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Lessons from 2016 elections

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why NRM needs to rediscover its ideological footing by digging itself out of being a cash and carry government

During the last campaigns I drove 3,700km across Uganda holding what Americans call `Town Hall Meetings’ in big and small towns and trading centers from Rukungiri to Soroti, Busia to Arua.

I found a lot of support for President Yoweri Museveni among women, the old, the poorest, and less educated rural masses, also among the most affluent section of Ugandan society – the richest 0.5 percent. These are everywhere the most conservative social groups. But there is also a lot of Museveni fatigue, especially among the young, more enlightened, and potentially dynamic segment of our society. Museveni has lost their confidence.  So how can a government sustain transformative change when it is alienated from the enlightened sections of its own society?

To put matters differently, how can any government promote progressive change when it is allied almost entirely to the most retrogressive sections of its population?

In my “town hall” (actually street/roadside) meetings, many youths said they were tired of changelessness. Many others were angry at poor delivery of public goods and services, which they said were characterised by gross incompetence, indifference, corruption, absenteeism, and apathy.

Not all those who complained were pro-opposition and its main candidate, Kizza Besigye. Many were Museveni and NRM supporters.

Yet their perception of Museveni’s government is different from the raw economic data. Museveni’s government has, in fact, been one of the most successful in Africa (and competitive globally) in rate of growth of GDP, tax revenue, exports, and poverty reduction.

Over the last 15 years and excluding mineral rich nations, only Ethiopia and Rwanda have performed better than Uganda in Africa. So why are Ugandans dissatisfied with a well performing government?

Successful governments can produce two extremes – extreme disaffection (like Park Chung Hee in South Korea) or extreme support (like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore).

Industrial growth in South Korea tended to produce mass consumer goods alongside labour and student militancy. In Singapore, transformation tended to produce elite consensus in favour of the ruling party. The key to understanding these dynamics is actually political. Park being a soldier ignored the centrality of political mobilisation in manufacturing popular consent; a pitfall Lee – the politician – avoided.

President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania presided over a rapidly declining economy. In his 24 years at the helm of his country, Tanzania’s GDP fell by nearly 40%. Yet Tanzanians continued to love him. Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire presided over similar economic failure and was hated for it.

In 30 years of Museveni rule, Uganda’s GDP (when adjusted to inflation) has expanded seven fold. Why did Nyerere retain high reverential affection in the face of economic failure and Museveni is suffering from violent anger in the face of such economic success?  Partly it was because Nyerere was able to demonstrate that he was working for the good of the country. His ideology of Ujaama politically mobilised Tanzanians. His earnestness, honesty and sincerity added to his reputation of integrity. Many Tanzanians were willing to forgive his mistakes because they felt that even where he failed, it was in a good bid to build their country.

As I drove across Uganda I was intrigued by the lack of ideological connection between what Museveni articulates in his speeches and what NRM leaders and supporters see in him. Almost in all cases, NRM leaders and supporters felt that all they needed to win over people was money. They see Museveni as a cash-dispensing machine. In the absence of an ideology, a shared vision and values as the building blocks of his electoral and governing coalition, Museveni has to rely on money to keep support.

This has led the president to making transactional promises to win particular social groups – a road here, a clinic there, etc. This is not entirely a wrong thing but such benefits need to be sold as part of a wider national strategy for transformation. Yet even where Museveni makes transformational investments like the current construction of large dams and tarmac roads on a national scale, they are not sold as national efforts to transform Uganda.   Only one person seemed to appreciate this pitfall – Museveni’s son in law, Odrek Rwabwogo. He traversed the country to articulate an ideology to NRM supporters. Yet this also unmasks another problem. After 30 years in power, does the president have to rely on his family members to return his party to its ideological base? What happened to a party that mobilised thousands to abandon their businesses, homes, education etc. and spent years in the bush fighting for something bigger than money?

Again (and I hate to write this), NRM has lessons to learn from RPF in Rwanda. President Paul Kagame has articulated the vision of the country he is seeking to build, and mobilised his party and citizens to share in it. RPF is constantly engaged, especially with the youths in seminars, conferences, boot camps, etc. to discuss the challenges facing the country and seeking their participation in solving them. Across that country, young and old, rich and poor, government employee or private sector worker, male and female, Rwandans tells you they are working to rebuild their country.

To reconstruct Rwanda, Kagame has employed several ideological weapons: Ndi’umunyarwanda (nationalism), Agaciro (dignity), Umuganda (community service) and Imihigo (performance contracts for government employees). Around these ideological props, Kagame has ruthlessly enforced a harsh anti-corruption agenda, backed by promotion of values like hard work, integrity, honesty, and commitment to the public good. It is possible the Rwanda government makes more mistakes than the one in Uganda. But Rwandans are willing to accommodate those mistakes recognising they are made in tireless efforts to improve their lives.

When Ipsos did a poll in Rwanda last year, 55% of Rwandans felt their lives were either worse than, or the same as 2014. Yet 96% felt their country is moving in the right direction and 78% were optimistic about their personal future.  It shows that Rwandans appreciate what their government is trying to do even when they have not individually benefited. In Uganda, almost everyone thinks that the only reason for a person to defend Museveni’s performance is when they have been paid to do so.

This is perhaps the grossest prostitution of politics. It shows lack of faith in the President’s ideological postulations. In many ways, one gets the sense that the promotion of money above everything else has been damaging to Museveni and NRM’s standing and thereby obscured the achievements. It is time for Museveni and NRM to rethink their governance strategy.


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