Museveni then and Now

  Chidi Amuta

Within the diverse pantheon of African rulership, something curious is emerging.  In many ways, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is fast emerging as a model of the transformation of democracy into authoritarianism in Africa. While Museveni has retained his nationalist streak in the fight against the global LGBTQ epidemic as well as his isolated battles against Western multinational exploitation and blackmail, his practice of democracy and adherence to the rule of law would disappoint pundits of African democratic enlightenment.

He has repressed basic freedoms, violated the rights of his political opponents, bludgeoned opposition political figures and jailed those who disagree with him. He has enthroned what is easily a personality cult of leadership that is easily a combination of draconian military dictatorship and crass authoritarianism. That is not strange in a continent that has produced the likes of Nguema, the Bongos and Paul Biya.

In addition, Museveni  now displays some of the worst excesses of Africa’s famed authoritarianism, dictatorial indulgence and the dizzy materialism of its leadership. For instance, the president is reported to travel around with an interminable motorcade that includes a luxury airconditioned toilet.  Worse for Uganda’s democracy are the recent stories of Museveni’s manouvres towards self-succession. Specifically, he has appointed his son as Chief of the army, a move which many observers of Uganda see as a pointer to his succession plan.

For me,  the unfolding Museveni  authoritarianism is a classic instance of the transformation of African leaders from revolutionary nationalists  to authoritarian emperors. I once met and spoke with the early Museveni. He had emerged from a bush war as a liberator and valiant popular soldier that was heralded into Kampala as a liberators. He came to mend a broken nation from the locust ears of Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

The Museveni that I sat and conversed with in the early 1990s  was a committed socialist. He was an African nationalist. He was a social democratic politician  with a strong social science background. His primary constituency was the people most of whom fired his liberation movement in the countryside. We exchanged ideas freely on the thoughts of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney and Amilcar Cabral among others.

As the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the new Daily Times under Yemi Ogunbiyi, I initiated and conducted a one on one interview with Yoweri Museveni in his early days after the overthrow of Obote with the backdrop of the Idi Amin carnage. What follows is both a travelogue and a reminiscence of the Museveni before now. Is it the same Museveni or are there two Musevenis?

In 1991, I scheduled a trip was to Kampala to interview Yoweri Museveni. I travelled alone through Addis Ababa and Nairobi. In those days, inter African flight connections were a nightmare of stops and delayed connections. I arrived Kampala and found my long standing friend, Dr. Manfred Nwogwugwu,  a demographer who was based in Kampala as head of the United Nations Population Commission. We had been together at Ife where he and his lovely wife, Ngozi, hosted me for the weeks it took me to find my own accommodation as an apprentice academic at Ife.  He took me on a tourist trip around Kampala. The city was broken and bore fresh bullet holes and bomb craters, the marks of war. From Biafra, I knew this ugly face well enough. Kampala had just been liberated by Museveni’s forces after ousting Milton Obote and remnants of Idi Amin.

I knew as a background that Mr. Museveni had been helped in his guerilla campaign by both M.K.O Abiola and General Ibrahim Babangida, then president of Nigeria. He therefore had a very favourable disposition towards Nigeria. He was also quite influential with African leaders from whom Nigeria was seeking support as General Obasanjo was lobbying to become United Nations Secretary General when it was deemed to be the turn of Africa. As a matter of fact, I was joined at the Museveni interview by Obasanjo’s media point man, Mr. Ad Obe Obe, who had come to interview Museveni as part of the Obasanjo campaign.

Museveni’s Press Secretary, a pleasant but tough woman called Hope Kakwenzire, kept in touch while I waited in Kampala for my appointment. She was sure the interview would hold but wanted to secure a free slot on the President’s choked schedule. She promised to call me at short notice to head for the venue.

When she eventually called, it turned out that the interview venue had just been switched from the Kampala State House to a government guest house in Entebbe, close to the airport and by the banks of Lake Victoria. Entebbe brought back memories of the famous Mossad raid to free hostages of a Palestinian hijack of an Israeli plane. At the appointed time, I was picked up from my friend’s residence. As we headed for Entebbe, memories of the dramatic Israeli commando rescue of airline hostages at Entebbe during the Amin days kept flashing through my mind. When I arrived Entebbe airport on my way in, I was shown the warehouse where the hostages were kept ahead of their dramatic rescue. The rescue had made world headlines in those days. It reinforced Israel’s military prowess and the intelligence dexterity and detailed planning  of the Israeli DefenCe Force (IDF) but the operational dexterity and intelligence excellence of Mossad in particular.

