A colleague of mine has a small piece of writing pinned on a board beside his chair; it reads: PICK UP YOUR PIECES AND MOVE ON.
I have never asked what made him pick on that particular one. But recently, while I reflected on what is happening in Uganda today, it came back – especially on the question of where we shall have to start from to rebuild the country from the pieces that will be left when Mr Museveni leaves power.
Currently, there are many Ugandans resigned to their dread and almost convinced against nature and history that Museveni is here to stay forever. And this is understandable in our circumstances where many state institutions appear to be acting for his perpetuity; where dissent and freedom of association are increasingly criminalised.
There is no sign that things can get any better under him, even if he so wished now. First of all, as a leader gets older and biologically weaker, there are often people around him that take advantage by usurping every little power that he cedes.
This is why ‘Mafia’ talk is big now, especially within the system itself. I believe there are things done on the president’s behalf and he also gets shocked to learn about them; yet he cannot garner his powers of old to micromanage government.
He created a system that runs around him; so, what happens when he no longer has the energy to superintend everything?
Power brokers set it. But there will most likely be internal rivalries, as there will be many competing sub-power centers positioning themselves for power crumbs and the main center. In Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, we saw the emergence of his wife Grace.
As Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda grew senile, his ‘hostess’ Cecilia Kadzamira ruled in the background. For Fidel Castro, it was his brother Raul Castro.
Under such an environment, you don’t expect much in terms of social service; for there will be so much internal mutual sabotage and frustration – and the president focuses more on watching his back. Meanwhile, trust in government continues to decline, such that even if government initiates something on good purpose, it is met with cynicism. Where a relationship has soured, a partner may bring flowers home, only to be beaten for doing that.
Well, ultimately, whereas we may not know when or how, it’s no prophecy that Museveni’s rule will end. Even if all Ugandans were thwarted into silence, nature will speak – and it doesn’t mince words. But because nature may send no warning before it pulls the curtains, it is a terrible thing for a country to rely on.
Anything can happen in the anxiety that ensues, especially by the rivalling camps when no center holds anymore. In the hope that Uganda shall not be terribly damaged in transition, the spasms of which government has suffocated, we should not miss the lessons on how we got here. Let us count these decades as a long lecture on what works and what doesn’t, and then go back to the drawing board in the next era.
It is not easy to summarise the core of all that has gone wrong in our leadership, and what its effects on society are. But certainly, there has been a tragic breakdown in accountability and consequently a gradual decline in political ethos even among the electorate.
The politics of eating, patronage, tribalism and cronyism has eaten into our society to levels that may take ages to fix after Museveni.
The response to ghetto pressure by throwing around money and car keys is a more recent example. One of the first things we shall need to fix are the powers vested in the presidency. We have had enough lessons that we put too much in the hands of the president; and by the time we realised the dangers, he had already held all too tightly as to release any. C
harles Caleb Holton cautioned as far back as the 19th century that “no man is wise enough, nor good enough to be entrusted with unlimited power”. The philosopher Edmund Burke adds that “the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse”.
It is for this reason that we could only scream like helpless children all the times when the Constitution was changed to serve him. It is not simply because NRM had the majority in parliament, many voted the way they did under pressure. It took extraordinary virtue for some to resist.
This is also the reason why we watch the president give out cars, money and other political incentives in an arbitrary manner devoid of systematic planning, yet we cannot put him to task to account. We can shout ourselves hoarse, but election reforms that do not favour him will rot in their cabinets.
In an obvious conflict of interest, the president’s hand is clearly in the judiciary, the Electoral Commission, the police, parliament, and all over. This complicates the relationship between him and the officers in those organs, ultimately crippling accountability.
Consider the president’s appointing power too; both the power to appoint, and who he can appoint. It has been argued by some people that it is okay for the president to directly appoint his relatives/ family members as long as they qualify for a job.
The idea is that they are citizens too. This is correct, but it oversimplifies the matter. If for instance I was working under the president’s son, wife, or in-law in a public office, it creates an awkward setting that disables me from demanding for accountability from them.
It also becomes difficult for the president to publicly (say in Cabinet) call them to order when they are at fault. Yet if he appears only to be blaming others, that still creates unease and intrigue. It easily breeds incompetency and impunity.
To be continued next week.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.