By Andrew M. Mwenda
Next week, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) will celebrate 23 years in government. The NRM revolution was born in a moment of great hope. It is difficult for me to capture the emotional tone of that moment. But there was great hope in most of this country on that 26th day of January 1986. That hope was captured in a promise made by incoming President Yoweri Museveni that ‘this is not a mere change of guards but a fundamental change in the politics of our country.’
There was good reason to believe this promise. People had made great sacrifices: Careers had been abandoned’ Kizza Besigye left a well paying job as doctor at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi to join the struggle; education had been sacrificed ‘ Amanya Mushega quit his PhD studies at the London School of Economics to go to the bush; property had been lost ‘ peasants in Luwero surrendered the last goat and/or grains to feed the rebels; many had suffered grievous bodily harm’ like Salim Saleh, Mugisha Muntu, Henry Tumukunde and Elly Tumwine while many others had paid with their lives ‘ Sam Magara, Rubereza, etc.
It would therefore be unfair to suggest that all these people made these sacrifices purely out of greed for power. They did so for high minded reasons; to bring about democracy, respect for human rights, rule of law, free and fair elections, and honest and clean government determined to fight corruption, tribalism and nepotism. The sacrifices made were a credible signal of NRM’s commitment to its promises.
In its early years, the NRM tried to sustain this promise. There were many things that went wrong. But overall, most observers felt that government was driven by a genuine desire to reconstruct our country. The NRM took bold steps to reform the economy. At great cost to its popularity, it returned Asian properties. At the price of losing access to key patronage opportunities, it sold off malfunctioning state enterprises. At the risk of losing key rental havens, it disbanded state monopolies and liberalised major sectors of the economy. Then it retrenched civil servants, tried to reform the civil service and tamed the army.
Visitors to Uganda in the mid 1990s could feel the mood of optimism. Museveni cut the image of freshness. He criticised other African presidents for clinging to power saying it was the cause of our continent’s crisis. International observers called him a new breed of an African president. World leaders made stops in Kampala to consult with him. The economy began to grow and has sustained that growth momentum till today. This has produced a sizeable middle class, a fairly robust private enterprise sector and a vibrant albeit foreign aid dependant civil society.
Yet as NRM leaders indulge themselves in self congratulation at Kololo this January, many of them, including Museveni himself will ‘ deep down in their hearts ‘ feel a sense of loss. The sullen cynicism of ordinary citizens reflects the emptiness they feel towards public policy rhetoric about ‘prosperity for all’ (Bonna Bagaggawale). Indeed, many people now call it ‘Bana Bagaggawale’ meaning only four people’ Museveni, his wife, son and brother ‘ should get rich.Â Pay As You Earn (PAYE) tax today is called Pay As Yoweri Enjoys. These jokes show that people feel public institutions no longer embody a collective vision. Instead, they reinforce a pattern of private privilege by a few at the expense of the many.
What has gone wrong? Where NRM promised an independent, integrated and self sustaining national economy, it has created a dependant (on foreign aid) disjointed economy. Instead of free and fair elections, we have rigged ones. Respect for human rights died in torture chambers euphemistically called safe houses. Corruption has become a virtue, nepotism a way to run our nation and tribal bigotry the running philosophy of government. The rule of law took a beating when government organised hooded gangs who began attacking the courts and threatening judges.
Possibly the worst aspect of this degeneration has been the personalisation of power and with it, increasing arbitrariness in decision making. The president unilaterally gives public land and taxpayers’ money freely to businessmen of his choice. He appoints his family members at an ever increasing number into government. He hardly chairs cabinet because he runs government from his home. The national treasury works like his personal bank account as he moves around dishing out cash to individuals and groups ‘ to reward their support or to rent it. To silence dissent on these gross abuses, the state has intimidated the media.
Thus, sometime last year, Capital Radio owner, William Pike, called me and said he had been instructed by government to get me off the Capital Gang talk-show. Why? Each time I was there, I exposed these gross abuses of power in our country. On Thursday January 15 2009, I was hosted on KFM. Then I said that Museveni is the grandfather of corruption in Uganda. Before I could give evidence to support my claim, the programme suddenly went off air.
Apparently, the Managing Director of Monitor Publications, Tom Mshindi, called the radio station and instructed that they shut down the programme. Mshindi would not have stopped the programme if I had criticised a minister or any other official in government. The instructions are to protect Museveni and family. The sad thing is that state agents no longer need to stop Monitor from public criticism of the president; the paper and its sister radio station just censor themselves.
These developments show how power has shifted from formal institutions of state towards informal networks of an ethnic, often sub-ethnic but today largely of a family character. The president’s family has increasingly come to enjoy unprecedented influence in government turning Uganda almost into a replica of Mobutu’s Zaire, Omar Bongo’s Gabon, Paul Biya’s Cameroun and Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya. This explains the pressure to place the First Family above and beyond criticism. What a sad transition from ‘fundamental change to no change!’
How did we get to this? How did the sacrifices of many turn into a pattern of private advantage for a few? The story of Uganda since the late 1990s is a sad tale of betrayal.