What Uganda needs to change is not just a political party; it needs a social movement whose organisation starts from the village.
This has been the most peaceful campaign in Uganda ever but equally the most expensive in our history. President Yoweri Museveni requisitioned for Shs600 billion in supplementary spending this financial year. Because Museveni is no longer able to win over people through an appeal to higher moral ideals, he has retreated to appealing to their basic material instincts. This seems a smart albeit dubious move for a president whose government has presided over the utter collapse of the public spirit in public service.
I spent most of last week driving across central and western Uganda talking to extraordinary and ordinary people. Most of the local NRM election machinery is supportive of the party because of the power and status it gives them rather than because of any ideological conviction.
Across all these districts, the complaints were the same – poor delivery of health, water and education services; poor infrastructure especially roads; bribery and extortion by local officials; increasing prices of basic goods like fuel, sugar, soap, salt and bread and mass unemployment especially among the youth. In many ways, it was clear that Museveni has united Uganda through the failures of his administration.
Museveni’s response to the above failures has not been to deny them but rather to deflect attention from himself to local officials. At his rally in Lwengo District, he was able to skillfully position himself as a victim of local corruption in equal measure with the local people. He convinced them that “he” had sent money to them for agricultural extension services, for free education for their children and for drugs into their hospitals but it had been misappropriated by local officials.
The major weakness of the main opposition to Museveni led by Dr Kizza Besigye has been to ignore the normative values ordinary people hold about leaders and their notions of accountability. FDC carries an extremely high sense of moral self righteousness; they believe that because their cause is morally strong, that because they stand in defence of the interests of ordinary people who are victims of NRM’s rapacity, that is enough to give them popular support and ultimate victory.
Museveni understands his failures all too well. He knows he has lost moral credibility. He can no longer appeal to people’s aspirations. He can no longer inspire hope among them. He has thus adopted a politics that appeals to their basest instincts – money. He adds to this a substantial amount of scare mongering (that change will mean war) and doses of intimidation to keep rural masses on his side.
In every village, the Museveni financial juggernaut is at full throttle; everyone is getting a piece of his financial pie. Every village is being given Shs 1m, every LC1 chairperson Shs100,000, every MP got Shs20m, every former soldier gets Shs200,000; and on and on. The FDC/IPC make a big mistake about this national fiscal suicide: they despise Museveni for corruption and ignore its tactical importance in shaping voter behaviour.
I visited Kanungu District, the home of NRM Secretary General, Amama Mbabazi. In that sorry district, most people are poor and the roads are the worst I have seen. Kambuga Hospital, built by the Milton Obote government in 1968 to international standards is now a pale shadow of its previous glory – dirty, smelly, and murky; it has limited drugs, two doctors, few nurses, broken beds, rotten mattress. It is the most expensive physical structure I saw in the district and was built 43 years ago. The other big and expensive building I saw in Kanungu is the private home of Amama Mbabazi, a sprawling mansion built on five acres of land; evidence of the shift of state action from providing for the masses to servicing the privileges of a few.
I held a debate with a group of local NRM functionaries about this sad turn of events. I told them that the benefits of a good road, hospital and school go to the community as a whole; those of a private mansion go to its owner. It is therefore they that endure the costs of poor public goods and services. It is they who get hit by the potholes, who swallow the dust on the roads, whose children are failing in mismanaged UPE and USE schools and whose family members die in the bad hospitals.
These NRM functionaries told me that Mbabazi also suffers the costs of bad roads since he comes to the place. When I asked them how often, they said anything between once to twice in two to three months. Those are less than ten times in a year. Mbabazi can afford the cost of bad roads because he visits Kanungu once in a while driving in an air conditioned Land Cruiser; yet for those few visits he is able to bargain for a position of power and influence in Kampala that makes him wealthy.
Mbabazi’s children do not study in Kanungu’s or Uganda’s poor public schools; neither do they go to its hospitals. He takes them to schools and hospitals in Europe, Asia and North America. And when they visit Kanungu, which they possibly do once in a year, if at all, they come in comfortable four-wheel-drive vehicles almost as tourists.
I told them that this argument has little to do with NRM or FDC. It is a national emergency. They do not need to abandon NRM. But they must begin a debate within the party on these issues and challenge their national leaders on it. Tell NRM bigwigs that people are losing hope in you as local leaders because of these failures. It did not take them long to turn around and agree with me.
It is now clear to me that what Uganda needs to change is not just a political party fighting for power in Kampala. Our country needs a social movement whose organisation begins from the village. This movement has to avoid the false dichotomy of NRM versus FDC or UPC. It has to embrace Ugandans of all creed against the ills that bedevil our public sector. We need to reconstruct our politics from private greed to public service. That is our challenge.