Ever since his controversial re-election to a record fourth elected term, Uganda’s President, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been living in interesting times. Never before has he had so much on his proverbial plate to deal with. From the opposition-organised Walk to Work campaign in May that left his already tattered reputation as a democrat in shreds, to strikes over pay, working conditions and the generally bad economic situation by school teachers, university lecturers and traders, and the now threatened mass action over his desire and seeming determination to give away a natural tropical forest to a sugar tycoon, he has been like a fireman trying to fight several raging infernos at once with a single fire extinguisher.
Remarkably, as he has fought to stay on top of things, sometimes in vain, other times successfully but possibly only temporarily, he has remained impressively composed, at least on the surface. As if to demonstrate his unflappability, he has dismissed with the wave of a hand and the occasional boast about his credentials as a fighter and “historical duty” to guide Ugandans out of backwardness, all suggestions that the country, the economy, and possibly himself, are in for difficult times ahead.
Nonetheless, bravado and hubris aside, all indications point to a Museveni who deep down understands the potential low-intensity unrest has for turning into a powerful catalyst for the still lacking but in the eyes of many, much-needed united front of forces for change.
And so, he has taken to deploying one of his most enduring weapons against critics, detractors and enemies, real or imagined, who he cannot beat or chooses not to try and beat into submission: Charm. Close aides and comrades, past and present, attest to its potency especially with members of the opposite sex. Apparently if he had to, he could easily use it to lure birds out of the trees. Invitations have been issued, sometimes by himself directly through phone calls, to leaders and representatives of different disgruntled groups, for talks at one or other of his official and private residences.
One eye-catching charm offensive that seemed to remain under the radar of many pundits was that directed at members of the environmentalist fraternity and some of their supporters in parliament who were asked to go have a chat with him and the sugar tycoon to whom he seeks to gift a large chunk of a natural forest, hundreds of kilometres outside the capital, Kampala. One picture from the meeting shows a jovial Museveni, who is reported to have retreated from his earlier position of “going to war” over the issue, and to have assumed the more conciliatory and arguably more dignified one of leaving the final decision to parliament.
As for the environmentalists and their friends, it is difficult not to notice how smug they looked, rather like cats after a cream-licking escapade, possibly in the belief that they had finally defeated the old warrior and his machinations. However, history shows that in battles of any kind, Museveni tends to have only two choices: Either he wins or his opponents lose.
In this particular case, his choice of parliament as the final arbiter in his argument with environmentalists over Mabira Forest contains more than simply a soupcon of political poison that may be used to defeat them eventually. The outcome of the term limits debate in 2005 and that of the controversy surrounding the passing of the Traditional and Cultural Leaders Bill just prior to the recent general election, both of which are attributed to gifting MPs with a few thousand dollars’ worth of shillings, ought to serve as pointers to what may be afoot.
Already rumours are flying, as they always do where government business tends to be shrouded in murkiness, that clandestine efforts are underway to mobilise the numbers required to secure victory in parliament. Were that to be true, Museveni’s seeming climb-down would be a strategic retreat before the final battle in which opposition to the Mabira giveaway would be swept aside.
True, many new parliamentarians, including members of his own party, have shown great reluctance through their outspokenness, to be rubber stamps for the executive’s whims. Nonetheless, alongside them are scores of others whose greed for money is insatiable, among them participants in previous cash-for-votes scandals, those whose desire to be appointed ministers overrides any other consideration, and others whose lack of exposure leaves them vulnerable to manipulation.
As the sugar barons continue to insist on acquiring more land through the government rather than the market, and as President Museveni continues to pursue his individual vision of “showing Ugandans the way forward” to industrialisation and modernity, the biggest mistake the save-Mabira crusaders could make is allow themselves to be charmed into self-satisfied complacency. The battle for the forest is far from over.