There is something surreal and bewildering about authoritarian rulers. They dazzle many among the unsuspecting public, passing off as mythical, invincible and mysterious.
The thing, though, is that to effectively manage an authoritarian system of rule, rulers have to mask their vulnerabilities and inadequacies. They do so in part by projecting a superhuman image, often portraying a ‘god-like’ persona.
Uganda’s current ruler is on record claiming he is ‘God’s deputy!’ His is a classic case of paternalistic rule. He believes he is the father. Everyone is a child. Colonists too saw African subjects this way – as permanent children.
It is only him who knows the problems of Uganda. Only he has the strategic mind and foresight to provide solutions to myriad societal problems. There is a predisposition to the delusional attitude that sees everyone as unqualified and not up to the task, indirectly devalues everyone and directly ostracizes all critics.
Quite predictably, at public occasions he will causally and disrespectful refer to an old woman as that ‘young girl,’ with the derogatory gesture mostly reserved for those who are political opponents.
Ironically, the same ruler while wanting to present himself as the old and wise through a sleight of hand wants us to believe that he is young and energetic to continue ruling for life.
Unfortunately, the course of nature is utterly random and has no regard for being a president even if you are a military ruler: you cannot shoot nature with an AK-47 nor can you use your presidential power to obstruct aging.
There can never be doubt that after ruling for more than three decades, Mr Museveni is an invariably tired human being. Anyone would. But if one has imbibed an authoritarian streak, as Robert Mugabe, Paul Biya, Theodore Obiang, and of course Yoweri Museveni, among others, part of the trap of power is the obsessive belief that you still have a lot to achieve and have the capacity to last longer.
There is a potential danger of unimaginable proportions. The MPs who opportunistically cashed in to change the constitution last December scarcely understand the implications of their grave actions.
The last standing hurdle against a permanent imperial president was the age-limit in the constitution. If Mr Museveni wanted to stay on after 75 using extra constitutional means, that would have had its own ramifications and responses.
But the assault on the constitution, and whatever good is left in it, was a major boost to Museveni’s paternalism – MPs basically endorsed his belief that only he knows how to manage Uganda.
The decay and dysfunction in Uganda’s public sector which Mr Museveni overseas is simply staggering. Yet the paternalistic ruler will not see what the rest of society sees as problems; he will for example downplay most problems and ills, referring to waves of insecurity and biting poverty as small matters, which he will defeat!
The obsession with infrastructure – roads and dams – while talking down the issues that affect people is part of the paternalistic attitude that sees solutions in grand projects. He likes to emphasise that he spent many years fighting Joseph Kony and did not focus on the structural bottlenecks to economic development.
Now that Kony and other ‘terrorists’ has been defeated and the whole country pacified, it is time to deal with energy generation and road construction. And since he defeated Kony, there’s nothing and no one he can’t defeat.
In the single-minded pursuit of what he believes the country needs, there is little regard for building prudent systems and lasting mechanisms for managing public affairs. Because the ruler believes he knows it all, he has no time to waste with unnecessary procedures and bureaucratic processes.
He sidelines whatever established channels and operates under decidedly irregular methods that breed cronyism, malfeasance and what we generally refer to as corruption. The only strong institution that thrives under a system of paternalistic rule is, well, paternalism itself!
So, everything goes to the ruler to decide. State House has for long been a clearing house of deals, be those of the much-hyped investors getting free public land (it is not fully free as they have to buy their way to reach the ruler) or the many big-money infrastructural projects that tend to pit one Chinese company against another or the Chinese against Western construction companies.
We have a monumental problem staring at us. The paternalism of the ruler makes him believe he must stay in power forever even when systems are crumbling and the quality of government degenerates.
The latent factional struggles, glimpses of which we have seen as in Henry Tumukunde, who is rumoured to represent a State House faction, against Kale Kayihura who probably was leader of his own faction, will in quick order become drawn-out fights in the absence of the master.
The ruler is trapped in power by his own hubris and unmitigated paternalism. But we as citizens are stuck with the ruler. The day of reckoning will unfold before us and the outcome will most unlikely be pleasant.
Sections of the faithful and especially those engaged in the ‘prosperity gospel’ have told us to keep praying, including praying for the ruler. The times we live in are simply incredible.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University