By Andrew M. Mwenda
Last week, police using heavy-handed methods stopped the MP for Kyadondo East, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, from holding a concert. Even President Yoweri Museveni agreed that the brutality police employed was uncalled for. To make a bad situation worse, the Uganda Communications Commission then ordered television stations to fire reporters, programmers and producers who were involved in the live coverage of this event.
There was public uproar from Uganda’s chattering elites on how Museveni has continued to “suppress democracy” and entrench a “dictatorship.” It is cool to denounce Museveni these days, the very reason many Ugandan elites are addicted to it. Naïve-minded diplomats from Western embassies (who have taken over Bobi Wine’s cause) plus media and human rights groups abroad will applaud your “courage”. All these groups look at people like Bobi Wine and project them to be fighting for democracy.
This structure of incentives has created an uncritical embrace of intolerant extremist individuals and groups seeking to grab power and establish their own fascist dictatorship. Bobi Wine and Kizza Besigye have consistently refused to stand for liberal constitutional values that make democracy work best. Instead they have consistently stood for grabbing power at any cost and in disregard to liberal values. In spite of these actions by his government, I find Museveni a more liberal-democratic leader than his critics.
Thus in their pursuit of power, Bobi Wine and Besigye have mobilized groups that are intolerant of dissent, violent and uncouth. They do not recognize honest difference of opinion. Anyone who disagrees with them has been bought by Museveni and therefore has lost his/her conscience and sold his/her soul. In pursuit of ideological purity, they have suppressed every dissenting voice in their ranks.
Armed with a suffocating self-righteousness, they descend on their opponents on social media with fanatical zeal. They indulge in unrestrained cyber bullying: hurl insults and abuses at real and presumed enemies, preach hate, promise revenge and destruction and spread false accusations to inflict psychological terror. They intimidate and physically assault everyone who disagrees with them. If they can act like this out of power, what would they do when they gain command of the repressive instruments of the state – the army with its tanks, the police with its teargas and water canons?
I appear on television often and criticize the government and the opposition. I give government credit where it is due, and credit opposition leaders like Nobert Mao and Mugisha Muntu whom I feel hold liberal values. In response, the supporters of Bobi Wine and Besigye launch petitions to the owners of these stations to block me from appearing there. It is of course their democratic right to make such petitions. But it also suggests that when in power and in control of the state, they will not allow their opponents any rights.
One could argue, perhaps innocently and/or ignorantly, that Bobi Wine and Besigye cannot be responsible for the violence and intolerance of their supporters because they have little or no control over them. Such a person can also argue that Museveni, on the other hand, has direct command and control of the behavior of the police. But Bobi Wine and Besigye have one great power they can exercise: they can consistently and loudly condemn these acts in their supporters, insisting that such behavior violets their values. And I know both encourage and organize these tyrannical strategies.
There are many Ugandan intellectuals whom I hold in high esteem. However, I have consistently been frustrated and disappointed that while they exhibit extraordinary courage in denouncing Museveni’s dictatorial tactics, they have exhibited saddening cowardice when it comes to the opposition. They dare not speak out against obvious evidence of intolerance among these opposition activists for fear of being “misunderstood” by opposition activists as closet Museveni sympathizers and then be denounced. May be Museveni’s dictatorial ways create so much sympathy for his victims that this blinds such people from condemning the obvious?
I cannot understand how anyone who believes in liberal values that are critical for a functioning democracy can stand silent when those claiming to be fighting for freedom deny it to their opponents. Muntu has repeated this many times: you cannot give what you do not have. Bobi Wine and Besigye cannot give Uganda tolerance of divergent views when they get into power when they do not have it now. The conclusion I draw from this experience is that there is a struggle for power in Uganda, and no struggle of liberal democracy.
For all his faults, I find Museveni to actually hold deep liberal democratic values at heart, even though his desire to retain the presidency forces him on many occasions to violet them to protect his power. I grew up as a journalist critical of Museveni. I exposed corruption and human rights abuses of his government not to mention his own nepotism. Yet throughout my career, most especially when I was at The Monitor, Museveni would call me to express disagreement on an article I had written – on the facts or the logical consistence of my argument. He even appeared on my radio show.
Of course on occasion he sent me to jail, clearly demonstrating that life is more complicated in reality. But he would invite me to state house for discussions or call and talk to me on phone. Museveni has always been consistent in ensuring debate. In the 1990s he used to call into radio talk shows to argue his case. He visits radio stations and appears on radio and television talks shows like Capital Gang where he debates his opponents. Few presidents in Africa do this.
As I have grown older, I have become more reflective of this reality and developed what I think is a more realistic view of the political terrain in Uganda. Democracy (which is largely about the procedures of acquiring and maintaining power) can be dangerous when not underwritten by liberal values. Liberal values guarantee individual rights such as the right to property (which opposition activists promise to confiscate), administering a fair court system, protecting the rights of minorities and equality before the law.
There are many weaknesses in Uganda’s regime of property rights and the judicial system. However, Museveni largely respects these rights. That is why his opponents’ properties, including Besigye and Bobi Wine, cannot be confiscated. His opponents need to exhibit similar convictions for us who believe in liberal democracy to trust them. For now, the “dictatorship” they claim to fight is more democratic than their own proven behavior.
Andrew Mwenda is a Ugandan journalist and political commentator.