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Uganda reels under a saviour turned dictator

By | May 15th 2011

By Alex Kiprotich in Kampala

The problems ailing Africa is aptly captured in the book What is Africa’s Problem when the author says "the problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power."

One would think the author is a literary icon at Harvard, Oxford, MIT or Leeds University. But no, the genius who identified the problem and offered to fix it is a man, who has been in power for the last 25 years and was on Thursday sworn in for another five-year term.

President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been in power for so long that Ugandans have resigned to fate and do not want to believe that he is the same man that liberated the country from the dictatorship of Idi Amin. They bury their head in the sand arguing that the Museveni of 1986 — when he took power and when he authored the book — is different from the Museveni in power today.

"I can tell you for sure they are not the same and if the two met in the street today they would fight on sight… they would shoot each other," George Kanyeihamba, a former Supreme Court Judge, who was a minister when Museveni ascended to power in 1986, told a Ugandan newspaper.

Since 1986 when Museveni overran the streets of Kampala he has held grip of the once volatile nation also described as the Pearl of Africa. To be able to lead such a country, which has seen seven of its heads of states removed by the gun needs wit, ruthlessness and acerbic calculations.

Endemic corruption

And it is not only his ruthlessness that Ugandans are worried about. Corruption is ingrained in the society’s culture and has become such a monster that it threatens to bring down the country on its knees.

Unemployment rate is also at alarming levels with so many graduates languishing in the streets with nothing constructive to do. This can explain why Kampala has been under the grip command of the opposition leader Kizza Besigye.

"It is hard life here my friend. It is only by the grace of God," says Mark Butagira, who cleared his university degree two years ago.

This educated and unemployed generation is rebelling against the government demanding that Museveni’s time is up. Though Museveni is still crushing the protests, if it is not addressed as a matter of priority it will reach a point of no return.

Just to capture how weary some Ugandans have become of Museveni, one journalist said of the president before the swearing in ceremony, "Listen carefully to Museveni’s speech today and you will hear him listing the progress made from 1986 to the present: tax collections, kilometres of tarmacked roads, electricity generation, school enrolment… He has repeated this so often that he doesn’t read them off the page anymore."

And that is exactly what happened when Museveni stood to address his supporters after the swearing in ceremony. He went on enumerating what he termed as his achievements since 1986, including the recent decision to supply 80 text books to each of the public secondary schools.

Trademark colours

All this he said to the applause of thousands of his supporters in their trademark yellow colours and the nodding of African leaders in attendance.

Presidents present included Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania.

Others included Somalia’s Sheikh Ahmed Sharif, Salva Kiir of South Sudan, Muhammed Abdelaziz of Sahrawi Arab Republic, Joseph Kabila of Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Retired president Moi also attended the inauguration at Kololo independence ground.

Talking to Ugandans in the streets of Kampala, one gets the feeling that they have lived a life similar to a certain character in the book So Many Hungers by Bhabani Bhattacharya’s who lines up for hours to get a life-saving bowl of rice during India’s Bengal famine.

When this character finally gets to the head of the queue, he is so overwhelmed by the aroma of the meal and excitement; he kneels and dies before eating the rice.

"We have had promises year in year out since 1986 and little is done before five years elapses and we get the same ‘new’ promises all over again," said Paul Kavulu, 45.

Kavulu who did not attend the swearing in ceremony said there was nothing to celebrate because life has been more difficult in the recent past.

Petrol retails for USh3,350 (KSh145) a litre, which is beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen. This is despite the swearing in ceremony that gobbled up Sh4 billion and where Museveni advised Ugandans to prepare for bumper harvests because the problems in the country have been caused by drought.

"We are in real problems but as usual the army who I believe some of them sleep hungry continues to clobber us. I believe at some point they will see sense that Besigye is not fighting Museveni but fighting for the emancipation of Ugandans," he said.

Paul Ssembijja said Museveni had overstayed in power and needed to give room for new blood.

"He has outlived his usefulness and the way he is behaving is exactly the way past dictators behaved before the might of the gun removed them from power. For Nicholas Kanaabi, however, Uganda has witnessed tremendous changes under Museveni and he should be allowed to lead as long as the people vote for him.

Kanaabi says the opposition is bringing trouble to the president and Ugandans in general and should be dealt with firmly because there is a limit unto which you can stretch a man’s patience and anger.

"Museveni is our leader and should be respected. He is also a military man and there is a limit which he cannot allow himself to be pushed to the wall and opposition should be careful on that," says the taxi operator.

He says the presence of military in the streets of Kampala should not be a source of concern to any peaceful individual because they do not harass anyone.

When asked whether Museveni would eventually be removed from power, the taxi operator says it is possible but not by the current opposition.

"The current crop and especially Besigye really anger some of us. Every time he is around there is no peace. I do not understand why they finally let him come back from Kenya. The decision to block him at JKIA was a wise one otherwise I won’t be driving you around now," he says.

Mary Bahikaho said Museveni deserved to continue ruling and dismissed those questioning his treatment of opposition leaders as not knowing the history of Uganda.

"Sevo (Museveni) should continue leading. He is our president and those criticising him are naÔve. They do not know how Uganda was before he came to power," she said.

But Ugandans are slowly showing the willingness to take Museveni’s government head.

"Change is inevitable no matter how long it will take but we are aware we are dealing with-a man who has fought and killed on his way to power and would not let go power easily. If it will mean killing to stay in power he will do exactly that... but for how long? The world is watching," says Mary Ndebesa a student at Makerere University.

And as he begins his fourth term in office, Museveni may go down history as a man who started a journey to shape the destiny of Uganda but was eventually shaped by destiny itself.

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