By Andrew M. Mwenda
Let us discuss the recently held local councils elections. The NRM fielded a candidate for almost every contested position. I obtained provisional results from the Electoral Commission covering 53,340 out of 60,797 contested positions (i.e. 88%) in 122 districts. NRM won 69%, independents (most of them allied to NRM) 22% and the combined opposition a miserable 9%.
There is a broad consensus on social and traditional media that Museveni has outgrown his usefulness. I share this view. In the absence of a scientific opinion poll, I am doing what Ugandan elites do best – rely entirely on personal biases. I find the anti-Museveni view widespread not just among the opposition and independents but even among supporters of the NRM, even its MPs including cabinet ministers.
The election was held a week after government introduced a tax on mobile money and on social media, which has generated a lot of hostility among the elite. They were also the first nation-wide elections after parliament amended the constitution to remove age limits on the president so that Museveni can run again and again and again. This amendment generated a lot of hostility from the elite public as well.
How does Museveni (and his NRM) continue to win elections in spite of these actions? This is the question Ugandan elites refuse to ask because it would expose their detachment from reality. Social media is an echo chamber, where elites listen to themselves and get an illusion that the whole country agrees with them. In doing things that piss off elites, one would think Museveni had given his enemies a rope with which to politically hang him. However, his opponents have failed to take advantage of them.
We cannot blame Museveni for seeking power till he dies. Any self-interested individual would do exactly that. We can blame Ugandan society generally: why doesn’t the public rise in revolt against him for corruption and mismanagement as claimed by his opponents? Are Ugandans this cowardly? Or should we blame opposition leaders who have promised salvation but delivered defeat after defeat?
I have friends who argue that society cannot be blamed for these failures. It is leaders to blame. But who holds these leaders to account? The ability of leaders to deliver depends on a vigilant population. If the leadership in government has failed to manage the country well, the leadership of opposition has also failed to remove an incompetent government from power. In both cases, Museveni’s failures have not caused his fall and neither have the failures of opposition leaders caused any change in opposition leadership. This suggests that we are a society confortable with mediocrity.
Or may be not. I believe Museveni has been a successful leader and Ugandans know it – deep inside them, perhaps intuitively – feel it and believe it. However, for fanciful reasons, it is not cool to admit this fact, the more reason to pontificate and pretend to oppose Museveni. It makes some elites hedge their bets against being accused of having been compromised. Why? Because when Ugandans have previously felt their country is in peril, they have organized in defiance of power and pursuit of their ideals.
Take 1981. When Museveni went to the bush, many Ugandans followed him. Careers were abandoned, educations sacrificed, businesses left to waste, lives put at risk, families left behind and properties abandoned. Museveni offered no salaries to his fighters but hunger, sacrifice and the risk of injury and/or death. The promise of victory was remote. Yet people joined, others collaborated in this national liberation struggle. That Ugandans are not willing to sacrifice anything for a second liberation today is evidence that there is little evil to fight. The country is not baldy off as we claim on social and other media. We are not very happy. That is true. But we are suffering from tolerable inconveniences.
I think Museveni understands Uganda well and is exceptionally adept at managing its diverse and conflicting social groups. He has been unusually skillful and successful in placating the interests of our nation’s influential but unruly and noisy ethnic and religious elites, ascertaining the needs and expectations of the masses they represent, coopting global powers to support him, managing regional politics and insulating himself a violent power-grab by his opponents.
Museveni has achieved all this by doing things that on the face of it we pretend to hate but which in reality are the instruments of consolidating power in an ethnically heterogeneous poor country. He has perfected the art of political corruption by creating a large volume of elective and appointive political jobs – a huge parliament, 145 districts, 120 presidential advisors, 81 cabinet ministers, 200 Resident District Commissioners etc. This is the reason few elites want to break ranks with him. Even for his opponents, Museveni has created districts where they too can win elections and hold power.
He has sold the country to multinational capital; the better to reassure global powers that he is the man they can work with. He fights their regional wars (like in Somalia), the reason they will not oppose him. He has kept a tight and personal grip on the security apparatus, the more effective way to avoid a violent power-grab. He had created a vast neopatrimonial network and thereby integrated many elites into power. And he has created many popular programs for the masses like UPE, basic healthcare, and patronage opportunities like Operation Wealth Creation; the sweet way to show ordinary people that he cares about them.
He has protected the masses from taxation (by abolishing graduated tax), defended boda bodas against the rule of law, defended the poor who encroach on public land and tolerated the corruption of the powerful. Even for his most virulent critics, Museveni has allowed them political space to insult and criticize him, the better for them to let off steam and go to sleep satisfied that they have at least told him off. He has succeeded because while he is passionate in his pursuit of power, he is flexible in his morals and principles.
The failure of Museveni’s opponents has been to think with their hearts not minds, to allow their aspirations to cloud their judgment. They have deluded themselves into the belief that their feelings against him shared in their social media echo chamber are the feelings of the majority of the citizens. They have also lied to themselves that they have a loyal base of supporters across the country. But as elections consistently prove, all these are delusions.
Our elites do not analyze, they moralize; they do not organize, they agonize; they don’t analyze with cold logic, instead they pontificate with emotional rhetoric. This is the depressing aspect of Uganda.