One afternoon in 1981, when I had been at Makerere University for only a couple of weeks, my niece Annette burst into my room at Africa Hall wailing. Her mother, Beatrice Kemigisha, had just been taken by Obote’s security operatives. A lecturer at the university, Beatrice had been picked up from her office, driven home, and roughed up while her captors ransacked the house. She was then driven away. We never saw her again. This event marked my personal introduction to the politics of struggle and terror in Uganda.
In 1986 when I was preparing to write my final exams in medicine, the National Resistance Army (NRA) stormed Kampala and took over power. The five years between those two events were characterized by terror, both distant and up close. At the height of the Luwero bush war, we often arrived at the hospital in the morning to find Red Cross trucks offloading their cargo of the injured and dying from the war zone. In the night we went to sleep to the sound of screaming from Old Mulago village, where residents were regularly robbed, raped, and harassed. I can remember very distinctly the feeling of terror that gripped us whenever we met soldiers in the valley between Makerere Hill and Mulago on our way back from the medical school. One never knew how that encounter might end. The pounding heart, the dry mouth, the sickening feeling as the stomach bottomed out and your legs nearly gave way under you. And the sense of immense relief once you walked through the gate into the campus, having survived. These are experiences that I will never forget.
Towards the end of the war, it seemed that each time we ventured out we were taking our lives into our hands – simply to do things that should have been routine, like going to school or to the shops. Any time the alarm might be sounded: ‘Bazze! Bazze!’ ‘They’ve come! They’ve come!’ We all knew the rebel army was coming, but we also knew that they would not take over the city without the government forces putting up a fight, so everyone dreaded being caught in the wrong place in that final showdown. That day in 1986, after a long and dreadful night, morning had come. The sun was shining. The shadows vanished. Things looked very rosy indeed.
On that day over twenty years ago, Ugandans were like George Orwell’s characters in Animal Farm on the morning after they liberated themselves from the tyranny of Mr. Jones:
remembering the glorious thing that had happened they all raced out into the pasture together.… The animals rushed to the top of it and gazed round them in the clear morning light. Yes, it was theirs – everything that they could see was theirs! In the ecstasy of that thought they gambolled round and round, they hurled themselves in the air in great leaps of excitement.
In January 1986 there was every reason for most Ugandans to believe that the bad times were gone forever. Everyone’s aspirations were right there, well articulated in the new government’s ten-point programme. Now a quarter century later, the near unanimity of euphoria with which Ugandans celebrated the arrival of the National Resistance Army has turned to disillusionment.
This book tells the stories of some of those Ugandans whose experiences over the last two and a half decades contrast sharply with what was expected in that ‘new’ Uganda. It tells some of the stories that are unlikely to be told by the government’s salaried writers, whose only perspective of Uganda seems to be that of peace, prosperity, and galloping development. The book has its roots in the many conversations that I have had with people all over the country in markets, hospital corridors, offices, outside police stations and court rooms – people whose lives were being lived out in circumstances radically different from those depicted by the regime’s enthusiasts. It became clear to me that their stories were an important and valid part of our history. To deny them would be to deny a part of what Uganda is. To acknowledge them would hopefully cause us and our children to question more earnestly those leaders that offer to liberate us and that offer to sacrifice themselves for our salvation – while holding us and our thoughts hostage to personal visions that only they understand. For some liberators it must be quite confusing to transition from the mode where you kill your enemies to one where you respect your opponents and treat them with civility. Plotting the best way to kill one’s enemies (the essence of war) is perhaps not good preparation for governing a country in which some people – or indeed many people – disagree with you most strongly and say so with annoying frequency. The mustard seed does not germinate and grow into a mango tree.
It is ironic that the National Resistance Movement party chose a bus for its symbol. A bus is normally driven by one driver. There is not much teamwork involved in driving a bus; it is perfectly normal for a bus driver to function without consulting those seated on the bus. The passengers trust that the driver knows the route. They get on the bus, find a seat, get comfortable, and either read the daily newspaper or watch the scenery go by the window. In Uganda people on buses easily get into conversation though they might be perfect strangers. They might get into heated arguments about football or local politics. The bus driver ignores them, as he should, and carries on driving. The driver knows the way. But what if the driver decides to change the route? What if he or she gets lost? What if the driver falls asleep or suffers a seizure while at the wheel?
I recall one night when I was an intern doctor working in Machakos General Hospital in Kenya, the police woke up my colleagues and I to attend to the victims of a disaster. A bus with eighty passengers on board, some of whom were probably asleep at the time, had veered off Mombasa road and plunged into a river. The driver, who had no doubt driven this route countless times, had taken the lives of eighty trusting passengers and had plunged them into a river with devastating consequences. Bus drivers can indeed get you to your destination – but they can also take you to disaster.
