Confronting Museveni's Apartheid-Style Regime In Uganda

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Commander, Gen. Museveni; would have clocked 30 years when he seeks 5 more in 2016


The challenge to effectively confront and get rid of the nearly thirty years of odious dictatorship under President Yoweri Museveni is how to fashion a strategy that is predicated upon political-moral claims for equal treatment of all Ugandans as citizens entitled to their human rights.

The Freedom and Unity Front (FUF) and the Federalist Alliance for Democracy and Development in Uganda (FADDU) have formed a partnership based on positive shared ethical values and sense of purpose precisely because we realize that President Museveni has never been an exponent of a single positive idea.

In fact, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) dictatorship has militarized and fragmented the country along ethnic lines, because its leadership has been driven by deep-seated bigotry not unlike what informed apartheid in South Africa.

The plain truth is that when President Museveni, as head of the NRM, fulminated in platitudes against previous administrations in Uganda, he did so simply to camouflage his quest for, and worship of, raw power. It is because Ugandans have paid dearly for the worship of raw power politics that we have committed ourselves to be guided by ethical values in order not only to destroy the dictatorship, but also to usher in a new dawn in Uganda politics.

As Ugandans move forward affirmatively in the struggle to reclaim their our birth rights and to ensure that all Ugandans are afforded equal opportunities and rights, it might help to draw on the examples of other Africans and also to remind ourselves that although we might focus on Uganda because of circumstances, our struggle is not fundamentally different from those of our brethrens in other African countries. The sharing of experiences should broaden our horizons and help us feel that we are not alone in the march forward for human rights and dignity and for democratic dispensation and accountability.

Certainly, the outstanding political and moral outrage of the second half of the twentieth century was South Africa’s apartheid, which was unbridled racism, based on the twin notions of skin pigmentation and mythical racial purity. The unscientific criterion of race and not the character and, or, qualification of a person was the most significant consideration in job hiring and in rewarding people. While internally the security forces used terroristic means and crude violence to enforce it, externally some of the big powers offered it diplomatic and economic sustenance.

In Africa today, the most lethal political pathology and greatest threat to healthy democratic developments is apartheid-style despotic governments formed by minority social groups, and imposed on the population and sustained in power by military means.

Some of the grotesque examples in the history of post-colonial Africa have been: Liberia under William Tolbert; Democratic Republic of Congo (previously known as Zaire) under Mobutu Sese Seko; Gabon under Omar Bongo; Togo under Gnasingbe Eyadema; Equatorial Guinea under Obiang Ngwena; and Uganda under Gen. Yoweri Museveni.

All these rulers share five main characteristics that distinguish them from others on the continent.

The first is that they take the various states as their personal estates.

The second is that they use ethnic and family affiliations as main criteria for reward and social upward mobility.

The third is that they confuse their personal whims for state interests.

The fourth is that they are bent on the gratuitous use of violence to exact compliance from the population.

And the fifth is that they were/are delusional about their security and support; hence, they mistake the political order imposed by brute force for stability and acquiesce of the population for acceptance, respectively.

For most people, it is easy to understand the social-political perversion in South Africa, which from 1948 to 1994, was under the grips of formal racist system call apartheid. There, the great majority of the people of South Africa were subjected to an obnoxious type of abomination, which disfigured not only consciences but also human relations.

The abomination in the form of apartheid was imposed on the country by the Nationalist Party in 1948 when it adopted it to formally entrench white supremacy on the one hand, and to inscribe Black servitude in the political economy on the other.

As a student leader at Harvard and Oxford Universities and the London School of Economics in the late 1970s and in 1980s, the abomination of apartheid outraged and galvanized me into action. I joined in solidarity with people of good-will across the world to campaign against apartheid, which the United Nations Security Council called a crime against humanity after the savage brutalities meted out to teenage students during the Soweto upraising of June 12, 1976.

When I participated in anti-apartheid campaigns, one of the most powerful essays I read that boasted my courage was Martin Luther’s statement from Birmingham jail on April 16, 1963. In the essay, the particular phrase that resonated with me is where King states that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” For me, as an African and a human being, I could see and feel how injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere; and that it required commensurate action rather than indifference to combat it.

Since the end of apartheid in South Africa after the 1994 democratic election that made Nelson Mandela president, I have not folded tent. Instead, I have often joined hands in solidarity with those who are demeaned, marginalized and even dehumanized in various parts of the world. Arguably the two most humbling campaigns I have been involved in in the post-apartheid era are for the rights of Dalits in South East Asia and one against the epidemic of sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the moment, however, of immediate urgency to me is the situation that has for three decades obtained in Uganda, my country of birth. I have thrown my lot with the wretched of the earth there because, although Uganda is geographically in East Africa, the policies and practices of the regime, informed by toxic prejudice in the form of ethnic chauvinism and a conquering mentality, are not substantially different from that of apartheid South Africa.

