He promised a fundamental change
Easily the most quoted statement that Yoweri Museveni has ever made is the one pertaining to the fundamental change he promised at the time he was being sworn in for the first time as Uganda’s president on January 26, 1986. Museveni was emphatic about what the change of government he and his comrades in the National Resistance Movement had effected was about: “ours is not a mere change of guard; it is, I think, a fundamental change”. The pronouncement triggered vast expectations.
Uganda was emerging from two decades of political instability and turmoil. Millions had died or been maimed. Others had suffered internal displacement as a result of the political violence that had engulfed the country only a few years after it gained independence. Hundreds of thousands had fled into exile to escape from persecution, arbitrary imprisonment or possible death at the hands of governments that brooked no challenge. Private and state assets had been destroyed and the economy virtually brought down to its knees.
Museveni was, therefore, addressing a country that yearned for a change of direction, a country where many looked up to him as the saviour they had been waiting for. Besides this broad declaration, Museveni also made some specific commitments, of which perhaps the most notable, and one that captured the imagination of many Ugandans, was that he would not hang around for long and follow the then well-established tradition of African presidents overstaying their welcome.
It is 28 years since that momentous occasion when multitudes of ecstatic Ugandans thronged the grounds of parliament and surrounding areas to listen to the young, almost innocent-looking man who had led the armed rebellion that, only a few years before, had seemed doomed to fail, but which had eventually precipitated the collapse of an unpopular government. If on that day anyone had said Museveni would still be in power 28 years later, they would possibly have been dismissed as mentally unwell. Yet the man is still here and possibly is destined to stay around for; as he has said, “sometime”.
During the years he has been in power, many commentators have referred to that initial speech in their criticism of Museveni, particularly for what some have called his “change of tune” on presidential longevity in power. Others use it in their declarations that there is nothing fundamentally different in politics in Uganda from the period before he came to power. In other words, those who invoke it usually do so as part of efforts to demonstrate that Museveni promised a great deal and delivered little, if anything. That, in my opinion, is patently inaccurate and unfair. We can debate interminably whether the changes that have taken place under his leadership are fundamental or not. Whatever position one may take could simply be a matter of one’s understanding of what “fundamental” means. Nonetheless, there is a great deal that has changed which, whatever one may think of it, is going to be extremely difficult to reverse even after Yoweri Museveni has left the scene and gone off to look after his cows or meet his creator. For want of space, I can cite only a few examples.
Before Museveni came to power, politics in Uganda was associated with exclusion and over-centralisation of decision-making. Then he came and introduced the idea that people of different political leanings and from different ideological backgrounds could work together in pursuit of common aspirations, in this case building a stable, peaceful, safe, and democratic Uganda. We all recall the heady days of the Movement System, to which growing numbers now look with a certain nostalgia, given the unproductive and often pointless contestation in which our political parties whose manifestos have more similarities than differences are now caught, and the price we all pay for the violence that often characterises the relationship between the NRM and its political opponents. The Movement System may have collapsed, but the importance of working together in the interests of collective goals is now well established in the minds of Ugandans.
Few would welcome a return to the pre-1986 politics when holders of power hunted down their opponents and killed them or drove them into exile. It is inconceivable that Ugandans would accept or tolerate a future government that may seek to take them back there. The degree to which ordinary Ugandans have internalised the importance of working together is evident within local governments where district administrations, for example, bring together members and supporters of different political parties in arrangements arrived at locally and not imposed from outside.
Talking of local governments; so entrenched is the idea that the centre must share some power and responsibilities with local authorities, that a government seeking to monopolise them would encounter much resistance from people who are now used to having a say in managing their own local affairs. In the absence of decentralisation which the NRM embraced and started promoting long before donors imposed it on other countries, the idea of power and responsibility sharing between the centre and local authorities would not have taken root as strongly as it has done. Local governments may lack the capacity to fulfil their obligations especially in service provision, but that has not undermined the importance people now attach to the principle of decentralisation as an aspect of good governance.
