defeated. He assured all Ontarians that he would work for everyone, regardless of how they had voted. The leaders of the two main opposition parties immediately resigned their posts, as is the tradition here. 

 This is not unique to Canada, of course. Most of the mature democracies have similar stories. Even the United States of America still has a robust democracy that has, so far, withstood recent challenges by Donald Trump and his supporters.
 Happily, similar happy stories are being told from several younger nations that gained independence in the last 65 years. According to Freedom House, an organisation that defends human rights and promotes democratic change, more than 30 of these new countries are now free. 

This ranking is based on individual freedoms including the right to vote, freedom of expression and equality before the law.

Freedom House’s Annual Freedom in the World report for 2021 includes Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, and South Africa among the free countries. 

To understand why these countries are free requires a thorough examination of their history, their independent institutions of democracy, and the cultural traditions of their citizens. While space does not allow us to do so, we should note that citizens of these countries will tolerate a bad leader because they are sure that they have the guaranteed opportunity to democratically throw him out at the next election. 

We should also note that losing an election in these countries does not condemn one to persecution and poverty. This enables the defeated candidate to concede easily, even when one believes that the election was flawed. 

However, in my view, the most important factor in the acquisition and maintenance of freedom and democracy is the mindset of the citizens. Most people in the free countries are socio-politically conscious of their rights and responsibilities. 

They will do whatever it takes to keep their freedom. They do not sell their votes, which is their birthright, for personal cash. They exercise their right to think and to own an opinion. Therefore, nobody owns them. They have no reason to worship their leaders and representatives or to view them as their bosses. Instead, they view them as their servant-leaders.

Contrast this with, say, Uganda, where Muniini K. Mulera, a very ordinary human being, can go to his home constituency, beg people for their votes, get elected to Parliament, then come back in a taxpayer funded Toyota Land Cruiser and start bragging, threatening, warning, ridiculing, and lecturing the very people that elected him.  If he is appointed a Cabinet minister, he grows horns and wings, travels with armed guards in a motorcade, and makes life miserable for fellow mortals.  When the next election approaches, he plays nice guy, bribes the people with Waragi, Mujakure, Empire, and other poisons, plus a few shillings, and gets re-elected.  

The tragedy of a country like Uganda is that millions of people have abdicated their citizenship and have assumed the role of servitude. The educated elite, eager to protect their lifestyles, bow before fellow mortals, including those with whom they went to school and college. They are subjects, not citizens, and they believe that the ruler owns the country. 

As a reward for this self-imposed subservience, the ruler, using the people’s money, throws crumbs and pieces of nyama choma (roast meat) to his fawning subjects.  Then the people, playing the role of willing victim, thank him. That is why you hear people saying: “The president is good. He has given us a road,” or “he has given us mabati (roofing iron sheets) for our church” or “he has given us electricity” and so on. 

In the last two weeks alone, we have witnessed the spectacle of some members of Kigezi Diocese, among them very highly educated individuals, upset because President Museveni “gave” the new Anglican bishop a car that was smaller than the one that wealthy members of the diocese bought for the retired bishop.

(The retired bishop got a Toyota Land Cruiser, valued at well over Shs300 million, plus a full year of free fuel). 

The new bishop’s automobile, a Renault Koleos that cost about Shs100 million, was described by some Bakiga as “ekitoroogo ky’emotoka” (a prematurely born baby car). “Museveni yaatujooga (Museveni has despised us),” they complained. 
 An unconfirmed report on social media has it that the protest has persuaded President Museveni to replace “ekitoroogo ky’emotoka” with a vehicle “befitting the bishop.”

A new Toyota Land Cruiser may be on its way to Kabaare. If so, expect a welcome celebration, church thanksgiving for the car and declarations of love and gratitude to Mr Museveni. 

What these brothers and sisters seem not to care about is that (1) Museveni is using their money to buy political support for his upcoming political projects; and (2) the people of Kigezi Diocese could have easily bought a Land Cruiser for our bishop and retained their dignity and independence. 
 There is an illusion of democracy in Uganda. It is presented as regular pretend-elections and by-elections, complete with monetary purchase of votes, political campaigns, violent persuasion of subjects to “vote wisely,” and gross rigging by a partisan Electoral Commission. The defeat of some incumbent candidates for parliament and district offices is paraded as evidence of democracy. 

It bears repeating that that is not democracy. These rituals have failed to cover up the absence of many fundamental human rights, and the neutered, dysfunctional institutions that are supposed to be the foundation of freedom. It is not surprising that Freedom House ranked Uganda among countries that were not free in 2021. The rulers are not about to change that. It is a reawakened people, proud of their personal dignity, contemptuous of dependency and beggary, that will propel Uganda towards freedom. It is a politically educated and actively engaged population that can peacefully change the perilous journey that Uganda travels.

It is doable, but first, we must break free from the chains of mental slavery and view all public officials as our employees, not our bosses.  That is what is happening in the seven African countries that Freedom House ranked as free. They are reaping good dividends. 

Mulera is a medical doctor.