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, June 10, 2019

Uganda’s messiah complex

Inside our overblown expectations and the religious origins of our hopes and frustrations

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | In February, my mother (84) visited Germany. Driving from the airport to the city of Cologne, she was impressed by the highways, flyovers and majestic buildings of that country. My sister asked what she felt about these achievements of the German people and state. “Impressive,” my mother replied, “very impressive.” Then my sister asked how long she thought it would take Uganda to achieve such developmental results. My mum answered without any reservations: “If (President Yoweri) Museveni is given another 15 years, Uganda would surpass all this.”

My sister was stunned. So she challenged her: “But Adyeri, Museveni has been in power for 33 years. Why do you think he would achieve in 15 years what he has failed to do in more than double that time?” My mum was shocked at my sister’s lack of perspective and was again quick to challenge this claim with the conviction of a priest and the passion of a fanatic: “Omusaija ataaha narwana entaro… oh, oh, Museveni kakarwana entaro nyiingi! Abanya’uganda tibagendekere… Bakamutalibaniza muno.”

Loosely translated: “The man has been fighting wars on multiple fronts… oh, oh, Museveni has fought endless wars! Ugandans are very difficult people. They have grossly disrupted him.” My mother always wonders why many people, especially the educated, cannot see such an obvious point. To her, all the arguments made by the opposition and other critics are evidence of disruption. If Museveni were left to govern without any such “disruption” (i.e. if Uganda was only made up of people like her who “understand the real circumstances of the country”) and given the leadership qualities Museveni has, we would wave bye to Germany on the developmental bus.

When my sister told me this story, I remembered an incident that happened in 1987. I was a teenager then visiting the Public Works Department (PWD) of the ministry of local government in Fort Portal. Museveni had been in power for a little more than a year. My hometown was drowning in euphoria. The local community had great expectations of the monumental changes that were going to take place. A West German governmental agency, GTZ, had come to fix our feeder roads and rehabilitate our dispensaries, which for over 15 years had gone without maintenance. There were new graders, wheel loaders and other equipment at the yard.

At the PWD offices, I met my dad’s contemporaries all dressed in suits and chatting about the future of our country. One of them called Rwaheeru (RIP) had a son who had joined the bush war with my brothers. He was speaking to his colleagues, who included engineers and public administration officials about the coming changes: “This man (Museveni), is going to transform this country” Rwaheeru said, “in ten years, we shall have tarmac reaching everyone’s home.”

I was a young argumentative kid in Senior Secondary Three so I intervened: “This is impossible! That is utopia! There is no way a government, not one in Uganda, can achieve such a feat in 10 years, not even in 30 years!” Now my dad had been UPC and a passionate admirer of Milton Obote. Rwaheeru had been in DP, and the other colleagues of his had been in DP and UPM. Now all of them were united in their love of and support for Museveni. They claimed I had been “poisoned” by my dad’s politics and they immediately shut me up and chased me away from the place.

My seniors at Nyakasura School can bear me testimony. As the Museveni euphoria engulfed the school, I would always argue that there was no big change on the way. My colleagues in S2 and S3 would listen to me with some degree of suspicion but also respect for my views. But students in S5 and S6 who were older and felt more educated than me; especially those who were Museveni supporters would always shut me up without ever listening to the basis of my argument. On occasion they even beat me up. Almost without exception, all of them used ad hominem arguments in response: your dad was UPC and that is why you do not see the coming miracle.

Yet by 15, I had read most of the contemporary political history of Sub Sahara African countries through books, newsmagazines like Africa Now, Africa etc. I could recite the speeches and promises of the key players off my head – Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote, Sekou Toure, Madibo Keita, Kenneth Kaunda, etc. I had read about the many changes of government in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. I knew that such changes had not led to any serious change in the quality of governance or developmental outcomes. Almost without exception, all of them had produced worse outcomes. Knowledge had inoculated me from hero worship and messiah complex that informs our politics.

Many people encountering my mother’s enthusiasm about Museveni would dismiss her as an ignorant old lady. Yet the many Ugandans who rally around Kizza Besigye and Bobi Wine hold these make-believe projections that somehow change on the scale of what was witnessed in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea is possible. Ugandans who imagine these gigantic developments as a result of change in government never bother to remember that Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Benin, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. where leaders change every so often have witnessed little change in governance or development outcomes as well.

More critically, even the most supposedly informed scholars hack onto the argument that somehow Africa is poor because of corruption, incompetence and tribalism of its leaders and politics. Yet it is rare to find a country that was not characterised by increasing levels of corruption during its intense period of transformation from a poor agrarian society to a modern industrial economy – or whose leaders and elites were not venal and selfish. So why do we somehow believe that corruption hinders our development in blatant rejection of the abundance evidence of historical reality?

Many Africans – even after over 300 changes of governments – are still waiting for that miracle leader, that hero of yore, who will deliver them from tribalism, corruption and incompetence to the life of democracy, freedom and prosperity. I wonder whether this is a result of Christian (and perhaps Islamic) evangelism regarding paradise to come. Perhaps it is the rise of secularism, which has replaced this religious hope of paradise after death that has created this expectation in our lifetime. Could these be the drivers of the frustrations that dominate our politics?



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