17 December 2017

Uganda: They Have the Eyes, but Can't See That Life Presidency Is a Bad Idea

Photo: The Independent
President Yoweri Museveni (file photo).

Not even the threat of Armageddon will give pause to the mad march toward the creation of a life presidency in Uganda. While Idi Amin simply declared it, now we give it a semblance of political process. It is a political process that nonetheless benefits one and only one man.

A person is free to have delusions of grandeur. But for the rest of us to allow that pathology to play out on the national stage, to risk a country's future, is a failure of the national imagination.

Who are the enablers of this ahistorical march toward the bottom? Politicians, particularly ruling NRM MPs, sit front and centre. They will vote on the constitutional amendment to allow a person who is older than 75 years to run for President.

The MPs seem to care less either about their role as a check on executive power run amok, or as lawmakers with a broader and enlightened understanding of the country's history and how that history relates to the future via what they are doing today.

These ladies and gentlemen have reduced Parliament to a chamber of intellectual and moral midgets.

They are seduced by power, but they don't know what to do with that power except abuse it through cutting devilish deals.

Amongst us the non-politicians are self-interested fellows engaged in some version of doublethink to advance the life presidency project.

These are the people who argue that the number of decades a leader stays in power is a secondary, if not entirely irrelevant, issue. Length of rule doesn't matter because stay a short while (Nigeria) or longer (Zimbabwe), Africa remains under-industrialised anyway. At the same time they say, hey, length matters because Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore only after staying decades in power. The point, they say, is the quality of leadership.

That's interesting because it then begs the question whether President Museveni, who wants to stay in power until death, is delivering. His intellectual defenders dance around the subject, bringing up this aggregate number or that to show that he is Uganda's saviour who can still do magic until his last breath.

Unfortunately for them, lived life trumps any fancy statistic anyone will dig up. Are Ugandans' lives better off today than five years ago and do they see a future of opportunity? People have to feel this stuff and no numbers can change that feeling if the feeling is negative.

Life in Uganda today suggests that public education is rubbish, that healthcare is lousy, that urban life is largely polluted slum life, that agricultural productivity is not rising, that jobs are few.

Is there hope that things will change tomorrow? Not when the government is under the same leadership of the last 30 years. By any measure, such a leadership has its best years behind it. To want it to continue in place is either the height of self-interest or tone-deafness. (No wonder when Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's backside was being kicked recently and many said the man was a goner, these same self-deluded "thinkers" kept saying he was in fact in charge and going nowhere. Was this denial of reality or simple buffoonery?)

Just as change may bring worse leadership -- it is hard to see how that can be in Uganda -- it may also bring better leadership. We can't know if we are not ready to entertain change, more especially if resistance is borne out of crass deal cutting. Even if Mr Museveni can still conjure magic, new leadership could bring even more wonderful wonders in less time.

When challenged about his record, the President is won't to counsel patience because he is focusing on one key thing at a time -- just as it was during the Bush War. Well, he focused on UPE and we know how that turned out. Now it is infrastructure. Very good.

Except that other comparator countries are operating big on multiple fronts (Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania) and doing just fine on various indicators. Uganda is not all that unique to justify its lethargic and corrupt-prone approaches to national business. Need I say that all those countries have changed top leaders in the 30 years Mr Museveni has been in power?

For reasons of turbulent history, that upper age-limit safeguard was included in the Constitution. Uganda as a society is obsessed with the desire to see a smooth change at the presidency level. This is a desire burned into the national psyche because all the changes we have had have been violent. This thing is emotional and attempts to philosophise, to transact politics around it, and to downplay the real power it carries is to entertain trouble. Ugandans should not acquiesce to this unfolding Faustian bargain.

Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.


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