We arrived a nondescript white bungalow tucked amidst trees and vegetation. It was a colonial type sprawling white bungalow.  The entrance gate was a long drive from the building itself. When your car is cleared through the first gate, you drive along a bushy drive way towards the building. The first gate has normal military sentry who already know you are expected. As you drive along the bushy driveway, some surprise awaits you. Suddenly some small figures in full combat gear dart onto the drive way and wave your vehicle to a sudden stop at gun point. They are too young and too small to be regular  soldiers. But their moves are rather professional and smart. They are ‘child soldiers’ or rather ‘baby soldiers’ who had fought alongside Museveni’s liberation forces in the bush war that led to the freedom of Uganda. No emotions, No niceties. They screen the vehicle scrupulously for explosives. These small men  have apparently been trained to trust no one. They ignore the escort and Press Secretary both of whom are familiar faces. They insist I answer their questions for myself. I explain I have an interview appointment with the President. They briefly return to their tent at the wayside and briefly confer by radio communication.

They wave us through to the building.  I am taken through a rather unassuming hallway and a colonial looking living room and dining areas that opens into a simple sit out at the back of the building. The sit out at the back of the building opens into a vast courtyard with well manicured green gardens. The extreme end of the green is Lake Victoria. At its banks, there are tents with simple garden chairs. The serenity of the location is striking. Even more chilling is the eerie silence of the location except for the flapping of the wings of flamingos and pelicans playing by the lakeside. I quickly framed it in my mind: “Conversations by Lake Victoria!”

Seated alone in one of the tents is President Yoweri Museveni, the new strongman of Uganda. His simplicity beleis the mystique of courage and valour that now define his reputation. He was a leading figure in Africa’s then latest  mode of political ascension: the strong man who wages a guerilla movement in the countryside and marches from the forest into the city center of the capital after toppling an unpopular sitting dictator and his government with its demoralized army . After him, Joseph Kabilla of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Charles Taylor of Liberia followed the same pathway of political ascension but with differing outcomes.

The man in the tent was dressed in a simple black suit. He welcomed me very casually and warmly. “Nigeria is a long way from here, I imagine!”, he said jovially as he ushered me to take a seat. As we settled down to exchange views, it turned out that our exchange would be more than an interview. It was more of a radical social science conversation.

We compared notes on the class struggle in Africa, the burden of the political elite far removed from the masses, the alienation of the rural masses, the working class in Africa’s imperialist inspired industrialization. Museveni was very knowledgeable and sharp. His intellectual exposure was impeccable. He knew a lot about  Nigeria, about our cities and the structure and general disposition of our elite. He had very kind words about M.K.O Abiola and his commitment to African unity and liberation which he was supporting with his vast resources. In particular, he supported Abiola’s ongoing campaign for reparations from the West to Africa for the decades of pillage during the slave trade and the subsequent colonial expropriation and haemorrhage of resources.

I still managed to pierce through his armour of social science and dialectical materialist analysis to ask him a few worrying questions about Uganda and Africa’s political future. He was generally optimistic about the turnaround of Uganda after the devastation of war and the rampaging carnage of dictators.

He added that he was facing the tasks of reconciliation among Ugandans after decades of division and distrust just like Nigeria did after our own civil war. He invited me to return to Kampala a few months hence to witness what the will of a determined people can do towards post war reconstruction. He told me he was out to fix not only the broken landscape of the city but more importantly the destroyed lives of many poor Ugandans. When I mentioned what I had seen of the devastation of AIDS in the countryside, he nearly shed tears but sternly reassured me that he would contain the scourge of the epidemic by all means.

I left Museveni on a note of optimism on the prospects of Africa’s comeback after the days of the Mobutus, Amins, Obotes and Bokasas. Given my own left leaning ideas, I found Museveni a kindred spirit and an unusually enlightened and progressive African statesman. He questioned everything: African traditions, beliefs, the assumptions of African history, the political legacy of the colonialists and the neo colonial state. He discussed pathways to Africa’s future economic development  and the urgent need to question and possibly jettison old development models being peddled by the West through the World Bank and the IMF.

That was Museveni back in 1990-91.

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