Secrets of Museveni’s success
Thursday, 27 December 2012
By YAHYA SSEREMBA
Summary: To regard as successful a ruler who has presided over a failed state is laughable. But being the world’s seventh longest-serving head of state, Museveni has remarkably succeeded in consolidating power. How he has reigned for close to three decades with relatively limited repression is a precedent that will interest historians.
Author Biography: Yahya Sseremba is the publisher of The Campus Journal news website.
As a reformer Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is a failure. His democracy is crooked and fraudulent, his administration corrupt and inept, his roads narrow and potholed.
In many parts of the country pregnant women have no access to medical attention. In universities students are too crowded to attain a meaningful education. And in Kampala, the capital floods when it rains. If life in Museveni’s Uganda is such wretched and abject, how then can the words Museveni and success come next to each other?
To be honest the Ugandan leader, despite his inexcusable failures, is a man of outstanding achievement. Excluding the leaders of Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Zimbabwe, Iran, Cameroon and Cambodia, no present head of state on planet earth has ruled longer than Museveni. In a region whose past is an episode of coups, whose present is a persistence of such power struggles, and whose future is a possible repetition of history, reigning for 27 years is no small accomplishment.
There is even more in Museveni’s reign than its longevity. Compared with other rulers who have held the reins for long, the herdsman has applied less force to cling to power. To say that his country is free from repression would be an insult to the countless he has starved and killed. But under him the nation has enjoyed a degree of freedom that has no comparison in its past and in most of its neighbors.
Museveni is equally successful away from home. He makes and breaks governments in the Great Lakes Region and gets away with it. These domestic and foreign gains would probably never have come to fruition had the president not excelled in concealing his intensions.
The power of hidden intensions
Right from childhood Museveni has always been secretive but not necessarily reclusive, an attribute that has served him generously. Withdrawn and tight-lipped, reclusive people often create suspicion that they are hiding something. Museveni, on the other hand, openly states his plans – but not the real ones. When he captured power in 1986, he declared that he wasn’t interested in ruling for decades. His rhetoric featured eloquent and passionate denunciation of leaders who clung to power, whom he blamed for Africa’s backwardness. He solemnly stated that he was only a caretaker who would hand over office in four years to an elected leader.
This early deception preempted an early opposition to Museveni’s regime. It would take his comrades more than ten years to discern his true intensions. Until 1999 when he initiated a process that led to his defection and eventual formation of the leading opposition party, the president’s companion and personal doctor Kizza Besigye had not noticed the power-thirsty monster that his master was.
Another major defection from the NRM government would only come several years later when Museveni abrogated articles in the Constitution that limited the head of state to two terms in office. Had the subtle dictator declared his life-presidency ambition at the outset, such defections would have come earlier and could greatly undermine his nascent government.
By voicing contempt for leaders who overstay their welcome, the cunning leader not only reassured bush-time comrades that the ‘revolution’ was on track, he attracted other political players, particularly the then leading opposition Democratic Party, to his ‘broad-based’ government. By the time Museveni’s real intensions came to light, his grip on power had become too firm to untie.
In concealing plans the African chief of state is simply following in the footsteps of other successful leaders. In one of his traditions the Prophet Muhammad advises humanity to “help yourself in fulfilling your needs by being secretive about them.” (Tabarani). The Prophet himself often went forth on military expeditions without disclosing his destination, greatly reducing the risk of walking into an ambush. By keeping his plans to himself, Museveni has avoided many political ambushes.
There are some Ugandans who understood Museveni’s motives early enough and attempted to stop him. These the retired General didn’t underestimate and indeed crushed each of them totally.
Crushing the enemy totally
Law 15 of Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power prescribes that “a feared enemy must be crushed completely”. This is precisely what Museveni does to whoever dares fight him.
The first people to pick up arms against Museveni were the Nilotic tribes of northern Uganda, especially the Acholi and Langi but also their cousins in the West Nile. These communities’ hostility toward the new government was – and remains – part of their resentment of the Bantu peoples of the south.
