Uganda’s change dilemma: How our country is caught between Museveni’s frying pan & the opposition’s fire

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By Andrew M. Mwenda

Ugandan activists, intellectuals and “intellectuals” hostile to President Yoweri Museveni get scared when one presents evidence that change can produce undesirable outcomes. And so it was that on Thursday February 11, I tweeted an article in the Financial Times. It argued that a decade since a popular uprising toppled long-ruling Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the country has not improved in anything but retrogressed in everything. This let lose the dogs of intellectual, but mostly emotional, war.

To these Ugandan elites I was just defending Museveni’s long, corrupt and inept stay in power. The merits of the botched change in Egypt did not register on their mental radar. I find this intriguing even though understandable. Ugandan (and African) elites talk loudest about how our continent’s biggest problem is leadership. Yet when given a chance to select leaders, they do not consider their values, competences or the social forces behind them. They are so married to change that they ignore the quality of change.

Let me be very clear. I strongly believe and even desire that Museveni and his confederates leave power. This is because the president personally and most of his government generally are physically, intellectually and ideologically exhausted. They have nothing new or novel to offer our country. They are now mired in political intrigues and have resigned themselves to holding power for its own sake. They may represent a great past for our country, but they don’t represent its future.

Museveni and his confederates are so hopelessly out of depth on what Uganda needs to move forward, so inept at doing the little they plan to do, and so lacking in energy, enthusiasm and moral purpose that the best they can do for this country is to just leave power. I say this without bitterness because I feel privileged. I am an outsider-insider to this government, with good and deep contacts in it. So I know much more about the rot, ineptitude, fatigue and lack of a moral purpose inside the government than its critics do.

This is where my agreement with our activists, intellectuals and “intellectuals” ends. My disagreement with them begins on the quality of change. As someone who has read Africa’s post independence history widely and intensely, I am aware that our continent has had many changes of government without much change in governance. From Nigeria, which has had 15 changes of government in 60 years, to Ghana, which has had 13, neither has transformed into anything fundamentally different from a typical African country.

Our own country perhaps represents the pitfalls of change for its own sake more than the rest of Africa. In 1971 Idi Amin topped the government of Milton Obote amidst mass celebrations. It led to the worst tragedy in our history. In 1979, Amin was removed by Tanzanian troops whom we called liberators. But our country immediately degenerated into state and economic collapse; anarchy and poverty reigned. The return of Obote did not solve the crisis of the state but only led us to civil war. In the 24 years from independence in 1962 to January 1986 when Museveni took power, we have nine governments, an average of 2.6 years per government – and there was nothing to show for those many changes except death and destruction.

So, it is not true that Uganda has lacked change. What we have always lacked is a qualitative change. That is why my first concern when matters of change are raised is to ask for the values and policies of the change agents and the social forces propelling the party or candidate of the change movement. It is this skepticism that terrifies opposition activists and Ugandan “intellectuals.”

Some Ugandan intellectuals and our development partners make wrong and even dangerous assumptions regarding our politics. First they assume that the mainstream opposition led previously by Dr. Kizza Besigye and now by Bobi Wine is a democratic alternative to Museveni. Second, that the Museveni government has been such a total failure that any change from it is good and desirable for Uganda. Neither of these assumptions has much merit.

Defiance (Besigye’s radical extremist wing of the FDC), which changed itself into People Power under Bobi Wine, is composed of individuals and social groups hostile of liberal democratic values. They see those who disagree with them as enemies to destroy not opponents to defeat. They have a lot of power on social media, which they use to cyber bully and psychological terrorize their opponents. Give them state power and you have tyranny.

Second, the Museveni administration (which they call a regime) has presided over the longest period of fast economic growth by historic and contemporary standards. Although its now tired and growth has slowed down, it remains one of the most successful governments in the recent history of the world. So our country is not desperate for change for us to embrace each and every upstart who claims to be a better alternative. In fact most people in the opposition don’t even care to know where the country has come from, where it is now for them to have a clear idea of where it needs to go.

Consequently, the opposition has invented nonexistent problems for the country. In their propaganda pamphlets, which they call manifestoes, they promise to do things government has already done or things government simply cannot afford to do because of its resource constraints. They are anti statistics, anti facts, anti truths, anti reason and anti intellectual, in fact worse than Donald Trump activists. Locked in their echo chambers, hostile to evidence that disagrees with their infertile imaginations, deaf to facts, blind to reason and focused on one part of a complex reality, Uganda’s mainstream opposition in Defiance and People Power is the ultimate representative of the change this country does not need.

The real tragedy of Uganda is that our elite class has failed to produce a viable alternative to Museveni – at the level of values (which shape conduct), policies (which can drive qualitative change) and social connection (the social groups that form the political base of the government). So Museveni’s NRM remains more liberal-democratic-minded i.e. tolerant of divergent views, with a superior policy program and the largest following of Uganda’s business class, progressive intellectuals and moderate politicians. We have descent people in the opposition, but they do not attract the mass following of the masses that want change – most of them keep retreating to NRM.

Hence, even though we are rich in human talent and diverse socially, were caught between Museveni’s frying pan and the opposition’s fire i.e. between a corrupt, tired and inept government and an angry, empty-headed, violent and intolerant opposition. For a qualitative alternative to emerge, we shall need a leader(s) of a movement that will disavow radical extremism and seek to build a politics of moderation, negotiation and compromise.

Given Uganda’s diversity, one cannot win an election without building a large and broad coalition. And to build a coalition requires tolerance of divergent ideas and identities. Defiance failed to grow because it was hostile to divergent ideas even though tolerant of different identities. People Power is a step backward because it is intolerant of different ideas and different identities. A third force that is broad in its appeal and tolerant in its conduct has failed to win the heart and minds of mainstream Ugandans. The result is the collapse in voter turnout to 57%, which we just witnessed. The last election was a clear expression of fatigue with Museveni and disapproval of NUP’s brand of politics.

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