Myths And Realities: Exposing Global Marketing Of Uganda's False Messiah, Gen. Museveni

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Gen. Museveni--after 31 years and failure on major yardsticks what's left to market?


On January 25, 1986, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and his ethnically constituted National Resistance Army (NRA) overthrew the ineffectual military junta led by General Tito Okello, which had itself earlier in July 1985 ousted the Uganda People's Congress (UPC) government under the leadership of Milton Obote, plunging Uganda into unabated militarism.

The usurpation of state power through the barrel of the gun by Museveni and his NRA was a culmination of five years of guerrilla war, which he had embarked upon after failure to garner support from the population through democratic means. Based on his record, it was apparent that Museveni, soon to become general, neither cared nor knew much about democracy. He paid lip service to democratic slogans as long as he was not required to meet the demands of democratic conduct and practice. In fact, he demonstrated his inability to meet minimum democratic requirements when immediately after his assumption of state power he issued a decree to ban rival political parties and activities and to establish a mono-party state.

From the outset, therefore, he did not conduct himself as a democrat but instead as conquering militarist, hell-bent on establishing internal colonialism in the country. Gen. Museveni's militarist approach to politics was dictated partly by practical reality that he could not win any election through democratic process, as exemplified by his defeat in 1980 by his brother-in-law and now his foreign minister, Sam Kutesa who won the parliamentary seat they contested for; and partly by his admiration of violence, which he glorified and made virtue of as a potent agency for change. But although Gen. Museveni's record in democratic participation was dismal, a formidable army of international media organizations and personnel marketed him to the world as a champion of democracy in Uganda and grass roots government.

Prominent among the international media and personnel were the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and a British citizen by the name William Pike, respectively. It is fair to say that without the BBC and William Pike --who still turns a blind eye to today's realities-- retailing Museveni to the world, he would not have gained much political traction and acceptance inside and outside Africa. Other groups who had grievances against the UPC government under Milton Obote also indirectly joined the public relations campaign for Museveni, despite his well-known record of duplicity, sub-ethnic chauvinism and unalloyed prejudice against people not from his ethnic and related socio-linguistic groups.

Among the various groups that offered Museveni its imprimatur was the country's left-leaning intelligentsia who feted him as a revolutionary primed to strike a fatal blow against imperialism and neo-colonialism. Mahmood Mamdani, arguably the most distinguished Ugandan political theoretician, for example, presented Museveni as a trail-blazing revolutionary democrat. He characterized Museveni's militarist approach to politics in the following way: "The NRA politics of democratization were not only anti-regime, they were moreover anti-state. This represented the construction of a united front from the bottom up now, not from the top down. From the bottom up through an ideology whose purpose was to organize the oppressed and disorganize the oppressor." This characterization of Museveni's militarist approach to politics might be a misapplication of Karl Marx's theory of the withering away of the state in a communist society.

But it was not only leftist Ugandan scholars who either unconsciously or fraudulently sold the so-called "Museveni Revolution" in Uganda to the world. Among Pan-European academics, Michael Twaddle of the Institute of (British) Commonwealth Studies in London led the offensive to promote Museveni as if his life depended on it. In a series of books he edited and conferences he hosted, he presented Gen. Museveni as a kind of messiah heralding a new dawn in Uganda's politics and history. And, Pan-European politicians also joined in the chorus of praise. Leading the way was President Bill Clinton of the United States who in the late 1990s offered a ringing endorsement of Gen. Museveni. President Clinton baptized him, together with Paul Kagame of Rwanda and the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia --all militarists who ascended to power after bloody military conflicts, as a "new breed" of African leaders with great promise for the continent.

The praises offered for Gen. Museveni by the assortment of elites were not different from the accolades initially showered on Gen. Idi Amin after he overthrew the first UPC government led by Milton Obote in January 1971. The tears were to come later. The fact that elites of differing political persuasions, from the ideological left to the right, vigorously promoted Museveni's arbitrary military conquest of state power in Uganda suggested from the outset that either the people singing his fulsome praises were delusional and hopeful about him, or that he was an opportunistic political chameleon who would change his political color depending on the environment. What is clear is that both those on the ideological left and right marketed him for different if not diametrically opposed reasons. Although President Museveni has mastered Orwellian double-speak language --the habit to say one thing when meaning something different-- and after more than 30 years in power and virtual appeasement by domestic elite supporters and his foreign patrons, it is no longer sufficient to sing his praises to whitewash his image without providing evidence to back up assertions made.

