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Is Uganda marching towards inevitable turning point?

Is Uganda marching towards inevitable turning point?

Some random thoughts, in no particular sequence, as I reflect on my homeland. I claim no authority. Mine are just interpretations of a seasoned witness to the drama of politics in autocracies and dictatorships that have come and gone over the last fifty-five years. 


Print and video reports continue to deliver news of violence and repression against the Ugandan opposition. The president and his minister of security have issued threats of violence against their subjects. They talk of shooting people with the casualness of a dentist referring to a tooth extraction.


The emergence of a vigorous and courageous resistance, led by Robert “Bobi Wine” Kyagulanyi, has triggered panic. The people seem to be emboldened. The panicky regime seems to be even more addicted to bullets, grenades and teargas as insurance against loss of power. It is a perfect recipe for bloodshed and fresh tears in a land that has had more than its share of pain.


To some, this is surprising. Even shocking. To me, it is a logical progression of a regime that is losing control. Not an overnight occurrence, you understand, but a gradual retreat from the high promise of a fundamental change three decades ago to the reality of a failed, flailing effort to turn the land into a personal realm of the supreme ruler. 


The country may not yet be at the turning point, but it is inevitable unless the regime changes course and seeks peace through a freedom offensive. The turning point will come like a thief in the night. Unexpected. Unstoppable.  Messy.


The ruler and his courtiers know it. So, their trademark swagger and unlimited confidence has given way to overt fear and desperation. The intellectual vigour and thirst for debate that undergirded their operations decades ago is now hostage to reflex intolerance of alternative ideas.


There is complete panic in the face of a new generation of brave opponents. Men and women who were among the most active youth leaders in their day, cannot stand the thought that today’s youth have a similar drive to reclaim their country and the capacity to effect change. 


There once lived a group of dynamic youth that were at the centre of the political drama that shaped Uganda’s path in the late years of British rule and the early years of independence. For the most part, the stories of their exploits lie buried in the mist that shrouds our past, with only the roles of two of them so amplified that the myth has emerged that they were the only young men that sought a place at the high table of the land. 


A very incomplete list of young political activists of the late 1950s to the early 1970s who readily come to mind includes Apollo Milton Obote, Augustine Kamya, Abubakar Kakyama Mayanja, Grace Katebariirwe Ibingira, John Kakonge, Ali Kirunda Kivejinja, Dani Wadada Nabudere, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, Matthew Rukikaire, Ephraim Akiiki Mujaju, John Ateker Ejalu, Boloki Chango Machyo W’Obanda, Joshua Wanume Kibedi, Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Museveni, Eriya Tukahiirwa Kategaya, Ruhakana Rugunda, Charles Kagenda Atwoki, James Oporia Ekwaro, Emmanuel Tumusiime Mutebile, Patrick Masette Kuuya, Omwony Ojok, Jack Sabiiti, Christopher Twesigye, Sulaiman Kiggundu, Apollo K. Muyunga, John Luzzi Kigundu,  Kisimba Masiko, Paulo Wangola, Olara Otunnu and Amama Mbabazi. 


While their passion for change was in the right place, one notes, in passing, that these young men were operating in conditions of personal comfort. They received excellent free education and healthy stipends (boom) from the colonial and/or immediate post-colonial state, lived in hotel-like residences at universities and colleges, with assured jobs after graduation, complete with free housing, car loans and other benefits of post-secondary certificates. 


What personal challenges they faced were child’s play compared to the hopelessness that is the reality of today’s cohort. The latter are very educated and smart, yet they are unemployed or underemployed. They know their rights but endure abuse, injury and risk of death just because they “want in,” not as a favour to them but as a right of citizenship.  


They demand their rights and opportunities, yet all they hear are patronizing and condescending references to them as “bazukulu” (grandchildren), as though they are not adult men and women who seek to build a secure future just like that which the children of the rulers take for granted.  They listen to the country’s ruler wondering aloud what it is they are opposing, thus affirming that the  disconnect is far wider than they had imagined. 


They hear more of the same empty promises, but no longer buy the deception. They hear him declare them unfit to lead because they are as young as the lot that took charge at independence. Yet Kyagulanyi, now 38, is in the same age bracket as Museveni was when he became president in 1986.  Kyagulanyi is much older than Museveni’s colleagues with whom he captured power. Gen. Elly Tumwine, who has become the de facto vice-president, was a 32-year-old when they rode into town. 


So, the business of harping on the presumed incompetence of the youth who are fighting to lead Uganda today is dishonest to the extreme. Museveni’s declaration that Uganda needs youth leaders who are “spiritually and morally disciplined” falls flat in the face of the extreme corruption and moral rot that has plagued his court from the start. The immorality that was displayed during the NRM’s primary elections a few months ago spoke volumes about the tragedy that befell our country.


Museveni’s charge that the country needed youth that were “ideological” was another way of saying he wanted a new generation of yes-men who would take up the baton of sycophancy that has hobbled all possibility of positive transformation under his watch. 


Meanwhile, one gets the sense of building excitement among those who smell victory in next month’s pseudo-election. Good luck and God’s speed, I say. My interest is not just how to secure a smooth and peaceful regime change, but how to repair the broken land and reconfigure a sustainable, functioning country out of the mess. 


Uganda will not be fixed overnight. It will require steadfast, coordinated rebuilding to create a free society for all, within a workable federation of its stubbornly distinct ethnic communities. Uganda needs its troubled past exorcised and a new agenda agreed. How to achieve this is what we need to wrestle with.  


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