MUSEVENI AS METAPHOR
By Femi Olugbile
The news has arrived, at last. Yoweri Museveni, thirty-five years in office, Africa’s fourth longest-serving President, behind such worthies as Paul Biya, Teodoro Obiang, and Denis Sassou Nguesso, has been reelected to the office of President of Uganda for another five-year term.
One image of Museveni that quickly comes to mind is a terse exchange with CNN Anchor Christiane Amanpour in a recent interview. She takes him up on the difficult issues. Why are his security operatives so heavy-handed? Bobi Wine, his main opponent in 2021, has been regularly harassed and his family threatened, assaulted and humiliated. He has been prevented from holding rallies. Some of his people have been killed, and many arrested.
And why, asks Christiane, is there so much persecution of the gay community?
Finally, why is he seeking reelection after thirty-five years in office?
She plays a video clip of an interview she held with him over thirty years ago. The young Museveni was a national hero who was lionized locally and internationally for bringing relative peace and stability to his beleaguered country and being a force for stability in the sub-region. He had defeated the long-running insurgency of the bizarrely named band of killers known as the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’.
That young Museveni told his interviewer that democracy was important for Africa’s development, and that leaders should learn to avoid overstaying their welcome. He was clearly an idealist who embodied the aspirations of a youthful Uganda population and the optimistic internationalists who believed that Africa was about to have its day in the sun, at last.
Museveni, the elder, is unfazed by the questions or recollections. Some of his responses are interesting, some disingenuous.
The one on Homosexuality is an easy one. Ugandans do not persecute Homosexuals, but they do not promote Homosexuality as an alternative way of life.
And concerning the banning of opposition political rallies, is Christiane not aware of COVID19, and the need to enforce social distancing?
On Democracy, what he meant then, and still means now, is that there must be elections, and people must vote for their leaders, whether young or old. He cannot resist the temptation to take a jibe at USA, whose credentials and moral authority on Democracy have been savaged by Donald Trump and his supporters. Who is fit, he implies, to cast stones at 75-year-old African Presidents who fulfill righteousness and win ‘landslide’ victories?
Museveni embodies a lot of what is most worrisome about post-colonial leadership in Africa. The ‘good man gone bad’. The ‘revolutionary turned reactionary’. Like Robert Mugabe.
The early Museveni captured in Amanpour’s video is a world apart from the old man who would send ‘security men’ into his country’s parliament in 2017 to beat and arrest opposition parliamentarians in order to ensure the quashing of a standing law barring people above seventy-five years in age from contesting election for the Presidency.
Uganda is a landlocked country in East-Central Africa. The people of Uganda are among the poorest in the world, although their government regularly flaunts indices that show that the economy is ‘growing fast’. Its unique location is both a blessing and a curse in terms of how easily it gets drawn into the affairs of other countries, despite its limited means. It is bordered to the East by Kenya, and to the north by South Sudan. To the west is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the south-west the Republic of Rwanda, and to the south Tanzania. After Independence from Great Britain in 1962, the country went through several ‘adventures’ including a spell of naked terror under Idi Amin Dada.
Yoweri Museveni became President after a military coup in January 1986. The story of Uganda since then has been the story of the Musevenis.
Ugandan ‘democracy’ is about periodic elections between Yoweri and a slew of opposition candidates, principally Dr Kizza Besyge and more lately the popular musician and parliamentarian with the trade name of ‘Bobi Wine’. Between Yoweri the President, and Janet his wife, who is Minister for Education and Sports, the Musevenis cast a large shadow over the landscape of Uganda. It seems set to continue, as far as the eye can see.
In an article published in Foreign Affairs just before the elections, Bobi Wine complains that ‘the West Helped cripple Uganda’s Democracy’ by its uncritical support for Museveni.
The reasons for the support are obvious. He has been a bulwark of defence for American interests in the region – from the ‘War on Terror’ in Somalia to the guaranteeing of stability in the whole of East Africa. He is internationally lauded for accommodating refugees from local wars, though he is himself a major player in those wars. Bobi describes his presidential adversary as ‘America’s brutal darling’. He avers that in thirty-five years in power, he has received billions of dollars in development aid. While some has gone into genuine projects, a humongous amount has been diverted to military spending or siphoned off by the President’s cronies.
Indeed the West is aware of the crude brutality of Museveni’s security apparatus – they have well-publicised images of stick and gun wielding soldiers stripping female opposition candidates stark naked in public and killing and maiming citizens in broad daylight. Museveni is, in the mouth of his Western backers, that poisoned meat that cannot be swallowed, and yet cannot be spat out.
The metaphor of Museveni reaches to the core of the African leadership conundrum. What turns forty-year-old ‘reformists and revolutionaries’ down the line into hide-bound seventy-five-year-old ‘Presidents for life’, time and time again? Until Africa plumbs the depths of its Genetics and Psycho-Sociology to get an actionable answer to that poser, it cannot even be sure that if thirty-seven-year-old Bobi Wine were to be magically catapulted into the Presidency of his country today, he would not, in thirty years’ time, be singing the song ‘I am the Nation’ – the same song Museveni is singing now, as he celebrates another empty ‘election’ victory.