President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda believes that God has gifted his country with only one person who can manage its challenges. He contends that the “still enormous” challenges include that of “strategic security for Africa.”
In the ongoing controversy about whether the limit on the age of anyone aspiring to become or remain president should be maintained at a minimum of 35 and a maximum of 75 or opened up to younger and older persons, it has become clear who he thinks possesses the necessary special abilities: Himself.
The idea that Museveni is especially gifted with talents, skills and knowledge no one else has is not new. His wife and Minister of Education Janet Kataaha has said as much in the past. A few months ago, he reiterated it in a speech at a public function.
He assured Ugandans that he was not anybody’s servant [referencing public servant]. If anyone thought he was, “you are deceiving yourself,” he said, emphasising his credentials as a revolutionary. He reminded his audience that he was in power because “I am a revolutionary whom you thought could help you.”
There is a time when many Ugandans believed such assertions. They saw Museveni as special. To understand why, one has to reflect on the country’s political history before he and the National Resistance Movement seized power.
Also, the early years of his rule proved that he did indeed have attributes that set him apart from his predecessors. There was, for example, his understanding of what needed to be done to unify what at the time was a deeply divided country, and to do so on a durable basis.
At the time, Ugandans were almost unanimously grateful to have him as president. Only a small minority, seemingly driven by narrow political agendas or seen as sour losers, having been ejected from power, dissented and warned the deliriously happy majority that the man they were fascinated by wasn’t who they imagined he was.
That was then.
Today, Museveni is still a darling to a sizeable group who are adding their voices to the effort to amend the Constitution and pave the way for him to stay on.
However, he has a problem: Far fewer Ugandans are convinced that he is the gift they once imagined he was, and that he is the person to take forward the country he rescued from perennial political instability. No amount of self-praise or self-congratulation on his part or noisy support and manoeuvring by his supporters will change this.
Perhaps most perplexing about this is his own seeming failure or refusal to notice that the way growing numbers of his compatriots see and think of him has indeed changed.
It is perplexing because many years ago, whenever he applied his analytical skills to diagnosing what was wrong with this continent, he argued forcefully that part of “Africa’s problem” was longevity in office of leaders who sought to hang on endlessly.
Thinking over the past three decades, it seems to me as if Yoweri Museveni has come to take Ugandans a little too much for granted. The handling of the age limit controversy provides ample evidence for this.
It is a while now since commentators started suggesting that he would seek a constitutional amendment to get around the age restriction. Even when it became clear that the process had begun and that he was squarely behind it, he chose to play hide and seek, dismissing all public discussion of the matter as “idle talk.”
Soon enough, it became clear that it wasn’t only commentators he was dismissive of. He was taking his own political party and its key decision-making organs equally lightly. It has long been known that the National Resistance Movement is little more than a tool he uses to pursue his ambitions.
That it would be excluded from the initial planning and that a hitherto relatively obscure individual Member of Parliament would be tasked with taking the matter to parliament was therefore not surprising. Also not surprising was the reaction of a minority of internal rebels to their continued marginalisation.
What came as a surprise, however, was the emergence of new voices of internal dissent in an organisation Museveni dominates almost completely.
Perhaps nothing highlights Museveni’s belief that his continued national appeal as president is self-evident than his decision not to subject the matter to wider public consultation in the same way other contentious issues, including the very making of the Constitution he now treats as a “mere piece of paper,” have been.
Even as a cross-section of opinion leaders and opinion makers within his own party, in religious organisations, and civil society continue to urge him to let go, the president is banking on support from carefully selected small groups, which he believes are enough to legitimise his ultimate objective.
In taking Ugandans for granted, however, may lie the seeds of an undignified eventual exit for a man who once upon a time seemed destined to retire as a hero, even to those who initially viewed him with suspicion.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]