Will Museveni use his 2011 national victory to retire gracefully like Mandela and Nyerere or entrench himself in power like Fidel Castro and Gaddafi?
Now that President Yoweri Museveni has won re-election with an increased mandate, what should he do? This election has been important for Museveni because he won in all regions of the country, most especially in the north that had previously rejected him. This national victory has allowed him to emerge as a national figure, not merely as a warlord or president of the south against the north.
If Museveni were to use this new national profile profitably, it is time for him to cut the image of an elder statesman – a Nelson Mandela or Julius Nyerere and organise a peaceful transition of power to a successor that he trusts – someone like Amama Mbabazi. Such act will win him not only iconic status nationally and internationally, but it will also remove the rug from under the feet of his critics who accuse him of seeking a presidency for life followed by a family succession.
But will Museveni rise up to this challenge? This can only be possible if he seeks historic greatness beyond merely being president. Yet Museveni’s search for greatness is intimately linked to his stay in power; he is a Fidel Castrol, a Muammar Gaddafi or a Robert Mugabe but not a Mandela or a Nyerere. Therefore, he is likely to look at his victory NOT as an opportunity to retire gracefully but rather a reason to stay on believing that “the country still needs me”.
Beyond this grand and historic posture, Museveni needs to fix a number of things over the next five years. Across the country, the president was accosted by complaints from his supporters about the poor state of public goods and services like water, education, health, roads, schools, hospitals and electricity. He was able to deflect blame from himself to local officials. But he knows these problems to be systemic (system-wide) and cannot therefore be caused merely by local officials.
Over the last ten years, government of Uganda has increased the allocations of the budgets to key service ministries like education, health, infrastructure and agricultural extension services. In all of them, the budgets have increased by more than 400 percent. Yet there has not been a corresponding improvement in the results from this expenditure. The challenge Museveni faces is therefore not one of prioritisation but of value for money i.e. to increase implementation efficiency and effectiveness in the public sector.
There are many ghost health centres and schools as there are myriads of ghost medical staff, teachers and pupils. Many existing hospitals have few medical workers, essential drugs often run out and critical equipment is either missing or outdated. A similar experience bedevils education as there are limited textbooks and teacher absenteeism is high. During the campaigns, Museveni listened to complaints across the country about how most voters had never seen agricultural extension services.
Technically, the answer is that Museveni should try to improve the institutional ability of the state to deliver on its promises and to get value for money. He would have to ensure that public institutions enjoy a degree of autonomy from private pressures of ethno-regional and religious elites who seek to wrestle resources from their public purposes to serve personal interests. To do this would be in direct contradiction to the very mechanisms that Museveni has employed to consolidate his power.
Many public spirited Ugandans do not appreciate how Museveni’s strength lies in the destruction his political strategies have wrought on our nation’s political institutions. Museveni understands the psychology, pretensions and ambitions of our middle and upper classes for power, status, influence and material aggrandisement. He has thus fathomed a political system where these needs of the political class have actually been addressed through the diversion of public resources to private pockets.
What was significant in this election, however, is that Museveni has introduced the lower middle class to the culture of personal allocation of public resources – and with impressive results. During the campaigns, he fostered the creation of associations for semi employed urban youth-groups from informal sector activities like hair dressers, barbers, salon owners, boda boda riders, traditional healers, singers, vendors, hawkers, taxi drivers and touts, etc. The associations were akin to cooperatives.
These groups would be driven to State House, have dinner with Museveni and present their concerns directly to him. He would then promise them money – often in billions – saying he will put it in the coming budget. But Museveni knows most Ugandans don’t trust his promises anyway. So he would give the visiting group cash of about Shs 400,000 per person as “transport refund” even though State House would have transported them to the meeting. Then, he would also allocate another Shs 400m to their association to “open a bank account”. In all cases, it was delivered the next day. And all this was done before election-day.
These political strategies by Museveni – of selective and personal allocation of state funds to individuals and groups in order to literary buy their support – have powerful implications on our governance. Most critically, they cripple the ability of state to deliver public goods and services to anonymous citizens generally and impersonally. In fact, they tend to destroy public services. Yet they have equally powerful political dividends, at least in the short term as they increase his votes.
What is frustrating about the opposition in Uganda is their apparent inability to appreciate this fact. Rather than treat it as a strategic threat to their political strength, they throw their hands up and criticise its moral significance. Yet this is not a morality contest. To continue hacking at Museveni’s corruption and incompetence as the issues that mark his political vulnerability is naive. It is futile because his political survival is actually based on destroying these very public services.
The recent ride on the treasury to buy political support has strengthened the president’s belief in money as a vehicle to political success. This marks a major shift in his political strategies – for Museveni had all along believed that it is violence and intimidation that had the upper hand. Over the next five years, with oil resources looming, we are going to see money flow. Museveni will out-Mobutu Mobutu himself.