The triumph of security over politics in Museveni’s quest to contain Besigye’s defiance
From Saturday, May 28 to June 03, Uganda has been a host of two visiting dignitaries – Presidents Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. For most of the entire week, the road to Entebbe International Airport has been literally closed to over 254,000 people who use it daily. Motorists were forced to use bad dirty roads. Consequently, tens of thousands of motorists were stuck in traffic or mud in these narrow roads causing airlines to fly back almost empty.
On Saturday, I was flying out of the Entebbe Airport and met hundreds of angry travelers – tourists, business executives, Ugandans, conference attendees etc who had missed their flights after spending five hours (yes, I mean five hours) trying to navigate their way through diversions to Entebbe. Apparently, the road would be constantly closed to ensure security of the visiting dignitaries.
It does not make sense to close the only road to the airport, which is used by hundreds of thousands of people daily because of a visiting president. The cheaper alternative would have been to fly the dignitary using a helicopter from Entebbe to Kampala and back without causing a traffic nightmare. If our country does not have the helicopters to fly such important guests, we would have rented some from Rwanda, Kenya or South Africa. This would have been a cheaper alternative (both economically and politically) than shutting down a highway – not just for a day but a week.
Why does government resort to such insensitive and self-defeating strategies? The NRM has increasingly come to behave as a government under siege precisely because it is under siege. It has lost most of its ideological traction especially among people aged 15-35 years who are urban and educated (or semi-educated). Over the last ten years, there has been a massive shift in perceptions in this segment of our society. The less intelligent (and therefore more emotional) in this demographic segment have become radicalised. They support Opposition leader Kizza Besigye in whose defiance they find meaning and see hope.
The hotbed for this radicalisation is Kampala, which is not just our capital but also our country’s center of gravity. By “center of gravity” I mean the heart and nerve center of Uganda around which our political and economic life depends. If you paralyse Kampala politically, your also cripple it economically. Thus, even if President Yoweri Museveni enjoyed the support of 70% of the rural folk (which constitutes 79% of our population and which I think he actually enjoys), his control of power can be gravely endangered if Besigye-mania in Kampala was not well managed.
Since the days of ‘Walk to Work’ demonstrations in 2011, Besigye has emerged as a real threat to power by his militant style. His appeal among the city’s impoverished and disenfranchised has grown by leaps and bounds. Social media has created a platform through which anger against the government is being nursed and radicalised. It has also given Besigye’s supporters previously unavailable opportunities to argue their case and rally his base. Increasingly therefore, Kampala is a tinderbox of extreme anti-Museveni sentiment.
Museveni has sought to contain urban militancy and youth insurgence that are propelling Besigye’s brand using two main approaches. The first has been a violent crackdown on protesters using police and military hardware. It is the visible approach journalists see and report on. But this has only been a tactical measure to achieve a short-term objective of regime stability. In the medium term, however, the NRM through the State has employed a strategy of co-optation of youth leaders in Kampala largely through material incentives (read bribery). Although this has cut the head from the body, leaving the latter unable to act effectively, it has not tamed the growth of militancy and insurgency.
The success of these two measures in the short to medium term has led some in the government to what I consider a fatal error – the belief that repression and bribery are sufficient to ensure regime stability in the long term. Power rotates around three pillars: military/police might (the power to coerce), economic and financial muscle (the capacity to bribe) and soft power (the ability to cajole, persuade and convince). With the exception of Museveni’s son in law Odrek Rwabwogo, it seems government has lost sight of the aspect of soft power. This is in spite of a long history of NRM appreciating the value of siasa (or ideology) in power dynamics.
Why does NRM ignore siasa (or soft power) in its strategies of containing Besigye? Maybe it has internalised the criticism of its opponents and thereby come to believe that they have totally failed. I have tested this hypothesis. My exceptionally intelligent research assistant, Ian Ortega, keeps digging for me figures on different social indicators on Africa. Uganda always comes among the top five performing countries on the rate and speed of improvement. My indefatigable Personal Assistant, Simon Nyesiga, compiles for me figures on economic data comparing Uganda to other African countries and Uganda comes among the top five performers.
We have gone beyond Africa and rated Uganda’s performance against the advanced countries in Western Europe and North America on the growth of selected indicators (GDP, exports, revenues, etc.) and Uganda under Museveni beats them all.
The argument that Uganda performs this well is not because it is coming from a low base. How come in Africa only Ethiopia and Rwanda do better? These research findings have led me to develop what I call “Uganda’s (or Museveni’s) incompetence paradox.”
While I have always seen our government as incompetent, research findings show that it performs very well comparatively. This has increasingly led me away from my initial biases based on simple anecdotes like Abim Hospital and Paya Primary School. On the aggregate, Museveni’s government actually delivers public goods and services far better than most countries within its comparison group.
Why then doesn’t NRM seek to win Ugandans on the basis of these achievements? This can be done through political mobilisation and media engagement especially on social media. Yet, NRM has increasingly come to rely heavily on violence and bribery. Kampala looks like a war-zone with APCs on almost every roundabout in the city. Maybe it is because Museveni is a specialist in violence, an instrument he used to capture power and therefore reverts to it to protect it. If this is the case, then indeed, old habits die hard.