Vigilance: The Antidote For Tyranny

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[Issues Of Principle]


There is an adage among the Central Lwo-speaking people in Africa that calamities make people patch up if not transcend their differences.

The adage is more often than not applied to question of leadership: that it is in times of crises that the quality of leaders can be gauged and appreciated.

In Uganda, in the past two decades, both epidemiological disasters and political pathologies have afforded the population opportunity to evaluate the type of leadership in the county. I review both here to draw larger lessons for purpose of cross-fertilization of ideas, principally because even in situation of grim mismanagement a cordon sanitaire cannot be drawn about ideas.

From about September 2000 to February 2001, Uganda experienced the largest ever recorded outbreak of Ebola, a deadly and highly contagious virus that causes hemorrhagic fever in humans. Three areas of the country were affected. The epicenter of the virus was Gulu, the provincial capital of the war-ravaged northern Uganda. The other areas were Masindi in central Uganda, where six percent of the deaths were recorded; and Mbarara in south-western Uganda where one percent of deaths occurred.

During the time of the pandemic, the local medical staff under the inspirational leadership of Dr. Matthew Lukwiya worked heroically, with nurses prepared to risk their lives by going out into the town and villages to try to bring the sick to Lacor Hospital, the Catholic missionary hospital where most of the patients were treated, before the illness spread and wreaked havoc.

Towards the end of the pandemic the committed doctor himself, Lukwiya, succumbed to the virus and died in December 2000, joining more than 224 who died out of 425 cases recorded. Apart from the people who died as a result of the virus, about 1,000 children were orphaned.

The heroism of Dr. Lukwiya and his staff and the solidarity of the international community were, however, not matched by the government’s response to the unfolding devastating tragedy. At the time, the government’s lackluster concern was construed by keen observers as a function of its antipathy towards people from northern Uganda.

Seven years later, in September 2007, another Ebola outbreak occurred in Uganda. This time, the epicenter is a place call Bundibugyo in Western Uganda, the region from where President Museveni hails. The death toll since the outbreak has been recorded at about 30, out of a total of about 110 infections reported. In response, the government in early December 2007 sanctioned the release of slightly more than US$3 million towards efforts to wipe out the pandemics from the region.

At about the same time that the government announced the release of the money for the fight against the virus, President Museveni summoned and told a parliamentary committee on Presidential Affairs of his urgent need to upgrade his presidential jet from the current Gulf Stream 4 to a Gulf Stream 5 version. It is estimated that a brand new Gulf Stream 5 (G5) presidential jet to replace the G4 would cost about $35million.


This is how Museveni justified the need to shift from the G4 to the G5 version of presidential jet: "I started [in 1986] with the G2 and it was traded with G3 because it could not reach London by express and would make stopovers. This was risky because the bad forces usually target planes while taking off and while landing. I wanted a plane, which went to London directly without making stopovers. We changed to G4 which is perfect, has a long range, security is guaranteed and there are no stopovers in dangerous places. It is also good because you don't land in third world airports, which is risky.”

Museveni's Press Secretary, Tamale Mirundi, added that: "The President said manufacturers have shifted interest to the Gulf Stream 5. The G5 flies for 14 hours express, is flexible for bad weather and its airworthiness is not contested."


At face value, the justifications for purchasing a new presidential jet for Museveni might be said to demonstrate a mediaeval approach to governance and perverted sense of priorities for the country. The approach tends to take the state as the personal fiefdom or estate of the president, and calls for expending whatever resources are necessary to ensure his comfort and survival in power, even when thousands of citizens are suffering on an unprecedented scale.


Museveni’s priorities can be gauged from the pattern of governmental expenditures, which indicates that he deliberately does not care about the welfare of citizens, as opposed to his negligence due to lack of knowledge of the conditions in the country.  This is so because public figures and views from his Cabinet Ministers are quite clear about the various crises in the country. A few examples, mostly from the health sector, will suffice to illustrate the point.


