Getting to know Uganda leaders better

Individuals, families, communities and nations that succeed are the ones that learn from their past, make the necessary adjustments which are updated as and when necessary to stay on top of developments. Those that remain rigid more often than not run into difficulties. The Stuarts of England, the Bourbons of France and the Romanovs of Russia disappeared because they were unable to adjust to changing circumstances. They wanted others to adjust to their demands. For example, the French high clergy and nobility refused to pay taxes when the country needed revenue badly to settle its debts. They wanted the commoners to pay more. France had a good man but a poor king in Louis XVI who could not take decisions. He became king by accident of birth, not on merit.

Uganda is a relatively young country and it has a lot to learn from its short history and from the history of others. As we approach 50 years of our nationhood this October 2012, we need to examine what we have done, what we have accomplished, where we have gone wrong and where we want to go. This must be an exercise about honesty – not about self congratulation. The standard of measurement of our efforts since 1962 should not be about means or processes (economic growth and per capita income statistics or macroeconomic stability or national security, mobile phones, vehicles, houses, schools and hospitals and clinics) but the final outcome which is overall improvement in the living standard of Uganda citizens. Processes should be provided merely to show how we got to the final outcome and what needs to be done to get a better outcome in the next 50 years. Those preparing reports for the 50th anniversary should keep that in mind.

Based on what we already know, Uganda has performed very poorly in social welfare and environmental sustainability. Poverty and its offshoots of hunger, disease and illiteracy as well as environmental degradation have all got worse. The record on democracy, governance, human rights and fundamental freedoms is no better. Within this overall poor performance framework, a decade by decade analysis shows that apart from the political turbulence, the 1960s was a relatively good decade in economic and social development terms as recorded by the World Bank in its 1993 report. Since 1971 the general trend has been downward. One factor that can explain the difference between performance in the 1960s and subsequent decades can be found in the leadership. The 1960s were led by a civilian leader while the balance with the exception of the guerrilla war years from 1981 to mid-1985 was led by military men.

We therefore need to examine the relative merits and demerits of civilian versus military leaders. One thing we need to understand is that military leaders are trained for combat to destroy the enemy. They are not trained in the art of dealing with civilians that requires different training. Civilian leaders are trained to negotiate and find common ground without murdering each other. Ugandans who continue to argue in favor of leaders with a military background will have an uphill task of convincing fellow Ugandans who have experienced military rule even when it turns democratic through staged elections to win support for foreign aid.

There is another problem with Uganda leadership generally. A leader is a public figure who cannot choose what to disclose to the public and what to keep private. Ugandans therefore must insist on getting details about present leaders in government, parties and organizations and those in the future. Since independence, we have been led by leaders we did not know much about. By the way they don’t need to be in the country to be known given the present level of technology and sharing of information. Ugandans should not become leaders because they are looking for a job or they want to save their skin or on account of association or accident of birth. The wife or son of a president does not automatically qualify to succeed her husband or his father. They should be leaders because they qualify on their strength and want to make life better for the general population and should they succeed they should be monitored closely and held accountable for their commissions and omissions. Our three leaders – Obote, Amin and Museveni – became leaders by accident.

It is reported that Obote decided to return to Uganda in 1957 after he had been arrested and jailed in Kenya in connection with Mau Mau activities. He was released for lack of evidence against him. “Nevertheless, he deemed it wise to leave Kenya and to see what Uganda had to offer. He had no plans and certainly little thought to the possibility of involving himself with the political life of his own country” (Kenneth Ingham 1994). Yet he was the first executive prime minister of independent Uganda a few years after he returned from Kenya. Clearly he was not prepared for leadership. He just needed a job – UPC and KY gave it to him and snatched it from Kiwanuka.

Amin with a known brutal military record in Kenya and in Uganda (excessive attack on Mengo) jumped into the presidency to save his skin when he was about to be arrested. We welcomed him with so much jubilation as though we didn’t know who he was and what he was likely to become. Foreign countries that wanted to protest his becoming head of state and probably remove him could not do so seeing how jubilantly he was received initially in Kampala.

Then came Museveni whose difficulties of public acceptability surfaced at the 1979 Moshi conference. He could not even become leader of a political party he claimed he belonged to. A soldier who claimed to be a hero as Museveni did should have won a parliamentary seat unopposed. Not only was he opposed, he was defeated badly in his home area. This should have taught us a lesson. But we were not interested in that. All we wanted was to defeat Obote and UPC using anyone. Five years later after a brutal guerrilla war Museveni became president – Buganda and DP gave it to him.

Clearly, Uganda has had serious problems in choosing leaders – some good ones are rejected for very weak reasons including balanced representation. We have to accept this reality – sad and embarrassing as it may be – in order not to repeat it. Leaders should be picked on merit – and merit only. You should not sit comfortably and quietly in a corner somewhere and jump to the presidential stage when all the work has been done simply because it is your turn. That is the wrong way to choose leaders. And researchers who cover up things not to offend anyone do disservice to the general public. We therefore need to be honest.

Given the background of our three leaders it is not surprising that Uganda is sliding from the Third to the Fourth World economic and social category. Wherever you turn, there are failures. Uganda’s economic growth rate (3.2) is now below population growth rate (3.5) (the solution won’t come from birth control but from accelerated economic growth with equity, education and empowerment of women), signifying serious deterioration in living standards. A recent poll revealed that 81 percent of Ugandans is poorer. At independence, Uganda was far ahead of Kenya and Tanzania in many aspects of humanity. Now Uganda is at the bottom. The difference is in the quality of leadership among the three countries. Kenya and Tanzania have been led by civilian leaders: Uganda by two military leaders and one civilian leader.

For future leaders, Ugandans must agree on criteria or profile against which potential leaders must be assessed. Those who jump onto the political stage from nowhere should not be allowed, just as the party Museveni wanted to lead refused because he did not meet the criteria. Otherwise Uganda will remain a country where those who have no job or want to save their skin will try their luck. China and India have emerged as strong nations because of quality of leadership provided by Deng and Rao respectively. We should learn more about what made them succeed. Their qualities included experience, dedication and patriotism. For example, Deng wanted to end poverty in China and make his country strong internationally, not to accumulate wealth for his family members, relatives and friends by robbing citizens or create a dynasty. He even refused a monument after his death.

Fellow Ugandans, this is the moment to take a deep breath and reflect on where we have come from, where we are and where we want to go and decide on the leadership to get us there. The next 50 years should be better. The choice to make it so is ours and ours only. Foreign domination will enter if we open the door for it. And it doesn’t have to come with those in the diaspora, it can be invited by those already in and want to stay in power indefinitely. That is why we must re-establish term limits for elective offices and stick to them. Uganda’s future relations with other countries should be based on cooperation for mutual benefit.