By Ronald Musoke
A remarkable legacy or missed opportunity?
As Ugandans converged at St. Leo’s College Kyegobe in the western town of Fort Portal to mark 30 years of uninterrupted leadership of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) under the theme; “30 Years of NRM’s Committed Stewardship: A Remarkable Legacy for Uganda,” many Ugandans have been assessing the failures and achievements.
Museveni, who is on the campaign trail to win another five-year term in the general election slated for Feb. 18, has been reveling in the achievements. But the big question remains whether his 30 years at the helm have been that remarkable. Many Ugandans agree that President Museveni has registered both political and socio-economic success considering the abyss where he found the country in 1986. But could he have done better?
Some observers, like Makerere University political science professor, Sabiti Makara, do not agree with the choice of words in the theme chosen by the NRM government.
“It glorifies the Museveni government,” he says.
“The word remarkable should be put in quotes because Uganda has moved too slowly compared to countries which have had similar uninterrupted political stability over the same period.” But others like Cissy Kagaba, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, want Museveni to be judged on his record.
“People will always judge you by some of the statements you say,” she told The Independent in response to a question about Museveni’s 30-year stay in power.
She says Museveni made a number of promises when he was taking power, including attacking fellow African leaders who overstayed in power. She says she cannot stop wondering what Museveni thinks about the statements he made in regard to leaders who overstay in power.
Initially Museveni said he was extending his stay in power for four years to enable Ugandans transition into a democratically elected government.
Soon he said the government needed to get a Constitution in place—a process which took another five years. Some expected Museveni to quit after achieving that milestone. He did not.
Museveni’s continued stay in power has since caused fallout between him and his bush war comrades; with many saying the revolution lost its cause many years ago. Some critics, including many who fought with him in the bush of Luweero from 1981 to 86, also say Museveni’s last 30 years in power have not been that remarkable.
Although many of Museveni’s comrades say they do not regret having participated in the NRA bush war, many blame him for allegedly diverting from the principles that took them to the bush.
“When I look back I see a lot of sadness and regrets. When I remember colleagues who were killed in Singo and Bulemezi during the war, I see wasted blood.
“We went to the bush to fight election rigging but elections are being rigged every day,”rtd Maj. John Kazoora told The Monitor newspaper in February, 2011.
“That is why people have kept reminding him about overstaying in power,” says Kagaba, “Hadn’t he made such a statement, probably no one would be judging him now.”
Kagaba is referring to President Yoweri Museveni’s inaugural speeches which have since become the stick with which his critics have used to flog him whenever they get the chance. Many accuse him of hypocrisy having stayed in power for 30 years yet he accused his colleagues of over staying in power.
Millions of Ugandans aged at least 35 years and above remember President Yoweri Museveni’s inaugural speech made on Wednesday, Jan.29, 1986 at the steps of the Parliamentary Building in Kampala with nostalgia.
“No one should think that what is happening today is a mere change of guard; it is a fundamental change in the politics of our country.” “We have had one group getting rid of another one, only for it to turn out to be worse than the group it displaced. Please do not count us in that group of people: the National Resistance Movement is a clear-headed Movement with clear objectives and a good membership.”
“Of course, we may have some bad elements amongst us – this is because we are part and parcel of Ugandan society as it is, and we may, therefore, not be able to completely guard against infiltration by wrong elements.”
“It is, however, our deliberate policy to ensure that we uplift the quality of politics in our country; we are quite different from the previous people in power who encouraged evil instead of trying to fight it.”
“The sovereign power in the land must be the population, not the government. The government should not be the master, but the servant of the people.”
As leader of the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), Museveni had warned, in December 1980, that he would not hesitate to start an armed struggle should the general election be rigged. In February 1981, he fulfilled that pledge when alongside 26 other young men, he went to the bush and wedged a guerilla war that had now catapulted him into power.
“The people of Africa—the people of Uganda—are entitled to a democratic government. It is not a favour from any government; it is the right of the people of Africa to have democratic government.”
Museveni, sandwiched between his ragtag army, many of whom were pre-teens, arrived in a glossy black Mercedes-Benz wearing jungle-green military fatigues complete with polished combat boots.
He sneered at African leaders for what he said was the corruption and failure to meet the needs of their citizens, calling his fellow leaders ‘very backward.’
Museveni wondered why despite the entire African continent’s resources and potential, these countries still lagged far behind the developed world in such areas as health care, life expectancy and industry.
“His Excellency is going to the United Nations and he is there for meetings with [Ronald] Reagan and [Mikhail] Gorbachev [former Soviet Union president] and 90% of his people have no shoes; they are walking on bare feet.”
He wanted all this to change for Uganda.
He soon unveiled the 10 point programme that would guide his government to move Uganda forward with restoring democracy being top on his agenda.
According to Museveni, the 10-Point Programme traced Uganda’s problems to the fact that previous political leaders had relied on ethnicity and religion in decision making at the expense of development concerns.
For decades, Uganda became polarized along tribal, religious and ethnic grounds. It was imperative to start growing the seed of unity and anti-sectarianism among Ugandans.
Point three stressed the consolidation of unity and elimination of all forms of sectarianism which had divided the country along religious and ethnic lines.
Museveni urged prominent Ugandans to join his new government and soon the likes of then-Democratic Party leader Paul Ssemogerere, who had been the interior minister in the Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa government that Museveni deposed, got incorporated into the ‘Movement.’
Museveni would boast a decade later that although his popular democratic model was never understood by the international community, he did not mind because it had achieved its target of “healing our people from sectarianism based on religious sects and tribes.”
