I had a long conversation at parliament in late July with an MP from the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
One of the revealing insights he gave me was the extent to which the biggest weapon General Museveni desperately fights to keep in abundance in his amour for the life-presidency project is money.
He has to literally personally chase down the cash from whichever sources and ensure he has a steady supply. He needs it every hour and cannot afford to run out of supply. Apparently, the public purse over which he seems to have unfettered access is not enough.
So, there has to be quite a bit of hunting down private sources in addition to those that expectedly come knocking at State House voluntarily and are happy to donate in exchange for one state favour or the other.
In recent years, it has become commonplace for the ruler to go about dishing the cash, personally and directly. The latest was a tour in the centre of Kampala city last Friday. The Observer reported that the chief financier gave out at least Shs 3 billion, dispensed to different savings and credit organisations to which retail and small-scale traders belong.
For a perceptive and concerned citizen, the big question is what business does a president have being the source of finance for businessmen and women?
For one, such paternalism and donating is seldom the way successful businesses are run or profitable companies are built. In fact such a manner of raising capital can cripple an otherwise performing business. Free money can be extremely disruptive and outright poisonous.
The frugal and enterprising business actor succeeds by seeking credit in the market, and not gaining from handouts by a benevolent president. The problems of doing business in Uganda are quite obvious.
The most important is the utterly expensive credit market in part because the finance sector was handed out to multinational highly profit-driven capitalist interests. Invariably, many small businesses struggle and ultimately fall by the side. Presidential donations cannot substitute financing that is guided by business logic and economic prudence.
The other puzzling bit for the citizen, especially the taxpayer, is why a president has to physically distribute money even when he does not necessarily give out the physical cash (he often prefers that antiquated method anyway).
It may appear outrageous but it’s an important modus that is necessary in the political calculus: he wants the personal exchange so he claims the credit directly and personally. He has to be seen as the benefactor-in-chief and who does it himself. No intermediation.
The import of this, of course, is to directly pay for support and hope to gain rented favour from the public. It is the make of the quintessential patronage ruler who has an exaggerated view of himself as the chief supplier of largesse.
But it is also because the system of rule in place today is characterised by personal profiteering through thieving. Therefore, the ruler is acutely aware that entrusting the cash to formal channels of government, much less to specific individuals, is a sure way to having the cash stolen, or at least a chunk of it pocketed along the way.
During campaign time, there have been tales of a strong room at State House, strictly manned by the ruler himself, which stores cash stashed in sacks and is signed off for dispatch by a small clique of the innermost circle.
Even then, the ruler seems to have realized that rather than have his lieutenants clandestinely pay for his support through nightly dish-outs, better he does it himself in broad daylight so that those who receive it are compelled to share.
This is a way of enhancing transparency in financial malfeasance and political bribery, but it also helps the ruler to directly endear himself to the public.
Unfortunately, for General Museveni, the rational human being is very much aware that the ruler has increasingly become vulnerable and insecure. The open bribery and purchase of support scarcely satisfies the millions craving change and demanding for better government.
In fact the more money is dished out, the more is needed. It is a bottomless pit, a phrase some critical MPs repeatedly use in referring to State House’s frequent requests for supplementary budgets.
Renting support becomes ever more expensive and a big drag. But the ruler is inoculated against seeing the slippery slope. From his tour of the city-centre last week, he encountered dozens of businesses and trader groups, all purporting to belong to a savings and credit organisation and in need of presidential patronage.
If he went back the following day, he would likely find the number has multiplied. He faces this everywhere in the country. And he is happy to assiduously present himself as an endowed financier ready to solve all needs presented to him.
The bad news for the ruler is that paying to win the support of especially urban people can only deliver the opposite outcome: more discontent and disillusionment with the regime. The biting economic conditions won’t go away because of a few billions in handouts spread across countless groups of distressed traders.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.