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A tale of Museveni versus Kagame

By Charles Onyango Obbo

Andrew Mwenda’s ‘A Tale Of Two Presidents, Two Nations and Two Revolutions‘ has generated a lot of debate. On one hand you have Rwanda’s President Kagame, who has the image of being iron-fisted, and leads a poor country that has been able to make far-reaching achievements, and runs a government with very good anti-corruption credentials.

On the other, his mentor President Yoweri Museveni, seen as more democratic and once one of the stars of Africa, has several times more resources than Kagame, but is now mired in incompetence, is turning Uganda into a shambolic state, and presides over one of the most corrupt governments in Africa.

These differences are not accounted for purely by individual differences in the nature of the two men. It is not that Kagame is a good person, and Museveni is bad or shifty. In fact if I had to invite one of the two men to a party at my house, I would invite Museveni. But if I had to employ one of them to run my company, I would hire Kagame.

Why do the two men lead differently? It is the incentives to which they are responding and what constitutes legitimacy for them. When he came to power, Museveni was not seen to represent a group that had been in power in Uganda before. He was the leader of what, at an overly simplified level, had solidified into ‘southern grievance’ against ‘northern abuse of its domination of the army’ to lord it over the rest of the country.

From this perspective, the Luwero war became the battlefield for two sectarian forces; one set to end ‘brutal, unsophisticated northern’ domination, and the other driven by contempt for ‘weak milk-drinking and matooke-eating’ southerners.

In many ways, when Museveni ‘liberated’ the south, his job was done. As long as there was some peace, that was enough. The economic reforms of the Museveni government, therefore, were part of his strategy for expanding his legitimacy internationally (in order to get external resources) and, nationally, beyond his solid southern base and win him acceptance as president of all Uganda.

However, the notion of southern constituencies disenfranchised by the Milton Obote, Idi Amin, and the Okello and Okello regimes, brought with it the idea of reparations and restoration for these groups. In turn, it gave rise to the idea of punishing those who had eaten during ‘northern’ rule.

If Museveni pursued broad national politics, everyone, including people in the north and parts of the Obote strongholds in the East, would benefit. The only way he could meet the demand to correct a felt injustice and offer more goods to the South was to use the tools that best selectively allocate national resources ‘” patronage and corruption.

Kagame’s situation was the same as Museveni’s in one aspect ‘” Rwanda’s refugees, mainly Tutsi, wanted to end their long statelessness and the humiliation of exile and go back home. So there was, like in Uganda, a restoration demand in Rwanda. However, the Rwanda Patriotic Front ‘” and Kagame ‘” were viewed by the majority Hutu as returning to restore a hated and brutal Tutsi monarchy they overthrew in ‘a revolution’ in 1959. So while Museveni had little historical baggage, Kagame had a lot of it. And while the elite who benefitted during northern rule were mostly seen as culprits and the southerners as victims, the Hutu in Rwanda were both culprits and victims, as were the returning Tutsi refugees and the ones who had stayed living as second class citizens.

When Kagame took power, therefore, his job was to re-install the Tutsi into Rwanda society, but also to prove to the skeptical Hutu that he was not restoring an old regime. His regime’s survival depended on that. So he had to pursue policies that did not make him look a Tutsi appeaser. Rwanda is largely comprised of Tutsi and Hutu sub-ethnic groups (we use this knowing it is inaccurate). Because Tutsi are the minority, Kagame’s regime survival lies in being competitive among the majority Hutu.

For Museveni being competitive in his core southern constituency ‘” which is far more populous than the north and upper Eastern Uganda ‘” means that he can survive by keeping it well fed and united against the threat of the disgruntled parts of the country that have been ignored. But once cracks began to appear in his southern front, Museveni couldn’t deal with it through a national solution. He adopted a more micro-strategy, which was bribing tribal overlords, church leaders, and selected families. And there is actually a big political pay-off from keeping the tribes divided and rivalling.

Politics in Uganda is historically malleable. Lacking the sharp Tutsi-Hutu divide that plagued Rwanda, it is easy to shift alliances in Uganda. Thus, if Museveni were to be deposed, even violently, the Banyankore (or Bahima) would not be targeted en masse. The price of losing power is relatively low.

In Rwanda, unless Kagame pursues national policies that keep and recruit the Hutu to his side, his government is doomed to rule with a firm hand ‘” which only creates long-term possibilities for violent regime overthrow. And regime overthrow in Rwanda in these conditions would end like all previous political upheavals in the small country ‘” a mass slaughter of the Tutsi.

The price of failure for the Tutsi elite is just too high. Therefore, it creates greater pressure to rally around Kagame within the RPF and to make his project succeed, unlike what happened inside the NRM with Kizza Besigye taking on Museveni.

In Rwanda, because the cost of poor service-delivery are so high, there is a higher need to create rules that engender certainty. Thus power-sharing, which ensures that some level of power for the Tutsi and Hutu elite, is enshrined in the constitution. To maintain that certainty ‘” especially for the Hutu majority ‘” and to offer constant evidence that system is working for them too, it became imperative to create institutions that have stable practices and less dependent on the moods of the big man of the day. Given Uganda’s political diversity, the Rwanda approach would limit the president’s ability to play the survival game. So, to maximise ‘flexibility’, Museveni has destroyed most state institutions and personalised power.

Formal democracy yields more capital for Museveni than Kagame. Because Uganda is far more multiethnic than Rwanda, a quarrelsome public life and debate produces dozens of points of views and interests around any issue, making a national consensus more difficult. This creates some balance of power among the big national groups, and thus strengthens Museveni as it makes it hard for a united front to emerge against him.

In Rwanda, a public debate would probably produce two polarised points of view ‘” one Hutu and the other Tutsi, which would quickly undo the government’s ‘unifying project’. This has led Kagame and his cadres to conclude that being steely-fisted offers a higher return than being laissez faire.

So, as long as Museveni and Kagame are presidents, Uganda will remain a more open, lively, half-democratic, but a corrupt place with a bungling sectarian government. Rwanda will be less liberal, more closed, but a less corrupt place with an efficient service delivery-focussed government.

If you are more historically minded, Museveni’s Uganda is Rome. And Kagame’s Rwanda Sparta.

Contributed by the author in his individual capacity as a Ugandan.

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