Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela of South Africa left power when their images as great leaders had reached a watershed. Yoweri Museveni could have joined their ranks as a great leader not only in Africa but also the world had he stepped down at the right time. Regrettably, Museveni missed that opportunity at a great cost.
After capturing power through force, Museveni quickly established himself as the ‘dean’ of the new breed of African leaders determined to break with the past by ending sectarianism and poverty, launching democracy and the rule of law and strictly observing human rights. At home, the launching of the ten-point program which had been drafted after extensive consultations and compromise marked him as a listener and pragmatic leader. The formation of a government of national unity which embraced representatives from all political parties, all religions and all regions and took into consideration the special needs of women and disabled persons erased any lingering doubt about his sincerity to forge a new Uganda. On their part Ugandans were prepared to sacrifice even more to make him succeed.
At the East African, African and global levels Museveni made impassioned speeches. He assured Africa and the rest of the world that his revolution in Uganda would not be exported to other countries particularly his neighbors. He castigated African and world leaders for remaining silent while the people of Uganda suffered under brutal dictators resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. He proposed fundamental political and economic changes at national and international levels and supported regional integration to create large markets for African products.
At the economic level, Uganda’s initial success with macroeconomic stability and rapid economic growth made Museveni a star performer and darling of the west. Uganda quickly became a role model for emulation by other African countries. At the social level, his bold and open handling of the HIV and AIDS pandemic while other leaders were denying its existence distinguished him as a world class leader. At the political level Museveni scored very high marks. Although the 1995 Uganda constitution has some shortcomings, overall it represented the will of the people. The drafting of the constitution was preceded by extensive consultations with all Ugandans. The Constituent Assembly debated it making necessary changes as appropriate. The incorporation into the constitution of presidential term limits was a landmark of historic proportions.
Museveni’s image and fame reached a watershed. As a reward he became a regular participant at the G8 summits of the world’s eight industrialized countries and received special accolades in the corridors of the United Nations General Assembly and associated organs. This is the time Museveni should have stepped down as president and become a global leader. He was offered many options and advice but he chose to stay on as president of Uganda and began a political, economic and diplomatic descent which increased with time and irreparably damaged his image. What factors acting singly or in concert triggered this sad outcome?
First, when Museveni’s two term limit as president ended, he chose to stay on by forcing the amendment of the constitution and deletion of the term limit provision to allow him to stay in power indefinitely. This action provoked condemnation at national and international levels and wounded his image.
Second, Museveni insisted on military victory and therefore refused to negotiate a peace settlement with Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony. His credibility eroded at home and abroad because of the effects of war and herding of Acholis into camps against the will of many families.
Third, Uganda’s role in the invasion of Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) without parliament’s approval, the genocide of Hutu in DRC alleging involvement of Uganda troops, the Kisangani war between Uganda and Rwanda troops, the looting of Congo’s resources and the arming of Congolese militias that have caused untold deaths and displacements especially in the Ituri forest area between Hema and Lendu ethnic groups cast a dark shadow over Museveni.
Fourth, Museveni’s alleged plan to create a “Tutsi Empire” including initially Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and DRC drew countries like Zimbabwe into the Congo war that started in 1998 to stop establishment of the Empire in Middle Africa.
Fifth, the collapse of the ‘economic miracle’ under structural adjustment (SAP) blew a big hole in the balance of Museveni’s credibility. Mushrooming diseases of poverty some of them long eradicated, ecological collapse and closure and exit of some business enterprises due to uncertainties demonstrated the depth of Uganda’s political economy dilemma. Corruption and sectarianism went through the roof. Uganda became the world’s number one alcohol consumer and eastern Africa’s topmost accident-prone country. Human sacrifice, domestic violence, insanity, crime with violence and cultural decay defined a new phase in Uganda’s descent into decadence. Museveni finally admitted that things had gone wrong on his watch but he did not craft a credible remedial action plan. In substance and staffing the development plan launched in mid-2010 remained essentially hinged on structural adjustment principles.
Sixth and finally, the revolt in his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) is an unambiguous verdict that Museveni has lost control of his party and through it the nation. The rejection of close to twenty ministers and many MPs during the primary elections in preparation for the general election in 2011 is clearly a vote of no confidence in Museveni and his government. Whether or not he wins next year’s presidential election, Museveni’s image and capacity to govern have eroded in a flood of accumulated grievances led by corruption, greed, nepotism and the determination to win all the time through the barrel of the gun and manipulation of the democratic process.
The lesson for present and future leaders is that they should know, like Nyerere and Mandela, when to step down. The longer they stay, the more challenges they face with potential for irreparable damage to their credibility. Sadly, that is what Museveni has reaped after 25 years as president of Uganda.