In March 2007, the Monitor newspaper reported that many patients at Mulago, the national referral hospital, were wasting away due to lack of medical care and basic facilities. One doctor at the hospital is reported to have said: “The conditions inside the Labour Ward are not suitable for pregnant women, so they come out for fresh air. Some of them have to sleep under beds already occupied.”


Another doctor who works in the ward said that lack of supplies such as gloves, drip sets, Jik and other essentials for surgery and examination often forces them to abandon surgical operations. He said, “There are no gloves, no syringes, no incubation tubes, sterilizers and Jik. These are the necessities for an operation to take place.”


In April 2007, a report in the government’s mouthpiece, The New Vision, revealed that the Vice President, Gilbert Bukenya, was appalled by the scale of the tragic plight of at least eight million Ugandans whom he said live in abject poverty, on less than US$1 a day.


In May 2007, the State Minister for Health in charge of Primary Health Care, Emmanuel Otaala, acknowledged that Uganda’s share of the national budget to the health sector was a shameful 8.3 percent, which according to him, fell well below the target the government agreed to spend on the health sector.


In October 2007, the late Minister of State for Planning, Omwony Ojwok, was shocked to see a woman give birth in bushes next to a closed health center in Isingira district in Western Uganda. According to reports in Ugandan newspapers, although Omwony Ojwok was shocked, the local people were quite used to the phenomenon.


With these facts, apart from issue of perverted priorities, what sense can be made of Museveni’s desire to buy a new presidential jet; and most crucially, what informs the desire? A critical analysis of Museveni’s justification for wanting another presidential jet reveals a problem far more fundamental problem than simply skewed priorities. It reveals that Museveni is deeply infected with insecurity and fear. It is this terminal insecurity and fear he suffers, which is a distinctive feature of the regime and might explain Museveni’s policies and actions towards both citizens and his external patrons.


To appreciate and grasp the fundamental role played by insecurity and fear in Museveni’s mode of operation, we must recall his justification for acquisition of a new presidential jet. Remember, he said that he changed from Gulf Stream G2 to G3 because the former “could not reach London by express and would make stopovers. This was risky because the bad forces usually target planes while taking off and while landing. I wanted a plane, which went to London directly without making stopovers. We changed to G4 which is perfect, has a long range, security is guaranteed and there are no stopovers in dangerous places. It is also good because you don't land in third world airports, which is risky.” By this statement, Museveni has more or less laid bare the fact that the demons of insecurity and fear haunt and play havoc in his mind.


How can we understand and explain Museveni’s overpowering insecurity and fear, which makes him think that there are forces all over Africa and the "Third World" determined to do harm to him? The answer is three-fold.


First, the justification Museveni proffered indicates that he lacks inner confidence. This might be a result of economic insecurity in his background, which he has tried to address by parasitically amassing enormous wealth through domination of the various apparatuses of the state. The insecurity seems to have also left a permanent scar on his physiological disposition. Oral evidence and his academic record, for example, show that he was rather dim during his academic pursuits.


It seems that in order to compensate for his academic inadequacy, he sought to entertain militaristic fantasies. Certainly, the theme of glorification of military means (or militarism) threads his life rather neatly and tragically. It should be emphasized that the obsession with military means is really not an outgrowth of strength; but rather, it is born of insecurity and fear. This may explain why Museveni often resorts to violence to cow people into submission whenever he loses rational arguments or contests.


Second, Museveni’s eagerness to fly to London nonstop suggests that he feels more secure and comfortable in England than his own country. From this it must be construed that he knows that he lacks popular political support from Ugandans. It should be pointed out that in the 1980 elections, for example, his lack of popularity was proven by his defeat for a Parliamentary seat at the hands of his current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sam Kutesa, when he, Museveni, was Minister in the ruling junta.


It was because of the lack of popular internal support that Museveni embarked on guerrilla warfare, which resulted into his usurpation of power in 1986. The violence with which he began as a means for securing power has continued to dictate to him that he should depend on the military as his anchor in power. This might also explain why in a country where the doctor-to-patient ratio is 1: 42, 725, he has more than 10,000 troops in his personal presidential brigade, superintended by his son. This is quite apart from the national army which he would like to use as his mercenary force.


