A review of Daniel K. Kalinaki’s Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s unfinished revolution
It is an article of faith in Ugandan opposition political circles that everything that goes wrong in that country is the fault of its president, Yoweri Museveni and his NRM “Movement” party.
From anti-Museveni – in Uganda being of the opposition quite often is synonymous with simply being against the man and his party! – intelligentsia in institutions like universities to the media punditry that speaks for the opposition, down to dingbat supporters of FDC, or UPC or DP, all will tell you with certainty that every problem of Uganda’s, big and small, stem from Museveni/Movement rule.
In his book, Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution, Ugandan journalist Daniel Kalinaki takes a more nuanced tone; he is careful to mention transgressions committed by the Milton Obote and Idi Amin regimes in the past. But whenever such mentions come they are cursory, perfunctory and few and far between – a sentence here, a paragraph eighteen pages after that, and so on. The 318-page work essentially is an extended indictment of the Museveni administration – “the regime” – as being responsible for almost everything currently wrong with the country.
One of the numerous little giveaways of the author’s political sympathies, if not leanings, is that he rarely brings himself to call the Museveni’s administration a “government”. It is a “regime” throughout, with all the negativity and evil that connotes.
The first clue that Kalinaki is not going to be entirely objective in his book lies in the fact it is partly funded by a foreign NGO, the Open Society Foundations. It describes itself on its website as being founded by (billionaire US philanthropist) George Soros and is “aimed to shape public policy to promote democratic governance, human rights, and economic, legal and social reform”.
Some would say that in reviewing a book we should look strictly at its merits or lack thereof, and that the provenance of its funding has little bearing on what the author has to say. On the contrary, for a proper appraisal of a work like Mr. Kalinaki’s, it is important to keep such a detail in mind. As is the fact that he has spent most of his working life at The Daily Monitor newspaper, which it is safe to say is the main voice of Uganda’s political opposition.
Writers of course are human; they too have their sympathies, or biases and Kalinaki is no different. His main problem is that for an individual of his obvious intellect, he has not risen to the occasion to elevate his country’s political discourse – he hasn’t broken new ground in his criticism of Museveni and the NRM different from the common blame-everything-on-Museveni narrative.
Yes, Kalinaki makes some very legitimate points about Museveni’s dysfunctional government – which seems to become more dysfunctional by the day! It goes without saying that grand corruption in Uganda; ramshackle national institutions; derelict social infrastructure and so on are bound to bring civil strife back to the country unless some urgent and drastic steps are taken to attempt to reverse this alarming situation.
Question is: does anyone in Uganda, whether it is in the Movement, or in the opposition honestly want to map a proper remedial course? Or, or is everyone happy enough to feed at the trough the state has become, only crying foul when they – as individuals – can no longer access that trough?
The Besigye of Kalinaki’s book comes across as a courageous, principled politician, willing to endure all kinds of adversity for democracy. Yet there are a few things about him that do not ring quite true.
Why for example did Besigye – who himself was in exile – seek out exiled former president Milton Obote in Zambia – the same Obote whose security operatives (and I use that phrase very loosely, “goons” would be more like it) almost killed Besigye decades earlier? The book tells us it was a senior Tanzanian army officer that saved him from Obote’s dungeons. Besigye certainly would be just another of the man’s numerous, unaccounted for victims, probably lying in a forest, or in a lake somewhere.
Obote’s smash and grab policies got Uganda off to the terrible start it did. That, sadly, has been most of Africa’s post-independence story.
So what deal was Besigye trying to cut with Obote, whose evil he had had a brush with? Is Kizza Besigye really such an upright, principled man, or maybe he is just another run-of-the-mill Ugandan politician, prepared to cut deals in the opportunistic fashion of a man like, yes, Museveni? Kalinaki doesn’t help us here. He provides neither context, nor background as to what Besigye was doing paying homage to Mr. Obote in Lusaka.
