March 21, 2011
When I first arrived in Uganda last year a friend was fond of reminding me, “You should have seen this place 25 years ago.” That is when the current president and former rebel fighter Yoweri Museveni seized power, and this was my friend’s way of praising the old man’s performance.
I was grateful for his detailings of an era I did not know first-hand, a prolonged sinister stretch marked by curfews, interrogations, disappearances, torture and economic stagnation.
In time the line has become numbingly familiar – uttered above all by the president himself, through editorials, radio announcements, campaign speeches; and echoed by nearly every ruling party supporter when explaining his or her support for the increasingly autocratic regime.
The reason is that the past is more reassuring than the present; transitioning from an era of prolonged terror to a stretch of peace and some economic expansion was impressive – versus a deteriorating now in which there is a disquieting collective understanding that not much is happening or necessarily will.
It’s easy to confuse these apologists of the status quo for optimists. An optimist thinks,
Yes, things aren’t what they were under Obote and Amin, and thank goodness for that. But 25 years on, I expect more from my country and leaders. I expect more precisely because I am an optimist who knows we can do and deserve better; African countries are not fated to languish forever in the vicious cycle of corruption and poverty; indeed some of our nations, like Ghana and Rwanda, have traveled much farther in a shorter period. And I am a pragmatist because I know that we cannot afford not to do better, that carrying on like this, we will catch up to no one but fall farther behind.
These practical optimists are in Uganda’s minority, telling by the country’s recently concluded elections. Museveni scored 68% of the popular vote; and the ruling NRM expanded its dominance in the ninth parliament (279 seats versus 59 for the opposition; up from 212 versus 60 in the eighth).
This while Kampala deteriorates into the scruffiest capital in east Africa. State hospitals run out of basic vaccines for children (which the director general of health services attributed to “logistical problems”). Corrupt officials go unpunished. Peaceful protesters are tear-gassed. NRM candidates raid the treasury to fund their campaigns. A record number of youths can’t find employment. Water and electricity outages in the capital grow more frequent, which is to say nothing of villagers who are forced fetch water from contaminated boreholes miles from their home; or this morning’s news that the nation’s once-top hospital, Mulago, is so riddled with fraud and mismanagement that five of its six power generators are not working, which reportedly led to the death of 15 patients last month.
So what does all this tell us, other than that many Ugandans vote against their best interest? Essentially, that many here – out of fear, pessimism or an abiding allegiance to Big Men and their “special” powers – think a corrupt though somewhat tolerant and stabilizing regime with autocratic tendencies is as good as it can get. Which counts as progress of a most disempowering kind.