Why Museveni said he is not a servant of anyone and who may have been the target of his statement
On the occasion marking 31 years in power, President Yoweri Museveni told the nation that he is not a servant of the people but a freedom fighter who works for himself and his beliefs. This let loose the dogs of social media war. But the debate focused on the message and the messenger but not the purpose. It seems to me Museveni intended his message as presented. We can speculate about whom (or even what) he had in mind when he made that statement. But it shows the dangers of speaking off script especially when the target of your message is not your audience.
Opposition leader Kizza Besigye has always touted the president saying he is a servant of the people. There is something about Besigye that rubs Museveni the wrong way. I would like to think, therefore, that the president’s message could have been intended for Besigye. Many analysts are likely to argue that in the fight against Besigye, Museveni has lost his sense of public relations and thereby handed his critics a rope with which to hang him.
For me, the question is: why does Museveni feel confident to speak like that especially given its political costs? Some may think he feels comfortable because he controls the armed forces. But the miss a point; Museveni has survived in power because he never feels confident in it. He is always willing to make the most extreme political compromises and avoid antagonising even weak social groups in order to protect his position. He strikes me as politically unsure of his support base, a factor that makes him a difficult enemy to beat.
It is, therefore, possible that Museveni had a different intention in mind. He may have wanted to reinforce Besigye’s narrative that he (Museveni) is in power by force of arms, not the will of the people. This means voting in an election is a waste of time. If this was Museveni’s strategy, many voters will be discouraged from going to the polls. Museveni’s best chance at winning is a low voter turnout. Therefore, it works for Museveni to reinforce Besigye’s narrative.
Many admirers of Museveni and Besigye may never realise that the political fortunes of these two leaders depend largely on each other’s actions. Holding all factors constant, it would be hard for Besigye to gather momentum without Museveni in the race. It would equally be hard for Museveni to rally his base without Besigye as his opponent. This is the main reason why Uganda political landscape is polarised around two axes that are impregnable.
On one side are Museveni and NRM. Over the years, they have graduated into a mature and fairly tolerant political force but equally an extremely corrupt and incoherent one. They are no longer held together by a shared ideology or policy preferences but by power and the social privileges and material rewards that come with it, undergirded by the armed forces. This has made them tolerable but not loved.
On the other hand is the Besigye faction of the FDC. It began in 2000 when Besigye broke away from the NRM as a centrist democratic force initially seeking to bring Ugandans of divergent views around a common purpose of democratic reform. It has transformed into an extremely intolerant radical faction built around the cult-leadership of Besigye. Compared to the NRM, it behaves like a millenarian cult, loved by its base but intolerable to everyone else. It is now a bigger threat to democracy than NRM.
Caught between a corrupt government and a radical extremist cult, the moderate forces with potential to promote democratic reform have lost their feet and voice. Social media today is the one that shapes public debate. Studies of group dynamics show that when you put people of similar views into one place, they reinforce each other’s biases. This forces most people to move to the extremes of their opinions. Social media facilitates like-minded people to create virtual communities where they drive each other to the extremes of their biases – hence the radicalism we see today. It also promotes both fake news and fake arguments.
It is easy to make a radical argument in a radical way. But it is extremely difficult to make a moderate argument in a radical way. This is especially so in this age of social media where there are no gatekeepers to control the flow of information. Going back to group dynamics, when you put people of divergent views in one community – most people tend to move to the centre. Centrist politics was the stuff that was fostered by traditional media. In their search for reaching the largest audience, they tended to sit in the middle or publish diverse views. This meant readers, listeners and viewers had a variety of views moderating their biases.
Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion makes an interesting finding: when people write expecting someone to review their work before it is published, they are inclined to think more deeply about their arguments and present them in moderate tones. The reverse is true when people know they can publish something without anyone to vet it. Social media removes all restraints on what one can publish, thereby bastardising free expression. This is how hate speech has become trendy again.
What NRM has lost to corruption and incompetence has been significantly compensated by the growth of extremism, radicalism and intolerance in Besigye’s faction of FDC. For Museveni, one is either against him or with him. His approach is, therefore, inclusive and accommodating. For Besigye’s radical extremist faction, one is either with them or against them. This is exclusionary, alienating and antagonistic. Museveni’s strategy may not ignite passion but it allows many to feel safe with him. Besigye’s strategy raises passions but it alienates and antagonises independents, fence sitters and NRM moderates willing to jump Museveni’s ship.
This explains Museveni’s speech on January 26. It seems to me that Museveni’s strategy is to keep Besigye as his opponent. He is the devil he knows. He can mobilise passions but he lacks the organisation to be an effective challenger. Without organisation, Besigye has become a single-issue opponent only interested in being president. It, therefore, makes sense to reinforce Besigye’s narrative of voting being useless since it demobilises potential voters from polling stations. Nothing works for Museveni than very low voter turnout.