The difference without substantial distinction is that whereas the Nationalist Party in South Africa used race to operationalize apartheid, in Uganda the NRM regime under President Museveni has used ethnicity and family affiliations, for socio-political upward mobility.

Accordingly, those who do not belong to the “right” ethnic group, do not have lighter skin pigmentation and do not enjoy particular family connections are not treated with respect; instead, they are disempowered, demeaned and even dehumanized.

Below, I give some of the chilling facts about the regime of President Museveni over the past three decades.

To summarize, the he brutal fact is that over the past three decades, President Museveni and his agents have without compunction perpetrated lethal prejudice, exclusion and oppression against the great majority of Ugandans.

For me, as was the case with apartheid South Africa, these are morally as repugnant as were the practices under apartheid. But more than moral repugnancy, they should move us to moral outrage and action, similar to what was demanded of us when apartheid devastated the lives and dreams of millions of South Africans.

Indifference or sitting on the fence is really not an acceptable moral choice when the dreams and aspirations of so many people are being needlessly and callously wrecked and millions condemned to a life of servitude.

The pattern of apartheid-style discrimination in Uganda under President Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) can be traced to before they usurped power by violent means in 1986. To begin with, the leadership of NRM was opportunists to whom moral principle is/was devoid of meaning.

Having broken the law in order to evade paying for breaking it, they used gangster methods to attain power; and subsequently transferred the gangster methods to consolidate and maintain power.

Of far greater significance is the fact that the leadership of the NRM’s premise for waging a guerrilla war against the then elected government was informed by ethnic chauvinism and by hatred of people who were regarded as culturally and sociologically different from fighters of the NRM. This was evident in the poisonous propaganda and songs the NRM leaders used to mobilize and boost the morale of their fighters, in the five-year bush war.

The songs essentially called upon NRM rank and file to fight without fear and to eliminate those from northern and eastern Uganda who were presented as less than human. On usurping power in 1986, the ideologues and high-ranking operatives of the NRM, in hectoring tone, began to categorize people from the north and east of the country as "backward" and "biological substances," not entitled to the rights accorded to, and enjoyed by, citizens.

The categorization set the tone for future policies towards, and mistreatment of, people from those two regions in particular. Indeed, the logical extension of this apartheid-like chauvinistic and conquering ideology of the NRM was to lead to some of the most sadistic killings and mistreatment of Ugandans in recent history. Two examples might be given here.

The first was the massacre of over 70 people at Mukuru trading center in eastern Uganda by soldiers of the National Resistance Army (NRA) on May 11, 1989. On that fateful day over 70 civilians were gassed in train carriages.

The second was the way in which, according to Human Rights Watch report of September 2005, more than 1.9 million people in Acholi, northern Uganda, were displaced and interned in concentration camps by government-engineered operations for most of the 1990s and early 2000s.

After visiting the camps in November 2003, Jan Egeland, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs was so shocked and morally outraged by what had happened and was happening that he remarked in a press conference that it was the worst forgotten humanitarian crisis on earth.

Milton Obote, Ugandan’s first prime minister and president after juridical independence from Britain in 1962, in 1990 documented some of the grotesque killings in his, “Notes on concealment of genocide in Uganda.” The document is a historical resource worth taking note of by those who are keen to understand the nature of the current dictatorship in Uganda.

Like in apartheid South Africa, the government under President Museveni of Uganda functions on the logic of mutual exclusion, exploitation and oppression. And like in apartheid South Africa, and perhaps emboldened by foreign support, agents of Uganda government arrogantly use language of pure violence that does not mask their domination of the population in general and of those they categorize as different from them in particular.

The logic of mutual exclusion, exploitation and oppression that is born of toxic ethnic chauvinism and a conquering mentality, which the regime of President Museveni uses to inform its policies and practices, has driven agents of the government to mistreat people who do not belong to President Museveni’s extended family and sub-ethnic group, as second class subjects.

What this in effect has meant in the past three decades is that only mostly people who belong to President Museveni’s extended family and sub-ethnic group have been given opportunities to dominate the command heights of the economy, the military and politics. The domination in these areas, as linchpin of the regime, bears striking similarities to the main characteristics of apartheid operated in South Africa.

In March 2009, the Independent newspaper in Uganda, generally sympathetic to the regime of President Museveni, published three related articles that disclosed the extent to which the government in Uganda was/is dominated, if not monopolized, by President Museveni, his extended family and sub-ethnic group.

The first, published on March 11, 2009 is tiled, “ Family rule in Uganda: how the Museveni clan runs government.”

The second, “The dynamics behind Museveni’s family rule,” was published on March 18, 2009.

