In over 30 years in power, President Yoweri Museveni’s gratuitous use of violence, patronage and corruption, as means to privatize the state, has dealt devastating blows to Uganda’s institutions and the welfare of the great majority of people.
Unless Ugandans with the support of democratic forces and donor countries join hands in collective determination to take effective remedial action soon, it might be difficult to salvage the future of the country. Certainly, the legacies of the divide-and rule, combined with use of pervasive violence, will hover over the country like a permanent nightmare.
It is a tragic irony of history that despite his public disdain of King Leopold of Belgium and President Mobutu of the Congo, President Yoweri Museveni’s political modus operandi is not fundamentally different from those of both men. President Museveni has become as predatory as both men who ruled the Congo; as personal estates, turning the country into an inferno for her people. In a sense, the three might be regarded as kindred political comrades.
Yet the capricious political operation that has affected every sector of the country and the construction of what can now be characterized as presidential monarchy, if not fiefdom, was neither inevitable nor preordained. In fact, in the beginning, President Museveni’s rhetoric had generated much hope for Uganda.
It was after five years of guerrilla warfare that on January 25, 1986 the National Resistance Army (NRA) led by Museveni triumphantly stormed into Kampala and usurped power from the ineffectual military junta of General Tito Okello, which had itself a few months earlier overthrown the second Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) administration led by Milton Obote.
In a blaze of publicity and euphoria, the leader of NRA, Museveni, issued a serious indictment of African rulers when he declared that: “The problem of Africa in general and of Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.” This declaration raised the hopes of people for the depersonalization of power.
If President Yoweri Museveni had walked the talk and put the laudable declaration into practice, he would have gone down in history as an exemplary Ugandan, if not African leader.
Indeed, if President Museveni had stuck to what he promised at the time he usurped power and left power after a reasonably short tenure, he would have done a great service to Uganda and Africa. To begin with, he would have set a precedent for peaceful transfer of power and in the process begun to institutionalize a new political culture.
Over time, this could have developed into institutional and structural mechanisms of checks and balance on power, which have historically served as antidotes to dictatorship.
For we must not forget that the source of dictatorship and the bane of African politics, as of politics the world over, is the concentration of power in a few hands or one person. Lord Acton captured this eternal truth of history crisply in his 1867 aphorism, when he stated that: “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It is absolute power that has in more than 30 years corrupted President Yoweri Museveni absolutely. In the more than 30 years, in order to acquire absolute power without any accountability, he has relied upon, retailed, and promoted on a revolutionary scale, militarism. This is the value system that glorifies violence as the alpha and omega of power.
The practitioners of militarism of the period have captured their dogma in the phrase, “We fought and possess the means of destruction, and therefore we must rule.” The stalwarts of the regime drum the phrase religiously in the heads of Ugandans to justify their unlimited stay in, and exercise of, power.
It is the combination of concentration of power in President Museveni, his enduring faith in militarism, and his bigotry based on sub-ethnic chauvinism, which has become a lethal cocktail that has poisoned and disfigured the moral fabric of society.
The latest manifestation of militarist approach to politics in Uganda has been the gratuitous use of force against people perceived by the regime to disagree with President Museveni. This includes, among others, the degrading undressing in public of women members of opposition; the brutal crackdown of supporters of opposition parties before, during and after the February 2016 elections; the military siege of Dr. Kizza Besigye’s private house and his arbitrary harassment and detention without reasonable cause; and the draconian measures taken against journalists who were reporting unpalatable truths about the political situation in the country.
Sadly, the gratuitous use of violence against a cross-section of Ugandans has tended to drive moderate people into despair and has radicalized extremists into desperation. We hope that the logic of this type of militarist violence does not engender dreadful dynamics and a continuous cycle of violence and counter-violence.
Because of President Museveni’s abiding faith in militarism, Ugandans and democratic forces the world over should not be in a state of illusion that he cares much about democratic legitimacy.
As such, it can be predicted without any fear of contradiction that his gratuitous use of violence during this period of contestation for democracy in Ugandan will not be the last time he unleashes violence on ordinary Ugandans.
The gratuitous use of violence has now cast an ominous pall over Uganda. It has certainly seriously undermined not only prospects for democracy, but also the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms and human rights in the country. Far worse, however, as indicated above, it has perverted and corroded the moral and social fabric of society.
