On the day President Museveni formally announced takeover of government 31 years ago, a peasant family in the Ntungamo District was thrilled but for an entirely different reason: the birth of a baby boy.
The parents named him Constantine Ahimbisibwe, a surname meaning “praise him”. This was to acclaim him as God’s gift but not to validate the Kalashnikov rifle-slinging National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels’ march on Kampala.
As President Museveni walked to the podium yesterday to give an account of his three decades in power, making him Africa’s fifth longest-serving leader, Mr Ahimbisibwe, who lives in southwestern Uganda, said his headache will be how to put food on the table for his family of four.
“Life has been miserable because I get problems accessing basic necessities,” said the Senior Four drop-out and father of two.
With inadequate employable skills, Mr Ahimbisibwe’s struggles epitomise his generation’s dilemma and the general divide of the Ugandan society where progress has concentrated opportunities and riches in the hands of a few.
It is the kind of inequality which, according to Oxfam International’s January 18, 2017 report titled “An economy for the 1 per cent”, has enabled the world’s wealthiest 62 people amass as much fortune as half of the global population.
“My biggest trepidation is the likely war between the poor and the rich,” former Museveni government minister Aggrey Awori said of the Ugandan situation. “The gap is getting wider and tribalised. Once the inequality becomes ethnicised, it becomes dangerous.”
Both inequality and sectarianism are two of many ills that the President set forth to fight after seizing power in 1986.
“The third point in our programme is the question of the unity of our country,” he said in his January 29, 1986 inaugural speech on the foyer of Parliament. The crowd thundered.
He added: “Past regimes have used sectarianism to divide people along religious and tribal lines...Politics is about the provision of roads, water, drugs, in hospitals and schools for children.”
To Mr Museveni’s credit, the Universal Primary Education (UPE) his government introduced in 1997, has increased primary school enrolment from 2.5 million to about eight million today. Mr Gershom Nuwemuhwezi, a lecturer at Bishop Stuart University, is a UPE beneficiary. His mother in 1986 began experiencing birth pangs while vending bananas at a market in Kazo in Kiruhura, the President’s home district, and delivered at the nearby Kazo Health Centre III (now Health Centre IV).
Period of peace
With a First Class Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree pinned to his lapel, Mr Nuwemuhwezi recaps his life lived under one president as a period of “peace and luck”.
“We lived hand-to-mouth,” he said, “While growing up, most of the places were hard-to-reach, and one would even fear to travel at night. But now I board the night bus to go and study at Uganda Christian University [in Mukono] without having to worry about who is seated next to me.” The overnight travels, previously considered precarious due to possible ambushes, are happening across the country.
Peace and stability, discounted in northern Uganda by the protracted Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency that ended in 2005, alongside management of the army and economy are President’s flagship feats. They have earned Uganda regional and international acclaim, projecting the country’s profile.
Besides, Uganda’s gross domestic product under Museveni’s watch increased from $4b (about Shs14 trillion) in 1986 to $33b (about Shs115.5 trillion) in 2013, according to World Bank figures, expanding eight times almost the same as Kenya’s which within the same period jumped from $7.2b to $55b.
In Uganda, what Mr Awori calls “unprecedented corruption” threatens the dividends of this growth in spite of a plethora of institutions such as the Inspectorate of Government, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, the police and the Anti-Corruption Court assembled to fight graft.
Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perception Index report released yesterday ranked Uganda among 25 countries with the worst graft record, and it dropped 12 places from its previous year’s rating.
Eliminating corruption, together with other vices such as tribalism, were among 10 priorities in NRA/M’s must-do-list. Political opponents have accused the President of practicing ‘naked’ nepotism. His wife is the Education minister, their son, who was a teenager in 1986, bypassed predecessors and rose to a one-star general within 12 years to command the country’s Special Forces, before being re-assigned this month as his father’s adviser, a similar role the President’s brother Salim Saleh plays.
Mr Museveni has defended this family-web as a “sacrifice”, not favouritism. Critics call the semantics obscurantism, the parlance the President used in his inaugural address to explain a brand of politics “where ideas are deliberately obscured so that what is false appears to be true and vice versa”.
Mr Elly James Makholo was born in June 1986, but after obtaining a diploma in Social Works and Social Administration from UCU last year, the unemployment reality staring at him contrasts the lofty promises of education.
Unfulfilled aspirations, said Mr Ofwono Opondo, a government spokesman, is likely to alienate the masses from the NRM because people generally have a “high expectation” due to prevailing peace and government’s robust investment in infrastructure.
The construction of Karuma and Isimba dams, once completed next year, will increase electricity supply from the current 852 megawatts to 1,635, likely to spur industrialisation which is at the heart of the incumbent President’s programme to transform Uganda.
For Mr Makholo in Mbale District, there is the disappointment of poor quality public service and joblessness. The construction of Bukeinde Health Centre III in 2014 reduced the walking distance to the nearest health facility to his home by more than two kilometres under the decentralisation policy meant to bring services closer to the people..
“Most of the time, patients are there but there are no drugs. That’s the life we are living,” said Mr Makholo, a leader of Mbale Youth Ministry. His embrace of ministering to the youth mirrors the gust in Pentecostal movement in the country -and the appeal of prosperity gospel- shown in the almost 7 percentage point rise in number of Pentecostals in the decade to the 2014 National Housing and Population Census.
The uneven benefits of Museveni rule contrasts with the chosen theme for today’s anniversary; “Success under NRM: a shared victory”.
Obliterating 27 rebel groups and winning five consecutive elections, questions about vote rigging notwithstanding, have made Mr Museveni the only constant in a changing Uganda. Concerns about how he departs from the scene when the time comes - whether through force, ballot or natural causes- ties Ugandans’ fate to his own.
Mr Opondo said a disruption would be unlikely because “safety valves through democratic elections have provided adequate platforms for citizens to vent...and the elite are unable to merge their concerns with that of the masses”.