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Dictatorships don’t serve the people; they give privileges to their cronies

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Dear Colin, I read your letter regarding my views on the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, with interest and disappointment. Although you raise some legitimate issues, I was disappointed by its innuendoes and insinuations where you accuse me of being “journalist of fortune” and of ‘selling my soul’ ‘ something uncharacteristic of you. However, I will not stoop that low to trade false accusations but instead address the otherwise legitimate issues you raised.

Throughout my debates with you and in newspaper articles and radio shows over the last 15 years, I have always defended former President Milton Obote whom you denounce as a dictator. Equally, I have been an ardent admirer of Kwame Nkrumah (who jailed political opponents and shut down newspapers), Thomas Jefferson (who was president of a country where black people were slaves), Park Chung Hee, the dictator who transformed South Korea etc. Yet in spite of this obvious contradiction, you still admired my writings. Why then do you make Kagame an exception?

This contradiction should not be surprising at all. Democratic France today celebrates the life and leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte who was a dictator. In his dramatic closing remarks during his treason trial, Nelson Mandela said that ‘a free and democratic society’ was an ideal he was willing to die for. As president, he got close to Muammar Gadhaffi of Libya and Fidel Castro of Cuba, both of whom are known despots. Many voices especially in the USA began to point out this obvious contradiction. Mandela insisted he got close to these leaders because of their role in assisting the ANC fight Apartheid while the US supported it. In short, Mandela was saying it is unfair to judge any leader on the basis of only one score – freedom.

It is with this background that I find your position on Kagame dishonest. Your disregard of his government’s dedication to provide public goods and services even to the poorest citizens amidst insurmountable odds, both human and material, is shocking and sad. It takes a lot of time, effort, resources, discipline and a genuine concern for the interests of ordinary citizens to build institutions and put in place public policies that can deliver such public goods and services. That Kagame has achieved that in Rwanda would elicit admiration even from the most biased opponents.

For example, by 1994, Rwanda had only one surgeon. With fewer doctors and nurses and no institutional traditions to lean on, that country today offers far better medical and hospital services than Uganda ‘ a country with a strong tradition of high quality public medical care in Africa. Museveni used to claim that our dysfunctions were caused by Obote and Idi Amin. He has been in power longer than their combined period yet the state of our healthcare is a disaster. Yet within four years, Rwanda has built a national medical insurance system so that even a poor peasant who needs it is flown to South Africa or India for a kidney or heart transplant.

You know that ordinary Ugandans who need such expensive treatment just die. The lucky ones get space in newspapers to appeal to good Samaritans for assistance ‘ and few get it. Meanwhile, the president flies his daughters in the presidential jet to Germany and Spain for small medical issues such as delivery of babies. One public official recently spent over Shs 500 million on specialised medical treatment abroad at public expense as Mulago Hospital lacks even the most basic things as gloves for nurses.

As mothers in Mulago die with their babies for lack of basic medical attention and drugs, the residence of the president ‘ State House ‘ hosting one man and his wife and a few private secretaries, was this year allocated Shs 90 billion. Mulago was allocated Shs 40 billion. How can you be so blind to this blatant abuse of the public trust by our leadership? You claim that these Ugandans have exit options when you know that since they are poor, the only exit option is to go to witchdoctors i.e. back to the Stone Age.

How can you defend as democratic a regime that steals from its own people, lets the vulnerable die of simple diseases as the powerful indulge in excesses, send hooded gangs to invade courts of law, jail a presidential candidate and try him in a military court on trumped up charges, shut down radio stations and newspapers and blatantly give public money and assets for free to their cronies?

Look, the total money spent on the health sector by the Ugandan government and donors this financial year alone (Shs 1.3 trillion) is over 85% of the total budget of the government of Rwanda (Shs 1.5 trillion). Were Ugandans to have a government responsive to the needs of 90% of its people as opposed to a handful of elites, this tragedy in our national healthcare system would not happen.

In Rwanda, you can walk kilometres upon kilometres of road with pedestrian walkways because the government there cares about the rights and safety of ordinary citizens. In Uganda, roads are built without any consideration for pedestrians because of the elite-driven attitude of the state: those with cars matter, those who walk on foot can fall in ditches, get knocked/injured or killed.

Colin, in Uganda, only a small group of elite students from Gayaza, Namagunga and Budo pass well enough to get state sponsorship at university. The children of the poor who in 1970 could go to any good school and then to Makerere University cannot do so today. So they have no hope of gaining a foothold at the ladder of self advancement. In Rwanda, every student is entitled to a loan for university education. Scholarships to study abroad are given by a board on a clearly laid out criteria. Scholarships to study abroad in Uganda are given by State House on criteria no one knows.

Public officials who steal public funds in Rwanda are arrested and tried. I was shocked that you are angry at Kagame for ‘sending shivers down the spines’ of the corrupt. I want my president to do it in Uganda yet he lets the thieves go scot free. This impunity of officialdom in Uganda continues in the face of ‘free press and civic associations’ because these institutions have largely been corrupted and co-opted by the regime. The vast majority of Ugandans have no voice; they cannot speak through elections because the regime blatantly steals their votes as it steals their money.

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