The failure to challenge his subject on such, or any other of Besigye’s more skepticism-inducing statements throughout the book is one of the main weaknesses of Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution.
One of its strengths is that it’s a quite readable book which also breaks news, albeit decades old news. We learn of a few more details about Museveni’s 1981-86 war to oust Obote – like the chilling murder by gunshot of one of the National Resistance Army’s (NRA) first commanders, Hannington Mugabi at the hand of one Jack Mucunguzi. We learn that Museveni’s guerrilla army, the NRA tried Mucunguzi by court martial and sentenced to death, but he ultimately was pardoned by the leader and moved away from the war. The motive of the murder has never come to light.
We also learn that, even back in those dangerous times in the bush when it was should have been obvious that good judgment, honesty and absence of double standards were of paramount importance, Museveni revealed himself to be a far less than sterling leader. A stark shortcoming was the blatant favoritism at display in the camps where his top officers enjoyed much better food in far bigger quantities than the poor rank and file fighters. This trait, of favoritism, manifests itself even further in Museveni’s allowing a few of his top commanders – including his brother Salim Saleh – to keep mistresses when obviously everyone should be seen to be equal; to be sacrificing all life’s comforts together; to be fighting for an ideal that avowedly eschews all forms of injustice.
Here are Museveni’s tendencies to corruption already evident early on. In his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed Museveni tells us his fighters never steal food but purchase it, or give the poor farmers who grow it IOUs when money isn’t available to pay for it. Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution has a different version of events – the guerrillas quite often have to rely on raiding the garden patches of the poorest farmers and stealing their crops. Some of the farmers heckle them, and ask why, “if they are so popular”, they resort to theft for food. Here however Kalinaki counterbalances his tale with anecdotes that show Museveni and his guerrillas had many sympathizers. Some people voluntarily and willingly gave the NRA whatever they could – herds of cattle, crops and so on.
However the sum effect of the first half of Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution is that the author has attempted to establish it in the reader’s mind that Museveni is not a very honorable individual; he is a man who lies often, is hypocritical and ipso facto one not to be counted on to be a good leader of Uganda.
The real tragedy of Museveni is that he had an opportunity to comprehensively heal his country’s wounds. The opportunity slid through his fingers. He only partly did the job.
The second part of the book is where Kalinaki’s biases begin to become more manifest. To be fair to him, in his author’s note he says the book “does not tell all sides of the story”. Yet – if the objective is to “advance the political debate” in his country as he says his intention is – not telling all sides cannot mean you have to mostly eschew efforts to be more even handed. One gets the impression that the country’s past has no bearing upon its present. The author has made very little effort to make that connection; he in fact tries to use Obote’s own words against Museveni, whereby Obote some document that pinned the lion’s share of the atrocities of the bush war on Museveni! Well Mr. Kalinaki, what would you expect Obote to say?
The beginning of Uganda’s problems can objectively only be situated in Obote’s first tenure as ruler of the country, first as executive prime minister then as president.
In the first four-year period alone, after Uganda attained independence Obote not only unilaterally announced the constitution null and void; he also declared a state of emergency. He sent troops – led by none other than the notorious Idi Amin – to go arrest, or even kill the king of the Baganda ethnic group, the Kabaka. The poor man only saved himself with a precipitous scramble over one of the walls at his palace, to later end up in exile in London where he died a pauper. Mutesa’s “crime” was asking the central government to get off his kingdom’s land, an obvious attempt long-term to establish a separate country, a Buganda where he would be paramount ruler. It was a naïve attempt that could easily have been dealt with legally, maybe by parliamentary vote or other means.
Now, here is where the tribal politics of Uganda will always make it practically impossible for any honest political discourse to ever happen. The vast majority of Uganda’s other ethnic groups were in support of Obote’s clearly criminal acts. Because he appeared to be sticking it to the Baganda; to be royally messing them up and leaving them in disarray.
