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Our nation’s threatened middle

One of many times when Museveni endeavors to hit middle ground.

The challenges of being independent in Uganda’s increasingly polarised and toxic debates

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | In March of this year, President Yoweri Museveni invited me to speak to National Resistance Movement (NRM) Members of Parliament (MPs) then on a retreat in Kyankwanzi. The day before I could travel there, one of the key organising persons called me. He said many MPs were bitterly protesting that an “enemy” has been invited to speak to them. He advised me to keep away.

That same evening, I received calls from many friends among NRM MPs all of whom told me that there was resistance to my invitation. Leading the charge was Minister for Security, Gen. Elly Tumwine who, I was informed, had mobilised a large number of MPs to his cause. I was thinking of not showing up when State House called me late in the night to confirm the time I intended to arrive. They also told me the President wanted to be personally present during my presentation. I understood this call to have been instigated by the strong resistance to my invitation.

Apparently, Museveni had been told of the resistance to my invitation and had overruled the objections. During the meeting, it was Museveni who introduced me to the MPs and invited me to speak. The great communicator he is, he began by saying that he had invited “a friend” who acts like the proverbial snake with two heads (ekirumira habiri – which bites both sides). “When he bites us,” he said with a beaming smile in his characteristic humor, “we feel the pain deeply. But when he bites our enemies (I would have called them opponents), they too feel his sting deeply to our pleasure.”

It was a very brief but effective introduction, lasting a little less than five minutes. By the time I rose to speak, the audience had changed. But it was also an interesting moment for me since many opposition activists claim I am a spokesperson of the NRM. The party’s MPs see me as an enemy. This experience improved my understanding of Museveni. He is a much more liberal minded politician than many of his colleagues in the NRM and critics in the opposition in spite of his occasional dictatorial tactics.

The crux of my presentation (Fortune favors the bold) was not to praise NRM but to challenge it. However, in the preamble I highlighted where Uganda was in 1986 and the journey it has made since, which I argued, has been remarkable by all measures. Then I went straight to the main issue. I think our country needs to get bolder and more imaginative in its policy-making and implementation. I said two things are critical for our future: first we need increased share of local participation in the economy, something NRM has neglected at great cost. Second, we need to add value to the goods we export i.e. take manufacturing seriously. The NRM has been poor on these two issues even though Museveni personally has spoken loudest about value addition.

I was pleased that NRM MPs listened attentively and applauded my criticism including Gen. Tumwine. This sets NRM, but most especially Museveni personally, apart from a large cross section of Uganda’s chattering elites; especially the two dominant cults in the opposition: the radical extremists of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) led by Dr. Kizza Besigye and its bastard child, People Power led by Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine.

I have grown increasingly alienated from and, therefore, hostile to these two cults. I find their behavior a threat to the liberal democratic ideals for which they claim to fight. For them one has to agree with them in a fanatical, uncritical and unthinking way to be their ally. Any criticism of their actions or policies (actually a lack of them), however mild and well intentioned, is tantamount to betrayal of country and selling of one’s soul that is deserving of destruction by physical assault or character assassination. They subject critics to online insults, abuses, false accusations, blackmail and worse.

And so it was that on Friday July 12, I tweeted criticism of the arrest of journalist Joseph Kabuleta by the police defending his right to free speech. Kabuleta posts things that are blatantly false and in bad taste. His tweet against Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Keinerugaba was even worse because it was filled with lies, ignorance and excessively personal, abusive and an abuse of free speech. I met him that evening and spent hours explaining my strong disagreement to him.

The radical extremists, rather than see this as an alliance of values, came out attacking me, claiming either my account had been hacked or I was a spy sent to mislead them. Anyone who has read my articles or listened to me would know that I hold strong liberal democratic convictions – not just in words, but also in deeds. The Independent newsmagazine, which I own and manage, runs weekly criticisms of me. My Twitter and Facebook accounts are filled with criticism of me by these radical extremists whom I can easily block but I don’t. I have only blocked those who make insults, which add no value to the debate.

Beyond my values lies my self-interest: I make a living from the existence of at environment of free expression selling news and opinions. I have 13 criminal charges against me relating to free speech. I am in court challenging laws against free speech. For the radical extremists the issue is not the defense of a principle but the defense of a person. If someone defended the right of a powerful minister like Sam Kutesa to a fair hearing, that means such a person is a supporter of Museveni and is paid to do so. Only when one defends such a right for Besigye or Kyagulanyi do they see value in it. They cannot understand why, while I strongly disagree with what Kabuleta posted against Muhoozi (who is also a close personal friend to me) I would defend his right to say it.

I am fiercely independent. I applaud Besigye’s courage and tenacity in his political struggle even though I disagree with his embrace of radical extremism. I defend the right of Kyagulanyi to free speech even though I find his pronouncements empty headed. I appreciate the economic achievements of the NRM even though I disagree with the mercenary way it has handed our economy to multinational capital. The inability of many opposition activists to appreciate this exposes them as intolerant of divergent views and therefore a threat to the little democracy we have.

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7 comments

  1. Nicely said Andrew.
    I keep trying to explain you to many conspiracy theorists.
    You are more like the original court jester (please research the role and historical importance of such before you criticise me) than a “yes” or “hatchet” man.
    It is a lonely road being an independent thinker in this world.

