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The poverty of Uganda’s elites

How our country stands at a critical juncture between Museveni’s frying pan and Bobi Wine’s fire

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW MWENDA | Uganda has a new hero: Bobi Wine. He is being presented domestically and internationally as the symbol of our struggle for democracy, freedom, liberty and social transformation. Even in some respected circles our “intellectuals” are treating him as an alternative to President Yoweri Museveni. This is the pathway to disaster.

I sympathise with Bobi Wine for having been brutally tortured by a cruel state security apparatus. However, this cannot blind me to the strategic risk he and his radical extremist supporters pose to the values of liberty and freedom that I treasure. And neither is it lost to me that he lacks even the most rudimentary understanding of our economic needs.

Bobi Wine’s only qualification as an alternative to Museveni is that he is critical of the status quo. Our “intellectuals” don’t care what he stands for, the values he represents, the policy alternatives he offers, the leadership abilities he has exhibited, the alliances he is cultivating and the organisational ability he has exhibited.

Museveni’s government has exhibited dictatorial tendencies, exercised brutality against its opponents and sold off our economy to multinational capital. So there is a need for change. But such change needs a broad coalition of Ugandans who believe in liberal democratic ideals and who feel that we need to give our citizens a bigger role and voice in our economy.

Yet this is not the concern of Ugandan “intellectuals.” They want Museveni to go and hope the rest will work itself out with “iron necessity” (to use Karl Marx’s expression) for the good of the country. They do not care about the nature of the alternative. This is the tragedy Uganda faced in 1971. Milton Obote had killed and jailed opponents. So our elites embraced Idi Amin with tragic consequences. We are on the same road again.

Africa elite always argue that our continent has been cursed by bad leaders. Yet they are extremely irresponsible when selecting leaders. They easily embrace demagogues; never recognising that such bad leaders are produced by this irresponsible attitude.

Every government promotes policies that reflect the interest of its social base. So what is Bobi Wine’s support base? It is not manufacturers with a vested interest in industrial transformation. Neither is it large scale commercial farmers with the vested interest in the modernisation of agriculture. They are not traders who seek policies that promote free trade. Instead they are largely less educated or inexperienced and unemployed or underemployed angry youths looking for opportunities for salaried employment. At best, therefore, a Bobi Wine government can only produce Museveni’s patronage politics without the president’s finesse.

If Bobi Wine became president, he has a support base to reward but which lacks basic skills or experience for professional jobs. So he cannot force the private sector to hire them. Neither can he recruit them into the state’s professional jobs. So he can only hire them in security services – army, police and intelligence organisations – which are always the dumping grounds of the lumpen supporters in poor countries. This brings us to their values, which will be reflected in their work.

The Bobi Wine supporters I encounter online are radical extremists – uncouth, antidemocratic and intolerant of dissent. They dominate social media where they indulge in unrestrained cyber bullying – forgery, slander, blackmail and lies. If they can terrorise their opponents with the little power they have on social media, what would happen if they gained control of the state’s powerful instruments of repression like the police, the army, and the prisons? This is how tyrannies emerge.

Bobi Wine himself is rich in rhetoric and demagoguery but extremely poor on values, policies, and vision. I know what he is against – Museveni’s government and its corruption and incompetence. I do not know what he stands for because he has not articulated it anywhere. Mobilising popular anger is easy. Organising people around a set of policies backed by values is difficult.

I share the frustration many Ugandans have towards Museveni’s government. I also find it extremely incompetent and corrupt. This is not to say I see no value in it. On many indicators it has performed very well. There is not a single indicator I can see where Bobi Wine and the coalition of radical extremists is comparable to Museveni.

So I find it difficult to embrace any and every opposition politician simply because they oppose Museveni. Africa has seen so many critics of government coming to power through a wave of populism. Except for a few exceptions, they have turned out to be worse than the ones they removed. Our nations have seen very many changes of government without much change in the quality of governance.

So change is not the missing ingredient in Africa. What is missing is qualitative change in governance, or what the young Museveni called “fundamental change.” Of course upon taking power, Museveni proceeded to reproduce the old politics of corruption and patronage that characterised Africa, best exhibited by Mobutu sese Seko of former Zaire, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya etc.

So Ugandans are at it again – like all other Africans elsewhere – turning a demagogue who is backed by intolerant radicals, into a hero. How can we repeat these mistakes over and over again and then continue to blame leaders instead of ourselves who propel them to power? Why do we shun people like Mugisha Muntu, Augustine Ruzindana, Morris Ogenga Latigo, Nobert Mao, Bidandi Ssali etc who exhibit the values we claim to seek in our leaders and embrace fascists who preach terror and destruction?

I have urged Museveni to condemn those of his troops who tortured Bobi Wine and other Ugandans. He has not. I have urged Bobi Wine’s enlightened supporters (if they exist at all) to condemn the cyber bullying perpetrated by radical extremists. They have not. Bobi Wine is now out on bail. I can predict that he will never condemn those of his supporters who indulge in cyber bullying, and intimidate and physically assault his opponents. His radical extremists have been doing all this evil without reproach from him. Therefore, like Museveni, Bobi Wine wants power and nothing more.

It is, therefore, saddening that all Ugandan elites clamouring for Bobi Wine are silent on the lack of values among the forces propelling this upstart in politics. I know where Uganda stands now: on Museveni’s frying pan. But I don’t agree that we should push ourselves into Bobi Wine’s fire.


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