In Ethiopia President Meles Zenawi rules with an iron fist and a stranglehold on the media. Uganda, by contrast, boasts a relatively free environment. Why then is the media not asking deeper questions about President Yoweri Museveni's continued grasp on power?
Holding bogus multiparty elections has become something of a fad in Africa since the end of the Cold War. Uganda too has participated in this ritual, holding its latest presidential and parliamentary elections on 18 February. As I've been living in Kampala since 2007, I've been able to witness the politics of this country close up.
I've often found myself comparing situations in Uganda with those in my country, Ethiopia. Leaving home, I fled from a full-blown tyranny that no longer attempts to cloak itself in pseudo-democracy. In 2005 the Ethiopian government conducted sweeping arrests of opposition figures, activists and journalists, as well as unleashing cold-blooded snipers that didn’t even spare young children.
In contrast, I was dazzled by the apparent freedom of space in Uganda. One thing that impressed me were the numerous private television channels and radio stations. Nonetheless, it didn’t take long for questions to begin to nag me. For example, why are Ugandans unable to use this apparent freedom of the press to come up with a cogent political alternative?
I do not pretend to have found answers. But I can describe the opportunities Ugandans have – unlike their counterparts in Ethiopia – and why I think they've failed to use them for the betterment of their future.
Firstly, I would like to remind the few conscious Ugandans who blew a gasket over the outcome of the February “election” of how it could have been worse. Although it may sound a poor consolation, President Yoweri Museveni too could have claimed a 90% plus victory like his comrades President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. Instead, Museveni told his handpicked chairman of the electoral commission that he would be satisfied with any result that ensured his “continuity” over “change”.
Also, we should never forget Museveni can afford to taunt his Western backers more than Kagame and Meles. As well as posturing as an ally in the “war on terror”, under Museveni's watch Uganda has discovered oil. In addition to bluffing over the withdrawal of his troops from Somalia, Museveni could send shivers down the spines of the gluttonous Western business world by striking a deal with the Chinese or Iranians. After all, Kagame scared the shit out of the international community by threatening to withdraw his troops from Darfur. Meles, for his part, refused to be bossed around by his Western financiers over his total clampdown on press freedom. He told them unequivocally that he would purchase Chinese technology with their money to continue preventing Voice of America from being accessible in Ethiopia.
In Uganda, as well listening to VoA, the BBC, and France International on the radio, you can also watch live VoA “Straight Talk Africa”, a call-in talk show that is invariably critical of the Museveni regime. That’s not only impossible in Ethiopia, it’s simply unthinkable. This is one of the biggest differences between the two countries.
Their similarity is that both current leaders are self-styled liberators who emerged from the bush. While Museveni embraced nationalism, Zenawi began his career as an ethno-nationalist who grudgingly adopted Ethiopian nationalism for the sake of assuming power. It’s his policy to pit one ethnic group against another under the pretext of “self-determination of nations and nationalities”. By contrast Museveni, at least ideologically, tried to create a nationalism in Uganda you don’t see in Ethiopia.
But this doesn’t mean there's no tribalism in Uganda. On the contrary, Ugandans – educated and uneducated alike – identify themselves with their respective tribes, only remembering their “Ugandanness” as an afterthought. Despite his nationalist movement, Museveni too appointed people from his tribe and his village to key posts; a trait he shares with his counterpart in Ethiopia.
The other striking feature of both leaders' tenures is the sham of pseudo-democracy. Although Museveni resisted multiparty politics initially, he did grant free speech. Naturally, this meant private, electronic media mushroomed. Zenawi, on the other hand, had the tricky task of abandoning the Albanian-style socialism he had envisaged for Ethiopians, as his election victory coincided with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. So he reverted to hoodwinking Western powers by coming up with a transitional charter that incorporated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unlike Museveni, however, and knowing full well the potential impact of electronic media, Zenawi never allowed independent investors to enter that sector. He also made sure the circulation of the few independent newspapers would not reach beyond bigger cities like Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.
While Ugandan journalists are routinely arrested and charged, they are equally routinely bailed out. However, their Ethiopian counterparts invariably experience incarceration without any due process of law. Since the judiciary is under the heel of Zenawi, no journalist or dissident expects to get a fair trial in Ethiopia. In Uganda, one hears of journalists defeating the regime in court to the extent of securing a judgment to scrap unconstitutional provisions. Ethiopian journalists, on the other hand, are thrown into the slammer and sentenced to life imprisonment – or even death.
