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M7’s life presidency and its ‘democracy’ dividend

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

A Ugandan analysts whose views I respect, told me recently that the ‘Opposition to the [President Yoweri] Museveni is getting exhausted, and it would seem many people now believe he cannot be removed’.

He anticipated that while Museveni’s rule is discredited daily by corruption and incompetence, and he should be weaker and easier to remove, the very fact that he stayed in power as long as he has, a record 23 years, paradoxically also works to his advantage.

As he put it; ‘Ugandans will learn that history is very patient. Just because you think that a leader has passed his expiry date and you are impatient for him to go, doesn’t mean he will go. The forces of history can take another 15 years before they conspire to remove him’.

Indeed, it is remarkable that as 2011 approaches and Museveni’s prepares to make a bid for his sixth term in office (two of them unelected) he is less apologetic about seeking such longevity than he was in 2001 (before he got Parliament to remove term limits), when he felt it necessary to promise several times in his manifesto that it was his ‘last’ term.

In other words, irrespective of whether or not the constitution allows it, at a personal ethical level Museveni is less embarrassed about ‘overstaying’ in office today, than he was 10 years ago.

But is another five, 10, or 15 years of a sectarian and graft-ridden Museveni rule necessarily bad?

Not exactly. The unintended outcome of the fact that Museveni has been in power for 23 years now, is that the enmities that would have been produced by the struggle to replace him if he had been ousted or expired years ago, have been avoided. True, Uganda has had four major rebellions since Museveni came to power, and the one against Joseph Kony’s LRA is now in its 20th year. However, what this means is that we have four, instead of 15 conflicts.

The other accidental effect is that the wounds caused by the Luwero war are nearly healing. It was necessary for Museveni to ‘betray’ Luwero and cheat Buganda out of the groceries he promised during the bush war, for the common positions that one sometimes sees between northern and Buganda politicians on issues like land, to emerge.

Also, by clinging on as long as he has, he has enabled time to do its work ‘ Idi Amin, Milton Obote, Paulo Muwanga, and very many of the politicians from the past, have died peacefully in their sleep. Only Godfrey Binaisa, apparently a rock of a fellow who has been kept alive by good humour, and perhaps the company of nice women, remains. Uganda is now close to getting a clean political slate again.

It has also laid ground for a significant step forward for democracy in the years to come. Look at Uganda; the UPC, the country’s independence party, is weak but it is not dead. The Democratic Party, now one of the oldest active parties in Africa, is always in and out of the intensive care unit, but it is still kicking.

DP is a special creature in Africa, because it is easily the longest surviving party that has not held power. UPC had two turns in power (13 years in all) and has been ‘grassing’, as we used to say at the university, for 23 years now.

Kenya African National Union (KANU) in Kenya, brought the country to independence in 1964. Its first leader, Jomo Kenyatta, died in 1978 after 14 years in office. His vice president, Daniel arap Moi, who succeeded him enjoyed the spoils of office for 24 years until he stepped down in 2002. Kanu was promptly beaten in elections that year.

In just two election cycles, KANU moved to a point in 2007 when it had to join President Mwai Kibaki’s alliance. By 2012, if KANU is able to field any candidates independently at all, it is unlikely to have more than five seats in Parliament.

In less than 10 years KANU, a party that ruled Kenya for 38 years, is all but dead. In Uganda, UPC, which ruled Uganda for 13, and has been out of power for 24 years, is still a viable parliamentary party.

What this tells us is that if an African party stays in power for as long as KANU did and NRM is about to, when it loses power it disappears more quickly than the one that stayed on for a shorter period.

In that way, Museveni’s decision to keep going and going, like the cartoon in the Energizer battery advert, allows the NRM to be more completely uprooted when he eventually exits. That could well create better conditions for democracy to flourish, than if the party still had powerful remnants disrupting reform.

Museveni has chosen to be president for life, at a very interesting time in Africa for a leader who is not an absolute hereditary king.

Not being a monarch, he has to continue delivering to constituencies that will benefit enough to vote for him, or that will have such a big vested interest in his continuing in power, they will stop at nothing to persist in stealing the vote for him.

