Notwithstanding my serious disagreement with much of President Yoweri K. Museveni’s politics, policies and actions, I acknowledge a lot of good that he has done in his 35 years in power.
When we look at Museveni’s Uganda and compare it to the Amin-Obote II-Okello period, the difference is like day and night. In nearly all aspects of human life, Uganda under Museveni is way better than it was between 1973 and 1986. So, if the Amin-Obote II-Okello period be our only point of reference, then we would be right to say: “Job well done, President! Keep on keeping’ on.”
However, what if we compare Museveni to Obote I? Yes, Obote I, that period that induces nostalgia for some and anger for others. Years of painful, repressive experiences in Buganda, but great times for most of the country. Few would disagree that, fairly or unfairly, Uganda of the 1960s was the poster boy for a succeeding post-colonial State.
Then how did that country of plenty, of relative peace for most citizens, of enviable education, healthcare, industry, commerce and realisable grand dreams unravel in a matter of hours on the morning of Monday, January 25, 1971? Why did Uganda, like, say, Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire and Venezuela, descend from prosperity and hope to despair?
That is one of the key questions that preoccupy my mind as Uganda enters another ritual of presidential selection campaign, with a predetermined result. I invite you to ponder this question with honest detachment. Forget the emotions. Forget partisanship. Simply don your Ugandan hat and let us revisit this favourite theme. The truth is not hard to find.
At the core of it is that President Museveni, like others before him in once prosperous countries, has personalised the Ugandan State. He controls it with weapons and ruthlessly partisan intelligence and other armed organisations.
He has his thumb on neutered State institutions and a balkanised country with more than 140 little districts that are dependent on his generosity. He has infiltrated some of the influential churches and many organisations, including some Opposition parties.
Museveni has used and encouraged vote-buying and cash handouts for political support, thus undermining the basic principles of democracy. What appears to be free news media function with a sword of closure dangling over their heads. The Electoral Commission is subordinate to Museveni, himself a regular candidate for president.
The campaigns of his opponents are very strictly controlled, turning them into championship sprinters with weights tied to their ankles. So, Museveni, who is still very much in control of his State, can go shopping for a new suit for his seventh swearing in as president in May 2021.
However, as I have stated several times before, Uganda under Museveni is a house built on sand. When the winds and storms blow following his death, Uganda is unlikely to withstand them. For evidence of this, we have the example of Cote D’Ivoire. The illusion of stability and progress in that country, which gained independence from France in 1960, had a shallow foundation.
With the death of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny (pictured) after 33 years on the throne, things fell apart with ease. The crumbling edifice dissolved into chaos. Despair replaced post-independence hope. Misery supplanted merrymaking. The Ivorian Miracle became the Great Nightmare.
I hope that I have got it wrong. I pray that Uganda enjoys a peaceful post-Museveni transition. Indeed, I thank God that we still have a flickering chance to restore our country to a land of hope for all. To be sure, there is enough that has been done right in the last 35 years that invites celebration and a pat on the back of the architects of those successes.
However, I am mindful of my responsibility to raise the alarm when I see danger. If our house is threatened by a bushfire and windstorms, I don’t dwell on the beautiful architecture, the landscaping and the furniture. I focus on the infrastructure and the foundation that will minimise damage and reverse the danger.
That is why I am not impressed by shops full of imported goods that few can afford; by multiple universities whose graduates have limited access to job opportunities; by expensive private schools, hospitals and clinics; by fancy TVs and cars in a land with a scandalous internal and external debt burden. The fact is that the majority of Ugandans are not part of that economy and celebration.
To me, the fundamentals remain human rights for all citizens, including unfettered freedom of association, assembly and expression; genuine democracy and choice of governors and representatives; full separation of powers in governance, legislation and administration of justice; a rule of law that spares no one, including the president; and equal socio-economic opportunities for all.
Unfortunately, what we have in Uganda is a brilliantly crafted deception. It is a military regime clothed in rigged political institutions that serve an exploitative political group.
Yet history teaches us that a corrupt, undemocratic, personalised government of that sort invariably ends in crisis and disaster. It is certainly not sustainable once the ruler is gone. That is why Uganda needs peaceful change while Museveni lives.
Interestingly, Museveni, officially 77 years old, probably realises this. While he appears to still enjoy his 35-year throne, the sword of Damocles hangs over him, held by a very thin thread of military force and cash. That thread may not take much to rupture. Beneath him seat more than 40 million people whose fate is entwined with his.
His natural death or incapacitation will almost certainly trigger a contested succession, not through a free and fair ballot box, but an explosive harvest of his mutant mustard seed.
How to tame that seed and salvage a healthy crop must be every Ugandan’s concern, not just Museveni’s alone. After all, he will not be around to reap the fruits he has nurtured for his life presidency, blissfully oblivious of his mortality.