Uganda: Why People Power Must Also Embrace Older Patriotic Citizens

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Eric Kashambuzi.

[Letter from New York]

A journalist once asked why the United Nations holds conferences on the same topics every year. The Secretary-General responded that until solutions were found the conferences would continue to be organized.

Those who attend United Nations conferences regularly in New York know that every year there is a conference on poverty eradication, women and development, population and development and sustainable development.
When smallpox was eradicated, the UN stopped convening conferences on this topic.

Similarly, those who have followed my speeches and writings know that I have consistently insisted on leadership competence and experience relevant to the challenges at hand. Without these two operating in an environment with strong institutions and checks and balances, leaders are likely to make unintended and costly mistakes.

My own experience is a case in point as outlined below, not to boast, but for easy reference. Time is an important factor to gather and adapt competence and experience to the challenges at hand. There is no short cut.

When I joined the Brussels office in 1973 as an economist that serviced the Lome Convention negotiations of 1973-75, I had the competence, at least theoretically. I soon learned that I didn't have the experience to turn competence into negotiating relevance in terms of preparing appropriate papers or briefs to facilitate diplomatic negotiations by representatives of member states. Fortunately, my supervisor who had been a permanent secretary before he joined the Brussels office had both relevant competence and experience and helped me draft briefs for ambassadors that had negotiating relevance.

In 1975, I joined the United Nations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As desk officer for OAU, ECA and Ethiopia, I had the intellectual competence but limited diplomatic relevance. Being a technical branch of the UN, it was relatively easy to deal with ECA officials. However, Ethiopian and OAU officials were mostly diplomats that required a diffferent approach which I lacked. Fortunately, I had supervisors with vast diplomatic experience in dealing with OAU and government officials. I underwent on-the-job crash diplomatic training under their capable and patient wings.

By the time I qualified to represent my organization at technical and diplomatic conferences on my own, having served in different situations and levels under capable supervisors, I was in the mid-40s. This shouldn't be interpreted as being a slow learner as I had stellar performance reviews.

The point being made here is that time is of the essence to acquire relevant competence and experience for different situations.

It appears that one of the reasons Uganda political leadership has performed below expected standards is because we have had leaders who didn't have the competence and experience and have not adapted to the changing requirements.

At independence in 1962, we had leaders in their thirties such as Milton Obote, Sir Edward Mutesa, John Kakonge and Grace Ibingira. The relatively older and experienced leaders such as Ignatius Musazi, William Rwetsiba, George Magezi, Yekosofate Engur, and Cuthbert Obwangor were pushed aside.

Some had competence but none had adequate experience to tackle delicate matters like the "lost counties" question, the sensitive terrirorial dispute between Buganda region and Bunyoro region; the land was formally recognized as part of Bunyoro after a referendum.

The sad result was the 1966-67 political crisis that led to the ouster of Mutesa by Obote, who claimed the former had imported arms without the knowledge of government.

That incident combined with the ideologically ill-timed launching of the Common Man's Charter in 1969, Obote's decision to move Uganda to the left, led to the 1971 military coup. A competent and experienced leadership would have treaded carefully on both issues.

Since 1971, Uganda has had leaders that assumed the presidency in their 40s; Obote was older when he became president again in 1980. They came with military competence and experience that were not relevant to a civilian environment.

It appears that there was no genuine attempt to acquire relevant competence and experience to address civilian challenges that require listening, accommodation or adaptation. This could explain in part why the leadership in Kenya and Tanzania is producing better economic results at least in per capita terms than Uganda.

At independence in 1962, Uganda was way ahead with better prospects. Now Uganda is trailing far behind Kenya and Tanzania in income per capita although Uganda is far better endowed resource-wide and with a smaller population.

As if we haven't learn't anything about the disadvantages of youth in top leadership positions, there is now a growing chorus that Uganda should return to young civilian leadership reminiscent of the 1960s.

Since the 1960s and again since 1986, Uganda has been governed largely by young people; the latter case those who emerged from the Luwero guerrilla war without competence and experience. As they grew old and acquired experience --those with competence and experience that served under Obote and Amin were retrenched or marginalized and those living abroad were not invited to join the NRM government-- many have been replaced by young ones again without relevant competence and/or experience.

The record is there for all to see--you will see that there are fewer NRM older people than young ones in the executive and legislative branches subject to confirmation.

Further, it appears that the NRM leadership chose to use military or police force to solve civilian challenges which hasn't worked.

Now a new paradigm championed by People Power is emerging that is blaming parents and the elderly for the problems the youth are facing including unemployment instead of blaming NRM government that has been in power continuously for over 32 years.

The People Power champions are now pitting the young against the old as if that will solve the problems of young Ugandans. If not stopped early this approach could easily degenerate into bloody "elderly cleansing".

Elder, competent, patriotic Ugandans are part of People Power. The enemies are corrupt, brutal, incompetent regime functionaries; sadly, many are also young.

What Uganda needs is not removing Museveni alone from power or throwing old people under the bus. It needs leadership that combines young with competence under the supervision of the older ones with relevant competence and experience in a transitional government to meet the political, economic and social demands of 40 million Ugandans.

The transitional government proposal is receiving increasing support.

The transitional government should also convene a meeting so that Ugandans from all walks of life discuss and agree how they want to be governed.

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