And third, Museveni’s insecurity and fear have been exacerbated by the unspeakable outrages he committed against many people. Reports have it that, in 1979, for example, he ordered the killing of Muslims in Mbarara, without any reasonable cause. And of course, he bears responsibility for creating dehumanizing conditions in which he subjected the people of northern Uganda. The logic of his atrocities and commission deaths of many people has led him to fear that those whom he grievously wronged might like to settle scores with him or his cohorts.


Because of his insecurity and fear, Museveni has in turn deployed fear as a means of governance. An integral part of the technique is to use bribery extensively. The bribery must be seen as part and parcel of blackmailing people to keep silent against the outrages he commits. The logic is that once bribed, a recipient would be in fear of exposure. 


In fact, Museveni has used bribery to lethal effect to silence all those who might like to dissent from his public policies. Thus reputable academics and politicians who should have been expected to speak up and out against the many assaults by Museveni on democratic pluralism, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and separation of powers, have been made dumb for fear that the regime might expose them for the bribes accepted.

For those who have not been bribed or compromised, there is always the fear of losing jobs or mortgage or business or livelihood, should they speak out against the regime. The point is that Museveni has, from his insecurity and fear, learnt a Machiavellian lesson, which he has in turn used to infect a cross-section of academics and politicians in this way, and which has robbed the country of otherwise formidable and independent voices.


In as far as external patrons of the regime are concerned, they are more than aware of Museveni’s terminal insecurity and fear. In fact, they know that Museveni would obey their commands precisely because he is infected with multiple insecurity and fear. Indeed, their own modes of dealing with him are premised on the knowledge; for they know that he is more or less an empty vessel and that without them he would lose power. This might explain why Museveni is much more amenable to external pressures and seeks their approval than to the democratic agitations of Ugandans and why he is prone to regard as blasphemy any challenge to his policy of mortgaging the country to external interests.


The simple and profound point is that a distinctive contribution by Museveni to political culture in Uganda is the systematic use of fear as a means of governance. For this matter, it might be fair to say that Museveni’s modus operandi is not fundamentally different from those of the mafias who extort whimsically from their victims or from the manner in which totalitarian systems control their citizens.


A fundamental point I am making here is that when the twin phenomena of fear and insecurity — whether engendered by natural disaster or human agency — take hold of people, they oftentimes paralyze and make it difficult for people to engage rationally and affirmatively to overcome the maladies. Similarly in politics, when insecurity and fear are used as means of governance, rulers become deaf to the voice of reason and unresponsive to democratic aspirations of citizens.


To stay in power, such rulers either surround themselves with sycophants who are keen to echo their own voices or suppress those who dissent and challenge their modes of governance. For the most part, however, they infect people with various strains of insecurity and fear. This has been true of the ways all dictators have operated; and it has certainly been borne out by the manner in which Museveni has ruled Uganda.


The choice for people confronted with the rule of fear is either to purchase survival at a heavy discount to their dignity and self-worth or marshal courage to challenge the pathologies of insecurity and fear. The formula has been with humanity since time immemorial. In fact, arguably two of the greatest historical figures from different political hues, Karl Marx and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both urged their followers to throw off the yoke of fear, as prerequisite to meaningful engagement in democratic processes.


The formula from Marx’s perspective and in the context of Europe in 1848 is captured in his clarion call that “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” About a century later, Roosevelt crystallized the formula in his first inaugural address in 1933 when he proclaimed that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”


In a way, then, the Ebola pandemics that have twice within a decade bred fear in Ugandans can be taken as both apt metaphors for, and analogous to, the ways Museveni’s regime has operated in the past quarter century. Like the Ebola that has the potential to destroy whole communities through contagion and can cripple people with fear, Musveni has over the years fragmented the country by creating conditions of insecurity and injecting fear in a cross-section of the population.


As Ugandans in particular and African people in general grapple with how to meaningfully confront the various maladies that undermine their capacities to engage robustly in self-sustaining activities for their welfare, there are two ingredients that should constitute effective antidote to the viral operation of political systems in the continent. These are vigilance and fortification against the onset of fear.




Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.

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