How the NRM has created an unstable equilibrium in Uganda’s politics that has allowed impunity to be tolerated
In 399 BC, the popular assembly in Athens sentenced the world’s most famous philosopher, Socrates, to death. His most famous student and spokesman, Plato, was advised by friends to leave the city. He had participated in the defense of Socrates and many feared the democratic party of Athens would kill him too. At 28, Plato escaped to Egypt. There, he was surprised when – what the historian Will Durant called “the Sphinxly pundits of the Nile” – told him that the upheavals of Greece were because Athens was a young and immature nation without entrenched norms and stabilising traditions.
Yet even the poor in Uganda exercise impunity. Boda bodas ride through red lights often on the wrong side of the road. Taxi drivers pick passengers wherever they wish. Vendors and hawkers dump garbage on the streets. Ordinary citizens steal road signs, street lights and electricity cables. University lecturers trade sex for marks, and do little or no research to produce new knowledge. Teachers in UPE schools are in class for only 18 percent of the time. Traffic police officers act like road-toll collectors.
Those outside power (and therefore not partaking in this mad scramble for public loot) are also free to express their frustrations in newspapers, on television and radio. Often, they rely on rumour, hearsay, idle talk and gossip to make their case. They make little or no effort to verify or cross-check and substantiate their claims and accusations; so they lie and vilify. But no one holds them to account either – theirs is freedom without responsibility. Witness the work of the Red Pepper. And any false accusation that is repeated over and over again acquires the status of truths.
Everywhere in Uganda, everyone does what they want. Some call this freedom and liberty; I see it as anarchy. The best discussion of this subject is a dialogue between Socrates and Adeimantus at the latter’s home. Socrates argues that excessive freedom inevitably leads to tyranny. And 2300 years later, it did. The “freedom” (read anarchy) under the Weimer Republic in Germany produced Adolf Hitler.
Uganda seems to be in an unstable equilibrium (but an equilibrium nonetheless) where the state and the citizen, the rich and the poor, those who support the government and those who oppose it have agreed to an unwritten yet grand bargain. Here, public officials are free to pillage the treasury and deliver little in public goods and services. In return the citizens are free to exercise their own impunity of not respecting the law. And President Yoweri Museveni stands atop this chaos, fanning it but also stabilising it like Pericles did in 5th Century Athens. In many ways, Museveni is the quintessential Ugandan – stern, power-hungry and corrupt but equally kind, generous, accommodating and tolerant; he is the personification of the Ugandan character. Ugandans love and hate him in equal measure.
But the best parallel for Museveni is King Phillip 11 of Macedonia – the father of Alexander the Great. The words Durant used to describe Phillip can be used by some to our president. “In diplomacy he was friendly but treacherous,” Durant wrote, “He could break a promise with a light heart but was always willing to make another. He recognised no morals for governments and looked upon bribes and lies as humane substitutes for slaughter. He was lenient in victory and gave defeated Greeks better terms than they gave one another.” Just when Museveni has defeated an enemy militarily, he will enter “peace talks” with them – give their leaders ministerial appointments, the commanders and their soldiers will be integrated into the national army.
In many ways therefore, Museveni is a complete man. He tolerates the corrupt and incompetent in his government as he tolerates all the law breakers – rich and poor. He tolerates the potholes on the roads as he tolerates the freedom of those who quarrel in the media about them – and even throw insults at him for it. He has defended the right of boda bodas to disregard the law, the right of vendors to terrorise the city and the rights of squatters to violate the property rights of land owners. He has ignored the rich who have stolen public land, evaded taxes, built in wetlands and road reserves or killed their workers. Every Ugandan has a piece of their impunity protected and promoted by Museveni.
Museveni has been tolerant and accommodating of everything except one thing he treasures above all else – his job. It is here that he has drawn a line in the sand. For when his power is threatened – not just by tactical or even strategic threats – but by an existential threat, our president will be stern, uncompromising, quick and decisive. He has survived in power for long because he has concentrated most of his efforts on this single objective. He is therefore flexible in his morals but passionate in his pursuit of power.
Of course Museveni could reply that he would never achieve his vision when he has been overthrown and hence in jail or exile. So keeping power is the first precondition of a successful leader. Milton Obote was an able administrator but could never achieve his vision because he was overthrown. However, one runs the risk of getting too entangled in the mechanics and machinations of retaining power that they can lose sight of the vision that took them to politics in the first place. Museveni runs this risk too. In deregulation and liberalisation, Museveni may have fostered many dysfunctions in Uganda but he also unleashed the entrepreneurial talent of Ugandans. His opponents have never learnt how this saved our country – and Museveni’s presidency – from the dead hand of a corrupt and incompetent state.