The global financial crisis, which is expected to hit Africa very hard this year, means that aid and the all too-important remittances from the Ugandan Diaspora will dry up.

Aid in Uganda performs a dual function. It is a form of patronage that regime functionaries and the middle class are allowed to steal, in order to keep them vested in Museveni and NRM remaining in power; and the crumbs that are put to good use go toward mollifying Museveni’s peasant base with things like UPE.

The large remittances from Ugandans abroad have, in effect, been the unofficial public budget. They built a lot of the houses in town, educated thousands of children, and paid for private medical care for millions of Ugandans in the face of a collapsed public health system.

Families that are dependent on remittances have no problems with the Museveni government, because they could do without its support. In fact one would think that given that thousands among the Uganda Diaspora are anti-Museveni fellows, their families back home would share their antipathy toward the president.

If they do, they won’t act on it. They probably cynically vote for Museveni, because if he were to leave office, their children abroad might return home, and they are not sure they will earn the salaries they are paid abroad, or that with close proximity they will be as willing to help.

The global financial crisis that has left many of ‘Kyeyo’ jobless and unable to send money home means that the millions of Ugandans who depended on Diaspora handouts will now expect Museveni and NRM to bail them out.

These demands will come at a time when resources available to the government are stagnant or dwindling. Taxpayer money will become the only source of ‘easy’ money in town, and the queue for it will be longer.

Museveni will benefit from this, because he will grow stronger for a period. With him controlling the only significant resources in town, more Ugandans will be less inclined to criticise and oppose him, so that they can get something to eat.

That, however, will be short-lived. Because the queue has grown longer, Museveni will face a more difficult time than he has in the past deciding whom he should give.

The three groups that will get the most will be those whom he is already inclined to distribute public goods to; those who are most organised to stake a claim; and those whom he will need to control the angry people at the end of the very long queue who will not get anything.

Therefore, his family will continue to prosper and the practice of creating bizarre public offices to which they are appointed so that they can ‘legally’ be paid taxpayer money will continue.

The second group will be selected elements from his ethnic group, who serve as an extension of the family. The third group will be the security services, which will be needed to maintain order.

The fourth, will be favoured elements in the NRM and the bureaucracy. Unlike the family and security services, these will not get their slice of patronage in an organised way. They will be allowed to scramble for what is left, and the swiftest and craftiest among them will be the winners.

It is the rule of political contestation, that it is played where there is the most power and resources. Beginning this year, we are therefore likely to see an intensification for resource-based conflict for resources inside the NRM in ways we haven’t in the past.

So, while his role as chief distributor in times of scarcity will increase Museveni’s power, the increasing number of people making demands on the state, the regime’s inability to service this demand, the need for it to be more repressive to control growing discontent, and the increase of opportunism within NRM ranks in the fight for dwindling groceries multiply the conditions for instability.

The competition for resources in Museveni’s court will result into factionalism, and they will seek alliances with factions in the security services ‘ because they won’t have the credibility to go to a group that has not been eating.

If the history of polygamy in Africa tells us anything, it is that there are very few polygamists who have succeeded in keeping all their wives equally happy. Museveni will find himself in the position of a polygamist, who has one of his wives and her children unhappy.

Unlike if he had done it in 2001, or earlier, Museveni could find that he has less freedom to pick a successor. And whomever he picks, he will annoy the factions from which he didn’t pick.

The sections of the unhappy who have been locked out, and for the last few years have been grumbling, will become openly rebellious.

His end, therefore will not be a happy storybook tale.

At best, whichever way he acts, he will be like Moi in 2002. He had three powerful figures that wanted to be appointed successor. When he picked Uhuru Kenyatta, the ones who hadn’t been favoured (including current Prime Minister Raila Odinga who was then a coalition partner, Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka who was then Foreign Affairs minister, and Internal Affairs minister George Saitoti and recently elected PNU leader) stormed off.

So, back to our analyst whom we met at the start. Perhaps, to use his expression, history has preserved Museveni this long for a purpose’to teach us a lesson in leadership that no one will ever forget.

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-The article is adapted from two presentations by the author on the future of democracy in Uganda, and is used with permission.

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