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, May 30, 2016

Why Museveni should retire

In leaving power the president would cause Ugandans to re-evaluate his legacy with better perspective

There is one thing I wish to request: That President Museveni and NRM should not amend the constitution to remove the age limit on the presidency so that he can run in 2021. There is also one
thing we are likely to see: the NRM-dominated parliament will most probably amend the constitution and remove the age limit so that Museveni can run in 2021. It matters less what Museveni’s initial personal attitude towards this is. The way electoral politics has evolved in Uganda makes the amendment inevitable.

There is a second thing I would ask: that Dr. Kizza Besigye not run for president in 2021. However, Besigye will most probably run for president in 2021. If Museveni runs in 2021, it will be an almost foregone conclusion that Besigye will run. And if Besigye is the most likely candidate of the opposition in 2021, Museveni will most likely run for president as well. This is because although Museveni and Besigye are subjectively bitter rivals, objectively they need each other. Museveni needs Besigye to remain NRM’s only choice. Besigye needs Museveni to remain FDC’s only choice. Therefore, as long as Museveni stands for president, FDC will not find a more appealing candidate against him than Besigye. And as long as Besigye stands, NRM will not believe there is another candidate likely to defeat him but Museveni.
Although the two sides subjectively see the battle this way, objectively both are wrong. For Museveni, the ideal outcome is an election where Besigye wins and the president concedes peacefully and hands over power (and I hope no one witch hunts him and his family). This would be Museveni’s greatest moment, a triumph of vision over fear. He would have demonstrated he is a democrat. For Besigye, it would (or should be) a moment of worry and anxiety. Finally, he would have to come face to face with the nature of democratic politics in a poor country. Besigye would realise (like Museveni has done in regard to his criticism of Milton Obote) that a lot of the things he criticizes the president for are products of deeply entrenched structural constraints, not Museveni’s personal desire to ruin Uganda.
For example, if Besigye had won the last election, he would become president of a country 75% of whose parliament is controlled by an opposition party. Being dominant yet broke and indebted, NRM MPs would only support Besigye’s agenda in parliament if he pays them. If he holds his ground against their blackmail, they would refuse to pass his reforms or budgets. This would force him to act dictatorially and thereby shave his democratic pretentions.
Besigye’s none repressive strategy would be to cajole the NRM MPs to get his agenda through parliament. The most effective weapon would be to bribe many of them. Yet this would open the floodgates of corruption inside FDC, a party whose leaders would be serving in cabinet. It would be politically suicidal for Besigye to bribe NRM MPs with cash (thereby enriching them and building their campaign war-chest for 2021) while impoverishing his own FDC leaders in cabinet with a strong anti-corruption stance. So the price of a parliamentary vote would rise from Shs 5m (where Museveni has kept it since 2005) to Shs 50m.
Rarely do leaders employ one strategy. These contradictions would actually force Besigye to try both repression and bribery. Now imagine a Besigye genuinely committed to clean and honest government being forced by political circumstances into the mud of bribing MPs. This would dent his credibility as an anti-corruption president. He would reduce this dirt at the price of some intimidation of NRM MPs and thereby injure his reputation as a democrat.
Secondly, once democratic horse trading begins, the die would be cast on public sector performance. Economic growth would slow down due to international conditions and be accentuated by parliamentary gridlock hence reducing government revenues. President Besigye would have to borrow from abroad to finance his ambitious (and thereby increase the national debt) or print money to finance his fiscal deficit (and thereby cause inflation). Citizens do not understand these complex tradeoffs required of a president; the necessity of compromise. Therefore, anger against President Besigye would mount. It is in these chaotic circumstances that many Ugandans would begin to re-evaluate Museveni’s record. Many would realise that he was not such a bad guy after all.
The Kenyans (and people like me) were angry at President Daniel arap Moi, accusing him of being the king of corruption. When he respected term limits and retired, the new government came with tall tales of how to fight the malady. Upon coming to office, President Mwai Kibaki appointed renowned anti-corruption activist, John Githongo, ombudsman. The first person to run to exile for fear of being killed by Kibaki’s corrupt allies was Githongo. Kibaki finally also left power. Today, Kenyans say Uhuru Kenyatta’s government is the most corrupt their country has ever seen.
Kenyans have been humbled to reality. They are beginning to lose the association of corruption with an individual. They are learning that it is part of politics in a poor democracy. Kenya is not unique. With perhaps the sole exception of post genocide Rwanda, this is the experience of almost every government in Africa – those that have come to power on the platform of fighting corruption have turned out to be more corrupt than their predecessors.
In holding onto power, Museveni has denied us an opportunity to come to terms with reality. Whenever people are frustrated with something, the tendency is to look for a villain to blame for the bad situation. In Uganda’s case, an ageing president who has been in power for three decades is an excellent target. Even a man who has been dumped by his wife will claim it is all because of Museveni’s mismanagement of the country. The moment leaders come and go but certain problems remain, people tend to develop a much broader perspective of the causes of the problem.
This way, the biggest loser in Museveni’s tenacious hold on power is actually Museveni. He has protected Besigye from facing the contradictions of power. For as long as Museveni is president, our judgment of him will remain coloured by emotions. But once out of power and with many of our problems – poverty, mass unemployment, corruption, police brutality, bad healthcare, poor education standards, impassable roads etc. – remaining stubbornly resistant to rapid change, Ugandans will begin to re-evaluate Museveni with a sense of perspective.

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