Not too long ago, I had a conversation with an old friend. We discussed a wide range of global issues and accidentally stumbled on Uganda. My friend confirmed what others have been saying that Uganda and Museveni have become indivisible – you cannot discuss Uganda meaningfully without putting Museveni at the center. He added a new dimension – Museveni is two persons in one. He elaborated by observing that what Museveni says about Uganda is often different from what he does. He emphasized that the difference between rhetoric and action is planned. He suggested an analysis of what Museveni says about democracy and what has actually occurred on the ground. Below are the findings.
Museveni has stressed that meaningful democracy must embrace “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. He adds that in the case of Uganda democracy must be three-dimensional: “parliamentary democracy, popular democracy and a decent level of living for every Ugandan… There should be an elected government, elected at regular intervals and such elections must be free of corruption and manipulation of the population… There must be people’s committees at the village, Muluka [parish], gombolola [sub-county], saza [county] and district level…
From grade five through eight I walked to school through a homestead that had vicious dogs. As there was no diversion, I had to face them every day – early mornings and late evenings – when they were unleashed. My grandmother advised me that when moving in the northerly direction, I should throw a stone in the southerly direction, and vice versa, to attract the dogs there. I would be gone by the time they realized it was a hoax. Her advice worked.
Similarly, Museveni has engaged Ugandans in diversions. Right from the start he knew what he wanted to do – to create a Tutsi Empire or something close to it such as the East African Federation. He prepared Ugandans and increasingly east and central Africans to look elsewhere – at the benefits of East African community and population mobility etc. Museveni also knew how to get there – build a strong army led by relatives, bring Baganda, Catholics and foreigners into the fold and use them against Obote whom he painted as a common enemy, and marginalize the rest. Let us trace Museveni’s plan step by step.
I first came into contact with some leaders in the NRM government at Ntare School in the early 1960s. We reconnected in the late 1970s in Lusaka, Zambia. I participated in their informal conversations and was impressed by what they were planning to do particularly in the economic and social sectors. The agenda was people-centered. To them everything – security, politics and economics – was to serve the interests of Ugandans who are sovereign.
This message of hope was contained in the ten-point program published in 1985, shortly before the NRA captured power in January 1986. Uganda would be united and prosper with no one left behind. Religion would be a matter between the individual and his/her God. The government would ensure that classrooms, teachers and instructional materials were available in sufficient quantity and quality. Adequate hospitals and dispensaries would be built, properly staffed with trained staff, and equipped with medicines and supplies. Preventive programs in line with primary health care requirements would also be provided. Households would have adequate and balanced diets for a healthy, productive and active life. These pronouncements and more endeared the NRM government to the people of Uganda who were prepared to do what it takes to make the government succeed in its noble mission, including postponing elections. The president, ministers and senior civil servants travelled abroad to sell their program which was well received in the international conferences and summits.
In May 2004, President Musevceni addressed the annual meetings of the African Development Bank (ADB) in Kampala, Uganda. The main features of the address were captured in Omar Ben Yedder’s report which was published in African Business of July 2004. Museveni observed that while Africa had succeeded in decolonization of the continent it had failed to industrialize. To industrialize, Africa needed machines and intellectual power, stressing that Africa will succeed through an intellectual revolution. By selling raw commodities rather than finished products, Africa was receiving only 10 percent of the final price. More than four decades since independence, Africa had failed to transit from third to first world class.
President Museveni attributed Africa’s problems to endogenous and exogenous (external interference) factors. He noted that frustrating private enterprise in Africa had been a major contributor to the continent’s backwardness. The second factor was excessive government intervention like the creation of state monopolies, fixing of exchange rates and imposition of complicated immigration and licensing procedures. Inflation had risen due to uncontrolled spending. Failure to develop human resources had been caused by insufficient or ineffective education and health programs. Because Africa is not economically viable, it had become dependent on foreign aid.
Rukungiri is a small district located in southwest Uganda and far away from the seat of government in Kampala. Since Uganda’s independence in 1962, Rukungiri has been visited by Uganda presidents – Obote, Amin and more so by Museveni – or sent more delegations to Kampala than any other district in an attempt to understand and solve the district’s intractable problems. These problems of a political, economic, social and ethnic nature have included suicide, death or injuries from security forces’ gunfire, forcing people into exile or fleeing permanently from the district, snatching voting cards from opposition members at gun point and using some unsealed ballot boxes including in the opposition presidential candidate’s polling station.