So, am I concluding Museveni is a democrat at heart? Not at all. At the risk of sounding jingoistic, I would say that Ugandans are not inquisitive enough to inform themselves, despite having the opportunity to do so. Lethargy and deficiency of thinking in terms of posterity seems to be the problem. To their credit, Ugandans admitted good-naturedly on BBC Network Africa to this fact when a survey recently showed that “laziness” is the norm in Uganda. I read in the Daily Monitor about a Ugandan lady who survived the 7 July 2010 bomb blast. Until that fateful day, she had no idea that Ugandan soldiers were sent as peacekeepers to Somalia. Had it been in Ethiopia, I wouldn’t have been surprised, since the regime shrouds this sort of information. Yet, whenever a Ugandan soldier gets hit in Mogadishu, the Ugandan media informs the public.
In Ethiopia, such freedom of information is not tolerated. Despite being the seat of the African Union and boasting a rich history of anti-colonialism, it’s still a rare luxury to see or hear live political debates and critical talk shows in Ethiopia. In 2005, with the typical delusion that always characterise tyranny, Zenawi’s regime miscalculated in granting a small space for such activity. Zenawi thought he had thoroughly bamboozled and fully cowed the public – even going so far as to promise a “flawless” election. A few months before the May polling day, live debates were allowed to be televised once a week. The public was so fed up with the regime that it was receptive to the opposition messages to “join forces together, or disappear together”, not fearing intimidation. The brutal crackdown that followed has not yet been fully reported by the international community. Its effect – turning Ethiopia into a 100% totalitarian state once again – has also not been appreciated.
Notwithstanding the 2006 debacle that saw opposition leader Kizza Besigye sent to prison and then, briefly, into exile, Ugandans could have used the space provided by the existing system to create a force of change for the better. Yet, they failed to do so, despite the abject poverty, social exclusion and rampant corruption in their country. In the aftermath of the February elections, various analysts came up with different theses while agreeing on one point: the election had been rigged long before people went to the polls. Some journalists also held the opposition and the elite solely responsible for the failure to bring about change. To the best of my knowledge, apart from one journalist, Timothy Kalyegira, none of the media questioned the public’s readiness for change from stagnation. The way I see it, even if the opposition failed to traverse the country to galvanise voters, the public itself should have taken a proactive stance.
In Uganda, there are plenty of causes and serious issues to use as a rallying point against the incumbent and vote him out of office. But, amazingly, despite their squalid living conditions, you will find many people rooting for Museveni. This type of servility might be attributed to abysmal ignorance and abject poverty. But there are other people, middle-class and fairly educated, who hold the same views. Some tell you that there is no one who can manage Uganda better than Museveni. Others, despite having no running water in their home most of the time, tell you that they have no beef with his administration. You will also come across people who have simply given up, describing Museveni as a “colossus” who cannot be voted out.
Some Ugandans, considered to be pillars of the community, amaze you in the opinions they express. When asked by the Sunday Monitor what he despises most, one such person answered: “all elevated thieves”. When asked whom he admires most, he answered: “President Museveni”. Yet, it’s this same president who lacked the political will to deal with big-time embezzlers like his cronies who have been linked with appropriating Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting funds. Instead of encouraging the media to expose maladministration, inefficiency and injustice, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission recently censured the media fraternity for exposing that Ugandans are dying of jiggers in the 21st century. In the Human Rights Commission’s assessment, that was sensationalism.
All-in-all, the mood in Uganda reminds me of a myth described in Frederick Forsyth’s “Dogs of War”. A British mining tycoon wanted to plunder a certain African nation’s mineral resources. He hired a mercenary to assess the security situation of the sitting president so that he could have him overthrown in a coup and replace him with his own stooge, naturally. The mercenary reported that security was so lax it would be a cinch to overthrow the president. But before the tycoon warmed up to this news, the mercenary mentioned a snag in the whole exercise. He told him how the Africans believed the president has a juju, a spirit that made him immortal. If you just overthrow the president and banish him to exile, none of the citizens would submit to the new president who had staged the coup. But if you kill the president and display the dead body, then the people will say “this one has a stronger juju”.
It seems Museveni has succeeded in inculcating this kind of aura around himself among his citizens. Also in the name of “democracy” he has translated into reality what Idi Amin Dada only fancied: life presidency! Until the 1974 revolution bust the myth in Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie too used to enjoy this sort of demigod status. But then, there was no independent media to question authority. In this time and age, how is the same situation possible in Uganda? FAM