The Christmas season in Kampala is never boring. Unlike for the folks in the countryside, for Kampalans it comes with pretty decorations, lights and fireworks. Granted, it can be stressful, particularly so for those who seek to depart from their normal everyday lives and live it as if it will last forever, as if there is no tomorrow.
For starters, there is money to be looked for, to shop for “good food,” exotic drinks and, for some, new clothes.
For those who are into giving presents, one has to think about and also find them for friends and relatives, never mind that in some instances the sort of things people get are not those they need or which they would buy for themselves if they could afford them.
The political scene is usually quiet, the politicians having taken time off to prepare for the festivities.
This year the season produced something unusual: A lively, often angry, sometimes plain nasty debate about politics and related matters. Members of the public who follow these things couldn’t stop sharing the angry missives that were flying back and forth on social media.
It started with some bold commentary by a local analyst and commentator. Not known for being reserved or pulling his punches, the commentator had made comparisons between President Yoweri Museveni and his main rival and opponent over several presidential elections, Dr Kiiza Besigye.
As far as he is concerned, the two men are very similar in the way they think of themselves and of their place in the country’s politics and history, and in the way their supporters and admirers relate to them and to their ambitions.
It is 30 years since President Museveni came to power. Ugandans have come to think many things about him over that period. Among those most mentioned by his critics each time they want to give him a good knocking, is his critique of “African leaders” for staying in power “for too long,” a common theme in his early speeches following his ascendance to the presidency; and his promise, possibly meant at the time, to leave power only four years after he took over.
Well, he is still here and showing no sign of preparing to leave. He who once castigated others for hanging on for too long now says his critique was meant for leaders who stick around without subjecting themselves to the popular vote and having their mandates renewed through the ballot box.
This transformation in thinking is mirrored somewhat in Dr Besigye’s own career as an opposition politician. He rightly decries the deviation by both Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement, from the ideals for which he and other young men and women chose to go to the bush and put their lives on the line as they fought to dislodge a government and system they accused of dishonesty, manipulation, and worse.
A key issue for Dr Besigye and about which he was adamant before anyone in the NRM could say it publicly, is that President Museveni has not honoured his pledge, made several times, to retire. And so it came as a bit of a surprise for many who have all along seen him as representing a certain freshness in politics, when he was quoted by media recently, telling those who want to see him retire from active politics and give up fighting for the presidency to “forget” it.
The most recent presidential election was the fourth time he was trying his luck. Now of course, KB as he is popularly known, is not president. So anyone who is far-minded ought not to accuse him of ‘staying in power for too long.”
Remarkably, both men refuse to leave because each one believes he has a historical role to play on behalf of Ugandans. Museveni, said to believe he is the only one who can ensure continuity of Uganda’s achievements over the past 30 years, now claims he also wants to help liberate Africa. Meanwhile KB believes that his continued gunning for the presidency will help accelerate Museveni’s departure.
He sees this as critically important if the kind of reforms he, others in the opposition and sections of the public see as necessary to bring about democracy and good governance are to take place.
Each man’s supporters endorse this messianic image they have of themselves, with each side seeing their own man as indispensable, while curiously pointing fingers at the other man for not making way for others.
It is on the basis of these and other facts that the commentator mentioned earlier, asserted his belief that the two men are very similar, for which he got much abuse in return, from either side.
For me the issue is not how similar the two men are. It is whether Ugandans should continue to pretend that longevity in any political role is wrong, but only for politicians they do not like or support.
If it is acceptable for KB not to give way to others as long as he believes he shouldn’t and as long as his supporters agree, perhaps other leaders, presidents included, should do the same. Food for thought, as Ugandans contemplate the much-awaited and long overdue national dialogue.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]