Never in Uganda’s history has the country staged as many elections as it has in the last 28 years. Granted, with the exception of the very early electoral exercises under the Movement System, no election has won wide acclaim for being free and fair. On the contrary, every election, including those that are organised internally within all the country’s political parties, end with disputes in which losers accuse the winners of rigging and bribing voters. For a government led by someone who started a war ostensibly in protest against the flawed general elections of 1980, the failure to inspire confidence in elections and the electoral commission that organises and manages them is a serious indictment and deep bloat on his record.
However, there are grounds for arguing that even flawed elections have an educative element. They teach people that leaders are supposed to be chosen by those they lead and, consequently, lay the foundation for a more robust democratic political environment. All democracies have evolved in this way, with their development entailing a great deal of trial and error, false starts, advances, and reversals. There are certainly Ugandans and outsiders who would love to see Uganda become a strong, mature liberal democracy. To imagine that it can emerge within three decades in a smooth, trouble-free evolution, however, is unrealistic. Therefore, in addition to being criticised for the shortcomings in elections conducted on his watch, Museveni ought to be credited for opening up and keeping the political arena open for competition. While many Ugandans may have little faith in elections as a mechanism for changing governments, few would seek a return to the days when leaders would openly declare themselves life presidents without even the pretence of seeking a popular mandate.
Under previous governments, members of the armed forces, the military in particular, had powers of life and death over civilians, partly as a result of tacit approval ‘from above’, or because of institutional weaknesses. The armed forces under Museveni’s leadership have not been perfect in their conduct. Indeed, there is no shortage of stories about extra-judicial killings and other forms of misbehaviour, some of it possibly encouraged by tacit approval ‘from above’. However, there is no comparison between the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces and their predecessors, particularly since the army mutiny of 1969, in terms of discipline. This is the outcome mainly of an institutional culture that encourages and enforces respect for citizens and civilian authorities in ways that would have been inconceivable in the past.
This turn-around, supplemented by civic education and deliberate efforts to demystify the gun, may have appeared questionable to some in its motivations, but it has been important in shaping relations between the armed forces and members of the public. Today fear plays a much-diminished role in this relationship than used to be the case in the past. While in some countries ordinary people are terrified of the military, in Uganda it is less so than used to be the case in the past. Future governments will find this extremely difficult to reverse, not least because of what keen watchers of the armed forces in Uganda point to as increasing professionalisation which, admittedly, must contend with contextual issues, such as political partisanship that complicate the process.
Republicans or modernists in our midst may not appreciate this last point. To monarchists or those who value culture and tradition and do not look upon them as candidates for destruction, however, it is very important. Entertaining the idea that traditional institutions such as monarchies were backward and, therefore, in contradiction with aspirations to or expectations of modernity, ‘republicans’ set about destroying them, even against the wishes of many who still valued them. To a large extent the political turmoil that engulfed Uganda following the abolition of traditional leadership sprang from the arrogance and narrow-mindedness of these modernist political elite that could not fathom how the traditional and the modern could co-exist.
To his credit, Museveni rose above that approach, whatever his reasons for doing so, which we can debate until the cows come home. He opened the way for those who loved their monarchies to revive them, and those who felt like inventing previously non-existent ones to do so. Of course the restoration, invention, and subsequent relations between some of them and the central government have not been without hitches. Nonetheless, Museveni’s decision to accede to popular demand for monarchies where it has emerged, has contributed to the wider stabilisation of the polity. True, contradictions and associated tensions remain and continue to beg for resolution. Nonetheless, that a future government would seek to abolish monarchies again is difficult to envisage. Even in traditionally republican areas of the country, the idea that modernisation cannot take place alongside respect for tradition has died and been buried.
Overall, therefore, while Museveni may not have delivered the fundamental change some people envisaged or understood him to mean, he has presided over far-reaching changes that, for better or worse, his successors will find extremely difficult to reverse. Many of these changes, I would argue, capture the idea of ‘fundamental change’, at least to a large degree.