This book does not attempt to give a detailed account of all that has happened in Uganda under Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s rule. Rather, it opens a window through which we can see Museveni, the man that has been at the helm of Uganda’s government for the last quarter of a century. And beyond the man we should see Ugandans and what has become of their ‘fundamental change’ in those years. Children born the year the National Resistance Army shot its way to power have been eligible voters for years. They have gone to school, grown up, gone to work, and started families. Many who were born in the war-torn northern part of Uganda grew up in camps for the internally displaced, where indeed some started their own families, thus commencing a generation whose only world view was the camp. The only president these young Ugandans – more than 50 per cent of the country’s population – have ever known is Museveni, who maintains that he does not see anybody in the entire country who has the capacity to succeed him. Not his vice president, not the vice chairman of the ruling party (of which Museveni has been the chairman since 1985), and not any among his cabinet of more than sixty ministers. Museveni alone knows the route and how to drive the bus.
With the idealism of youth at the time the NRA came to power, we saw everything as black or white, right or wrong, true or false. We supported those we believed to be honest, and we rejected those perceived to be liars. We judged quickly and harshly. Most things had sharp edges. As we have grown older, those edges have been somewhat blunted by our own failures. We have experienced situations where there was not one truth but many, and sometimes where there appeared to be no truth at all. We have had to choose between people and causes that are neither right nor wrong, but that are more sensitive, more practical, or more pragmatic; causes that do not necessarily promise to save the world, but that promise to improve it just a little. We do not value honesty and integrity any less than we did then. On the contrary, we put a premium on these values, but we accept imperfection in others because we have been humbled by our own faults. In all this, though, we should be willing to acknowledge when we have been systematically and consistently cheated, lied to, and exploited. If we lose the ability to confront these unpleasant truths, the future will be lost.
Olive C. Kobusingye
Few studies of contemporary Ugandan political history are complete without understanding the persona of incumbent President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. And yet surprisingly, there have been hardly any book-length analyses of the man who has ruled the country – for better or worse – for the last twenty-five years of the country’s forty-eight-year history. What is perhaps even more surprising is that most of the analyses which have been written have been glowing, reverential, and largely uncritical – praising Museveni for saving a country that in the mid-1980s could have been described as the ‘sick man of Africa’. In this book, Museveni the political actor is given a second look; it is an analysis that takes us beyond the many accolades he has garnered over the last two and a half decades, and it exposes the numerous limitations behind the political animal who has ruled Uganda for longer than any other leader in the country’s history, pre-or post-independence.
In selecting the title The Correct Line? Olive Kobusingye goes to the heart of the many ironies and contradictions that characterize President Museveni and the regime of governance that was ushered into the country during the heady early days of 1986. What is correct about militarism, or about the increasing descent of what was once a popular leadership into personal rule? What is correct about the prevailing corruption, nepotism, and electoral gerrymandering, all of which were ailments that forced Museveni to take up arms in 1980 – and which he so stridently criticized when he assumed power? What could have been an ideological clarion call for genuine and fundamental change in the country (the correct line) is demonstrated to be little more than a homogenizing mantra designed to stifle debate and suppress organized opposition. Criticism of the correct line is only tolerable in certain spaces: hidden from public view, couched in obscure language, and where the blame is ultimately placed elsewhere than where it really belongs. Were he to look in the mirror today, Museveni would see only a slightly modified version of Uganda as it was in 1980.
But the strength of Kobusingye’s book lies not so much in the deep political and historical analysis, at which it excels. Rather, it lies in the personal juxtaposition of her own story against that of Museveni’s and Uganda’s. For Kobusingye was a Museveni fellow-traveller and early convert to the ideals of the Movement system of governance that became the hallmark of the fundamental change that was ostensibly represented by the rise to power of the NRA/M. Coming of age just as the NRA/M entered Kampala, Kobusingye could be described as a Movement cadre – if not in practice, at a minimum in belief and support for the regime. In this respect, The Correct Line? is the story of so many Ugandans who have lived through the same period; it is a story of renewed hope dashed by growing disbelief and crowned by searing betrayal.
Even more tellingly, Kobusingye is sibling to Dr. Warren Kizza Besigye, political nemesis and arch-rival to Museveni in the previous two presidential elections of 2001 and 2006, Besigye is scheduled – all things being equal – to size up against him again in 2011. Although some of Kobusingye’s perspectives may be coloured by this filial connection, it is nevertheless a unique point of view which provides insights about a disillusioned disciple in a political system gone awry. But from the vantage point of having been in the trenches in both campaigns, through accounts of disappearances, detentions, and even deaths, Kobusingye’s The Correct Line? exposes the soft underbelly of the Museveni regime in a manner that no journalistic or academic account has ever done. And there lies the rub: while the Museveni regime has profoundly transformed the economy and political discourse in the country, it has done so in a deeply Machiavellian fashion. Hence, the Museveni government has incarcerated more journalists than those detained in all of Uganda’s previous regimes; it has overseen numerous deaths in custody and has established an elaborate system of illegal and punitive detention-without-trial through the so-called safe houses. The Correct Line? does not flinch from exposing these stories. More chilling, many of them are drawn from first-hand accounts, demonstrating in graphic and convincing fashion how the Museveni ‘revolution’ has devoured so many of its own children.
J. Oloka-Onyango Professor of Law, Makerere University