By Stephen Twinoburyo
South African author and political analyst, Dr Xolela Mangcu, recently wrote in the country’s Sunday Times newspaper about governments’ price of inaction.
He talks of institutions like the constitution, cabinet and parliament that enable and authorise leaders to generate policy responses but at the same time do not absolve those leaders from the consequences of their actions or inactions. In a similar fashion, these institutions can also disable leaders from acting – for the good or for the bad. However, they offer control.
He gives a good analysis of the reasons that may govern a social or institutional sectors’ basis for action or inaction towards particular situations. For instance while a company may expel a bad official to improve its business image, a political party may keep an undesirable leader for fear of unsettling its constituencies or stability. Quoting Nobel laureate, Douglas North, he adds that the political costs of taking action may be greater than those of inaction. This is well demonstrated in many instances where South Africa has chosen reconciliation over punishment.
What I find very interesting, is reference to what Steve Biko called “fear as the most important determinant in politics”. As such, people usually fear to unsettle an establishment and will happily live with its moral compromises as long as this does not threaten their existence or push them to the limits.
I find interesting analogies with Uganda in this analysis. Uganda, like any other society, is governed by social laws.
Many societies, Uganda included, have the kinds of institutions mentioned above – constitution, cabinet, parliament and the judicial system. These institutions exert control and institute guidelines for people under their jurisdictions. The issue in many countries becomes how far this control goes. In Uganda’s case, these institutions’ control has only stopped with the common people and not extended to the political leadership.
In many instances, these institutions have become tools political leaders use to control the people these same institutions are supposed to protect. Countless times we have heard how President Museveni has ordered police to arrest somebody. In the recent weeks we have seen how cabinet ministers have refused to appear before parliament to answer some questions. A few years ago, we saw how the army surrounded the high court after suspecting that the court was about to release political detainees. Indeed the army kept on trying the President’s political opponent, Dr Kiiza Besigye, in the military court martial in defiance of the constitutional court after it had ruled against such a move. So, while Uganda’s institutions do not absolve the political leaders from the consequences of their actions, can they hold them accountable? The clear answer from the above narrations is no.
This takes me then to the price of action or inaction on the part of Uganda’s leadership, in this case the NRM government. President Museveni has repeatedly told Ugandans that he alone has the vision to rule the country. His supporters, either out of belief or for their personal gains, have repeated this message. This has given President Museveni an air of indispensability. For this reason, the price of bad action on the part of the NRM seems to be very small. Many times we have seem people connected to the president behave as if nothing can ever happen to them and indeed many of them, in the perception of the common Ugandan, seemingly get away with it. On the orders of the president, a popular radio station was closed. The price of such an action was negligible.
But what makes the actions of the president and his ruling party bear a very small price? The answer lies in “fear as the most important determinant in politics”. First, and naturally, there are many in Uganda that don’t want to “rock the boat”. They have gotten so used to their current situation that there is a fear of what might happen. To many of them, it is rather “the devil you know”, and they look at an angel suspiciously.
Secondly, there has been a systematic installation of fear in the psyche of a Ugandan. Right from Idi Amin, the fear of the president has been inculcated among Ugandans. This was lessened during Obote’s time as some of his institutions could challenge him but the status quo was reinstated during Museveni’s time – big time. As would be expected, many have asked me if I am not afraid of writing what I am writing. The first enemy one must fight in liberating oneself is fear.
In addition to this, Ugandans have been cleverly entrapped in the fear of the past. Many times people have been told of how bad the past was and told that it’s only Museveni who can prevent Uganda from sliding back to its past. But the problem is that the present has given Ugandans a new set of challenges and made the country socially unstable. Institutions have been ruined such that it will take many years for Ugandans to ever believe in institutions as tools for the common good of the majority. How many Ugandans can ever believe that the police or army can ever be impartial? How many Ugandans can ever believe that the constitution is supreme or that it will be respected by leaders? In fact, all Uganda’s leaders, right from Obote 1in the 1960s have used the constitution in a way only benefiting their interests – personal hold onto power. I should excuse Godfrey Binaissa and the late Yusuf Lule who were only in office for a couple of months. The only person who had given Ugandans hope for a constitution that would be respected was President Museveni but his about-turn to change it in order to give himself an indefinite stay in power has taken Uganda decades backwards in constitutionalism.
This fear has been reinforced by the playing of various Ugandan social or tribal groups against each other. Each group views the other with fear that it may take its benefits. This division has now been taken down to districts such that small units now will fight each other, either to gain benefits or exert control. With different groups being rewarded, there will be a fear of what will happen if Museveni goes and hence, “better the devil you know”.
To make strides in Uganda as far as individual liberties are concerned and hence getting out of the current entrapment, there is a need to revamp the personal psyche. This means going beyond fear. Such decisions to a great extent involve personal sacrifice. There are no people that know the results of personal sacrifice more than the South Africans who Xolela Mangcu’s article was directed at.
As it stands, it is Ugandans that are paying the price of inaction.