And the third one, “Museveni government’s family tree,” was published on March 25, 2009.

Together, the three articles paint a grim picture of governance in Uganda. Without mentioning here specific names of President Museveni’s kin and kith, it should suffice to say that the web of incestuous relationships in government is extraordinarily sickening. And it is apparent that President Museveni treats the country as his personal estate, similar to the way King Leopold of Belgium treated the so-called Congo Free State in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The two factors combined: one of the intricate incestuous relationships in government and the other of the medieval notion of the state as a personal estate, might explain why President Museveni and his sycophantic agents plunder the country willy-nilly without any compunction.

It is against this background and for the reasons adduced above that the struggle to liberate Uganda from apartheid-style administration is being waged. To wage the struggle successfully and to ensure that we do not bring about merely a change of musical chairs but empower people to engage in affairs that affect their lives, we need to be grounded in ethical values. Indeed, ethical values of compassion, tolerance, inclusiveness, reciprocal respect, equality of treatment, social justice, economic empowerment, political emancipation and unity of the country must necessarily constitute our political-moral compass.

It is clear that a convergence of forces and factors in Uganda is pushing the medieval-type dictatorship of President Museveni to an end. In historical comparative perspective, the factors are similar to those that preceded the ouster of Idi Amin’s military dictatorship in 1979 in Uganda and of the end of South Africa’s minority apartheid regime in the 1990s.

Some of the dynamics that suggest that the dictatorship of President Museveni is nearing its end include the rumblings in the hitherto servile inner ethno-military politburo of the ruling party, as symbolized by the rift between President Museveni and Prime Minister Mbabazi; the sponsorship of paid assassins by the regime to eliminate those it considers constitute a contingent leadership force ready to take over the running of the state; and the enactment of pernicious laws that penalize groups that are already marginalized in society. All of these are building up into a political volcano that will sooner than later erupt.

If the post-Museveni Uganda is to be different and to inspire hope among the people, it is necessary not to waste time in sterile debates about recrimination; rather, we must begin to think seriously about some of the fundamental principles that should serve as compass for affirmative sense of purpose and unity.

Given the utterly criminal nature of the regime and its penchant for repression, it is unlikely that a change can be achieved without a combination of people’s power and the military identifying with the great majority who have been weighed down by fear and poverty fostered by the regime. But because the swindling regime has oppressed people for so long, there is likely going to be an out-pouring of pent-up frustration and anger into revenge outrages, once people feel a wind of change is about to blow.

As such, the first priority should be to ensure some kind of soft landing and to ensure that any type of revenge is not tolerated. As a practical matter, people will act in a particular way only if there is a leadership informed by ethical and inclusive values.

In the current political landscape of Uganda, two political organizations, FUF and FADDU, have joined hands in solidarity to provide leadership based on transcendental shared ethical values, which should provide affirmative and purposeful unity, by demonstrating to people that we can indeed work together as brothers and sisters despite our diversity or differences.

Because President Museveni and his sycophantic cabals have been apostles of militarism in the past three decades, all progressive forces working for genuine change in Uganda will be confronted by a two-fold inter-related challenge. The first is how bring to an end the use of gratuitous violence in political processes; and at the same time break the ethos and spiral of violence that has bedeviled human relations in the country. And the second is how to inspire the trust of people in leaders through a transparent and accountable system of government.

The two political organizations in partnership are opposed to unity imposed on the people by military means, which could be similar to a unity of the cannibal and his victim.  The unity we champion is purposeful unity that takes into account the various interests within the territorial state of Uganda and admits of our diversity and democratic rights. It is for this reason that we subscribe to federalism underpinned by unfettered rule of law as the most reasonable formula and pathway to foster democratic renewal in the country.

For us, the critical issue in governance is less who constitutes the ultimate authority in a territorial state than how power is dispersed among the population in such a way that the interests and experiences of people are integrated into governance.  Properly designed, federalism should allow those in power to embody the experiences of citizens affected by power wielded by political leaders.

The leadership of FUF and FADDU is committed to demonstrate by example that it can transcend parochial political and stereotypical social tendencies in the country by its inclusive approach. It is to the credit of the leadership of the two organizations that it has championed an inclusive approach in practical politics at a time when President Museveni’s dictatorship has used to lethal effect divide-and rule strategy among the people of Uganda.

The time is up for those in the NRM who would like to change tactics but not mentality in order to simply reconstitute and continue to perpetrate the apartheid-style abomination in the country.

As Bob Marley captured the truth so eloquently in a song, “You can fool some people sometimes; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Surely, a people united by shared ethical values can usher a new dawn in Uganda for all to enjoy equality of treatment while at the same time celebrating their diversity as equal citizens.


Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is Chairman of Freedom and Unity Front

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