Museveni claims to have studied history. It is not clear which branch of history he studied. Did he study revolutionary; military; diplomatic; colonial; negotiations; medieval; modern or all the branches of history? Whichever branch he studied, Museveni’s behavior demonstrates that he learned wrong lessons and that is why he has ended up described as a dictator presiding over a failed state.
Museveni believes very strongly that when you are militarily strong and you are feared (that is why he wears military uniform when there is a domestic challenge), then you can crush all your enemies (Museveni sees dissent in enemy, not opponent terms) with impunity. That is why he devoted his early life undergoing military training. As president, his number one priority has been building strong security forces to intimidate and when necessary crush political dissent. The defense budget has therefore been disproportionately larger than any other sector. Consequently infrastructural, social and environmental sectors have been starved of resources and are on the verge of collapse (potholes in Kampala City are an obvious case) – an outcome that may end his presidency.
History shows that military strength alone is not enough to defeat a determined people. The Portuguese government refused to negotiate with African liberation forces believing that military victory was the only choice. In the end the government itself was overthrown and Portugal defeated and all Portuguese fled their former African colonies in utter humiliation. On the other hand, visionary de Clerk, prime minister of apartheid South Africa, read the signs correctly and concluded that military victory was impossible. He entered into genuine negotiations with Nelson Mandela and a win-win agreement was struck (unlike the fake Okello/Museveni Nairobi negotiations). White South Africans who chose to stay have accepted Africans as equals and not creatures to slave for the Master Race.
If Museveni does not draw a lesson from the experience of Mandela and de Clerk that military strength has drawbacks and begins to negotiate with opponents or to give them space to participate in the political processes as equals, there are going to be serious problems. Instead, Museveni is still investing in weapons of human destruction (WHD) rather than creating conditions for dialogue with all stake holders.
Museveni believes that once you have solid foreign support, you cannot be defeated at home. Accordingly, in trying to get Britain’s support, Museveni accepted a harsh version of structural adjustment (shock therapy) because it was favored by conservative western leaders particularly Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom. Museveni collaborated closely with Linda Chalker a trusted minister who preached Thatcher’s philosophy of economic liberalism including monetary economics focusing on inflation control (at the expense of employment) and privatization of public enterprises. Museveni embraced similar policies in the economic reform programs since 1987.
Regarding privatization, Uganda’s public assets were divested en masse without proper assessment of their value, which ones to be privatized, to be closed or to be retained because they were making profit or serve strategic national interests. Divestment began immediately a decision was taken with instructions that any problems should be addressed as they arise rather than delay divestments until all constraints had been studied and resolved. The assets were sold at throw away prices (we have never been informed how much revenue was raised and to what use it was put). Because there were no Ugandans with capital and skills to participate in the exercise, most Uganda assets are foreign-owned – severely undermining Uganda’s sovereignty. The few that were allocated to Ugandans connected with the first family have performed badly and are always applying for government bailout to avoid bankruptcy – the very reason privatization triumphed over nationalization.
Also, because Museveni needed continued Britain’s support (British media and financial interests supported his guerrilla war), he agreed to the return of all Asians if they wished to and repossession of their properties including possibly those that had been compensated. This decision was and still is very unpopular and contentious in Uganda.
While taking these unpopular decisions to please foreign powers, Museveni has failed to draw the right lessons from the experiences of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire/DRC. These two African leaders had solid support of western powers. Nobody would have thought that they would be abandoned for any reason. However, when the west realized that the two leaders had become very unpopular in their respective countries it chose the people over the leaders. Haile SeIassie was in the end judged by western powers as a flawed leader with an autocratic style of leadership and abandoned. Similarly Mobutu was judged kleptocratic leader and advised to step down. When he refused, he was thrown out by Kagame and Museveni troops. The same thing could happen to Museveni if he continues along the current unpopular trajectory.
Museveni has not yet drawn a lesson about the power of images (photographs) in eroding the credibility of leaders. During the 1973/74 devastating famine in Ethiopia, the world watched images of starving women and children while Ethiopia was exporting food to earn foreign currency to cater to the needs of the rich, and Haile Selaisse was photographed feeding large chunks of beef to his lions in the palace compound. Without question, these images enhanced the Emperor’s removal from power.
