As the confrontation between President Yoweri Museveni and Mengo reached a climax last Friday evening, it was the Buganda establishment that retreated. As the Katikiro announced that Kabaka Ronald Mutebi had cancelled his trip to Kayunga, it was clear that Museveni is the most overestimated man in this country.
During the fight, Museveni had tactlessly given Mengo the strategic initiative. By insisting that Mutebi will not got to Kayunga, Museveni left Buganda’s Kabaka the initiative to decide whether to dare the devil. If Mutebi had stuck to his guns, Museveni’s only option would have been to arrest him. Regardless of his justification, Baganda would never have forgiven Museveni. He had boxed himself into a corner from which retreat seemed the only option. Why did Mengo retreat?
Possibly they realised by using intimidation, Museveni could only score a tactical victory while Mengo would retain strategic advantage by positioning themselves as the reasonable party. In the long term, this would help Mengo win public support.
Museveni relies mostly on persuasion and bribery to get his way. When these fail, he turns to intimidation and blackmail. He is a bully who enjoys being seen as ruthless, eager to unleash violence and death to those who dare challenge him. He has cultivated this reputation carefully, thus sending shock and awe down the spines of potential adversaries. Yet in fact, Museveni is a very weak president.
His army is heavily divided, his intelligence services deeply factionalised, his party is demoralised while his cabinet is in disarray. Lacking a unifying vision, his government has no moral purpose. To get followers Museveni has to cough cash, thus giving corruption a free reign. Therefore, his ability to ‘crash’ his opponents is more myth than reality.
If someone put 10,000 demonstrators on the streets of Kampala, the army and police would disperse them; 70,000, the security services may contain them. But if they were 200,000 and were kept on the streets for a week, the army and police will join the demonstrators. Why? Governmental incompetence, corruption and nepotism have led to popular discontent in the country. The security personnel share it.
Yet, although there is widespread demand for resistance, there is limited supply of effective organisation and leadership; we have social dynamite but are lacking a detonator. For the police and army to break ranks and support the democratic forces, the demonstrations have to be well organised, well led and peaceful. This has happened in Yugoslavia, Ukraine and the Philippines.
Yet most demonstrations have been spontaneous, a factor that explains the degeneration into random violence and looting. In politics, organisation is everything. Without it, you have mob action. Mobs don’t build anything, they destroy things. They also alienate potential allies. For example, during the riots, shops were looted and ethnic Banyankore and business people of Asian descent attacked. Yet many of these people possibly sympathised with the Mengo’s cause.
While the security services think the violence was organised and coordinated, the truths is that Mengo was surprised (although some of its leaders were also thrilled) by this spontaneous show of solidarity. Indeed, initially Mengo did not know how to respond to the violence ‘ whether to condemn or endorse it. Finally, they did neither.
Consequently, lumpens, petty criminals and idlers took advantage of the organisational and leadership vacuum to loot. This way, they played into Museveni’s hands and undermined Mengo’s cause. They scared away the private sector and the middle class who are necessary in supporting legitimate demands on the state ‘ thereby justifying the government’s iron fisted reaction.
Mengo has always suffered from a parochial belief that its demands are only for it and Museveni to decide. Yet it needs to position its demands as part of the wider demands of all Ugandans for democracy, accountability and better government. After decades of private negotiations, Mengo does not seem to have realised that this is not a formula for success.
The widespread discontent against Museveni is at first sight intriguing. He has presided over successful economic reconstruction. Ugandans today have more cars, television and radios sets and better houses and improved services. Yet Museveni’s delivery of public services like health and education has been far below expectations.
Secondly, economic growth has been limited largely to services, industry and construction. Yet these sectors employ only 20% of Uganda’s increasingly restless young population. Agriculture on which 73% of Ugandans depend for a livelihood has suffered negative per capita growth averaging -2% per annum over the last ten years.
Consequently, Museveni’s electoral fortunes have been declining in spite of his penchant for rigging. In 1996, Museveni got 4m votes and 75.5% of the vote. In 2001, his absolute votes were 5.1m while his percentage vote was 69%. In 2006, his absolute vote fell by one million votes to 4m and his overall percentage to 59% with only 638,911 votes saving him from a humiliating second round.
And this is in circumstances where Museveni’s main opponent, Kizza Besigye, returned to the country in the last four months of the campaign, did not have any organisation or money and was in jail or in court for two thirds of the time. Where is Museveni going to grow new voters when the only people joining the register are youths between 18 and 23 years ‘ the group most disempowered and therefore angry with his leadership?
In 2006, there were 3.2m registered voters in Central region, 65% of whom were ethnic Baganda. Museveni got 1.2m votes against Besigye’s 740,000 ‘ beating his main rival in all sub counties in which Baganda are a majority. If Mutebi dared to go to Kayunga and Museveni arrested him, he would have turned away even his most ardent Baganda supporters and given desperately needed momentum to our lackadaisical opposition.
In cancelling his visit to Kayunga, Mutebi demonstrated a tragic lack of nerve and allowed Museveni once again to prevail over an issue where the president had lost strategic initiative. One of the critical signs of great leadership is the willingness to sacrifice. Mengo will not get what it wants on a silver platter. Going to jail would have shown the sacrifice Mutebi is willing to make for his kingdom and country.