There is more than enough evidence now based on his policies and conduct in power to evaluate his performance and its impact on the people and country. That is the main objective of this commentary. As hinted above, a reasonable way to evaluate a government is not by echoing what it or its proponents claim to stand for; but rather, to examine the pattern of its policies and the impact of its rule on the people. This should be done not least to provide a balanced historical account that might correct "alternative facts" given by revisionist scholars and public relations gurus who are paid to project a positive image of Gen. Museveni and his regime.

What then on balance are the impact or achievements of Gen. Museveni since he usurped state power more than three decades ago? Here, I focus on and highlight five major areas of significance, which those who trumpeted his ascension to power indicated he would make the most positive difference in.

First, what happened in the area of the exercise of democratic rights in the country? As indicated above, President Museveni showed his true colors immediately after he took state power by banning all rival political parties and activities and establishing a mono-party state. Subsequently, he has not only rigged successive elections but also in 2005 forced Uganda's parliament to remove presidential term limits from the constitution; and now he has set into motion a process to abolish presidential age limit of 75 from the constitution, so that he can rule for as long as the military, which is his mainstay in power, permits him. It is therefore fair to surmise that Gen. Museveni and the NRA fought the previous regimes not to revive democracy or to find viable solutions to the country's problems, but to gain power to dominate other competing groups within Uganda.

Second is the question of internal peace and security: In the beginning, partly because of the powerful propaganda machinery backing him, and partly because people in Buganda --where the capital of the country, Kampala, is situated-- had been rendered miserable dating back to the destruction of their ancient kingdom in 1966 by the UPC government, there was genuine euphoria in southern part of the country at the demise of the UPC government and its successor military junta. It was the return of relative peace in southern and western Uganda that Museveni's publicists presented as the establishment of "stability" in the country, even though NRA soldiers were ravaging the northern and eastern regions of the country more or less to ashes as is now well documented. The use of the term "stability" by Museveni's publicists might be a misnomer; what obtained in most of the country in the first quarter of a century rule by Museveni is better characterized as militarily imposed socio-political order.

Third, is the state of unity in the country: It is fair to summarize that by his militaristic policy, intolerant attitude and exploitation of geo-ethnic differences in the country, Gen. Museveni more than any ruler in contemporary history of Uganda has undermined and eroded the foundations and fabric of national unity. With his militarist conquering mentality, he has effectively used divide-and-rule strategy to fragment the country along ethno-regional lines. His modus videndi can be traced to the period after the fall of military dictator Idi Amin in 1979. In my book Politics and the Military in Uganda, published in 1987, I documented how Museveni, as defense minister in the late 1970s, recruited into the military disproportionately from his ethnic group. It is apparent that the people he recruited into the military at the time were the ones who after his failure to win the 1980 election formed the backbone of his guerilla force. These were later supplemented by people from related ethno-linguistic groups, when he embroiled them by demonizing and fanning socio-political antipathies towards people from eastern and northern Uganda in general and the Acholis in particular. Once in power, he translated his ethnic prejudice by militarily hammering people from eastern and northern Uganda in what he termed euphemistically, "pacification." It is a telling irony of history that Museveni used the same term, "pacification," which was used by British colonial authorities in the first two decades of the twentieth century in their brutal military efforts to subjugate various groups within the current territorial state of Uganda, in Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa.

Over the years Gen. Museveni has compounded the state of disunity in the country by weaponizing the ascriptive criteria ethnicity. He has used ethnic affiliation for distribution of state resources, strategic jobs, scholarship bursaries, recruitment, upward social mobility and even for evaluation of loyalty and for collective punishment. As a result of his policy of divide-and-rule and his practice of militarily cowing down Ugandan populations for the objective of family and ethnic domination, today, for most people, Uganda is simply a legal fiction for instrumental purposes rather than a living reality of socio-psychological identity and solidarity. That is why when Museveni calls for national unity, most Ugandans dismiss it as a cynical nauseating call similar to a call of unity of the cannibal to his victims. It is not a unity based on respect for equality and the rights of of individuals and groups, and for the common and greater good and welfare of all.

Fourth, is the alarming growth of sordid corruption and kleptocractic nepotism. In Uganda today, it is universally acknowledged that Gen. Museveni has injected the virus of corruption into every sinew of society; and that it has now morphed into an aggressive cancer that has disabled the country from functioning as a healthy state. The cancer of corruption, whether in the form of bribery and misappropriation of national resources or appointment to important positions, is spread by Gen. Museveni, his family members and those in his inner circle; and it then filters to citizens and affects the whole country. The ancient adage that "a fish rots from the head down" might be apt and of relevance here.

