Uganda: when you’re afraid of failure you will never make progress

Many Ugandans are very unhappy about the deteriorating situation in our country. However, they are unable to react because they are afraid that if they don’t succeed in regime change or make fundamental changes within NRM the consequences might be severe. They are therefore prepared to wait until time solves the problem or someone else does it for them. That is why some Ugandans are praying virtually daily for donors to come to our rescue. In life there are few, if any, improvements that occur without human involvement and sometimes sacrifices. Intervention by others is more often than not to promote or fulfill parochial agendas that could lead to more hardship for the non-participants in the process. Therefore in order to solve a problem those affected need to participate. Second, success or failure depends upon the goal one sets. For example, those who had planned to unseat NRM regime in 2011 elections and didn’t obviously failed. Those who criticized NRM economic policy succeeded because the government dropped the devastating structural adjustment program in 2009 based on the invisible hand of market forces and replaced it with National Development Plan designed to introduce a public-private partnership model. Third, there are goals that are achieved in stages. You start with producing and disseminating information in the news papers, radios and the internet as Ugandans are doing now. The information is then debated and synthesized into policy and strategy in the second phase. In the third phase the strategy is implemented. Implementation may not achieve all the goals or none at all. The momentum may be slowed or the movement even destroyed completely. History provides lessons we can draw from so that when we do not succeed or do so partially the first time we should not despair and throw in the towel. In some of my publications, I have deliberately drawn on history lessons to show that those that persist and are optimistic win in the end. Below are some lessons that discourage pessimism and defeatism.

When peasants, individuals or other group revolted in Europe, there were heavy casualties. But they planted revolutionary seeds that produced the next generation that succeeded. Some revolts had partial results. Regarding peasant revolts there are examples of immediate and long term success stories. Although the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 did not end feudalism and some people lost their lives, it forced the government to drop the poll tax. When Margaret Thatcher tried to reintroduce it she lost her job as prime minister and leader of the conservative party. The Russian peasants’ revolts of 1905-7 forced government abrupt change of policy in the Stolypin Reforms of 1906-10. Because the land question was not resolved, peasant agitation resurfaced with a vengeance in the 1917 Russian Revolution. However, Lenin’s policies that nationalized and centralized the economy did not please peasants. They revolted in the spring of 1921 and forced the government to introduce the New Economic Policy (NEP) with concessions to peasants and a semi-market economic policy.

At the individual level and in many disciplines agitation has resulted in some changes as well as some sacrifices. The cases of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus against Church practices are worth mentioning. John Wycliffe, a philosophy and theology teacher at Oxford University had witnessed much corruption within the Church in England. He took a stand and opposed corruption and selling indulgences (pardons) to raise funds for political and military purposes. Among other issues Wycliffe challenged the idea that members of the clergy could or should hold positions of political authority. Traditional, hard-line Catholics were disturbed by Wycliffe’s arguments. He was declared a heretic, hoping that his views would be buried permanently. However, his followers known as Lollards defied that logic and continued to preach his ideas even after his passing. Wycliffe influence spread outside England to as far as Bohemia where Jan Hus picked it up.

Like Wycliffe, Hus was a University professor in addition to being a priest. He too witnessed wrong doing in the Church and attacked it in his sermons. Hus condemned sale of indulgences and clergy holding secular political positions. He maintained that the Church had no business in political affairs. He refused to succumb to Church criticism. He was excommunicated in 1412 for insubordination, condemned for heresy and burned at the stake (executed) in 1415. The execution of Hus made his followers grow stronger, spread the message and even defeated armies sent to crush them. John and Jan views were picked up by Martin Luther a lawyer-turned-monk-turned-renegade-reformer who like dissenters before him did not intend to start a new religion. He wanted to reform the Church. However, he started a chain of events that helped change religious, political and social history of the world.

The European Revolutions of 1848 were triggered by ideological conflicts among nationalism, liberalism and conservatism as well as economic challenges including industrial exploitation, poverty and food shortages. As we know, poor and hungry people become cranky and cause governments some problems. In this environment, thought-provoking documents were produced about ideal societies and revolutions to achieve them. Europe listened, heard the message and responded.

Although the revolutions did not bring about regime change, most of the proposed reforms were carried out in the second half of the century. More specifically, the revolutions led to the democratization of political institutions in Western Europe. By the early 20th century all European states including Russia had representative assemblies most of them with elected members.

Two lessons out of these stories stand out. First, if you don’t try chances are that nothing or very little will occur in the depressing status quo. Ugandans should therefore not be held back by fear of failure. We learn by mistakes although avoiding them altogether would be the best course of action. Second, rarely does silencing, forcing into exile or even killing leaders of a movement like was done to Hus produce the desired results. On many occasions, movements have gathered momentum and brought about comprehensive changes in the status quo in the short, medium and long term. These two lessons should serve as incentives so Ugandans shake off fear of failure and what might happen as a result. Thankfully, Ugandans have begun to take bold steps to challenge NRM government as never before. Instead of fighting back to retain status quo which will not hold in the end as decadence spreads to all corners of the country, the government should accept inclusiveness and a transitional government to avoid hard days. The opposition is not turning back. First, it has nowhere else to go. Second, the eyes are open. NRM promises of better days ahead have lost value. NRM should understand that.

As Ugandans begin to understand why they are poor and who is responsible, they will react appropriately to achieve the desired results. Revolutions start with few dedicated and patriotic individuals (and NRM should know that more than anyone else if they told us the truth about the 27 original guerrillas) and grow into full-blown tornados as we are reading in Uganda news and hearing on radios at home and abroad. Tornados cause devastation wherever they pass. NRM is standing in the direction of a tornado and will not escape its devastating impact if it does not take preventive steps in good time. This is a warning that should not be taken lightly. NRA/NRM was not taken seriously until too late and we all witnessed what happened. Ethiopian revolution of 1974 and the underlying causes were not taken seriously and we know the consequences. Warning signs at home and abroad to Mobutu were simply ignored and we know where the late Mobutu ended up. Accommodating others is not a sign of weakness. Rather it is a demonstration of wisdom, maturity and pragmatism. Poor, unemployed and increasingly landless Ugandans have nowhere else to go paradoxically in a nation boasting of sound economic fundamentals.

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