– By Richard Dowden*
Three tell tale signs. Firstly it was discovered that the 16-strong Uganda Olympic team was outnumbered by the officials accompanying it, many of whom are paid five times what the athletes receive. Much of the money that was supposed to be spent on training was ‘eaten’. If you don’t care if your national sports team wins, then you probably won’t care if your country becomes a winner.
Secondly, I visited the Uganda National Museum last week and it did not seem to have been swept, cleaned or updated since my last visit in 2006. The only new and witty (but puzzling) addition I could see was a portrait of the British Queen Elizabeth in a Basuti, the grand formal Ugandan dress. I have visited the museum irregularly since 1971 and it has grown increasingly shabby, outdated in concept and presentation. Last year it emerged that the government wanted to sell off the site and build a 60 storey office block. Only a public outcry prevented it. It reminded me of that line by the Benin artist Romuald Hazoume on slavery, “They didn’t know where they were going, but they knew where they had come from. Today they still don’t know where they are going, and they have forgotten where they come from”.
The third tell-tale and most worrying sign is that whenever people talk politics in a public place they now drop their voices.
Uganda is in trouble. These small but significant indications are supported by an almost universal fury among Uganda’s professional and business class at the arrogance and corruption of the narrow ruling elite, mainly from the west of the country, who have been in power since 1986. Yoweri Museveni, the man who once said that Africa’s major problem was that rulers stayed on too long, has been President for 26 years. This week he said that he would step down when he had identified a successor with vision who must be “a nationalist, patriotic and pan African, one that promotes social economic transformation and is democratic”.
But it is in the nature of those in power to accumulate more and more of it. The longer you stay in power, the smaller the chances of a good new leader emerging. Like a great tree that prevents anything growing underneath it, a powerful ruler is almost always followed by a technocrat or a rebel. Museveni has tried to find a successor, but when a man tries to make his son and then his wife his political heir, you know he has no real intention of relinquishing control. And the worst news for Uganda’s politics is that 2.5 billion barrels of oil are due to come on stream shortly. Name three oil producing countries in Africa and the Middle East which are genuine democracies.
Museveni liberated his country, or at least the southern part of it, in the early 1980s. He brought a new vision and established security. His army was disciplined and well behaved – though exactly what happened when it crossed the Nile and invaded the north is still to be properly documented and analysed. I lived in Uganda during the first two years of Idi Amin, I visited it after he was driven out in 1979 and saw the horrors of the Obote 2 regime and appalling brutality of the Okello military rule. In his first few years in power Museveni re-established the Uganda state, law and security. No one can ever take that away from him and the National Resistance Movement. In those days when he came to London he would invite Africa journalists for a chat. He was full of ideas and his eyes twinkled with delight at a verbal fencing match with us. Last year I met him briefly at his vast Chinese-built palace at Entebbe. He greeted me formally and I was dismissed. The eyes were dead. He looked utterly exhausted.
Fortunately, there are still some good people in his party who have not built themselves palaces with stolen money. There is also a new generation that is not afraid to disagree with their elders. There is time for a new leader to establish herself or himself, and head into the 2016 election with a good chance of winning. The opposition is fragmented, in disarray and needs new leadership. But free and fair elections are still possible if the government has the will and courage to let them happen. The alternative is that the next regime-change in Uganda will eventually be asserted by traditional methods – the coup or the war.
*Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles.