Seemingly fed up with the West, Museveni now emerges Africa's spokesman

Uganda President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni speech at the World Bank IDA 21 at Nairobi KICC on April 29, 2024. [Samson Wire Standard]

President Yoweri Museveni, once a darling of Washington, seems to be undergoing an ideological metamorphosis of sorts – or so he comports himself publicly. 

In his recent speeches at home and abroad, he has been both an ardent nationalist and proponent of pan-Africanism. He minces no words in ripping the West, its institutions and the way its people live. He slaps back at Washington and Brussels when they find fault with his country’s internal policies, while passionately rooting for Uganda’s development and Africa's renaissance.

He pans Africans for exporting raw materials that others process and earn more. 

“I can’t be part of that treachery,” he said last April in an address at an international conference between African leaders and the World Bank.

Whether he’s playing to the gallery or having a genuine light bulb moment, Museveni’s transformation seems to be hearkening back to an era when pan-Africanism was all the rage. 

Museveni's anti-Western rhetoric – now an increasingly à la mode in Africa from the edgy East to the agitated West – is certain to stir a stimulating debate about its seriousness, given Museveni's past.  

In 1998, former U.S. President Bill Clinton called Museveni as well as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki a "new generation" of African leaders.

Museveni, a former guerilla, was never one to shrink from speaking his mind. At times, he reviled fellow African leaders when he’s hugger-mugger with American officials. 

In 2007, he told a US official that Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki “needed to be intimidated,” recommending that the UN Security Council “consider a blockade or sanctions if Eritrea does not listen” and stop sending weapons into Somalia, according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

His ties with the U.S. was so strong in 2008 that in a meeting with Jendayi Frazer, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, he asked the U.S. and Uganda to "coordinate to provide additional air radar information when he flies over international waters” because he was worried that "Qadhafi will attack his plane while flying over international airspace."

But a lot has changed since. 

Museveni’s hold onto power, his harassment of opposition figures and an anti-guy law have all irked Washington and the West in general. 

To twist the knife into their wounds, he appointed his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, as the country's new army chief last March, putting the garrulous 48-year-old in pole position to become his successor. 

As he ages, Museveni seems to have changed, trusting his gut more and not giving a fig about what outsiders think about him or how they would react to his actions and utterances. 

He called the West’s insistence on allowing homosexuality in Africa as a part of social imperialism "to impose social values of one group on our society.” 

“We're sorry to see that you live the way you live, but we keep quiet about it,” he told a foreign journalist during a press conference in Kampala.

Museveni now says he's "pro-myself" and deals with other countries "according to how they relate to my own interests."

To him, being a pro-a certain bloc is idiocy. 

His newborn interest in neutralism and assertiveness are unlikely to be seen positively in Western cities used to dealing with fawning African leaders. 

When in 2023 the US threatened to remove Uganda from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, if Uganda didn't roll back an anti-gay bill, Museveni’s retort was: Uganda has "the capacity to achieve" its "growth and transformation targets, even if some of the actors do not support us.”

He eventually signed the bill that allowed the death penalty or life imprisonment for same-sex relationships into law, further angering Washington and World Bank. The U.S. has since expelled Uganda from AGOA, which gave Kampala duty-free access to the U.S. market. The World Bank, too, suspended future funding for Uganda, saying the law “contradicts the World Bank Group’s values” and “undermines" its efforts to “eradicate poverty on a livable planet can only succeed if it includes everyone irrespective of race, gender, or sexuality.”

Museveni’s almost four-decades-long stay in office is a mixed bag. His early days have stabilized a country in near-turmoil, but in his later years, his rule has been characterized by heavy-handedness, with his government brooking little opposition, especially during presidential elections that he handily wins amid brutal security crackdowns against the lead challenger from the opposition.

With all his failings, though, Ugandans are likely to have more of him or of his son whether they would like it or lump it. He’s under no serious pressure internally or externally to straighten up.

That has allowed him to take on a new international mission: To advocate for Africa’s economic renaissance. In his speeches in foreign capitals (mainly Kigali, Nairobi and Addis Ababa), he dwells on the need for Africans to put their acts together to prosper and to reject new colonization, a subtle dig at the Washington-led West, its financial institutions and values. Museveni believes that Africa should raise its voice if it is to survive in a changing world.           

That bold messaging was a recurrent theme in two speeches he delivered in April and May in Nairobi, where he attended a conference between African Heads of State and the World Bank’s International Development Association - IDA, a body aiming to reduce poverty through grants and low-interest loans.

"We discovered that you couldn't bring prosperity through aid .…we discovered that you couldn’t bring prosperity by abstaining from the modern economy," he said in a speech that called on East African countries to integrate their economies to stimulate the African economy to create a reliable big market.

East Africa’s goal should be, he said, "prosperity through wealth creation and market access, strategic security (through political integration) and utilizing maximally the ndugu [brotherhood].”

"Before, opportunity was wasted. Now, we should not waste this opportunity,” Museveni said, urging Africans to "remove the irrationality" of sovereign countries in the continent, which he said was in fact "one house.” "It's so irrational" for an African moving through Africa to seek a visa, said Museveni, who believes that Africa was colonized partly because of its internal weaknesses. 

"We're all small people, small people, small people," he said.

President William Ruto, who spoke after Museveni’s speech, said he was "always amazed and thrilled" by Museveni's "wealth of knowledge on many aspects."

“What we’re trying to forge now we missed it by a whisker — if I may say that —  in 1963. If the East African Community had not collapsed then, we would have (had) a different region by now.  But it's said 'it's never too late to do the right thing. Therefore, I think we're on time."

Shy of his 80th birthday and in power since 1986, Museveni is far from being an old fogy with fuzzy ideas. In fact, he exhibits stunning coherence and clarity when he speaks in public, oozing vitality and confidence.