This continuing ethnic animosity, observes historian Samwiri Karugire in The Roots of Instability in Uganda, is the outcome of the British colonial divide-and-rule policy which restricted schools, hospitals, roads and every instrument of welfare to the south, leaving the people of the north with no better opportunity than providing semi-skilled labour as storekeepers, porters and cleaners. There was however one critical job ring-fenced for the semi-literate northerners, a job that propelled them to the helm. And that was military service.
Taking advantage of their dominance of the armed forces, the sons of the north executed a coup in 1966 and assumed the dictatorship of the country for the next two decades. An ethnic group that nearly-exclusively composed the army – at a time when military rule was the norm – must have been tempted to regard state power as its exclusive right. When a ragtag southern guerilla force flashed them out of Kampala in 1986, their consequent outburst was understandable.
Northern Uganda immediately reacted to Museveni’s takeover by mounting one rebellion after another. Aware of their unique military background, the new president couldn’t take too lightly the armed insurrection of these peoples. He also probably thought that the old mistrust they harbored toward the Bantu couldn’t allow them to easily make peace with a southern-led government. Only greater violence could end their violence, Museveni must have told himself.
Thus Museveni mounted a ruthless two-decade scorched earth policy that has reduced the entire northern region to rubble. As if it was competing with its LRA adversary in slaughtering civilians, the government unleashed what eminent scholar Mahmood Mamdani aptly describes as a “campaign of murder, intimidation, bombing and burning of whole villages to drive the rural population into I.D.P. camps”.
For 20 years the Acholi have been fleeing for their lives and languishing in filthy, disease-infested camps. For 20 years their children have not gone to school, their soils have produced no grain, their bodies tattered by bullets and epidemics. Thoroughly crushed under Museveni’s feet, the north will take decades to catch up with the rest of the country and ably compete for power.
The second enemy that Museveni has fought with all his strength is the Muslim. When a section of the Salafi (Tabliq) community staged an armed rebellion in the 1990s, government reacted by not only slaughtering those who carried arms against it, it also killed, detained without trial and tortured every young Muslim who wore a beard.
The purpose of this indiscriminate butcher was not only to defeat the insurgence; it sought to frighten, dishearten and paralyze the whole Muslim population whose pursuit of power is part of its religious duties. Besides his cruel crackdown Museveni has infiltrated this community so deeply that he has enlisted as spies some of its leaders.
Extensive spy network
Among the charges the Salafi movement has leveled against one of their own, Sheikh Sulaiman Kakeeto, is that he spies on the believers. Until he was dislodged from his Nakasero Mosque headquarters in 2011, Sheikh Kakeeto was an influential leader who routinely dispatched preachers and teachers to mosques across the country.
His Salafi brethren accuse him of providing government with information that has led to the arbitrary arrest and disappearance of many Muslims he claimed were ADF rebels. Many mosque imams have followed in the disgraceful footsteps of Kakeeto, spying on their folks to earn a living.
This blanket, if desperate, intelligence enterprise has inflicted unnecessary pain on the public, including the torture of innocent civilians in safe houses to extract from them information they do not have. Amateurish and abusive as it is, this information gathering mechanism has led many Muslims to imagine that Museveni watches every move they take.
The same infiltration method has worked to disorganize opposition parties.
All opposition parties know very well that Museveni has planted agents in their rank and file and indeed in their top leadership. It is known that up to a half of the Members of Parliament of the main opposition FDC party received campaign funds from State House in the 2011 general elections.
Confessing in a private conversation that his organization was terribly infiltrated, a top FDC leader once asked his Justice Forum (Jeema) counterpart why government moles had failed to penetrate the walls of the relatively small party. Having worked closely with Museveni for long, this FDC leader retains enough contacts in government to know who in his party and certainly in other opposition parties is an inside agent. It didn’t make sense to him that the government would ignore Jeema for its smallness, for the regime has not spared other equally small parties, for instance, the Conservative Party.
In any case, he possibly knew how some Jeema founders, notably Prof. Abasi Kiyimba, had firmly turned down Museveni’s offer of gifts like cars.
