How Museveni’s victory saved Besigye from confronting the hard reality of Uganda’s politics
President Yoweri Museveni has again defeated his main rival, Dr. Kizza Besigye, in an election the opposition claim was stolen. Whatever the merits of this accusation, Besigye’s defeat is also his greatest triumph. It has saved him from confronting the reality of managing a poor country, a factor that would have humbled Besigye and quieted his unthinking and often, unruly supporters. Let us assume a Besigye victory where Museveni would have conceded defeat, called the retired colonel, and congratulated him upon his victory. In one stroke, Museveni would have delivered unto his main rival a devastating knockout blow. Besigye has always claimed that Museveni is a power-hungry maniac determined to cling to power as all costs. In conceding defeat, the president would have made Besigye’s accusation lose meaning.
While Museveni’s democratic credentials would be souring, Besigye’s dreams would be rapidly coming face to face with the Uganda’s reality. Besigye has been exposing the failures of government in the delivery of public goods and services –roads, schools and hospitals in a state of disrepair. He has exposed health centers without drugs or medical staff and schools with absentee teachers. He claims this is because Museveni has no interest in the welfare of his citizens and runs a government of looters.
Thus, Besigye has created huge public expectations that once Museveni is gone, everything will in one night and by one stroke get better. Hospitals will be stocked with overflowing drugs, students given laptops, roads tarmacked, corruption and greed of politicians banished; every Ugandan will be walking with a swagger. His core support-base of unemployed or underemployed male youths believe his rhetoric and expect their circumstances to change over night.
Yet upon entering State House, Besigye would realise that a budget of Shs 20 trillion for 36 million citizens next Financial Year translates to Shs555,000 ($160) per person. Even in the US, which spent Shs70 million ($20,265) per person last year, many public goods are in a state of disrepair: broken bridges, collapsing highways, and abandoned neighborhoods. The US has expensive healthcare, its public schools are in a mess, and there is rampant unemployment among ethnic minorities – among black male youths it is 40%. Yet in spite of a small budget, Besigye would have to meet his oversized promises. He would have to increase teachers’ and doctors’ salaries. Then all other public sector workers would demand the same. Should he refuse, they would threaten to strike and paralyse government and accuse him of not caring about their welfare. Should he try to intimidate them, he would be called a dictator. Should he concede to their demands, public sector wages would sky rocket.
In such fiscal circumstances, President Besigye would realise he is unable to pay for his ambitious agriculture plans, finance his youth unemployment program, build or repair roads and dams, stock hospitals with drugs, buy laptops for secondary schools pupils, etc. The IMF and World Bank would be shouting down his neck that he is fiscally irresponsible. They would block his plans to borrow.
If he tries to raise money by increasing taxes, the business community would rise up in arms. Should he try to widen the tax base to collect taxes, the informal sector – his support-base of vendors and hawkers- would sound the clarion call for rebellion. Should he try to collect taxes from agriculture, peasants would become restless.
Meantime, President Besigye would be seeking to sell his policies to a parliament where his party, FDC, has 37 MPs and NRM 286 and 44 allied independents. To get legislation through, Besigye would be forced to negotiate with NRM MPs. Yet they would have come from both their party primary and the national election broke and heavily indebted. They would sense President Besigye’s vulnerability and seek to make the best out of it.
NRM MPs would put a price on collaborating with President Besigye. He would have to give some of them ministerial positions in exchange for collaboration. But he has many FDC and other opposition MPs to appoint to cabinet, yet he promised to cut it to 40 ministers. Besides, since a minister in Uganda is paid as an MP, NRM MPs would accept Besigye’s ministerial inducements not just for reasons of prestige but to be able to steal and repay their election debts and make more money for the next election. If President Besigye refuses to pragmatically accept such a corrupt bargain, they would become recalcitrant and uncompromising. Can President Besigye stand on principle and appeal directly to the people. Would that help? How? Besides, how would any politician meet the ever increasing demands of their constituents for fees, hospital bills, funeral expenses etc. without extra unofficial income i.e. corruption? If Besigye tries to bypass parliament, he would be accused of being a dictator worse than Museveni.
Meanwhile, President Besigye would also be facing agitation among FDC MPs. Having been out of power for long, this would be their chance to compensate for lost time. Immediately they come to office, and unsophisticated in the art of public loot as NRM ministers are, they would steal with such clumsiness that soon the media would be awash with scandals of their loot. What would President Besigye do to them when they are the only allies he has in parliament?
Three years into his presidency, President Besigye would not have tarmacked even 5% of Uganda’s 64,000 kilometers of road network. He would not have repaired many hospitals or schools. Abim would still be Abim. His planned savings on public sector corruption would have ground to almost nothing since his people want to line their pockets as fast as possible before the 2021 election. Sitting back in State House Entebbe, Besigye would realise that all the accusations he made against Museveni were not well founded.
Meanwhile, while sipping his milk at Rwakitura, reading newspaper stories of one financial scandal after another and listening to quarrels on radio over corruption under Besigye being worse than under Museveni, the ex-president would tap his wife on the shoulder: “Mama, look at what is happening to this Besigye. It is exactly what happened to me after I had spent decades denouncing Milton Obote and Idi Amin, accusing them of being the source of all Uganda’s ills.” This is the story of Africa’s promising reformers from Ghana to Malawi, Zambia, Senegal, Kenya, Benin and Ivory Coast. In winning (or stealing) this election, Museveni has denied us an opportunity to see Besigye brought from the trees of utopia to the hard rock of reality.