Mismanagement similarities between Mobutu and Museveni

As a citizen of Uganda I have followed developments in that country since Museveni shot his way to power in a military coup of January 1986 with external backing. As a researcher on the Great Lakes Region I have studied Zaire (now DRC) under Mobutu who also shot his way to power in a military coup of November 1965 with external backing as well.

There are similarities between the two presidents in initial domestic and external popularity, efficient management of the economy and society during the early years of their rule, participation in expensive international events and increasing authoritarianism and mismanagement largely through corruption and disproportionate spending of public money on themselves, their families, relatives and staunch political supporters (kleptocratic elite).

Yet the international community insisted until 1990 that without Mobutu there would be chaos (witness the famous title of a book “Mobutu or Chaos”) and up to the present (2010) the international community is still insisting albeit in subtle ways that Museveni is irreplaceable. Remarks by visiting dignitaries from multilateral and bilateral institutions including British ministers and experts and lavish allocation of donor money on Uganda confirm strong support for President Museveni. This conclusion cannot be denied because it is obvious. Let us begin with an assessment of Mobutu who came to power earlier than Museveni.

Mobutu Sese Seko

With external backing Mobutu came to power the second time (the first time was in 1960) in 1965 when there was a political stalemate over the election of a head of state between Moise Tshombe and Joseph Kasavubu. Since independence in June 1960, the country had staggered from crisis to crisis including the assassination of the first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba , secession of Katanga and Kasai regions and rebellions in the eastern region that were ended with foreign troops with many loss of lives.

Because Congolese people had had enough with political bickering, they were ready to welcome Mobutu notwithstanding his role in the execution of Patrice Lumumba. Parliament confirmed him the same day of the coup as the legitimate head of state. From that time on, post-independence disorder subsided. Mobutu introduced reforms that extended political stability to the countryside, reduced inflation and increased economic growth. Favorable copper prices and lavish donor funding provided sufficient funds to implement ambitious development plans. Political stability albeit temporary restored the country’s creditworthiness. Western investors and bankers felt confident that their investments would be safe and profitable and pumped millions of dollars into Zaire.

Bilateral and multilateral donors felt the same and lavished money and experts on the country.

“The early 1970s thus witnessed a resurgent, sure-footed Zaire; a state fully prepared to exercise its responsibilities as one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful on the continent. During these years, Mobutu confidently expanded diplomatic contacts with China and North Korea, and was even secure enough to rupture relations with Israel. His aim was to assert Zaire’s claim to leadership in Africa and the Third World. During this period analysts of Zaire’s foreign policy lavishly praised Mobutu’s endeavors” (Thomas M. Shaw & Olajide Aluko 1984).

As mentioned earlier, with adequate funds, Mobutu embarked on ambitious but ill-conceived projects like the $250 million Maluku steel mill to use imported scrap iron and the Inga-Shaba hydro-electric scheme which cost $1billion, four times over the initial estimates (P. Duigan & R. Jackson 1986).

Steel produced at Maluku cost ten times the cost of imported equivalent and the plant operated at 10 percent of installed capacity. Other industries like assembled cars, tyres and textiles cost between 20 and 40 percent of imported products. The nationalized economy including commerce and agriculture were poorly managed with serious repercussions. Government policy on agriculture in particular undermined its profitability. Marketing boards bought produce consistently at below market prices and lack of transport, storage and processing facilities undermined incentives to produce for the market. Consequently agriculture reverted to subsistence economy.

Mobutu also engaged in costly ventures such as involvement in Angola and Chad conflicts, hosting the heavy weight boxing champion fight in 1974, international conferences and spending heavily in connection with Zaire’s election campaigns to international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council.

By 1974 dark clouds had gathered on the Zaire’s horizon. Copper prices plummeted, imported oil prices quadrupled, mismanagement of the economy mounted, investment and consumer funds declined ending the honey moon period. The economic down-turn was made worse by closing the Benguela railway, the country’s main outlet to the outside world through Angola. In 1977 and 1978 Zaire was invaded by Zairean rebels from Angola. The country and Mobutu were rescued by foreign intervention.

In order to hang on to power, Mobutu increasingly became authoritarian. He had opponents killed, or driven into exile and marginalized the rest. He intimidated his cabinet and reshuffled members so frequently that their effectiveness and efficiency were badly undermined. He increasingly depended on his tribe from Equateur province. Corruption increased so much that a new term of Kleptocracy (government of thieves) came into force. It is estimated that Mobutu looted and hid in foreign banks up to $8 billion of public money (A. Thomson 2000).

Social sectors were neglected. In the health sector, for example, poor services led to many deaths of children and adults forcing the Archbishop of Lubumbashi to write a pastoral letter in 1976 on health and other issues.

“We bear daily witness to agonizing situations… How many children and adults die without medical care because they are unable to bribe the medical personnel who are supposed to care for them? Why are there no medical supplies in the hospitals, while they are found in the marketplace? How did they get there? Why is it that in our courts justice can only be obtained by fat bribes to the judge? … Why do our government officers force people to come back day-after-day to obtain services to which they are entitled? If the clerks are not paid off, they [the people] will not be served. Why, at the opening of school, must parents go into debt to bribe the school principal? Children who are unable to pay will have no school… Whoever holds a moral authority or means of pressure, profits from it to impose on people and exploit them…” (A. Thomson 2000).