Although many people do not want to hear it, the problem in Rukungiri district is the political and economic struggle between Nilotic Bahororo rulers and Bantu Bairu (slaves) ruled ethnic groups since pre-colonial days. Bahororo – a Batutsi and numerically very inferior group that entered Rukungiri district in 1800 from Rwanda via short-lived Mpororo kingdom located in southwest of former Ankole district – believe that God created them to rule others irrespective of their education and/or work experience. In fact Bahororo agree that God gave Bairu physical and mental strength to labor for the comfort of their Bahororo masters who have specialized in military strength. This superiority complex of Bahororo was consolidated during British colonial rule that used pre-colonial oppressive chiefs as their civil servants. Britain which never lost control over Uganda has continued to favor Bahororo over Bairu since independence.
When Ugandans meet formally or informally, the political economy, future and diversity of Uganda come up. What has been recognized is that Uganda’s diversity is an asset and a strength that should be utilized properly to bring about equitable distribution of the benefits of that diversity. Many times, as discussions progress, my mind races back to what Kaunda former president of Zambia said about diversity in his country. He observed on several occasions that although merit is important in appointments and promotions, he had to use it carefully to meet the needs of Zambia’s diverse population. He stressed that in trying to strike regional balance, he picked the best trained and experienced from each region so that he maintained professionalism and regional balance.
In Uganda the concept of merit has been applied differently under the NRM government since 1986 with unanticipated adverse outcomes. There are cases where merit considerations applied by the appointing authorities have resulted in top or strategic positions going to people from the same family, same ethnic group or same region. The western region is believed to have benefited more than any other in Uganda. However upon closer scrutiny you find that within the western region some families or ethnic groups have benefited more than others. Further analysis has demonstrated that merit was not even strictly applied causing discomfort in various quarters.
Western powers who created Museveni and depend on him for advancing their economic and political interests in Africa do not know how to handle him and Museveni knows it. The economic and political quagmire unfolding in Uganda has become an embarrassment to donors who praised Uganda sky high in the international media and international conferences as an economic and political success story in a continent mired in poverty, hunger, illiteracy, disease, conflicts, refugees and IDPs. Increasing diseases of poverty, the harassment of political opponents including whipping them in public and accumulation of political, economic and military power by Museven’s family and those close to him have betrayed donors’ quick conclusions about Uganda’s success stories and Museveni’s unparalleled quality of leadership in Uganda and beyond. Because donors needed Museveni they overlooked Uganda’s failures including adherence to IMF recommendations such as the maintenance of a balanced budget. IMF cut off assistance to Obote II regime for failure to adhere to the maintenance of a balanced budget.
It is not a secret that the NRM party and its government under the leadership of Museveni is primarily interested in retaining power indefinitely. Impoverishing Ugandans is seen as one way of doing so. There are four principle ways of making a country strong and prosperous or weak and poor. They are adequate food and nutrition security, quality and relevant education, good preventive and curative health care and remunerative full employment in decent work conditions. On these four areas NRM’s performance has been deliberately poor. Stabilization and structural adjustment imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave the government an excuse to impoverish Ugandans and get away with it. But before outlining how impoverishment is proceeding, let us review the 20th century record by way of introduction.
There is sufficient record that before colonial rule Ugandans ate well, although they suffered from famines when the rains failed or pests or warfare destroyed crops and granaries. The young were orally trained, learned on the job from parents and obtained additional knowledge through interaction with relatives and neighbors. Traditional medicines handled local diseases pretty well. The introduction of foreign diseases required new medicines. There was no unemployment as gender specialization of labor kept everyone busy.
A while back I talked with some people who are familiar with Uganda’s political economy situation. We touched, inter alia, on the dangerously deteriorating social and environmental conditions in urban and rural areas which under normal circumstances would have created serious problems for Museveni in cabinet, parliament and the general population. Yet Museveni keeps on getting nominated for re-election. In true democratic terms where the public freely and fairly chooses the party candidate, one participant observed, Museveni would possibly not be re-nominated, much less re-elected. He has managed to stay in power by purchasing loyalty of the Uganda elites in the military and administration, and by aligning himself with western interests in economic, political and security areas.