If we are to strategize effectively to bring sanity and unity to the country, we would need to acknowledge two fundamental historical facts. The first is that militarism, which has now become a cancer to the body politic of the country, is not new in Uganda’s politics. Lest we forget history, it should be remembered that it was in 1966 that the militarization of politics and the politicization of the military during the violent ouster of Sir Edward Mutesa, the Kabaka of Buganda, set into motion the chains of events that culminated in the usurpation of power by General Idi Amin on January 25, 1971; exactly 15 years to the date when the NRA under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni took power in Kampala.
In a sense, apart from the coincidence of dates when both Idi Amin and Museveni usurped power in Kampala, President Museveni’s militarist approach to politics is more or less analogous to the techniques of terror military dictator Idi Amin used in the 1970s to sustain himself in power.
In both cases, the rulers intended to ensure that they would monopolize and cling on to power for their personal benefit and for the benefit of a network of their cronies, at the expense of the country.
From a historical perspective, therefore, President Museveni is not the first person to catapult militarism to the command heights of Uganda’s politics. His innovation has been to use extensive public relations to cloth, sanitize and retail it, which has made it gain popular social currency.
The second fundamental historical fact is the lack of courage by a cross-section of Ugandans to empathize with fellow Ugandans subjected to deprivation of fundamental freedoms and human rights. We can trace this, again, to 1966. It’s true that when the military was hammering Baganda after the 1966 crisis, few Ugandans from other regions of the country spoke up eloquently against the militarist assault on Baganda. It was the military assault on Baganda and the indifference to their suffering in other parts of the country that fanned their sincere grievance into the flame of Kiganda nationalism. It was this sincere grievance that Yoweri Museveni preyed on to get support for his insurgency in Buganda.
Similarly, when Idi Amin’s forces were butchering Acholi and Langi and to some extent people from Teso in the early 1970s, the rest of the country did not empathize with them; the widespread belief was that it would not affect them.
After Idi Amin’s dictatorship was overthrown in April 1979, the victorious soldiers committed atrocities in West Nile without concerted protests from the rest of the country. It might therefore be summarized that there has been a symbiotic relationship between the cancer of militarism and the lack of courage to empathize with fellow Ugandans when they have been brutally robbed of their fundamental freedoms and human rights. Unscrupulous politicians have certainly exploited this lack of courage to take a principled stand on behalf of other Ugandans, for their parochial and selfish ends. This has fueled the vicious cycles of revenge, recrimination and disunity that have plagued Uganda since 1966.
With this historical background, how might we fashion a formula and strategy that might inspire people to effectively confront the militarist menace in Uganda? We might draw on the historical examples and struggles against similar menaces in other parts of the world.
Ugandans should learn lessons from the 1930s during the dictatorship of fascist Hitler. Then, individuals and countries did not actively mobilize and stand up against him until millions of innocent people had lost their lives. The poem by the Reverend Martin Niemoller, written in 1945, reminds and warns us of the tragic consequences of complicit silence in the face of gross human rights violation. It is worth quoting the poem in full here:
First they came for the communist
And I didn’t speak up because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the Jews
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics
And I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me
And by that time no one was left to speak up.
How was the grotesquely obscene holocaust of European Jews possible?
It was the lack of courage to speak up and the thunderous silence maintained by leaders of major powers, which might have emboldened Hitler to embark on the ghastly elimination of Jews.
Today, as the regime of President Yoweri continues to trample on the fundamental freedoms and rights of Ugandans – as it has for over 30 years — he and his devotees might construe any indifference and silence by donor countries in particular as endorsement of his ruthless tactics and mistreatment of citizens.
Although it is principally the duty of Ugandans to be the agents of positive change in the country, they would require the moral and practical solidarity of fair-minded people the world over.
In extending a hand of solidarity to Ugandans, the international community should be inspired by the clarion call made by the great American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., when on April 16, 1963 he wrote in Letter from Birmingham Jail in Alabama that: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
What is the way forward then, given the rather grave and deteriorating situation in Uganda?
On July 28, 2015, Freedom and Unity Front (FUF), based on the emphasis in its manifesto of December 2013 for an inclusive approach to politics in the country, made a proposal for a transitional National Unity Government. (NUG). The proposal by FUF was made out of abiding love for the country and her people to live in social peace and harmony.
