About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic



Monday, November 11, 2019

Uganda’s democratic delusions


How Museveni, Besigye and Bobi Wine are birds of a feather that only fly apart

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | This week, the state brought out the full power of riot police to bear on opposition activist, Dr. Kizza Besigye. Using water cannons, they took direct aim at him during a procession, nearly yanking him off the roof of his car. It provided considerable grist to the anti-President Yoweri Museveni mill. I wonder whether Museveni sees these videos and what he thinks of them. For instance, do they make him feel comfortable in the presidency, seeing that he has power to subdue his opponents? Or do they make him feel embarrassed that he is acting brutally like Idi Amin?

Museveni’s long tenure has been good for Uganda because it has demystified his claims to promote democracy. It has given us an opportunity to see him repeat everything he criticised in his predecessors to wit Amin and Milton Obote. Except for variations in degree or detail, Museveni has ruled using similar strategies he accused Obote and Amin of using – violence, brutality, corruption, tribalism, nepotism etc. The longer he has stayed in power, the more he has helped rehabilitate the image of both these leaders. Yet Ugandans have learnt little from this experience.

Power is inherently corrupting; so its abuse is inevitable. Besigye and Bobi Wine, just like Museveni before them, think it can be tamed. They are wrong. Power cannot tame itself. It can only be tamed by those who are not exercising it; therefore the democratic impulse in Uganda has to be sought in those social forces and political struggles that do not seek power, but rather seek to place limits on how it is exercised – like this, your newspaper.

It is possible that Besigye and Bobi Wine are genuinely convinced that their struggle is to improve the way power is acquired and exercised. They are deluded. Power is addictive. Besigye and Bobi Wine think if they got power they would use less of it. Yet power has dynamics that are beyond the control of individual leaders. Most things we consume have a point of satisfaction: for instance the more bananas you eat, the less you will need because you reach a point of satisfaction. After that, any extra bananas you eat are likely to lead to a stomachache. In economics this is called the principle of diminishing marginal utility.

With power, just like with money, the more you get, the more you need. Therefore, whoever seeks power is on a treadmill. Museveni came to power promising to leave after four years. He is now in his 34th year as president and continuing. Consequently he has to employ ever more brutality and corruption to cling to it. Many people may think the problem is the personality of Museveni. Instead, Museveni is actually a victim of power, caught in a game whose rigid logic he cannot escape.

The same applies to Besigye. After every election he has promised not to run for the presidency again. He has thereafter changed his mind and run again and again and again. Besigye and his acolytes find many reasons to justify his continued presence at the helm of opposition politics. The more they find strong and convincing reasons why he should be the only one to battle Museveni, the more they look and sound like Museveni’s choir. Restraints on power require forces outside of power and the state. Such forces would hold both values and interests that require limits on power. For now I do not see these forces in Uganda.

Many activists in the opposition have an emotional desire to see Museveni leave power. They are convinced that the pathologies of Uganda only reflect Museveni’s personality. Yet Uganda’s experience is rich enough to show how wrong these assumptions are. Most of Museveni’s critics today were his acolytes in the 1990s and believed his tall tales that he would use power to tame power.

Besigye and Bobi Wine, caught deep in the contradictions of power, are replicas of Museveni. Both recognise they need to rally supporters to remove Museveni. But the people who bring the wildest enthusiasm are those who preach a language of hate intolerance and destruction. They are dominant online where they employ the most uncouth methods to bully and intimidate critics. They show no respect for alternative opinions and demonstrate zero tolerance of divergent views. This is the force some elements in Western embassies mistake for liberal democrats.

Ideally Besigye and Bobi Wine can distance themselves from such social groups and start to continually condemn the behavior and conduct of their uncouth supporters. They could make it clear daily that they seek a politics of moderation and tolerance. But they haven’t and cannot. This is not because Besigye and Bobi Wine are bad people. Rather, both know that to take such action would alienate the base. To keep their supporters, they have embraced radical extremism and its sister politics of hate and intolerance.

The defenders of both Besigye and Bobi Wine claim these two men will tame these forces once in power. In fact once in power, the forces of intolerance that today dominate Defiance and People Power will consolidate and drive the forces of moderation from the government and party. This is what has happened to the NRM over years. It is the logic of power that those who seek to strengthen it are those who win in any power struggle.

Museveni was not at the scene directing the way Besigye was manhandled. However, the elements he has mobilised to retain power are those that behave in such cruel and sadistic fashion. Besigye and Bobi Wine are exactly like Museveni or even worse. The devil is not in their personalities but their politics. The people they have mobilised to gain power are those who will act with brute force against opponents. We know this because they are already using similar tactics online – like cyber bullying.

For the last 60 years, Africa has seen many changes of government with little change in governance. All change in the nature of power has been slow and gradual. This is because contrary to popular perceptions individual leaders have very little control over events. Most of what leaders do with power is dictated to them by circumstances. Of course most human beings would want to ignore these structural constraints. But this is because it is easier to point at an individual like Museveni as the source of problems instead of impersonal forces such as “structural circumstances.” Simplification does not change the problem.

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