Afrank memo to our talking heads – Andrew M . Mwenda

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A section of the Ugandan talking heads have made a fetish of “credibility”, particularly the sort of “credibility” purchased by denouncing President Yoweri Museveni as a murderous tyrant who has destroyed Uganda. To preserve such “credibility,” opposition leaders like Dr. Kizza Besigye, and now Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine), take very extreme positions that have make it difficult for them to grow their political appeal beyond a significant and loud but (numerically) a minority of opposition activists.

Uganda is, by its sociological and political constitution, a country of diverse social groups – religious, ethnic, ideological etc. No single group constitutes a majority. In short, ours is a country of minorities. The largest religious denomination is the Roman Catholic Church and constitutes only 39% of the population. And Catholics are spread across another critical diversity – ethnicity. The largest ethnic group, the Baganda, are only 16.5% of Uganda’s population.

It should therefore be obvious that if any politician wants to command a political majority, they need to build a supra partisan base who appeal is trans-group. I think this has been Museveni’s greatest strength. He appreciates that you cannot seek any form of purity in a diverse country such as Uganda and succeed at building a political majority. He has, therefore, made himself flexible and adaptable. He does not demand purity – whether of ethnic, religious, ideological or policy nature. Instead, he is willing to work with anyone even when they don’t agree on many things. So, he tends to identify a few areas of agreement with a group or an individual and works with them.

For instance, I disagree with Museveni on many things. If I were to list them, I would need a book. But I also agree with him on some things. What has always intrigued me, from the time I was even a young journalist bashing him and his government daily on radio, television and newspapers, is that he never seemed to take this personally. If I wrote an article he disagreed with, whether on facts or on opinion, he would call me on phone or to State House and register his disagreement and give his alternative facts or opinions.

The lesson I learned from him over time is that one can engage Museveni and work with him on the many things on which you agree with him. But this also may mean one moderates or even postpones differences on the many things they disagree with him on. For someone interested in influencing public policy, whether through mass media or private and public meetings, there is more to be achieved engaging Museveni than in denouncing him. In my engagements with him I have been impressed by his open-mindedness; he is always willing to listen and to take advice especially when backed by facts and based on sound research.

There is a section of the Ugandan talking heads that thinks that the only reason I can engage Museveni is through exchange of material favors i.e. bribery. What I have learned over time is that such attitude is not a judgment of my character. Rather those making such claims are projecting their character on me. They are saying if they had the access I have they would use to make money. Yet there is so much more money to be made denouncing Museveni (or any government in Africa) because the international intellectual architecture is designed to reward such behavior.

At the height of my Museveni and African-leaders-bashing-career, I used to get five speaking engagements a month and be paid $15,000 for one speech plus business or first-class travel and five-star hotel accommodation. Just do a Google search! The more acidic a topic was, the greater was the interest of the Western media and audiences. “How tyranny and corruption are suffocating Africa” is, for example, a topic Western media, civil society and academia love. And they want an African to be the speaker, if only to avoid a white person coming across as racist if they made such criticism.

Over years of study and personal reflection, I have arrived at the conclusion that African leaders are not necessarily evil men or women. I think their actions are shaped more by their circumstance than by their individual character, although we cannot ignore the role of character in the equation. Find me any society in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin and North America with 70% of the population living off the land as peasants, with adult literacy levels at 40%, per capita income at $800 and per capita revenues at $150 and per capital spending at $200 and I will show you that its strategies of governance reflects (or reflected) more Marshal Mobutu’s style than Barak Obama’s.

I believe that Museveni, like many of his contemporaries in Africa, is genuinely committed to transforming Uganda, just like Besigye and Bobi Wine are genuinely committed to liberating it. For Museveni to achieve his goal, he needs power – he cannot transform Uganda when he has been overthrown (and therefore in jail or exile) or been defeated in an election (and therefore in Rwakitura grazing cows). However, retaining power involves navigating a treacherous terrain of coup plots, internal intrigues, making compromises and giving concessions especially in an ethnically diverse society that often undermine the pace at which leaders can realize their goals.

I have read autobiographies of Western leaders – Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Obama, etc. and all I find is the huge gulf between their dreams and aspirations while in opposition and, once in power, the constraints imposed upon them by trying to keep it. Even keeping their own position as leading pillars of the opposition is already imposing on Besigye and Bobi Wine such constraints that they have lost their own identity. Neither Besigye nor Bobi Wine is a radical extremist by character. At a close personal level they are moderate. But to keep their base, they have to act as radical extremist, using language uncharacteristic of them. They are strategic radical extremists.

Fortunately, I am not a politician. I am not willing to purchase “credibility” by mutilating myself. Besigye and/or Bobi Wine can afford to because the reward of self-mutilation is the presidency. So, to the many people that write to me or about me almost demanding that I become a spokesperson of their grievances, with the hidden blackmail that I have been bribed and/or have changed, and therefore not what they used to know, here is my message: I do not want to be anyone else’s version of Andrew Mwenda. I want to be Andrew Mwenda’s version of Andrew Mwenda.


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