Last weekend, the intrepid bishop of Rwenzori diocese, the Rt Rev Reuben Kisembo, spoke candidly to Uganda’s long-surviving ruler: “It’s time to hang your boots, Mr President. It’s good for you and for the country.”
Very old advice, but remarkable coming from a man of God!
Any spiritual leader worth their name, more so a bishop, should have the courage to speak out on the side of what is right and against what is wrong. To not do so is to abdicate and fail to live up to the duty of pastoral leadership.
Bishop Kisembo’s pointed comments made news yet, ordinarily, it should be part of his pastoral responsibility to speak truth to power. Problem is, religious institutions and spiritual figures were co-opted into the Museveni patronage machine through material inducements and different forms of handouts. Others are simply intimidated into silence.
The courage and candour of Bishop Kisembo has been a rarity among men and women of God who, instead, are wont to preach the rather misleading gospel of prosperity and exhorting the flock to pray for “our leaders who all come from God.”
Little wonder, therefore, that Museveni had to swiftly lash out at Bishop Kisembo, characteristically retorting that he does not want any lectures about what to do for Uganda and from individuals not qualified. Reason? He knows it all and Bishop Kisembo knows nothing!
For starters, Bishop Kisembo’s piece of advice was anything but a lecture, directed at someone with an incredible knack for delivering long and winding lectures.
But even if it was an unsolicited lecture, would the chief-lecturer, who purports to know all Uganda’s problems, have had a problem if the man of God spoke glowingly of him, outlined our many problems and said only one man has the rare capacity to comprehend them, then wrapped up his long lecture by calling on Uganda’s saviour to rule until God calls him? Of course not.
The president and his courtiers have no problem with the clergy and spiritual notables who preach the gospel of ‘Museveni the Great’, how he is such a rare leader that God blessed Uganda with. Instead, they have a big problem with critical voices that air inconvenient truth and cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the dire political situation we face.
For Mr Museveni, the first category, which forms part of a long list of praise-singers, sycophants, and clients benefiting from handouts, are doing no wrong when they overtly root for him even during worship time and silently conspire to keep him in power.
The second category, the minority that sees a big danger for the country and speaks out against an imperial president with a delusional sense of owning Uganda’s destiny, is berated and labelled undisciplined for meddling in politics.
The hypocrisy of applying two standards on the same people and with regards to the same set of issues is quite obvious. Not surprising for this is integral to the deception of an authoritarian ruler and the cavalier mentality that attends personalized systems of rule.
Last December at a hotel in the eastern town of Mbale, I ran into a powerful grey-haired member of the ruling clan who has been in cabinet since they captured power. He told me in no uncertain terms to, as he put it, “cut your losses and forget because we are here for a long, long time.”
It is in this spirit of raw arrogance and unpolished bravado that we are ruled. Quite a lot is done with lightening impunity. They captured power and annexed the country as personal property. They can rule with hubris and chide whoever criticizes their modus operandi, however constructive.
Thus, Salim Saleh, with no official government position, can literally command his way around including insisting on illegal sand-mining activities inside Lake Victoria regardless of the environmental and aquatic negative externalities. He can tell off local authorities and ignore statutory regulatory agencies because his power trumps everyone else, except the ultimate ruler.
Obviously, this state of affairs is bad for majority Ugandans. But the real bad news is that for the long term, it is bad for everyone, including, yes, the rulers. A system built on personal rule where the ruler sees himself (it’s almost never her) as the absolute and timeless custodian of everything thinkable is without a doubt untenable. It is just a matter of time.
As I have written here before, examples abound around the world; and in the case of Uganda, one only needs to look right next door. The end inevitably comes, and in ways that not many would ever anticipate, let alone precisely predict.
When the hour of reckoning arrives, the ground becomes levelled such that even the cabal that operated with exaggerated assuredness finds that the world around has dramatically and rapidly shifted in very undesirable directions.
This is the very humble yet incredibly powerful counsel of Bishop Kisembo, both for the good of the rulers and for the country. Sadly, because the rulers mistakenly believe they know it all and are blinded by the sweet echoes of their own lectures, they see the message from a genuine ‘lecture’ as annoyingly intrusive.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.