Recently, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement celebrated 31 years in power.
In his keynote speech, Museveni told his fellow citizens: “I hear some people saying that I am their servant. I am not a servant of anybody. I am not your servant.” He referred to himself as “a freedom fighter” and emphasised that he is not in power because Ugandans hired him to do what he does as president. He is there to fight for himself, for his beliefs.
Museveni has long been in the habit of making cryptic remarks. This time is no exception.
The clip has gone viral on social media, and many have interpreted the pronouncements to fit their personal view of the man. There is the narrow interpretation, which focuses exclusively on: “I am not your servant.” It portrays him as conceited, self-absorbed, and insensitive to the feelings of Ugandans who have been brought up to believe that public officials, elected ones especially, are “servants of the people,” even if they have never paused to reflect on what it really means. They are merely content to believe it.
Now imagine someone whom they have always been convinced was their servant telling them that he is not. It must hurt.
There is also a wider interpretation of the big man’s words. Instead of focusing on a few salacious bits, it takes the entire pronouncement and tries to put it into context.
Through this approach, Museveni comes out looking like a man on a mission whose fulfilment calls for self-sacrifice, not interest in such things as employment in which one would have to account to someone else out there. Whatever interpretation is valid, if at all any is, Museveni has gifted Ugandans something to keep them talking for now.
Leaving that aside, the festivities were characterised by the usual loud self-congratulation for the many good things both the resident and his party have done over the past three decades. Indeed, there are many. Some critics point at the wide gap between the super-rich, many with connections in the world of politics, and the rest.
They then use it to argue that Museveni’s 30 years in power have produced nothing but mass poverty. There are many poor people out there. However, in general terms, millions of ordinary Ugandans are far better off today than they were three decades ago.
Having said that, it was also significant that the backslapping by the NRM’s high-ups and ordinary activists occurred against the background of happenings suggesting that even as they have done rather well, they have also been prone to sleeping on the job in important respects.
Consider this: As he was being sworn in for his current term of office last year, President Museveni made a firm commitment: “Corruption should and will be stamped out among political leaders and public servants. We are going to stamp out corruption as we stamped out indiscipline in the army.”
Given his government’s poor track record on corruption, few believed him. As the party faithful and their invited guests headed out to listen to flowery speeches, Transparency International released information to the effect that Uganda was the second most corrupt country behind Burundi in the East African Community, and that globally it was one of the most corrupt. The president promised action. Then someone went to sleep.
Recent times have revealed more of this kind of thing, when things that are supposed to happen simply do not. There is, for example, the story of Uganda’s wetlands. There are laws to protect them against encroachment. Members of the public have ignored them systematically over the past 30 years, with impunity. The result?
Destruction of acres upon acres of wetlands across the country, leading in some cases to natural water bodies shrinking in size, and contributing to disruption in weather patterns.
Only recently did the government wake up to the imperative to enforce laws that protect wetlands. It followed a presidential tour of damaged wetlands in different parts of the country. It was clear that all concerned had hitherto been sleeping.
And then there is the story of illegal schools. They are reported to have sprung up in their hundreds across the country. Many have been in existence for years, offering education of whatever quality to young Ugandans, and enabling their owners to earn a living. A few days ago, newspapers started carrying stories quoting Ministry of Education officials warning their owners not to open them for the new school term that is about to begin.
Not all the issues involved are simple and straightforward. Nonetheless, they have been left to operate and allowed to multiply. Where have the concerned officials been all these years?
Especially intriguing was a recent “mass arrest” by the police of people accused of smoking illegal substances, among them the famous shisha. Obviously, as these things became commonplace in Kampala’s bars, someone in law enforcement was sleeping. And so we have 30 years of progress and lots of sleeping.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]