He repeatedly talks of his decades-old interest in African affairs, first as a student leader, then as a freedom fighter and now as the president of Uganda.    

International donors, he said, must support manufacturing in Africa if they’re “serious” about development in Africa, which he refers to as a “huge disaster.”

To find enough clothes for Ugandans, he said, the country needs 11 factories, which would employ about 20,000 people and help the country save $880 million, which is now sent to other countries.

His white baggy shirt, made in Uganda, and his trouser, made in a foreign country, typifies the conundrum facing Africa.

“They’ve not solved that problem for me,” he said of the trouser, adding that he couldn’t walk around naked.

Museveni’s April speech drew a barrel of laughs and thoughtful nodding from some of the audience.  The speech  --  itself a potpourri of hilarity, candor, facts, and pomposity, all tinged with an apparent dislike for an overbearing West and African inaction - was rather a reawakening for leaders trying to navigate a polarized world.

“Money is available to become more dependent,” Museveni said.

In another pronouncement, he called the international aid to Africa “profiteering.”

“This has been the problem,” he said.

According to him, the economic crisis in Africa is a result of the “stagnation of the last 60 years." 

“The population is increasing. The economy is not increasing. What would you expect?” he asked.

The main reason why there is little growth in Africa, he said, is because the growth factors are not funded, “not even understood,” he added, ticking off his pet subjects: Railway, cheap electricity, value added goods, loans for irrigation and manufacturing. 

"For the private sector to grow,” he said, “it needs a low cost of production.”

Museveni's in-your-face speech last April counseled the World Bank to drop the phrase “sustainable development” because they could well mean “sustainable underdevelopment.”

“Africa needs social, economic transformation,” he said. 

At one point, the Ugandan President acted like a teacher in a classroom, asking his fellow African Heads of State rhetorical questions before then explaining them in detail.

“What are the low costs of production: Number one: Transport. You must have a low transport cost. Where does the low transport cost come from: The railway,” he said. “If you don’t fund the railway, how will you get a low transport cost?”

He wondered aloud why the World Bank had not funded railways in Africa, saying that the few that had been built were done by China, like the Tanzania railway to Zambia and the Kenyan one. 

“So if you are talking about helping Africa the (answer is) railway. I don’t want to hear any other words, words, words. No, please. The railway. If you fund the railway, you will have a low cost of transport and you can produce products, which are cheap, which can be bought in the world,” he said. “So you audit how much funding, all these billions you are talking about, how much of it has gone into the railway. Audit it.” 

It was meaningless, he said, for the World Bank to talk about sustainable development and private sector-led growth when the continent doesn’t have cheap electricity that won’t exceed five cents per kilowatt per hour. 

“That is what I insist on in Uganda,” he said, adding that he had put his foot down and told government workers, which he called “new colonial civil servants” to carry out his order on the cheap electricity in the country. 

He derided donors’ capacity building workshops as a waste of time and resources.

“Capacity building should be on the ground, not just seminars,” he said, disclosing that he couldn’t get a lender who could support him when he tried to borrow money for the Uganda Development Bank.

“If you are serious, I need to hear (more) about low cost funding for manufacturing. Not for stories, not for what, what, what, no. Manufacturing,” Museveni said. 

Funds for ICT were meaningless if it was not linked with agriculture and manufacturing, he said.

“Are you eating computers? Have you seen anybody eating computers ...maneno tu,” he said, using the Kiswahili phrase for just words. 

He said he had been looking for funds for irrigation, but it had proved "very difficult” to get it .

“The loan for the seminar very big...but the loan for irrigation you don’t see [it],” he said.

What prompted Museveni’s new advocacy for African development is unclear. As a strong ally of the West, he dexterously avoided pan-African subjects during his meetings with Western officials. He sometimes appeared to undermine Africa’s push for unity.

According to a leaked diplomatic cable, Museveni told Frazer, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, that Libya's late President Muammar Gaddafi was “a problem" for the continent as he was pushing for the creation of a "United States of Africa" to be governed by one president.

Museveni also told Frazer that Qadhafi "intimidate(d)" small African countries through bribes and other pressure, and that small West African countries were afraid to participate fully or speak out during international meetings at the United Nations, African Union and other forums.

In the cable, Frazer wrote to her bosses that “Museveni thought Qadhafi's plan is neither feasible nor desirable, given cultural and linguistic differences across the continent.”

She added: “Rather than the development of a unitary African state, Museveni said he is pushing Qadhafi and other African leaders to develop regional political federations and markets that support common objectives.”

During his 2008 meeting with Frazer, Museveni denigrated Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, now deceased, saying he had “poor understanding of the private sector” and that it was “at the root of Zimbabwe's political problems.” 

Still, Museveni's speeches, at least in public, had the vim of a man who would go to bat for Africa.

In his April speech, Museveni lamented the exploitation of Africa’s cotton, tin and iron ore. 

He said while the global value of coffee is $460 billion, all coffee producing countries in the world get just $25 billion, with Africa getting a paltry $2.5 billion, of which $900 are earned by Uganda.

“A country like Germany, which has no coffee earns $65 billion from coffee,” he said. “I sell a kilo of coffee, a good grade coffee 2.5 dollars, [while] somebody in London will get 241 dollars from that one kilo. Okay, there are other costs [involved]….but coffee roasting, coffee grinding [and] coffee packing must happen here in Africa. Must happen at the source.”

On the cotton trade, he said that Africans’ role ends at the stage of removing the seeds before taking it to "clever people.” 

“They [clever people] take the cotton. They spin, spinning more money, more jobs for their children. They weave more money, more jobs for their children,” he said, adding that his country consumes 276 million meters of fabric  each year.