The pros and cons of the President’s long rule and what they portend for the country he has rebuilt
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | This week, President Yoweri Museveni and his NRM celebrate 34 years in power. Museveni inherited a country whose state had disintegrated and economy collapsed. The country had been plagued by political instability manifest in military coups and civil wars. In the seven years between the overthrow of Idi Amin in April 1979 and Museveni’s take over in January 1986, Uganda had seven presidents, an average of one president per year. Uganda was so ungovernable the legendary Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore once said it could not recover even in 100 years.
Museveni’s takeover was, therefore, a moment of great hope. Blood had been shed, lives lost, educations sacrificed, careers abandoned, families left behind, and properties destroyed; all in the hope of building a free, democratic and prosperous country. This mood of optimism was reflected in Museveni’s promise that NRM’s takeover was “not a mere change of guard but a fundamental change in the politics of our country.” Looking at how much many elite Ugandans have grown despondent with his rule, it is easy to conclude that the revolution has been betrayed. Indeed, many of Museveni’s contemporaries have since quit the NRM and written stinging criticism of the president.
Yet this column is a sympathetic reflection on the passions that animated NRM’s struggle and the exaggerated expectations many Ugandans had in it. Indeed, it is apparent that Museveni, like so many other politicians of post independence Africa, grossly underestimated the challenges of managing a poor country. He equally overestimated his personal capability and that of a revolutionary party and the state as agents of social change. If Museveni has failed to realise many of his dreams and those of his admirers, it is because his ambitions and their expectations were unrealistic. Yet it would be unfair to say that Museveni has been a failure. On the contrary I think that on balance he has been one of the most successful and influential leaders of post-colonial Africa.
Museveni’s greatest achievement was to stabilise the political dispensation. This is reflected in three critical areas where Uganda’s state fragility was most reflected: incessant military coups and civil wars. Museveni ended these and reestablished the state’s monopoly over the exercise of violence. This allowed him to build a stable and continuous presidency that has lasted nearly three and a half decades. To achieve these aims, Museveni took effective personal control over the security apparatus and disciplined the army, making it subordinate to his personal will. He also ensured good relations with the western powers (much about this later), and established some degree of individual freedom.
Yet Museveni did not bring about a “fundamental change in the politics of our country.” Instead he mastered the art of patronage backed by a good dose of repression. His management of power relations, therefore, has been largely the same as other African leaders of old such as Mobutu of former Zaire, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Omar Bongo of Gabon etc. This is largely because patronage and repression are, across time and space, tested and proven methods of managing power relations in poor, backward agrarian societies. Indeed today’s Western liberal democracies managed power relations in similar fashion when they were still poor and agrarian like many African nations of today.
Museveni’s second greatest achievement has been to initiate economic growth and to sustain it over 34 years. Uganda’s economy has grown at an annual average rate of nearly 7% during his presidency, making it among the best performing economies in the world. GDP has expanded from under US$4 billion (after correcting for distortions engendered by the official exchange rate that existed in 1986 and then adjusting this to inflation) to US$34 billion today. That is a performance few nations across time and space have registered over such a long period.
As a result of stability and sustained growth, Uganda has been able to provide an increasing basket of public goods and services to her citizens – roads, schools, hospitals, dams, water-treatment plants alongside healthcare, education, clean water and electricity.
While many Ugandans (and other African elites generally) expect these public goods and services to be of high quality and widely spread, public revenues in our country are too low to satisfy these expectations. Ugandans are dissatisfied with the state, not because the country is not improving its ability to serve them, but because their expectations grow much faster than state capacity. Increased revenue has also given Museveni more resources to buy off opponents, reward his loyalists and equip the army and police to crack down on those who dissent.
What then have been Museneni’s major failures? The source of his economic failure is in the nature of alliance he built during the reconstruction phase. The president allied with Western powers. This allowed him to access Western financial assistance but on condition that Uganda allows western direction of the policy-making, policy orientation and policy implementation process. Consequently public policy was heavily tilted in favour of multi national capital. As a result local capital was either displaced or its growth stifled through policies such as privatization, liberalization and deregulation. Thus today the commanding heights of economy – telecommunications, banking, manufacturing, etc. – are under the control of foreign capital.
On the political front, Museveni’s other major failure has been inability to organize a transition of power from him to the next generation or next president. This is especially important in a country that has never seen a peaceful transfer of power from one government to another or from one president to another. For as long as there is no such a peaceful transition, it remains to be seen whether the stability he has created can outlast him. In fact this long rule has stifled the evolution of institutions that can act independent of how he personally exercises power. This leaves us a vulnerable state.
Hence, the longer Museveni has stayed in power, the more monarchical his rule has become. Today authority continues to be transmitted from the president (through personal relations) to his close associates such as family, relatives and personal friends and from them to other associates related by personal ties of their own. This is because the longer he governs the more perverse his personal influence on the state gets and therefore the more dependent on him our national institutions become. This has created a real risk that without him the state could again disintegrate. As Museveni and NRM celebrate 34 years, this is the issue to ponder.