Historically, the Baganda had been resented and hated for their perceived complicity with Britain’s colonizing enterprise in Uganda. The Banyoro community particularly hated them for the historic injustice of having the British hand over large tracts of their land to Buganda. When Obote held a referendum on the “lost counties issue”, the Banyoro promptly (and understandably) declared him a hero! The ethnicities of Obote’s northern region particularly resented the Baganda who tended to look down their noses at them as backward, even primitive people! The fact is, so many Baganda had never endeared themselves to any other of Uganda’s other communities, what with their perceived haughty ways, superior airs and arrogance.
It should have been the duty of a real nationalist leader to make the effort to bring the nation’s communities together, under shared ideals. A determined leader can do so much to forge a national ideal, as one of Obote’s contemporaries; Julius Nyerere was doing across the border in Tanzania. Instead Obote preferred actions like sending Amin with heavy artillery to bombard a palace full of civilians.
Obote’s smash and grab policies got Uganda off to the terrible start it did. That, sadly, has been most of Africa’s post-independence story. Obote’s first rule inflicted wounds on Uganda’s body politic that it has never recovered from.
He told people that “politics is dirty” instead of attempting to portray it – like Nyerere – as a noble calling to serve.
Murder as a “political tactic” was the order of the day. Soldiers became synonymous with armed robbers. So many people lost their lives in the climate of fear, hatred and loathing sowed by the man with the massive head.
The calamitous Idi Amin – but yes, even he has his legion of admirers in Uganda! – dealt even worse injuries upon the country. Looting, robbery, serious shortages of even the most basic goods, massive, daily killings of civilians were what people came to know as government. Public firing squads, with Amin cheering on in the stadiums – that was how this fellow’s government dispensed justice.
“Obote 2” was only a dark extension of Uganda’s darkest days.
To fail to thread together these strands of his country’s narrative, presenting a whole that illustrates how difficult governing was going to be for anyone after these two fellows is the true disservice Ugandan intellectuals often do their countrymen and women.
Museveni is a man of glaring character flaws and shortcomings – that much became clear long ago – but he is nothing short of amazing in having brought back a semblance of normalcy to Ugandan life. Honest criticism of him should not include lumping him with Obote, or even Idi Amin. That grossly distorts history, and deprives the country of a chance to draw the proper lessons required from it.
Museveni’s Uganda is a good place, albeit with serious problems that need urgent action, if I may repeat myself. It is a corrupt place with ramshackle, or entirely lacking public services. But it also is a place of business, fabulous tourism, fabulous nightclubs and fabulous freedoms. Yes, misery abounds. But it is a misery existing side by side with hope.
I can hear the anti-Museveni people angrily hissing at me, telling me to look at the mistreatment; the battering and tear-gassing of the opposition. To which I reply, that is a vast improvement to feeding the opposition to crocodiles in the Nile, or slaughtering their supporters en-masse and burying them in the Namanve forest. Besigye could go to court to petition an election result he didn’t like. Try picturing that with Obote – come on if you are an honest person, try picturing that. The fellow that attempted that would be very brusquely hustled off to the dungeons of Makindye, or others, never to be heard of again.
The real tragedy of Museveni is that he had an opportunity to comprehensively heal his country’s wounds. The opportunity slid through his fingers. He only partly did the job. He has never made any serious attempt at building, or strengthening Uganda’s institutions, with an eye upon posterity. Rather he has subordinated, or manipulated those institutions or organs of state to his personal ends, clinging on to power long after he lost the support and good will of many.
There are many things to criticize Museveni and the NRM for. But for such criticism to be of any value, it has to always be put in proper historical context. Members of the Ugandan opposition too often seem to think demonizing Museveni is the only way to advance their cause – which is why their arguments often have a credibility problem.
Quite simply, you tell any neutral observer that Museveni is Obote, or even Amin!, you only undermine your position. Badly.