Museveni’s biggest problem has been to overpromise and under-deliver hence the recurrent frustrations of his utopian supporters
This week, President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance
Movement (NRM) will be celebrating 28 years in government. In a moving
inaugural speech in January 1986, he promised that “This is not a mere
change of guard but a fundamental change in the politics of our
Everything Museveni said on that day had been said by very many
African leaders when coming to power – whether it was a nationalist
politician receiving instruments of government from a departing colonial
power, a politician who had defeated an incumbent government or a
military officer who had staged a successful coup. Yet there was a
tendency to present Museveni’s statements as new and original. A myth
was created that he was exceptional.
I remember as a little boy in Senior One at Nyakasura School telling
my “elders” in Senior Six this very point. I recited the speeches of
Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sekou Toure, Madibo Keita, Julius
Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Oginga Odinga, Ahmed Ben Bella and Patrice
Lumumba to reinforce my point. The seniors would get irritated and
dismiss me as an apologist of “African leaders” or a lunatic. Once in a
while they would threaten to spank me or chase me away.
I had spent my primary school years in our home library avariciously
reading everything – philosophy, literature, ancient and contemporary
history and African politics. I would discuss the coups and counter
coups in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria, and debate the differences in
strategy and vision between the Monrovia Group and the Casablanca Group
in regard to African unity. I realised at Nyakasura that many debaters
were uninformed and therefore relied on assumptions and myths rather
than facts to analyse Museveni’s promises of “fundamental change”.
Whenever one presented facts that disproved their assertions and
conjectures, they felt slighted and resorted to personal insults and
It was known that both Ghana and Nigeria had each changed governments
eight times. Every leader had taken over denouncing corruption,
tribalism and dictatorship of their predecessors only to rule by
multiplying these same ills and be toppled and accused of them. Each
leader had captured power promising to hold office for a short time to
“organise a democratic transition” and proceeded to stay until he was
overthrown or killed – with the exception of Akwasi Afrifa (Ghana in
1969) and Oluseguno Obasanjo (Nigeria in 1979).
Indeed, African leaders of all stripes – military and civilian,
revolutionaries and reactionaries, Francophone and Anglophone have all
organised politics in similar ways. The differences have been in degree
or detail but never in substance.
That is why the outcomes have equally been similar – most of our
countries are still poor. This shows that the challenges our nations
face lie more in the structural conditions of our societies than the
character of our individual presidents.
At Nyakasura, I had argued that Museveni’s promise of holding office
for four years and then organising a transition to democracy was banal
and so was his criticism of Milton Obote for corruption, tribalism and
dictatorship. The older boys would sprint to their feet to beat me.
Now 28 years later, many of those who supported Museveni with
enthusiasm, and threatened to spank me at school (and many high up in
NRM who used to attack me while a student at Makerere and a young
reporter at Monitor) for saying he was not special, are disappointed and
angry with him. They say he has done nothing but destroyed the country.
Yet I think that judged by neutral standards (like on rate of
economic growth, sustaining a stable political order, disciplining the
military), Museveni has, in the main, been a very successful president.
True he brought little change, indeed no fundamental change in the
politics of Uganda. Instead, he proceeded to organise politics along the
same lines as his predecessors in Uganda – and indeed Africa – had
Museveni has proceeded to organise a politics around patronage like his contemporaries in the rest of Africa had done.
Like all his contemporaries across our vast continent, Museveni has
built a governing coalition by co-opting influential ethnic and
religious elites into his government. Here, he traded private goods
(official jobs and privileges and public sector contracts) to these
elites in return for them delivering their followers to the NRM. If a
president can win an entire ethnic or religious group by co-opting a few
of its elites with official privileges in government, that is a more
cost efficient and cost effective way of building political support than
delivering public goods and services.
Given the structure of incentives Museveni faced and the rational
response he made to it, it was impossible for him to escape public
sector corruption and incompetence that characterises Uganda today.
Museveni has presided over the most corrupt and incompetent public
sector in Uganda’s post-independence history. As a recent World Bank
report on Service Delivery Indicators shows, our basic health and
primary education performance is disastrous.
Yet while many of his critics would attribute this to him personally
or the length of his tenure generally, Uganda’s performance is not
different from that of Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, Mali, Zambia, Ghana and
Malawi (where term limits are respected and/or power has changed from
ruling to opposition party and back). And compared to Chad, Togo, Niger,
Mauritania, Burundi, DRC, Zimbabwe, Mali, Gambia, Guinea Bissau,
Museveni’s Uganda is a star.
Under him, the conditions for the structural transformation of Uganda have largely been laid.
Only Rwanda has demonstrated a radical shift in politics – as I have
argued before. But even President Paul Kagame faces serious constraints –
especially in skills – to transform Rwanda into an industrial
powerhouse like Singapore. All this shows that the major constraint to
rapid change in Africa has more to do with structural conditions in
society than with individual leaders.
Museveni has been comparatively a very successful president. Where
post-colonial Uganda (1962-86) had weak and unstable governments lasting
on average 2.6 years each, Museveni has given us a long reign of
stability and continuity. Where the army and intelligence services had
run amok, Museveni has disciplined them. He has sustained the economy on
a long term growth trajectory. However, on everything else he promised
there has been no dramatic transformation. If his critics judge him
harshly, it is because he (like them) was utopian and placed no limits
to human possibility.