Thus inappropriate policies and especially greed for private accumulation brought the country to its knees. Healthcare deteriorated, food security increasingly depended on non-nutritious cassava, kids dropped out of school and girls got married and started having children in their teens increasing the number of mouths to feed, the majority of Congolese disappeared into the informal sector and regarded their government as an enemy of the people to be avoided at all times.

Opposition was frustrated and efforts to bring about national reconciliation and to launch democracy failed. The donor community (USA, France, Belgium, the World Bank and IMF {M. Wrong 2001}) that had supported Mobutu openly in part because of his strong anti-communist stand found it difficult to continue doing so once the Cold War was over.

Mobutu was politely advised to step down but refused. In 1990, the World Bank cut off funding, followed shortly after by the IMF and bilateral donors (M. Wrong 2001).

In 1996 Zaire was invaded by foreign troops including Angola, Rwanda and Uganda and the dictator and his corrupt regime was thrown out of power.

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni

Like Mobutu, Museveni came to power through the barrel of the gun at a time like in Zaire when the population was tired of political fights and loss of human lives and property. Like Mobutu, Museveni received domestic and external support. He brought peace to parts of the country and introduced reforms that together with excess capacity in land, labor and industries increased economic growth albeit from a low level. Like Mobutu, Museveni became the darling of the west because he embraced neo-liberalism or Washington Consensus and later took a strong stand against terrorism.

Like Mobutu, with increased export earnings, remittances, private investments and donor money from multilateral and bilateral sources, Museveni embarked on development projects like rehabilitation of roads albeit poorly done and importation of hoes. Ugandans in the southern part where security had been restored began to enjoy the benefits of economic growth.

Like Mobutu, within ten years the benefits of economic growth in the south began to taper off. Northern and Eastern parts did not benefit because of the war.

Skewed economic growth, inappropriate policies like export-oriented growth that exported more food at the expense of domestic consumers, market liberalization that knocked many domestic industries out of business and crippled those that have survived through unfair competition combined with sectarianism and increasingly greed and rampant corruption have brought misery to many Ugandans. They cannot not access adequate food supplies, good education, housing, jobs, healthcare and clothing (wearing second hand winter clothes in a tropical climate reflects Ugandans’ abject poverty because they cannot afford new cotton fabrics. Attempts to tax second hand clothes out of Uganda markets have failed because of opposition from consumers that cannot afford new clothes!).

Dissent has been suppressed in many ways including anti-sectarian law banning complaints against nepotism and in a sense corruption. Dissenting voices have been silenced through bribery or harassment. Museveni has increasingly become authoritarian, intolerant of freedom of expression and turned Parliament into a rubber stamp. Political campaigns and election days have turned into battlegrounds of some sort. Museveni (even when he was chairman of the Commonwealth) has authorized the use of force to disperse unarmed demonstrations resulting in loss of human lives and others are being tortured and imprisoned resulting in excessive abuse of human rights (Various Human Rights Watch reports).

Human rights violations of Karamajong people by Uganda’s national army have been documented. “These violations have included unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, and theft and destruction of property” (Human Rights Watch September 2007).

The international community judges a country to be unstable and reacts with stern warning to the government when there are bloody riots and demonstrations. Museveni is aware of that and he will not tolerate demonstration, however, peaceful. That is why Uganda police occasionally use canes to whip demonstrators instead of bullets to avoid bloodshed and loss of lives. That way Museveni can hoodwink the world that Uganda is stable and safe for foreign investments.

Like Mobutu, Museveni has sent troops into neighboring countries creating unfriendly relations and potential retaliation in the future. Like Mobutu, Museveni is increasingly spending scarce public funds on international events like hosting the Commonwealth and African Union Summits, campaigns to get on international bodies like the United Nations Security Council. These international events also give the opportunity as many Ugandans believe to steal public funds.

Purchasing expensive presidential jets and disproportionate public expenditure on the first family while health centers have no medicines contributing to a substantial rise in infant mortality from 75 to 78 per 1000 live births and other deaths has irritated Ugandans.

The devastating impact of mismanagement of public funds, inappropriate economic policies like exporting food when Ugandans are starving and general neglect of agriculture that receives much less than 10 percent of national budget as agreed at the African Union Summit in 1993 is spreading and deepening. Regarding investments in agriculture, the main stay of the economy that sustains 90 percent of Ugandans, there is cause for concern. For example, in 2008 financial year, agriculture’s budget share declined from 4.2 to 3.8 percent (Global Future Number 3, 2008).

The impact of Museveni’s mismanagement of the economy and society is similar to what happened in Mobutu’s Zaire. In that case I refer you to the pastoral letter of the Archbishop of Lubumbashi of 1976 quoted above.

The mismanagement and abuse of power by Museveni is increasingly forcing his western backers, bilateral and multilateral donors, to speak out disapprovingly. But they are still pumping money into the country especially at the time when Uganda is preparing for elections early in 2011 knowing full well that a large chunk of the resources will fund Museveni’s presidential and his party’s parliamentary campaigns severely disadvantaging the opposition parties that are already being harassed by the government. Many Ugandans therefore feel that the donor community is an integral part of their problems and suffering.

Justifiably or not because of the similarities in poor governance by the two presidents, some people describe Museveni as Mobutu Sese Seko junior.