Every time I visit this professor in his office, I am treated to insightful conversation with provocative questions. This time it was on the evolution of Ugandan politics, and what it says about the times to come.
We started with a discussion on the dialectical relationship between leaders and the led. He supported the idea that quite often leaders are a reflection of the society that produces them and lets them be. A broken society will most likely produce broken leaders, and vice versa.
Where a leader can stand before his people and tell them that he is not their servant and they clap back, this is not only a statement about that leader. Where people are jokers, they will elect fellow jokers. Where society is serious about its aspirations, they will vote accordingly.
Whereas in many ways I agree with this argument and the many examples cited in its support, I am hesitant to take it in general terms. First of all, it carries the assumption that people always have the power to determine who leads them – which is not quite the case in some situations. Even where there is everything to give a semblance of vibrant electoral systems, in hybrid regimes like Uganda, how these systems work is a curious matter.
On some occasions, the majority will put their vote on X, but Y still wins – and the courts confirm the victory too! Are these leaders also reflective of their societies? The professor still argued that the fact that these people can be stripped of their powers despite their big numbers says a lot about them. He didn’t exclude himself.
How about the violence that is meted out onto those that come out to protest bad leadership? Is it factored into understanding the silence of some who disapprove of the system? Then he would ask back; how about masses like in Sudan that sustain resistance despite state terror? Isn’t the powerlessness of the masses partly a failure by them to realise and invoke their power?
We went about these dialectical questions for a while until our conversation ended at a rather uncomfortable point in projection of what is likely to happen in Uganda if our politics continues to move in the current direction.
Where people actually select their leaders, this process is often determined by the former’s reading of the times and judgement on what kind of leadership is suitable and possible. It is not just about the manifestos of those who offer themselves for leadership. In some cases, these may not count at all. That is why the question; ‘what ideas does he/she have for the country?’ is sometimes redundant.
I recall the range of factors that used to inform our selection of prefects and class monitors in school. Sometimes, basing on the circumstances, we went for those whose promises were in line with our particular interests. In other cases, we deliberately elected those whom we expected to face up with school administrators without any fear – even if the former never came across as decent. Where we had administrators that only listened to confrontation, we strategised accordingly – all else became secondary.
Relatedly, it is not surprising to hear many people say that Gen Mugisha Muntu and Norbert Mao demonstrate admirable leadership attributes but for normal times. Having observed the roughness of the terrain, although unfortunate for our politics, it is realistically imagined that Uganda needs a challenger who can confront the incumbent’s aggressiveness.
The desperate fatigue arising from Museveni’s not showing any signs of letting go after all these decades in power is sagging deeper; aggravated by indifferent economic injustices and political suffocation. As such, the political bar continues to be lowered to accommodate as many possible challengers to the incumbent as possible – and it is only bound to get lower.
Many young people, especially the unemployed, who are tired of the perpetual appeal to history in justification of the status quo no longer care that much about policy alternatives of challengers to the system. The more the incumbent manifests an impression of impossibility to remove him from power, the more the public goes into settling for whoever shows potential of removing him.
Ultimately, apart from other achievements of his that he is undoing now, making the country so desperate as to practically dilute the credentials of leadership might be one of his worst contributions to Uganda. When the curtains of his reign eventually fall, it might take the country a long while to rehabilitate the diminished leadership bar.
Even if we took our eyes away from the presidency and considered other vital organs like parliament, the picture does not promise to get better. We have heard the president say at rallies in the past that even if MPs sleep, as long as they wake up to vote for NRM things, it is okay. He has also said that a sleeping NRM MP is better than an awake opposition MP.
Integrity and other capabilities are secondary to parochial party aspirations. Of course, this trend can as well be seen on opposition side. And this is not only about education levels and professions; we have as well seen professors, lawyers, and political scientists without substance – easily getting compromised into our patronage and rental politics.
When the public looks at the highly educated, the seasoned politicians, technocrats, and those who are arrogantly said to be unworthy and fails to see significant difference, then they wonder whether it still matters to front such credentials.
Some voters would now rather get all the handouts they can squeeze out of contestants during campaigns, for they don’t expect any meaningful representation, anyway. The political environment continues to become harder for composed aspirants with integrity and, sadly, it will surely kick most of them out.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.