By Andrew M. Mwenda
Twenty three years since he came to power, President Yoweri Museveni shows no plans of leaving. We should not be surprised by this because Museveni is walking the long-trodden path of other African dictators of old like Marshal Mobutu of Zaire, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Gnassingb Eyadma, of Togo and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Whatever motivates him to keep tightening his grip around the nation’s choking throat will continue to be a subject of intense debate and speculation. What is clear, however, is that under his rule (or is it misrule?) Uganda has witnessed a tragic collapse in the quality of government.
In 1970, our nation boasted of one of the finest civil service systems in Africa and one of the most efficient state enterprise sectors in the developing world. The governments of Singapore and Taiwan would send teams to study Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) as an exemplar of state-led industrial development. Under Museveni, UDC became a centre of institutionalised incompetence, was cannibalised, many of its assets liquidated and others sold at giveaway prices.
In 1970, Makerere University was among the best 30 universities in the world. Students and scholars came from far and wide to study and teach there. Yet in 2008, UNESCO rated Kigali Institute of Technology (established in 1995) and the National University of Rwanda at Butare as better than Makerere. The fate of Makerere is shared by all of Uganda’s elite secondary schools in which we had a lot of pride like Ntare School, Busoga College Mwiri, Nyakasura School, St Mary’s College Kisubi, Trinity College Nabbingo, Gayaza High School, Namilyango College, etc.
In 1970, Makerere University teaching hospital at Mulago was among the top 20 teaching hospitals in the world. Students and patients came from far and wide for specialised medical studies and treatment. Today, it is a place where only the desperate seek medical treatment. When he was shot at in 1969, then President Milton Obote was hospitalised at Mulago, treated and discharged. Museveni has never sought treatment at Mulago preferring Europe for himself and family.
Makerere and Mulago were major symbols of our nation’s pride like Harvard and Yale are to America, Cambridge and Oxford to Britain. Every nationalist in Uganda grieves over this collapse. What does Museveni think and feel about them? Whatever his weaknesses as a leader, Obote understood the national significance of Mulago and Makerere to our nation’s image. During his first administration, he worked hard to sustain their image. Even the buffoonish Idi Amin seemed to admire the two institutions but lacked the knowledge on how to keep them shining.
Each time I have visited Mulago and Makerere, I have left with a heavy heart. The visits have made me ponder Museveni’s motivations in ruling our country. Does the president hate Uganda? I ask myself. It seems to me that Museveni cares about himself and his family only. Thus, he is happy to have his name sold around the world as a ‘reformist’ president or a ‘new breed of an African leader’ (even though he rules like our continent’s dictators of old). He doesn’t give a hoot about the rest.
The president recently visited Mulago and must have seen how destructive his leadership has been. The hospital looks like an overcrowded refugee camp ‘ dirty, murky and smelly. It serves more as a death trap than a treatment centre. Its fate is shared by other public hospitals in the country. Meanwhile, our self-proclaimed ‘anti-colonialist’ flies his children to Germany and Spain for world class medical attention at public expense even when the issue is to deliver babies. He even has audacity to write in national newspapers about his contempt for Ugandan doctors.
When I visit Rwanda, a country Ugandans used to consider inferior to ours, I am always intrigued at how President Paul Kagame has reconstructed a national vision for his country. There is a sense of purpose that runs through all layers of government. Public officials ‘ young and old, in high and low places ‘ wear pride and confidence that they are rebuilding their country. The streets are clean, the roads paved, public lawns mowed, public gardens tended to and palm trees watered. At King Faisal Hospital, you are impressed by the cleanliness of the place.
Patients in Mulago complain that doctors do not attend to them, nurses sell them drugs they are supposed to get for free, windows in wards are broken, mosquitoes fly with impunity, patients have to bring their own mattresses and mosquito nets, the washrooms are smelly, the floors are dirty, etc. At King Faisal, every bed has a mattress, a mosquito net and white bed sheets and every patient is given a menu to choose what to eat or drink ‘ eggs, fruits, milk, juice ‘ it is like a five-star hotel. Doctors (many of whom are Ugandans working as expatriates) make regular checks, nurses care, drugs are in plenty and there is a sense of purpose.
Museveni’s behaviour has been accompanied by the exodus of his lieutenants ‘ in cabinet, parliament, army, security and civil service from public health and education services. These have been followed by the new-rich in the private sector. Today, everyone who is anyone send their children to hospitals and schools abroad. Those who cannot afford send them to private ones in Uganda. Since the most powerful and articulate citizens no longer use public education and health, these services have been robbed of voice i.e. those with the capacity to speak out about this problem in the corridors of power have little stake in doing so.
These failures and dysfunctions have not gone unnoticed by the public. There is widespread resentment against government across the country. I spent my last Christmas holidays in Kabarole District. I held 11 discussions with groups of ordinary citizens (Americans call them Town Hall meetings). Kabarole has been the bastion of support for Museveni. I was shocked, but not surprised, at the amount of discontent among ordinary people. If a Museveni stronghold is this resentful, why is the opposition to the president weak and divided? It is here that we need to understand the contradictory nature of Museveni’s tenure, a subject I will return to next week.