Since 1986, I have attended annual debates of the United Nations General assembly in New York. From this vantage point I have watched, listened and heard world leaders deliver speeches including those by President Museveni.
During his initial visits to the UN in New York, Museveni portrayed an image of a new breed of African leaders. He conveyed a clear political, human rights and economic development message which immediately won him international recognition, causing his star to rise rapidly. He spoke eloquently and convincingly about his determination to end corruption and sectarianism forever; launch full scale democracy based on regular, free and fair elections, full participation of Uganda citizens, transparency and accountability; restore the rule of law and full respect for human rights; and end poverty and its offshoots of hunger, disease and illiteracy in Uganda.
To remove any ambiguity Museveni stressed that his goal was not to reduce but to eradicate poverty! Within a short time, he declared, Ugandans would break the poverty trap and get on a path of sustained and sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental protection for present and future generations. He was soon christened the ‘dean’ of a new breed of African leaders which included the president of Eritrea, prime minister of Ethiopia and president of Rwanda; and a regional ‘leader’ in the Horn and Great Lakes regions of Africa. He was seen as a stabilizing force in a region that for long had been marked by political instability, civil wars and economic backwardness.
At the economic level Museveni became the ‘darling of the West’ and ‘star performer’ in stabilization and structural adjustment program (SAP) which began in 1987. Because of the enormous short term social costs of SAP, its implementation needed a bold leader who would not tolerate opposition to the program. Museveni provided that leadership. Public expenditure except for the military was drastically reduced. Inflation was controlled and kept in single digits by reducing money in circulation and raising interest rates. He retrenched public servants en masse, reduced or eliminated subsidies on consumer and producer activities including education, healthcare and agriculture. He privatized public enterprises in a hurry, opened Uganda’s markets to foreign goods and services, diversified exports and allowed full operation of market forces and private sector as the engine of Uganda’s economic growth. The distribution of economic growth benefits were left to the trickle down mechanism of the market forces. The role of government in the economy was virtually eliminated. Decentralization to improve service delivery became part of good governance strategy. All these policy changes were designed to pave the way for medium to long term equitable economic growth and help meet what later became the MDGs.
At the social level Museveni’s bold, open and tireless efforts in addressing the HIV and AIDS pandemic when many other leaders were denying its existence in their countries won him national and international applause and recognition.
Because of these noble developments, Museveni and Uganda became popular on the international scene. United Nations missions visited Uganda and came back with success stories including in school enrolment and reversing HIV and AIDS. Whenever Museveni was in New York for the annual General Assembly Summits, many groups including the media, human rights, civil or non-governmental organizations, academia, foundations and the private sector wanted to meet with him, making appointments well in advance of his arrival. At these meetings, Museveni spoke with conviction that Uganda would soon become a middle income country. His star rose steeply. Then came troubles in quick succession and his star began to fall for the following reasons:
First, while in the General Assembly, Museveni would not follow standard procedures for delivering speeches. Most of the time he would address his fellow heads of state like a teacher does to his students. Quiet disapproval of his approach began to erode his popularity.
Second, the United Nations report accusing Uganda of involvement in the ruthless exploitation of D. R. Congo’s minerals, agricultural and timber products especially involving among others Museveni’s close relatives brought shame to a leader who had been seen as the champion of peace, stability and development in the region. Uganda government’s arguments in the Security Council and the General Assembly that security concerns were the reason for entering Congo were dismissed with contempt by many delegations.
Third, forcing the amendment of the 1995 Uganda constitution to remove presidential term limits and allow Museveni to stay in power indefinitely dealt a heavy blow to his reputation. It eroded further by revelations that he was putting his relatives – many of them unqualified and/or inexperienced – in key and strategic ministerial and public service positions such as in finance, foreign affairs and security forces to ensure his stay in power and realize his dream of “Tutsi Empire”.
Fourth, economic programs which were initially registered as success stories worthy of emulation by other countries began to show signs of stress and imbalance. Economic growth began to taper off to a level below the minimum of 7 percent required to meet the MDGs. The benefits of economic growth went disproportionately to the top income bracket with some 20 percent in the lower income bracket actually getting poorer. High interest rates to tame inflation ended up discouraging small and medium enterprises from borrowing and investing in labor-intensive activities resulting in high unemployment. And a policy switch from condom use to abstinence is believed to account for a rise in HIV infection. These adverse developments eroded Museveni’s popularity.
Fifth, the worst nightmare for Museveni is the allegation leaked just before the start of the General Assembly Summit that Uganda was involved in Hutu genocide in eastern DRC. Demonstrations by Ugandans while he was addressing the GA made matters worse. This unfavorable atmosphere reduced his engagements in high profile meetings including the MDG Summit itself. He even skipped important side events which were attended by the Secretary General and some heads of state including one hosted by UNDP. Museveni was represented at the MDG Summit by the Minister of Foreign Affairs who spoke in general terms instead of spelling out what progress had been realized in the eight goals. Reports from various sources including the media had presented unsatisfactory progress including on HIV and AIDS and no progress or deterioration on the hunger target.
In the end, there was a general feeling that Museveni’s legacy at home and abroad might be saved if he steps down.