Museveni had insisted that many African nations were not ready for multi-party democracy of a Western model where such democracies thrive on robust economies and a middle-class that coalesce around policy issues and not ethnicity.
He soon launched a minimum economic recovery programme followed by a series of reforms aimed at restoring macro-economic stability to provide a favourable environment for economic growth and private sector development.
The key reforms were liberalization, privatization, currency reform, changes in tax and fiscal policy. He also tried to restrain expansion in government expenditure while maintaining focus on economic recovery and growth. The rapid economic recovery earned Museveni endearing monikers such as the ‘African Bismarck’ and ‘Africa’s other statesman,’— just right behind the late Nelson Mandela.
Uganda’s achievements in the first decade seemed to validate Museveni’s arguments as he led the resurrection of an impoverished nation following two decades of brutal dictatorship and near economic collapse.
Not good enough
Despite that, observers like Makara, say Uganda’s achievements compare badly with the South-eastern Asian states of Malaysia, Hongkong, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam which “have had true remarkable progress over a period of 30 years.”
Makara says in terms of industrialization and productivity, Uganda has not performed that remarkably as the NRM wants to put it.
“In the area of social services (schools, hospitals), there has been a slow deterioration in the provision of education and medical services.”
“Almost everybody these days goes to a private health facility whenever they are ill because they cannot risk going to the public hospitals since they will not find the medicines there.”
“Every elite, including the village elite take their children to private schools in search of a good performance of their children.” Makara says that cannot be a sign of remarkable progress because there used to be many public schools which were performing very well and many of his peers came from rural schools to go to university.
“Today it is mainly children who go to private schools across the country who stand a high chance of making it to university.” He says corruption also “has eaten up the whole country.”
Kagaba agrees. She says the government might have come up with a number of laws to fight corruption and created many corruption-fighting agencies, but enforcement and implementation is still a challenge. “The level of graft which affects proper utilization of resources is going to affect whatever President Museveni wants Uganda to be—a middle income country,” she says.
Fred Muhumuza, a research and advocacy specialist at the Financial Sector Deepening Uganda says Uganda’s economy is still too vulnerable with low productivity and production – things that should not be happening given the time and money invested.
But Makara sees some positives to Museveni’s 30 years. He says Museveni should take credit for restoring peace across the country; mitigating political conflict and creating a sense of order around the country because there was a time when Uganda was literally under anarchy.
Such a struggle to balance Museveni’s failures against his achievements is not unique to Makara and is, in fact, quite common.
Not all is gloom
“So many achievements have been registered but I would not refer to them as remarkable— that is an exaggeration,” says, Frederick Golooba Mutebi, a former university don turned-independent researcher and political analyst.
He praises Museveni for providing ‘committed’ leadership over the last 30 years.
“The stability Uganda has had over the last 30 years should not be taken for granted,” he says. He says Uganda has never been as stable politically as it has been since Museveni came to power and that Museveni ended the tribal and religious bigotry in politics.
“Today, there are very few people who will join a political party because the leaders are Catholic or Acholi.”
“We now have parties having a good mix in terms of religion and ethnicity; and that is a Museveni achievement. We should give him credit where it is due.”
However, Golooba says that in terms of political evolution, Ugandans have hardly moved from the 1980 situation where political contestants were not allowed the liberty to contest. He says UPC, the top party at the time, was not keen to allow the other political parties to campaign freely without interference.
“The current government to an extent behaves pretty much the same—30 years down the road.”
Golooba wonders if the real reason that took Museveni to the bush has not turned full circle. He says he is old enough to remember the 1980 election; it was pretty much the same; at least in outcome if not in detail.
“We are supposed to have a competitive and multi-party dispensation where different political parties are supposed to compete with each other for power through political campaigns but not all the parties are allowed the space to do that,” he said.
“The NRM has all the space but the other parties in theory are supposed to have all the space to campaign freely but that is not always true.”
He adds that the regionalism that was also very sharp back then may still exist but it is not as sharp as 30 years ago.
Beyond Museveni’s 30 years
Golooba worries about what he sees in today’s politics which has since become destructive, divisive, and costly for the country.
“You see fights amongst citizens, police shooting at citizens,” says Golooba, “this creates such a bad atmosphere and we can do better than that.
He says the seeds of this discord were sowed when the NRM started making it difficult for those who had joined the government from other parties to make any significant contribution and people like DP’s Paul Ssemogerere begun to feel like they were in government as window dressing.
Many agitated for the return to their parties to campaign against the NRM and try to win power so they may transform the country in a way they felt was necessary.
Prof Morris Ogenga Latigo, a former leader of opposition in the eighth Parliament agrees. He told The Independent on Jan. 15 that Uganda missed the 1996 opportunity to change leaders voluntarily.
“Uganda missed the 1996 opportunity because the fundamental statement of change is that a leader should be able to pass on the baton to the next leader not out of pressure or exhaustion but out of recognition that this is something that would form the core of national cohesion.”
Golooba adds that the events of 1995/96 were significant considering that the consensus that had been built under the no party system collapsed when Museveni and the country started the gradual shift to multi-partyism.
“We really need to think again about how we do our politics in this country because Uganda has become too polarized.”
Golooba says it is high time Ugandans became ‘a bit more collaborative and have more consensus on where they want to take this country because whether it is FDC, UPC or NRM, we all want good things for Uganda.”
“Why is it that we can never sit down and decide collectively what we want Uganda to be and see how we can all contribute towards taking it there?”
“Why do we keep fighting about it? The politics in this country is too clan-based where every small group wants to take power and shut the others out; that is probably not very sensible.”