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Kenya: a warning sign for those with eyes and ears ​ ​

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Kenya: a warning sign for those with eyes and ears ​ ​

Photo: Kenya Parliament Buildings, Nairobi (built in 1954).


After years of chaos in the land, the people that captured power in Uganda in 1986 had the excellent opportunity, space and time to discharge the generally accepted responsibilities of a government, namely, (1) human rights protection, (2) maintenance of law and order, (3) provision of public goods and services, (4) economic regulation, (5) resource distribution, (6) environment protection, (7) national defence, and (8) international relations. 


Thirty-eight years later, President Yoweri Museveni and his courtiers have undermined their place in history through a uniform failure to place the interests of the citizens above those of the rulers.  A partial look at some aspects of the Museveni regime illustrates the point.


Notwithstanding a myriad sweet-sounding phrases in the Constitution of Uganda, such as “all power belongs to the people,” and “basic rights and freedoms of the individual are inherent and not given by the State,” our country is a personalized realm where an imperial president has total control over the people, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, the armed organizations, the economy, and a significant percentage of the religious organizations. 


Citizens enjoy human rights at the pleasure of the president. For example, the Constitutional provision that guarantees citizens the “freedom of assembly and to demonstrate together with others peacefully” is not worth the paper on which it is written. Unlike Kenyan youth who exercised this human right to a certain extent last week, their Ugandan counterparts would be stopped with more lethal force than that which was exercised by the Kenya Police and Army. 


Notwithstanding recent setbacks, Kenya has moved forward since the days of President Daniel arap Moi. Uganda has moved in reverse towards the absolutism that was once condemned by Museveni. But even if the Ugandan ruler allowed the demonstrations to take place, there would be violence. The police would respond to the peaceful protest with violence, or the protesters would be deliberately infiltrated with violent actors to create reasons for a violent response by the police and army. By his own words, the Ugandan ruler relishes the prospect of killing his opponents. 


Reacting to a circulating document on social media inviting people to a peaceful anti-corruption demonstration in Kampala on July 23, a retired Ugandan doctor wrote: “that is a death warrant.” The doctor’s fear is very realistic. In Uganda, maintenance of law and order is premised on violently suffocating the freedoms of the political opposition, while promoting political campaigns of the ruler, his presumptive successor and ruling party politicians. Other areas of law and order are secondary to the primary goal of serving the ruler’s interests.


An area where Uganda and Kenya share a common trait is in their legislators’ exercise of their roles in parliament. Most ruling party MPs in both countries represent their respective presidents, not the people that elected them. In last week’s vote on Kenya’s Finance Bill 2024, MPs voted “yes” because that was what President Ruto wanted. The financial pain and views of their constituents did not matter.


On the other hand, the MPs in the two countries attach different values to their votes. The Kenyan MP is worth three times their Ugandan counterpart. The allegation that the Kenyan ruling party MPs were paid KES 2 million each ($15,000) to support the Finance Bill 2024 was reminiscent of their Ugandan counterparts’ acceptance of UGX 5 million each ($2,800) in 2005 to abolish the presidential term limit. The Ugandan MPs’ fee-for-votes was equivalent to $4,500 in today’s currency. 


The executive and parliament in both countries are parasites that give priority to provision of royal goods and services to the executive and MPs, at the expense of the public. Whereas the national budgets provide for expenditure on healthcare, education, infrastructure and such, their priority is to ensure maximum comfort for the president and his courtiers, and a pampered lifestyle for the legislators. They are detached from the real struggles and needs of their constituents whose only value is to elect them to parliament. 


Space does not allow detailed comment on the Museveni regime’s discharge of its duty to ensure economic stability, promote entrepreneurship, while upholding fair competition in the private sector. Suffice to say that the economic success story that was Uganda’s destiny was sabotaged by state-sanctioned corruption, overt conflict of interests, with government leaders directly engaged in business and partnerships governed by legislation crafted or supervised by the very participants in those businesses.


Little effort has been given to supporting the growth of local entrepreneurship. Instead, the country’s mineral and other natural resources, and other lucrative contracts, have been preferentially handed over to foreign companies for exploitation, akin to the Congo Free State (Zaire) under Mobutu Sese Seko. 


Without doubt, Museveni has overseen significant economic and infrastructural progress during his long tenure as president. However, this has been at the expense of creating a broad-based, sustainable economy in which most citizens feel they have a stake. Most indigenous business owners live hand to mouth. The lucrative, large-scale industries, real estate, farming, and mining are monopolised by a small number of people and, mostly, foreign owned companies.  


Meanwhile the government has continued to accumulate public debt without benefitting the lives of most Ugandans, half of whom are less than eighteen years of age. At the end of December 2023, Uganda's total public debt was Sh. 93.38 trillion ($24.69 billion), with the external debt portion at Sh. 55.37 trillion ($14.64 billion). Although it is still below the magical debt to GDP threshold of 52.4 percent, it is projected to continue increasing in the foreseeable future. 


Whereas debt itself is not a problem in countries that manage public funds with honesty and disciplined transparency, the profligate spending on the luxurious lifestyles of the ruling class, the commercialized politics that buy support for the ruler, the vast armed and surveillance machines that sustain the ruling house in power, and the massive hemorrhage due to Grabiosis Africanopathis (corruption) mean lost opportunities for using borrowed money for sustainable and equitable development. 


The young generation in Uganda - educated, unemployed, overtaxed, and feeling suffocated - is watching. They will become increasingly restless. Whereas the Museveni regime is ready to crush them should they attempt to do what the Kenyans have done, that will only hold them in check in the short term. Like the volcanos underneath Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo, a time will come when the unstoppable explosion occurs.


This need not happen. Prevention of the eruption is a choice that the Ugandan ruler can make. Social, economic and political justice, human rights promotion and protection, equitable redistribution of wealth, serious prevention of corruption and punishment of thieves of public resources, and prohibition of state violence against citizens may change the course of events. Beating, jailing and killing unarmed political opponents is suicidal political folly. History tells us so.


Changing course will require humility that is not in Museveni’s DNA. But events in Kenya are a warning sign for those with eyes and ears to appreciate the obvious. That should include our warrior president.


© Muniini K. Mulera

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