    • ejakait engoraton

      “It is a lonely road being an independent thinker in this world.”

      AND how , may I ask , would you know.

      Or you are just quoting from somewhere.

  2. ” I appreciate the economic achievements of the NRM even though I disagree with the mercenary way it has handed our economy to multinational capital” ACHIEVEMENTS??? Either Mwenda thinks we are gullible or it is to gullibles he makes some statements. Either Mwenda is so big-headed some facts cannot penetrate or he stubbornly hangs on to wrong facts. NRM has mortgaged the country by eating debs that are IMPOSSIBLE to pay and IMPOVERISHED the people so abjectively that desperadoes are being seen first time in Uganda and people do not know what to make of it.
    I have time and again told Mwenda that long before he was born up to shortly after, Tooro district(alone) exported Copper(Kilembe) coffee (Bwamba), Salt (Katwe) and tea (Mwenge) …..what is it exporting now?
    Busoga smelted Copper, made world-class mercerised cotton fabrics (NYTIL) and many other industries in Jinja alone…..what is there to export now? Tororo itself had Uganda Cement Industry (belonging to UDC) TICAF, EATRO, UMA, JUTE factory on Nagongera road all fully functioning with employees, football teams that could whip the present-day Cranes and other facilities that made a worker a man. What is there to show now? If there is, who owns them?
    Uganda Airforce of the 60s to 70s had fighters, bombers and transports….Uganda Police Airwing used to take airborne in their helicopter in Jinja show for 3 shilings…..what had NRM developed? Of course these oldmen who have sold their souls to Museveni(I won’t mention names) also say things are better than they ever were too so they continue to fill their bottomless tummies. Where is PMB (Produce Marketing Board)? Was produce ever at any single time before the Tanzanian invasion devalued, unsold or weeviled? Uganda will never recover with NRM in power, mbu their hope is that Bunyoro oil….The only impact that oil will produce is Pollution and poverty you will see. Do people like KK (Kivejinja) also honestly agree that things are better than they were in the 60s and 70s? How will these debts be paid?

  3. wonder why you are rumbling and trying hard to defend your self? The timing of this article: it comes after you recently survived an accident in personalized number plate of the car that resembles UPDF and a 777 number. Your presentation was in March, again on the timing; I wonder why it has taken you four months to write about, yet since some people started labeling you a staunch NRM, the Mirundi’s attacking you for shoddy deals you make with m7 ‘NRM’ you are always quick to write about any opposition from the NRM party that you face to justify your independence! I also find it odd to go on about NRM MPs listening to you attentively & applauding in your presentation to highlight how you find them liberal. Have those NRM MPs ever failed to show keen interest in what m7 wants when they are in kyankwazi? Some time back when you put $10,000 that kagame would leave at the end of his term, i insisted that he would not and time has justified me. I strongly believe that m7 has always been anti democratic, illiberal and tribalistic-time will validate my belief better . However, coming from a very minority group, he understood that it would affect his plans to consolidate and have a total grip of power which i suspect is why he initially tried to present himself as a democrat but he is not any better than Besigye or Bobi. As for not blocking people who don’t agree with you, certainly you are in business and it would be stupid and boring and would in a long run hurt your business if you ‘favored one voice’. On a good note, I agree with your points on lack of local content and export of raw materials.

  4. Andrew I agree with you on the principles you put forth in this article. Yet I bristle on how you castigate Bobi Wine as empty headed and in the same tone you claim to abhor ad hominen attacks of which I think you are guilty of using. Remember how Obote rubbished M7 in the 1980’s ? If you are as bright as I think you are, you know better than to rubbish anyone. Just look at Trump and his ridiculous comments in the 2016 presidential campaign .. so called pundits claimed that no one with such inflammatory remarks would have ever become president of USA … the rest is history . The point here being that if Uganda really had a truly open democracy like USA, Besigye would be president along with his radical ideas. Agree or not but politics is dirty and whoever knows his constituency and the language they want to hear wins. That is why Trump speaks trash all the time cause like Bobi he is not appealing to the intellectualism of your kind Andrew.
    While I admired your article I still cannot shake off the feeling that you are a psychophant pandering to the whims of NRM and M7 mostly. I also suspect that M7 wooingf you mostly has to do with the fact that he knows you have the ears of his mortal enemy — Kagame. I do not believe M7 sees Besigye as a real threat . But Kagame is a dangerous snake who can mobilize armies and spies to topple M7.
    To end on a positive note I must say that at least I admire the fact that M 7 is willing to inviite you to talk some sense into his incompetent kleptocrats. Whether they will do what you advised is anyones guess. Like a preacher once said ” they are moved by words … but will not move”

  5. Very interesting. Yet your perception of our country’s issues in terms of Museveni and Besigye betrays your fears. Independent thinking is made of sterner stuff. a pat from Museveni or a frown from Gen . Tumwine all mean one thing. there is no middle in between.

  6. James Jomes bantu

    NRM turned into a vampire, and monstrous organisation, it depends on sucking blood from Ugandas. It seems brutality and corruption are the order of the day. Developing uganda has failed terribly, and what is happening now is a hoax. NRM Can not deliver any plausible ideas or solutions to uplift peoples’ lives.

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