I was amazed to hear Yoweri Museveni lamenting about foreign interference in the internal affairs of Uganda. These fellows, he said, in reference to foreign news networks in particular and the West in general, have a primitive culture that allows interference in other people’s affairs. He intimated that African culture would never allow him to interfere in other people’s business.
Now, this was exactly the sentiment voiced by African leaders in the 1980s when they were faced with agitation for a return to democracy. They castigated news networks and the West for trying to impose a foreign ideology on otherwise peace-loving Africans. Democracy, they said, was a system alien to African culture, because it was adversarial while African traditional “democracy” was consentaneous. They dismissed those calling for democracy as foreign stooges.
Human rights originations, such as Amnesty International, were accused of trying to bring about a re-colonisation of Africa.
When Museveni took power in 1986, he represented a new kind of leadership. He brought stability to a country ravaged by murderous chaos for decades. He revived an economy ruined by corrupt regimes, beginning with Milton Obote’s in the 1960s. In the rest of Africa, his progressive ideas were a beacon of hope on a continent in the vicious grip of tyranny and consequent poverty. He supported progressive forces in Kigali when the rest of Africa looked the other way. Likewise, he gave support to forces attempting to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko’s rapacious dictatorship.
Kenyan dissidents, facing death or jail, found safe passage through Uganda. He memorably called the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor body to the African Union, a “trade union of dictators”. He advocated for a new Africa where leaders served the people, not their stomachs. He did not object when the West and human rights organisations, which he now criticises for interfering in the internal affairs of Africa, praised the new breed of African leadership he represented.
But oh, how years at the top change everything! Critics and oppositions members like Bibi Wine are regularly arrested. Elections are accompanied by intimidation and violence.
In the region, Museveni is a defender of the old order. He is now an ardent supporter of the AU which, like its predecessor body, looks the other way as leaders terrorise and impoverish their citizens, but is quick to condemn ill-treatment of African-Americans in America. Museveni, who once said that the problem of Africa was leaders not wanting to leave power, now says that longevity in power has made him an expert in governance.
Now, if he Museveni were a Lee Kuan Yew, the man who presided over Singapore’s spectacular rise, perhaps his longevity in power could be justified. But like last week’s column argued, his continuation in power is detrimental to the economic and social welfare of Uganda in particular and Africa in general. Who would have thought back then that Museveni, like Mugabe, would transform from liberator to oppressor.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator