By Andrew M. Mwenda
How Museveni repeats the mistakes he accused Amin and Obote of and how we can begin a new conversation about it
Daniel Kalinaki’s book, Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution, is one of the most compelling pieces of writing I have read in the recent past. It is simply unputdownable. As a story about Besigye’s ambitions, ideals, aspirations, illusions and delusions, it is spiced with scintillating anecdotes of the infightings, competitions, manipulations and betrayals of Uganda’s politics. It is a feast for Uganda’s elite served by an unstinting host.But as an analysis of the ills and remedies of Uganda’s pursuit of some democratic ideal, I felt Kalinaki did little reflection.
I have grown increasingly suspicious of mainstream views about politics in Africa; views I have personally propagated for most of my intellectual life. This is because I have interacted so much with our politicians, soldiers, activists, business persons and citizens. So I have been thinking of how to use this wealth of experience to understand and explain our politics. I have become wary of the underlying assumptions and adjectives we use. For example, throughout the book, Kalinaki refers to “the Obote regime,” “the Museveni regime”. Assuming he was writing about the USA, would he use the expression “the Obama regime?”
Here is the outline of the story Kalinaki tells us largely relying on Besigye’s (and his wife Winnie Byanyima’s) lenses into the politics of Uganda where President Yoweri Museveni is the central antagonist.
It starts with Museveni going to the bush to fight the government of Milton Obote because the 1980 election had been rigged. Besigye joins him because the Obote government brutalises him. Inadvertently, Kalinaki shows that Museveni was motivated by a broader grievance; Besigye by a very personal one.
Along the way, Museveni and his NRM colleagues add a list of ills they sought to fight and rid the country of – dictatorship, tribalism, militarism, sectarianism, nepotism, extra judicial killings, corruption, impunity, abuse and misuse of office, etc. They fought and sacrificed so that Uganda can in future have constitutionalism, institutionalisation of power, free and fair elections and the rule of law.
However, during the struggle in Luwero, Besigye begins to notice that NRM, and in fact Museveni, are exhibiting these same tendencies. Upon taking power, in 1986, these ills become increasingly manifest and make Besigye, the hero of this story, increasingly frustrated. Between 1986 and 1999, Besigye goes through a series of skirmishes with Museveni and his cohorts like Amama Mbabazi and Salim Saleh over these betrayals of the ideals of the revolution. But the situation gets worse, not better.
A series of internal discussions inside the historical core of the NRM on how to “redirect” the revolution yield a lot of talk and no action. Besigye decides to author a document on these problems in November 1999 for discussion. Museveni responds by blocking any discussion on it and instead threatens to send Besigye to a military court martial. This leads to Besigye launching his presidential bid in October 2000, partly to avoid arrest but fundamentally to challenge “Museveni’s dictatorship”. In doing this, Besigye unleashes an Idi Amin out of Museveni. The story Kalinaki outlines is the story you read of every revolution in the world – from Russia to Cuba, China to Vietnam and America to France. It is also a story of post independent Africa. It is essentially politics as usual.
This is not the conversation I expected to have with Kalinaki’s book, because it is now more than 50 years since Uganda (and most of Africa) got independence. Since then we have gone through many changes of governments and presidents –military coups, elections, insurrections and assassinations. But the issues that have animated these disruptions have not changed. Why?
That is what we need to discuss; why different leaders in different countries and regions of our continent at different times in our political evolution act the same way, repeating the misdeeds of their predecessors – misdeeds they had previously denounced. What are the underlying factors that sustain these misdeeds in our politics and seem beyond the control of individual presidents and ruling political parties? Our politicians behave like characters in Ancient Greek tragedies who under the influence of the scheming gods or even the stars would follow a predestined path of self-destruction.
Are the failures under Museveni a product of his personal moral lapses and greed for power? Is it possible that Museveni (like Besigye now) was deluded into a messianic image of himself when he fought Obote and when he came to power, its imperatives brought him to reality? Isn’t Museveni a mere cog in the wheel of Uganda’s vast social milieu whereas he thought (and perhaps still thinks) of himself as the wheel?
I believe that as a manager and administrator, Obote was more effective compared to Museveni – witness the hospitals and schools, banks and industries that he built and his government ran with excellence and which Museveni’s government has mismanaged or sold. But Obote made a fundamental error that Museveni has avoided: he failed to domesticate power; that is why he kept losing it. Obote did not practice what Museveni accused him of: corruption, tribalism, militarism and personal control of the core institutions of the state – at least not to the scale Museveni has. Instead Obote sought to run Uganda as if it was Britain. But you cannot use the institutions and practices of an industrial society to run a peasant society.
If African intellectuals are to contribute towards the improvement of governance on our continent, they need to question existing theories and assumptions.Why have the longest serving presidents in Africa been those we have despised as venal – Mobutu, Blaise Compaoré, Omar Bongo, Robert Mugabe, Obiang Nguema, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Paul Biya, Eduardo Dos Santos, Idriss Déby, etc? What do/did they understand about our societies and have manipulated so skilfully to stay in power? What did our most enlightened and progressive leaders – Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Milton Obote, Kwame Nkrumah, Murtala Mohammed etc. – fail to see that made them last only a few years in power?Why have many of our leaders come with great promise but ended in disappointment? Sadly, Kalinaki makes no effort to address these issues.
As a moral statement about Museveni’s failures – and they are many – Kalinaki’s book does a great job. But as an insight into the problems and potential remedies of Uganda’s ills, Kalinaki’s book lacks analytical bite. Instead, it inadvertently shows that Besigye suffers the same disease as Museveni – a messianic self-image, an overestimation of himself and an under-estimation of the complexity of managing a peasant society.