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What the opposition should do

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Let me speculate. There are always ominous signs when a leader or regime is about to collapse. Take the example of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: There was the rum’s heart; then Cleopatra’s dream and later the soothsayer’s warning. There were equally also many ominous signs in 1969 to 1971 ‘ the death of Brig. Okoya, the attempted assassination on Milton Obote, etc, that signalled his impending fall. A similar set of ominous signs were noted in 1977-79 and 1983-85 in Uganda.

I have always been suspicious of such predestination speculations leaving them to Timothy Kalyegira largely because they appear arbitrary. There are always bad events that can be used retrospectively to show that signs of collapse were there. But partly because of frustration with a corrupt and incompetent regime that does not seem to go away and partly because I am growing old and superstitious, I am inclined to believe that recent events in Uganda, like the burning down of Kasubi Tombs, signal the coming fall of Yoweri Museveni.

Since Kasubi fires many friends across our nation’s ethnic divide have written to me claiming it is Museveni who burnt down the tombs. They claim he wants to punish Mengo particularly and Baganda generally. I find this claim spurious because Museveni could not and cannot burn down those tombs. Nevertheless, the fact that such an idea gains wide currency shows how the degree of frustration with his regime is shaping political discourse in a way that makes his stay increasingly untenable.

In most of Africa, grief is always the point at which we forget our differences and rally together. In the case of Kasubi Tombs, I expected to see Baganda youth receive Museveni well for his attempted show of solidarity in their sorrow, but instead they did the unexpected and tried to block his access to the scene. Museveni responded with force, shooting to death a couple of them. Note that when his main opponent Kizza Besigye turned up, he was well received by the same youths.

Museveni seems to now believe in his politically invulnerability. He grossly underestimates the fires of hatred he is stoking in Buganda by his relentless assaults on the cultural and institutional integrity of the kingdom. His belief that bribing a few Baganda elites will enable him win the hearts and minds of the ordinary Baganda is mistaken.

His continued closure of the kingdom’s CBS radio is doing more propaganda against him that when it was on air. For example, imagine the number of Baganda who used to listen to CBS and enjoy its programmes! They used to call it ‘rediyo yaffe‘ (our radio station). Baganda have lost many symbols of their past glory; CBS was the only new source of pride. We should not be surprised when the other pillar of their cultural pride burns down and Baganda think Museveni is responsible for it as well.

Museveni’s regime is even more vulnerable from the changing demographics of Uganda. One of his major achievements has been to sustain rapid economic growth for over two decades. This has reduced infant mortality rates thus creating a huge new electorate. Growth has also fostered the emergence of various social groups ‘ an educated middleclass and a sizeable private sector. Equally, there has been a boom in both public and private education. Many youth are leaving school and finding nothing or little to do. They are now turning into militants seeking change.

There is a clear disconnect between the achievements Uganda has registered under Museveni’s stewardship (especially because of the bold reforms he took in the late 1980s and the early to mid 1990s) and the nature of the regime that he presides over today. Sustained growth has grown hand in hand with the near collapse of public goods and services, as public schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, public buildings, etc., have deteriorated rapidly, becoming pale shadows of their past glory.

This disconnect has alienated many people ‘ not just the youths who cannot find jobs, but most ordinary citizens who cannot find nurses, doctors or drugs in hospitals. Equally, the middleclass that furnishes the organisation, leadership and ideas for other classes is disenchanted. Many have bought cars but cannot drive through our potholed roads and those who have built nice homes cannot access them due to bad roads. These grievances are the social dynamite that is only held in check because of failure to find organised political expression.

Next year, Uganda will have 12.9 million voting-age citizens. Museveni himself will be 67 years; and only 2.4m voters will be above 60 years. Most voters will be aged 18 to 30 ‘ these were either unborn or below 5 years when he came to power in 1986. They are not as intimidated by the sight of soldiers (witness how they courageous tried to block him at Kasubi tombs) largely because Museveni’s other achievement has been to demystify the army.

As I have always argued, I believe that those who seek to unseat Museveni should first internalise his achievements before they address his failures. It is in his achievements that they can find the quarry that will furnish them rocks to stone him out of power. Because even Mengo that today offers inspiration for his opponents is actually one of Museveni’s achievements ‘ the restoration of traditional rulers.

In many ways therefore, Museveni will not fall because he has been a failure but because he has been a success. He is clearly a man who represents our past, not our future. If we focused on the late 1980s to late 1990s, there are many of his reforms in every aspect of our institutional and policy life that reflect him in bright light. There is little since then we can adduce as evidence of his accomplishments.

He has been transformative enough to preside over a government that has produced the very social forces that now seek his downfall. I do not know whether (given his excellent command of political economy) he appreciates this perspective. The opposition needs to appeal to those who have benefited from Museveni’s rule (UPE and USE graduates, the middleclass, the private sector, teachers, etc) more than those who have lost (illiterate peasants) to secure victory.

amwenda@independent.com

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