“We have people in power who are not accountable to the people. If there is a regime like that, there is no way you can guarantee that it will not mismanage the economy today or tomorrow. Therefore the only thing to do is the restore peace to the people of Uganda. Let them be the sovereign power in the land.”
Who said that? Surely it must be Robert Kyagulani, the young radical MP and singer known as Bobi Wine who has been upsetting President Yoweri Museveni recently. You might think so.
Actually it was Yoweri Museveni himself in his book published in 1985, the year before he came to power.
At that time his National Resistance Movement (NRM) guerrilla fighters were closing in on the capital, Kampala. It was an idealistic movement – focused, disciplined and patient. Led by well-educated Ugandans and Rwandans. But as they closed in on the capital, Kampala, the battle degenerated into mass random killings. Ugandan troops, led by officers from the north, were supported by a unit of North Korean soldiers who were hiring out their troops to the regime headed by President General Tito Okello. The killing zone was the Luwero triangle, a thickly forested area to the north and west of Kampala the capital. Most of the inhabitants had fled, everywhere were signs of deserted villages. At the edge of every one were crude wooden racks stacked with piles of skulls and human bones. A dozen here, fifty there and several piles outside trading stations amounting to hundreds. Ask the few people who were living in makeshift shelters and dared to speak and the answer was always the same: “Men came with guns. They killed everyone”. No one dared speak the identity of the killers.
Shortly afterwards a briefly-observed ceasefire agreement allowed the Koreans to leave, the Okello government was overthrown by Museveni’s guerrilla army (which had been supported and trained by Britain) disintegrated and fled north.
A few days later Museveni’s army walked into Kampala. His arrival on the chaotic Uganda scene – six presidents in seven years – brought both vision and discipline. The last white judge in Uganda, Sir Peter Allen, presided over Museveni’s swearing in which was threatened by an air attack but went ahead. Museveni’s inaugural speech was clear, positive and practical. His lieutenants, many of the graduates from Makerere University, were idealistic and professional. In the early days when criticised or mocked Museveni did not respond. The UK Foreign Office which had backed the recent murderous regimes issued a grudging and patronising statement which had spelling mistakes in it. To almost everyone in the capital it was clear that this was real change. People stopped disappearing at night. The killings ended. So did the anarchy. Eventually Britain’s aid minister, Lynda Chalker, flew in and promised support which was delivered quickly. She and Museveni became close friends.
He visited London regularly, slipping in quietly with a small staff. As one of the Africanist journalists in London I would get a call from Professor George Kiyria, the High Commissioner, and invited to meet the president. He seemed to enjoy batting against our quick-fire questions and often turned the press conference into a seminar.
Well-armed gangsters and political movements with an armed wing still terrorised the countryside but gradually they were killed or caught as Museveni’s army spread out across the rest of the country. He created a political system of devolved power based on elections at every level from national government to elected headmen and village chiefs. It seemed to work though not universally. In the late 1980s and early 90s Uganda recovered and began to develop rapidly. So good was Museveni’s image that the Commonwealth made Uganda the host of its 2007 conference attended by the Queen.
But two problems arose. One was the military leadership of the regime. The other was that leadership contained a number of Rwandans. They were the children of Tutsi refugees who had fled from the Hutu uprising in the late 1950s. One of them was Paul Kagame. Museveni could not promote them to senior posts once the government was established. In 1990 the Rwandans decided to go home. Taking what they needed from Uganda’s armouries they launched an attack on Rwanda. It has never been completely clear whether Museveni gave them his blessing or the key to the armouries. But he certainly allowed a steady flow of Ugandan weapons for Tutsi Rwandans as they returned home.
That return triggered the genocide in 1994 and the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. More than a million Rwandans fled into Congo – then known as Zaire – pursued by the two armies, Ugandan and Rwandan. There they found themselves sitting on top of the richest mineral deposits in the world. Gold, diamonds, columbite tantalite, timber and other valuables were shipped out to Uganda to the world markets. Senior Ugandan army officers became exceedingly rich. They easily chased away the avaricious commanders of Congo’s army as well as the local people but then the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents fell out with each other as they backed different local Congolese politicians and warlords. In several battles between 1999 and 2002 Kagame and Museveni, using heavy weapons, destroyed much of Kisangani, Congo’s second largest town, causing heavy loss of life.
Meanwhile in northern Uganda another war had started. Or perhaps it had begun in 1980s. When Museveni’s army crossed the Nile and headed into northern Uganda I assumed that it would behave much as it had in bringing peace to southern Uganda. I was wrong. From the moment southern troops crossed the Nile and moved in the territory of the Acholi, they looted and raped and carried out executions without trial. A leadership vacuum in Acholiland (most of its officers had been murdered by Idi Amin’s army and others killed during the overthrow of the Okello regime, a strange movement called the Holy Spirit Movement emerged. Half military, half spiritual it was a weird but disciplined army, led by a spirit-possessed leader, Alice Lakwena. She was captured but the movement continued as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militaristic semi religious sect which employed children as foot soldiers. Later I interviewed some of the children who said they were former LRA fighters who had been captured but I noticed they all said almost exactly the same thing in the same words. They described in the same detail what they had done to people, cutting off limbs and killing people in horrible ways.
The government used these stories to justify forcing the entire Acholi population into “protected villages”. But they failed to provide many of them with food and medical care. The United Nations agencies were slow to react and soon the camps were showing the worst mortality rates ever recorded among a civilian population since the Biafran war. At the time this catastrophe was blamed on the Holy Spirit Movement and its terrifying antics. But while this spirit-led army was kidnapping children and turning them into brutal fighters, Museveni’s army commanders were rounding up all the Acholi’s livestock and sending them south to their own farms. Food convoys to the camps were continuously attacked but who by? Western diplomats tended not to go there but they continued to support Museveni because they trusted him. After all he was helping the West by providing peace-keeping troops for Somalia and playing an important role in the war in South Sudan – places where Western countries did not want to send their troops. As so often in African politics, the western donors supported the “good guys” but found themselves being bound into alliances from which they could not escape. If they tried to step away, the African commanders could always arrange a catastrophe to keep the aid flowing. Museveni is a past master in such tactics.
Now President for life in all but name, he enjoys jumping through the constitutional hoops but always bending them to his advantage. He has tried to bend the constitution to make his son his successor and then his much-disliked wife. But Parliament is not – so far – letting him do that. His main rival, former comrade and personal doctor, Kizza Besigye, bravely stands for election and gets arrested and beaten – both physically and electorally. These moves failed so he ordered parliament to remove the constitutional age-limit of 75 in 2017 so he could continue ruling.
Museveni well knows that he is now hated by Uganda’s urban youth, the huge young generation and the youth of Africa. Things can only get worse. The median age in Uganda is just under 16. He has nothing to offer them. Now their frustration has been voiced by Bobi Wine, a youth from a Kampala slum who sings and talks their language. He has been swept into parliament without even thinking of establishing a political party. For that he has been brutally assaulted, deliberately sexually. His driver was shot dead – apparently mistaken for Wine but he bravely returned to Uganda after going the US for medical treatment. The generation battle continues. But there will only be one winner. It will not be Museveni. Sadly unless he changes he will go down, not as the man who brought freedom and peace to Uganda, but one of the last in a long tragic line of brutal African dictators.