The images of starving mothers and children when Uganda is exporting huge amounts of food to neighboring countries and beyond to earn foreign currency to satisfy the needs of the rich; pictures of Ugandans disfigured by jiggers because of absolute poverty; pictures of Kampala under floods because drainage channels have been blocked by unplanned buildings; pictures of overturned vehicles and dead passengers because of poor road maintenance and images of Museveni boarding an $80 million presidential jet in a third world, least developed and landlocked country that depends on foreign aid for survival have sent wrong messages about Museveni’s leadership and priority setting. Yet Museveni and his media staff continue to deny the adverse impact they are having on him.
Museveni believes that once you have crushed opposition parties and you have a firm control of your party then everything else will flow as planned. In this regard, Museveni has not learned from Margaret Thatcher’s experience. Thatcher believed that she had a comfortable handle on her conservative party and could initiate unpopular programs (e.g. poll tax) with impunity. She got a shock when members of her party forced her to step down through party elections.
Similarly, Museveni got a shock when disgruntled party members announced that because primary elections for 2011 general elections had been rigged, they were contesting as independent candidates. He advised them to drop the idea for party unity to no avail. If business continues as usual, Museveni could, one day, be forced to step down. It is possible because Ugandans are changing!
Museveni has not learned that ignoring or exploiting peasants can be politically costly. Peasants’ revolts contributed a major part in the collapse of feudalism in Europe. French peasants played a crucial role in the French Revolution. Uganda peasants are unhappy with Museveni policies. They see their children drop out of school in large part because government has refused to provide lunches and see their youth unemployed when youth from Museveni ethnic group with whom they studied are driving new vehicles. Independent candidates from Museveni’s party have seen this loophole and hope to exploit it and defeat Museveni’s preferred candidates. Thus, Uganda peasants, like peasants everywhere, can get cranky and cause trouble for Museveni when they feel their rights have been trampled too much.
Finally, Museveni did not draw a lesson regarding the impact of enlightenment thinkers on the American and French revolutions. European thinkers rejected divine right of kings and the dogma that some people were born to rule and others to slave in perpetuity. Museveni still believes in the divine right of presidents to give orders that must be followed at face value – without raising a finger in protest or to seek clarification. Museveni still believes that Bahororo are born natural leaders and will rule Uganda for ever possibly as a hereditary monarchy in spite of disastrous effects of his policies on the economy, ecology and society since 1986.
Museveni and his close tribal advisers still entertain the notion that any potential opponent should be liquidated. Museveni and those advising him need to understand that any person or relative murdered for his/her political views can only hasten his downfall. Uganda has entered the enlightenment phase and Ugandans have the right to reason and to ask questions and demand convincing answers – not to be dismissed as bankrupt, liars or empty and noisy tins!
Ugandans in urban and increasingly rural areas know their inalienable rights and no one can take them away without adverse consequences. The issue of land has demonstrated that even the illiterate cannot be swindled without nasty outcomes. If Uganda land is sold to foreign states or companies to grow food for their people while Ugandans starve, you can be sure Uganda peasants and urban elite will rebel (the case of Mabira forest is still fresh in our minds). As in European peasants’ revolts all that is needed is one or two bold leaders like Tyler to get the revolt rolling.
Generally, Ugandans are peace loving people who want to raise their families in peace and security and in harmony with their neighbors. Sadly, Uganda has had bad leaders who believe in the use of force rather than negotiations on a win-win basis. Impoverishing and humiliating opponents by depriving them of their property, culture (while Museveni is proud of his culture he is at the same time destroying the culture of others) and dignity by using military, intelligence and economic tools can only aggravate anger and speed up mobilization for resistance. Museveni expressed anger at Obote by waging a nasty guerrilla war on Buganda soil far away from his own. What makes Museveni think that others cannot react before they are completely destroyed? The armed forces he is proud of could turn against him especially by junior officers who have not enjoyed like the generals. Haile Selassie was picked up from his palace by junior officers he had dumped in a remote battalion in southern Ethiopia (we still remember Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of Liberia). Ugandans need not resort to force because there are better alternatives if all parties are ready to take that path. Let us hope that common sense and interest of present and future generations will prevail over Museveni’s personal and tribal interests.
UAH forumist in NewYork