At the start of 1998 (February and March) I wrote an eight-part feature series in The Monitor – as it was then – titled: “Was the NRM Bush War a revolution or just a rebellion?”
I interviewed many people, great and small alike. One of the unforgettable ones was Sam Njuba, Uganda’s Constitutional Affairs minister from 1986 to 1993, and the one who laid the foundation for the 1995 Constitution.
“When we came to power, we didn’t know what to do,” he said. “None of us had been in power before, we were learning on the job.” Njuba, bless his soul, admitted the Museveni administration had for all intents and purposes gambled quite a bit with the nation’s fortunes. But back then it was understandable – and forgivable. Not now.
In 1986, the relatively young President Museveni – about 41 – won many hearts with his rhetoric; about pan-Africanism, the need to fight neo-colonialism, the importance of south-to-south trade and the like. Some of the ideas, just look at the concept of barter trade, sounded completely backward and outdated. But the new President assured everyone that it was the way to go, in order to redress foreign exchange shortages and get good value for our comparative advantage in agriculture. The President sounded very intelligent and innovative and earned high praise.
The scheme fell apart after a couple of years because Uganda just didn’t have capacity to satisfy the overseas market and also left egg on our faces because some countries had already delivered their end of the bargain, while we were pulling out excuses from the top drawer.
The barter trade debacle was just the start of a disastrous tale of trial and error that has come to characterise the regime of Uganda’s sole “visionary”; without whom Uganda, we are told, would collapse. Thank God that the visionary will never depart the face of the earth, so our future is effectively secured!
In 1986 the song was about being economical. Ministers were given very affordable black Nissan Laurel sedans. The President ordered government to purchase furniture from Bwaise and Kalerwe – forget about importing stuff from abroad. No wastage, he said. Everyone praised the President! If you look at the cars in ministerial convoys today, you’ll condemn me for telling a lie. He started off with a broad government, inviting Opposition stalwarts to the high table, causing a big Cabinet of 72 ministers, ministers of State and deputy ministers. Then he decided it was too big and too expensive; so he chopped it down after 1989 to 40 something to cut costs and promote efficiency – now Cabinet has at least 80 members. No surprises if next Cabinet makes 90. And with each change he is lauded for his intelligence and wisdom and far-sightedness. He decried the level of inflation (our biggest note was Shs5,000), causing a currency reform – with the result that our biggest note is now Shs50,000.
Then he sold off State enterprises and earned lots of praise when he explained that government could not do business. National bus companies, Uganda Airlines, various factories or industries were sold off or liquidated. Jinja, Uganda’s industrial capital, became a ghost town because of this. Now the President is earning lots of praise for his industrialisation drive and restoring Uganda Airlines. He abolished road licences for vehicles. He turned very many government departments into huge new authorities – for better service delivery, etc. Now the road licences are back and most authorities are being merged or dissolved to promote efficiency and better service delivery. And still, we are expected to praise the President for his visionary attributes and laud him as intelligent.
As the President takes oath again, the critical question is whether or not the Museveni administration has been cured of the gambling addiction that has resulted in taking the country round and round, back and forth, only to bring us back to where we started.
But then again, I guess it is easy to sing the praises of a man who is a true prophet of the carrot and stick school of thought, when he is seated at a table, a sack of money to his left and his right hand casually caressing an AK-47.
Mr Tegulle is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda