Thirty-five years ago, Prof Ali Mazrui decried Africa’s celebration of decay. The ancestors of the African peoples were angry. Why was the continent trapped in hopelessness? The answer seemed to be that Africa was suffocating in a confusion of values. It attempted to adopt foreign practices without the discipline that went with them. Its soul was lost in the confusion. Celebration of mediocrity and decay seemed inevitable. Nothing has changed.
In nearly everything we do, Africa sets a very low bar for itself. We don’t focus on universal human standards. We are happy to be the first in a race of snails. Our bar is at its lowest in leadership. As everything stands or falls with leadership, we must be satisfied to live at the level of the children of an inferior god, on the touchline of civilisation. For this, Mazrui posited, the ancestors would punish the continent. In echoes of William Shakespeare and Chinua Achebe, Mazrui delivered a harsh message, in The Africans: A Triple Heritage:
“Warriors will fight scribes for the control of your institutions; wild bush will conquer your roads and pathways; your land will yield less and less while your offspring multiply; your houses will leak from the floods and your soil crack from the drought; your sons will refuse to pick up the hoe and prefer to wander in the wilds; you shall learn ways of cheating and you will poison the kola nuts you serve your own friends. Yes, things will fall apart.”
That is where Africa lives. Things only deteriorate steadily from Nairobi to Dar-es-Salam and from Dar to Kampala. Kenya is the test tube. Bad civic experiments start here. They are then piloted in Tanzania. They are perfected in Kampala. East Africa’s electoral flaws, for example, are at their wicked best in Uganda.
At the time of this writing, Uganda is going through a general election. The country’s perennial president, Yoweri Museveni, is set to get a controversial sixth term. Museveni first blasted his way to power through a six-year jungle war. He romped into Kampala in January 1986, the same year Mazrui was decrying Africa’s shrines of nothing. It was a high moment for Museveni and a country that had stumbled from one set of political chaos to another. He addressed his joyous countrymen in the streets of Kampala. He told them they had previously witnessed cosmetic changes of guard. Now the moment for change had arrived.
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Ten years later, in 1996, he repackaged himself from a jungle militiaman into a civilian head of state. Uganda’s sinkage into the slough of democratic decay has remained steadfast, however.
The arrival of Museveni was only a change of style and face. The substance and spirit never changed.
The country’s life-force of dictatorship has remained since independence in 1962. The just-ended election campaign has been faithful to Uganda’s trademark of bad rule and celebration of rot. It has had the character of a hostile military operation. Uniformed military might was everywhere, to intimidate candidates and voters alike. Scores of Opposition supporters were killed in cold blood. More were injured in combined police and military swoops. It is astonishing that Museveni’s chief rival, Robert Kyangulani Sentamu (aka Bobi Wine), scraped through with his life.
Wine’s campaigns were incessantly disrupted. He was arrested, clobbered and detained, many times. Audiovisual clips showing horrific State might in Uganda continue to do the rounds in social media. Their internet was shut down. Under the pretext of observing Covid-19 protocols, the Opposition was barred from campaigning in at least 15 districts.
The police promised “to beat up journalists, to save them from dangerous places.” This is typical Kafkaesque sadism. Yet such is the celebration of democracy in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. After this mess, Museveni will walk gallantly into assemblies of African and global notables with a huge smile. They will receive him gloriously. We celebrate decadence.
Museveni may have been good for Uganda in 1986. He brought a measure of stability. However, like all-star players, he should have left the stage when he still had the flavour. He has changed the law several times, to facilitate his longevity in office. The energised youthful agitation that has informed Wine’s campaign sends a clear but frightful message to Museveni and Africa. Young people are tired of worshiping hopelessness. They are frustrated and restless. This youthful anxiety is a powder keg. It will explode, in fullness of time.
Fortunately, there is still hope. The youth still believe in the power of the ballot. In his 1964 address titled “The Ballot or the Bullet,” the dramatic and eloquent American civil rights leader Malcom X famously said that social justice must be achieved by any means possible. If the ballot failed, the bullet would succeed. It should never get to that.
In Uganda, President Museveni can set the stage and pace for peaceful transformation by turning a new leaf. He must drop anachronistic strongman methods. Uganda needs the oxygen of freedom and the confidence that it can flourish outside the grip of the Museveni family and that of National Resistance Movement commanders, in their numerous guises. If not, it must prepare for Armageddon. May wise counsel prevail.
-The writer is a strategic public communications advisor.