Museveni's opponents have employed the same tactics as their adversary – and Ugandans no longer see a difference
In the 1990s, the enemy of the government of Uganda was the government of Sudan in Khartoum. The Monitor newspaper I worked for was moderately critical of the NRM even though its editors, especially Wafula Oguttu and Charles Onyango-Obbo, were at the time sympathetic to its cause.
Each time I debated Monitor with government functionaries, especially top officials in the security establishment, they would tell me that the newspaper is financed by Sudan.
Mayombo argued passionately that Monitor was financed by Khartoum. I asked him for proof. He leaped to his feet, went into his house and pulled out a briefcase filled with documents. I almost bought his bravado but held out insisting I needed to see and authenticate the “evidence” first. He produced nothing.
With time, I realised many Ugandans make wild allegations with such fanatical conviction that the uninitiated can easily believe their sincerity. People in intelligence manufacture stories and their bosses buy them by exploiting what cognitive scientists call “confirmation bias.”
This refers to the tendency of people to easily accept statements that confirm their existing biases. If you are Museveni and you think that Kizza Besigye is an evil man, then it is easy for you to easily buy an allegation that he has raped someone.
I had grown up amidst NRM propaganda, which accused former President Milton Obote of having looted US$600 million from the treasury during his second presidency. They alleged that he was now living luxuriously in exile and able to finance UPC in Kampala.
Then I became a regular visitor to his home in Lusaka. I found Obote living under extreme conditions of deprivation. Sometimes, I would give half of my per diem from Monitor to Obote’s people for sustenance.
Twice I sought audience with President Fredrick Chiluba of Zambia and asked him to increase the upkeep allowance and also renovate the house in which Obote lived. It was a large state lodge on almost three acres of an estate. But it was dilapidated. Chiluba would instruct things to be done but Zambian civil servants would steal most of the money and do little or nothing.
In my articles in Monitor, I would defend Obote against many allegations by the NRM. Then later, friends in security would show me intelligence briefs to Museveni saying I was on Obote’s payroll. Yet each time I returned, I would seek audience with Museveni and brief him about the former president’s actual situation. Did Museveni believe me, or his intelligence? I don’t know!
My initial writings were thus focused on how intelligence agencies exploit cognitive bias to have their information accepted by their consumers – the leaders. However, over time I realised that this problem actually worked both ways.
The opposition used similar tricks – like allegations of corruption, to fight their rivals inside the state. As I gained more experience, I became increasingly unwilling to accept an allegation that someone had been bought.
For many people following events in Uganda, the biggest source of information about our politics is derived from stories and rumours – both oral and written. I learnt that this tendency was not merely a means through which we understand reality. They are also used to influence reality. Thus allegations of corruption are not always made to represent facts but simply to discredit rivals and enforce conformity to certain political positions.
This insight began to slowly dawn on me in the critical months from January 1999 to October 2000. For then, NRM historicals met severally under the chairmanship of Moses Kigongo to discuss how to dissuade Museveni from a path of corruption and nepotism that the Movement was taking. But they were unable to move far because, each time they met, accusations surfaced that so and so among them was a Museveni mole.
These allegations encouraged internal suspicions and divisions leading the entire effort to collapse. By the time Kizza Besigye declared his bid for the presidency, there was only Sam Njuba willing to ride the boat with him.
In short, without spending one shilling, but relying largely, if not entirely, on spreading rumours about bribing politicians who were attending these meetings, Museveni had succeeded in breaking up nascent organised resistance to his leadership.
Today, the opposition is more radicalised. This is partly because after the failure of several attempts to remove Museveni, many elites have given up and joined him or withdrawn from active politics. With diminishing numbers of influential elites openly challenging the president, opposition activists are increasingly worried. They have thus adopted extreme anti Museveni positions in the subconscious hope (I guess) that such purity is proof of loyalty to the cause.
Thus, if anyone within the opposition expresses any view favourable to Museveni or points out where the president is very strong, opposition activists immediately accuse them of having been bought. This moral blackmail has silenced many voices of reason inside the opposition who would wish for a more pragmatic and democratic working arrangement with the president.
But by pandering to extremist sentiments, opposition activists, perhaps inadvertently, have alienated many Ugandans who may be skeptical about the government but still see and appreciate its positive contribution to the country.
Yet any war against Museveni has first and foremost to be a war over values. The opposition needs to demonstrate to Ugandans how their stand is morally superior to the NRM’s tendency to use lies, subterfuge and corruption to retain power.
Museveni commands the police, the army, intelligence agencies and the prisons. So when he suspects someone of turning against him, like Gen. David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza and former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, he could use them against them.
Opposition activists lack these instruments. But they too have the power of blackmail to scare anyone who dares disagree with them. And they use it liberally accusing anyone and everyone who does not agree with their extremism of being a sellout. Here is a case of birds of a feather flying apart. No wonder opinion polls show that even when NRM loses support, the opposition does not gain it.