A number of outstanding journalists, mining empirical data, have disclosed the emerging dynamics of power structure in Uganda and how it is concentrated in the hands of the Museveni family and a network of his sub-ethnic group. Among the leading writers who connected the various dots and found out that the corruption of power has been carried out by, and intimately tied to, Museveni's extended clan, is Andrew Mwenda, before his political somersault. The other journalist who has examined and disclosed the Museveni related network of corruption in the country is Timothy Kalyegira.

One such article exposing the dynamics of the Museveni system is aptly titled "Family Rule in Uganda" and appeared on March 11, 2009 in The Independent magazine, published by Mwenda. The article concluded that the Museveni "family influence in government has gone hand in hand with informalisation of power. Thus, although formal authority is rested in official institutions, effective power is wielded by his clique of family and kin." When the story was published, it sold like hot cake because Mwenda had simply documented and confirmed what most Ugandans knew: that people from Museveni's extended clan run the government and businesses in the country. The article reveals the nature of the kleptocratic system in Uganda.

The obscene nepotism at the political level in Uganda can be illustrated for example by the fact that Gen. Museveni has appointed: his wife, Janet Museveni, Minister of Education; his brother-in-law, Sam Kutesa, Minister of Foreign Affairs; his brother, Salim Saleh, a.k.a Caleb Akandwanaho who the United Nations (UN) implicated in the plundering of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Minister of State for Microfinance and Military Advisor to the President; and his son, David Kainerugaba Muhoozi, Commander of Special Forces, making his son defacto commander of Uganda's military; the Uganda People's Defense Force.

In the 1990s, when I provided leadership to an organization known as Ugandans for Peace and Democratic Pluralism, Godfrey Binaisa, former attorney general and president of the country, with cunning prescience, predicted that because Museveni had no moral bearing, he was going to establish a presidential monarchy in Uganda. Because Binaisa was adept at expressing his ideas in colorful phrases, most of us around him at the time thought he was teasing us with expression in parable. Now, more than a quarter of century later, the insight he expressed as a joke has more or less been proved right. Indeed, having already placed his family members in strategic command heights of politics, the military and economy, Gen. Museveni is about to establish a presidential monarchy.

And, the fifth area is that of national sovereignty. To put it differently, to what extent has Gen. Museveni fought, leave alone dealt fatal blows, against imperialism and neo-colonialism, as retailed by his leftist praise singers? Soon after coming to power, Museveni accepted and implemented the World Bank's (WB) and International Monetary Fund's (IMF) structural adjustment programs, which dismantled state owned enterprises, as well as most of the social safety nets in the country. Coupled with the extensive privatization of Uganda's assets, Gen. Museveni has really mortgaged the country to foreign forces whose primary interest is to maximize their profits rather than to care much about the welfare of Ugandans who they see simply as a means to their various ends. In addition, it is now abundantly evident that Gen. Museveni has become a most effective superintendent --what in local Ugandan idiom is called "nyampara"-- for forces of imperialism and neo-colonialism keen to control and have access to the Nile Basin and the Great Lakes region of Africa for geo-strategic and economic reasons.

No amount of pretension by Gen. Museveni and his public relations gurus by presenting him as a Ugandan patriot and Pan-Africanist can mask the fact that he has become an effective agent of imperialism and neo-colonialism. What then in summary is the reality about Gen. Museveni and his rule for over three decades in Uganda? There is no doubt that his policies and conduct have transformed socio-political, economic and military relations in the country and those of the country with foreign actors; but not for the benefit of Ugandans.

It is abundantly clear that a militarist like Gen. Museveni cannot be a midwife to democracy; because rarely can a democratic outcome be achieved by undemocratic methods and by people who do not respect and subscribe to democratic ideals and means. The tragic truth is that today more than in any period of Ugandan history since juridical independence in 1962, identity politics has gained unassailable potent social currency because of Gen. Museveni's policies and conduct in power.

In the context of bottled up anger and frustration about the corruption and nepotism in the country, there is genuine risk that Ugandans will use the currency of identity politics to settle scores and plunge the country into mayhem and bloodshed. This can be prevented if conscious elements of the political and military elites exercise courageous and enlightened leadership by offering an inclusive and constructive program that answer the yearnings for social justice and genuine inclusivity.


Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu

University of Connecticut at Storrs

Chairman, Freedom and Unity Front of Uganda

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