In the proposal, we outlined what should be the nature of NUG; how it should be constituted; and, the criteria that should be used to form it.
First and foremost, the transitional government should reflect the social diversity of the country, and people selected to participate in the NUG should give undertaking that they would not be involved in partisan politics after the dissolution of NUG.
To lead the national unity government, a presidential council of four people should be selected. The four people should be selected to represent the old four regions of the country, namely: Buganda or Central Region; Eastern Region; Northern Region; and, Western Region.
Such a presidential council would encourage people to identify with the national government and it would foster a sense of belonging and unity.
What should be the main functions and mandate of a National Unity Government (NUG)?
NUG should be tasked to do the following: prepare a level playing field for free and fair democratic elections by principally forming a truly independent election commission; reform the judiciary to be able to independently administer justice through the rule of law in the country without intimidation from the executive or legislative branch; mandate a commission to craft a permanent constitution; establish a commission to recommend how best to enshrine decentralization of power in the constitution and in the political culture, as an antidote to the emergence of dictatorship in the future; and, appoint a commission to set up a framework for national peace, truth and reconciliation that would foster accountability and healing.
During the period of national unity government, focus should be on promoting national peace rather than seeking justice because whereas peace by its nature is an imperative for civilized existence, justice is a remedial virtue. As such, the question of justice should be left to a democratically-elected government to handle.
FUF recommends that the tenure of NUG should not exceed three years.
The formation of National Unity Government should, however, be preceded by a national consultative conference of all bona fide groups, including the NRA/NRM for many of its members are also victims of Museveni’s autocracy.
Seasoned and neutral diplomats from the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), the USA and the United Nations (UN) should facilitate the conference.
To allow representatives of the various organizations and groups to discuss the formation of National Unity Government freely without fear or interference, the conference should be held in a location where no individual or group can intimidate or coerce other parties; one possible venue is Chatham House, in the U.K.
In addition to the particulars in the proposal, we would like to appeal to the armed force – including the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) and the Uganda National Police — to identify with the great majority of Ugandans and embrace and discharge their national duty to defend all Ugandans.
The military in Uganda should emulate what their counterparts in Burkina Faso did in October 2014 when they forced President Blasé Compaore to resign when he attempted to destroy the constitution and extend his regime, and in the Philippines when in February 1986 the military rejected unconscionable orders to fire on civilians and joined the people power movement to oust the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
We also appeal to religious leaders in the country to fulfill their apostolic mission and serve as the voice of the oppressed. They should draw on the courage of their illustrious martyred leader, Saint Archbishop Janani Luwum who at the height of Idi Amin’s gross violations of human rights of citizens did not quiver; he spoke up, which cost him his life.
Similarly, in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero paid with his life when he fought tyranny and sided with the oppressed.
Now, with the conclusion by international observers that Uganda’s February 18, 2016 elections were characterized by, among other things, lack of transparency, widespread intimidation and harassment, social media restrictions, continuous arrests and detention of opposition leaders, and with the announcement by the Uganda Electoral Commission that President Yoweri Museveni won the fraudulent presidential election, it might be time for Ugandans and the international community to work in concert to bring about peaceful change in the country. The international and domestic observers concluded that the EC – all of whose members and chairman Badru Kiggundu were appointed by President Museveni — was not “competent” to conduct the elections.
It is apparent that President Yoweri Museveni has abused and taken for granted the 30-year grace period that the donor countries and a fraction of the Ugandan intelligentsia gave him in the hope that the weight of public power might tame and curb his propensity for violence.
The African adage that a leopard cannot change its spots might have conveyed more crisply the social truth about President Museveni than the misplaced hope and wish of the donor countries and some Ugandan intelligentsia. The fact is that President Museveni’s essential character and political modus operandi have not changed much over the past three decades.
With this knowledge, we must now harness our collective efforts gained through informed empathy to fight to defeat the militarist menace that threatens the future of the country.
By our collective efforts, we can usher in an inclusive democratic dispensation informed by respect for the rule of law and the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all Ugandans.
History counsels us that militarist violence cannot defeat a people united with a unity of purpose.
Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu
Chairman, Freedom and Unity Front (FUF)