By Andrew M. Mwenda
How the US president has swallowed his idealism and transformed from a critic of his Ugandan counterpart into an ally
Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States in 2008 was a moment of great hope. It is difficult to recapture the emotional tone of that moment. But, to use the words Robert Bates used on Africa’s independence, “the depth of it, the fullness of it and the promise it offered” left its mark on all those who followed his campaign up to his inauguration.
It was presented as a new dawn, a rebirth. In Africa, our chattering class saw in Obama a savior to liberate them from local dictatorships and their corruption.
Obama projected himself as a messiah sent by providence to liberate the world from the Bush-Cheney “axis of evil”. He denounced George Bush and demonised Dick Cheney. He promised to rebuild the economy at home and improve America’s standing abroad.
He said the things the Bush administration had done in pursuit of the war on terror – detention without trial, torture, foreign bombings and occupations, surveillance of people abroad and citizens at home, the Patriot Act, the horrors of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib – all went against the grist of American values and decency.
So the first thing Obama did upon entering the oval office was to sign an executive order closing Guantanamo Bay. He then promised transparency in government activities especially in allocation of projects and the war on terror, declared that he was going to repair America’s relations with Russia, extend an open hand to Iran (both of which, he claimed, Bush had mishandled), reconstruct the ties with Europe, improve relations with the Arab and Muslim world and rebuild confidence in the image of America as the world’s savior.
At home, he promised to rebuild roads and bridges, end the corruption and privileges of Washington DC, promote transparency in government spending, curb political patronage (Americans call it “pork-barrel” politics), push through healthcare reform, invest in renewable energy, finance improved education, cut military spending and end occupations abroad. He initiated the largest state-financed recovery – pouring over $800 billion into the economy.
For many people in America and the world, the hopes Obama built have given way to disillusionment. In spite of his rhetoric, Obama has failed to stimulate serious economic recovery at home or improve America’s standing abroad. Instead, the man whom Colin Powell, perhaps in a moment of unguarded optimism, suggested would become a “transformational figure,” has turned out to be a transactional president, a mundane tactician.
He has not closed Guantanamo. He has not ended illegal imprisonment and torture. He has not stopped foreign bombings. In his first year, he threw more bombs against defenseless Afghan, Pakistani and Yemeni civilians than Bush did in eight years. He has intensified security surveillance of people abroad and citizens at home.
He has not cut the defense budget. He has not improved relations with Russia, they have become worse. He has achieved nothing with Iran. He passed a watered down healthcare legislation.
Instead, Obama has presided over growing governmental corruption and incompetence. Funds allocated to finance research and investment in renewable energy went to companies owned by his former campaign managers and financiers.
The number of non-authorised surveillance of Americans has sky-rocketed, a sign of limited transparency in pursuit of a “war on terror.” In short, Obama has failed in almost every big and small initiative he has undertaken.
I wrote in my column during his 2008 campaign that Obama’s idealism was going to confront American reality. I think there is little in Obama’s personality, values, personal managerial and leadership competences to explain his failures.
It has a lot to do with the animal called the United States of America. A US president, however well intentioned, cannot change the way the system works. Rather than change the system, they bend to its rules.
Obama’s predicament reminded me of a conversation I had last week, over tea, with a top NRM politician and close confidant of President Yoweri Museveni. He told me of how, in 1986, Museveni/NRM thought enthusiastically that by 1990, they would have put in place the necessary mechanisms for Uganda to transition to democracy.
They would then handover power and go home. Wow!! This was the naivety with which our revolutionaries came to Kampala. But it was not going to last, reality checked them.
It is coming close to 30 years and there is not much of a fundamental change that Museveni has brought. I am not saying there has been no change under Museveni. There has been; but it has been change of a slow and incremental nature, not rapid transformational change that he and his allies envisaged.
On the contrary, on almost every issue where Museveni criticised Milton Obote (corruption, tribalism, militarism, dictatorial tendencies, East African integration, cronyism, etc), he has performed worse or the same and rarely better than the man from Lango. What happened?
Like Obama, Museveni’s idealism met Uganda’s reality. Where he said he would leave power in four years, Museveni has clung onto it for 27 and counting. Where he denounced corruption, it has become the bedrock of his presidency.
Where he scorned militarism, he has survived because of it. And where he criticised tribalism, he can be accused of descending to sub tribe and family. Yet today I am inclined to be more sympathetic to Museveni (or Obama) than I would have been a decade ago, recognising that he is a mere cog in the wheel of history where he thought he was the wheel itself.
During his 2008 campaign, Obama gave three speeches where he denounced Museveni for stifling democracy and promoting corruption. Shivers went down the spines of many at State House in Entebbe.
Yet this week, Museveni travels to New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings from whence he will go to Washington DC for meetings at the Pentagon, State Department and later meet Obama at the White House. He will be feted and treated as a prince by US leaders. America will announce doubling its military assistance to Uganda – including giving lethal military assistance.
What happened to Obama of 2008? America’s geostrategic interests in our region, and Museveni’s pivotal role in them, demand that the American president pampers his Ugandan counterpart. The rest was election idealism. Obama has just matured in office as Museveni did. Both now appreciate reality with the humility of experience. Welcome to the real world.