December 10, 2010
Presidents are like athletes. They’re not good for long. Besides maybe Lee Kuan Yew, no modern leader has been a force of empowerment and progress after 25 years in office. So where does one get off thinking Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will be an exception to the rule?
Ask a supporter of President Museveni why he (or she) plans to vote the former bush rebel to another term – which would extend his rule to 30 years – and chances are he will name stability as the main if not only reason. This is often followed by a harrowing recollection of life in Uganda before Museveni: curfews, random disappearances, public executions, civil war, economic decay.
What these grateful devotees miss is that in presiding over growing class disparity, massive unemployment, dormant local industries, institutional and infrastructural rot, rising tribal tensions, and rampant corruption, this pivotal agent of stability has in fact become a threat to it.
Most Ugandans fail to grasp the role-reversal and its implications because Museveni is so synonymous with stability (that and significant though profoundly uneven economic gains will define his legacy).
But look closer. Uganda is showing signs of disintegration – morally, physically, emotionally. Even in the capital, it can be too much to expect water and electricity to work simultaneously. Roads are crumbling. Scores of university graduates can’t find work. Corruption and nepotism are worse than ever, according to many.
Some Ugandans brush off these developments, preferring to embrace the power of relativity – comparing the dark violent days of yore to the stable, and by contrast, no doubt respectable present.* But in failing to demand much beyond that over the years, Ugandans have given license to the culture of neglect and abuse that defines the country’s political class.
This social contract – coupling tolerance with impunity and delivering mediocrity at best – has, albeit lacking the conspicuous drama of the torturous past, ensured its own kind of evisceration, one that is potentially just as destabilizing. For it has led many Ugandans to a state of despondency, seen in their readiness to concede that gross government misconduct is deeply affecting their livelihood but in the next breath bemoan that nothing can be done: the government can do as it wishes, while the opposition is a threat to that one thing Museveni has delivered on, stability.
And so many Ugandans count their blessings – stability!
Unfortunately, this doesn’t address the collective psychological wound of resignation that inflicts a good many people in all societies governed by one leader and his patrimonial network of patronage for too long; that if left to fester, purges itself through violence and chaos.
Uganda got a taste of that fate in September, with deadly riots in the Mengo district of Kampala. Things have cooled down considerably since, and Uganda’s degeneration has reverted to a more subtle shade.
But that hardly changes the urgent need for Ugandans to demand more than stability from their leaders – especially if stability is the aim. ~ IG
* Not all of this progress is imagined. As one of my Ugandan friends is mindful to remind me when we are enjoying a drink at one of Kampala’s swanky freewheeling nightspots, or stuck in traffic with the thousands of new cars on the roads, such was not the case 20, even 10, years ago. And yet these encouraging signs of conspicuous consumption are not proof that life is better for the ordinary Ugandan. They have been nurtured by a vast though unsustainable system of patronage at the expense of building impartial institutions that would empower a good many more.