Such small gifts have wrecked havoc in other opposition parties. They account partly for the persistent petty, bad-tempered quarrels that have torn apart the Democratic Party and Uganda Peoples Congress and that have brought to naught every attempt at forming a formidable opposition alliance. Similar inducements account for many defections to the ruling party.
Alongside Museveni’s commitment to making shambles of opponent camps is his humbleness in licking the boots of the West, an alliance of powerful though weakening countries demanding to be worshipped as gods.
Museveni submitted to western hegemony when he abandoned Marxism at the height of his rebellion in the mid 1980s. As he seized Kampala the triumphant guerilla had no doubt that he would never consolidate power without following the bidding of every arrogant capitalist god.
Accordingly, it took him just a few years in office to become more capitalist than the architects of capitalism themselves. He drastically cut public expenditure on higher education, threw the economy entirely to the ruthless forces of demand and supply, and only fell short of privatizing even water by the skin of his teeth.
Some of these changes were surely intended for the better. But the blindness with which they were accepted and the rashness with which they were implemented caused incalculable damage on the country. Their primary purpose, anyway, was not to serve the interests of the people; it was to please the White gods who would otherwise curse and cast out the Black slave.
The slave has also fought wars about which he knows very little. It is clear that the presence of Ugandan troops in Somalia is meant to aid America’s war on Islamic governments. Whereas Museveni himself harbors anti-Islam sentiments strong enough to drive him into such operations, he could hardly go as far as the Horn of Africa without the aid and certainly the express order of the United States.
His earlier military intervention that installed the RPF government in Rwanda is also understood to have been executed partly in the interest of the United States, which sought to uproot French influence from the area. This submissiveness has saved Museveni the wrath of West, at least for the time being.
It has saved him the international hostility that would have come with his manipulation of the Constitution to rule for life, his brutality against peaceful demonstrators and, most importantly, his atrocities on the people of northern Uganda and eastern Congo.
Quick to antagonize anyone except the wrong person, the ageing ruler knows that disobeying the high and mighty would seal his doom. He may be a cowardly opportunist, but he’s convinced by numerous examples that cowards, unlike Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, live to see another day.
His calculative moves are further illustrated in the frequency with which he changes positions to accommodate new realities. Pragmatism is one of his greatest assets.
Far from working within a consistent ideological framework, Museveni quickly adapts to what appears to work for his continued stay in power. We have already seen how he abandoned the Marxist dogma to win the favor of the capitalists.
In 2005 the shrewd leader acknowledged how no longer viable it was to retain a single party dictatorship in a world that was apparently increasingly democratizing. Without resisting the winds of multipartism that forcefully swept across the globe, Museveni lifted his twenty-year ban on political parties and only sought ways of ensuring that the parties remained too disorganized, too weak to unseat him. By restoring multiparty politics the Museveni tree bended in the direction of the wind and avoided the worst: breaking.
That kind of concession is also visible in the level of freedom Ugandans enjoy today. Freedom of expression is surely still being trampled upon in many ways. At the instigation of government, journalists have been sacked or transferred to foreign lands, radio licenses are often suspended, and fear looms over the newsrooms. Such drawbacks notwithstanding, it usually goes without incident to criticize the policies of the president or to expose a powerful corrupt minister.
Hypercritical politicians can equally get away with the harshest of their criticism of the pseudo-democratic establishment. The same freedom is extended to most associations, from political groups to professional bodies to sinister cults. The judiciary has been bullied at times but remains largely independent. By respecting fundamental rights Museveni incorporated modernity into his dictatorship and fitted in the times in which he reigns. Had he totally suppressed these liberties he would have led to the kind of exodus that weakened the government of President Amin in the 1970s.
Besides, unbridled repression may silence the masses for sometime, but by no means does it kill their will to overcome tyranny. It only – as Gaddafi realized and as Paul Kagame of Rwanda may come to realize – constitutes a time bomb whose eventual explosion leaves no tyrant standing. By letting the people exercise much of their rights, Museveni prevented much of the bitterness that would have weighed heavily on his rule.