This week, President Yoweri Museveni took oath office for a new term that will stretch his tenure to an unbroken 40 years.
What should have been a day of celebration, was however, overcast by the chief celebrant’s foul mood, and the absence of the leaders of the major political formations in the country. Robert Kyagulanyi, the runner-up in the January 14 elections, escaped a security dragnet that was supposed to keep him confined at his residence.
With representatives of the major Western powers in attendance, a combative Museveni used the occasion to lecture the West for its insistence on democratic transitions in Africa. The rest of his speech was mainly a repetition of what he has said over the years.
In some sense, Museveni’s disposition at Kololo reflected the mood of the nation. Ugandans feel insecure and are uncertain about the future. The rancour from the bloody electoral contest is still fresh and the nation is at its most divided since his ascent to the helm 35 years ago. The economy is drowning in debt, youth unemployment is high and the geopolitical situation uncertain.
Ugandans yearn for a message of hope and healing. President Museveni’s immediate challenge is to reunite the country after a bruising contest. The pan-African ideals and historical anecdotes that occupied a significant portion of his inauguration speech have little relevance to a population that is grappling with immediate existential challenges.
The president is right in his observation that Uganda’s economy is performing below potential. But a lot of Uganda’s potential is lost to corruption. Corruption has been a recurring theme in his speeches over the decades, but a consistent move towards empowering and demanding accountability from the institutions mandated to lead the fight has been lacking.
From their pulpits, religious leaders called on the president to set the stage for reconciliation by freeing the hundreds of young opposition supporters in detention. He should listen.
The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the fissures in an economy that was already on its knees. The huge sums going to debt repayment are a recipe for chaos, since they take money away from services.
The lukewarm reception of his address is a sign that the Ugandan leader has more work to do at home, even as he pursues regional and continental priorities. Regional integration sounds hollow amid discordant political systems and a bend towards militarism.
What Uganda needs at this time is more political and economic convergence with neighbours, an expansion of basic liberties and a predictable system for change of government. It is not an easy undertaking because it involves dismantling the entrenched system he has built over the decades.
President Museveni does not want lectures about democracy but he can only avoid them by creating a system where citizens feel the democracy. Nearly 40 percent of voters in the last elections rebuked his leadership. Sixty percent is an absolute majority. But 40 percent is also too significant to be brushed aside. Museveni has told Ugandans to go back to work but needs to embrace a more conciliatory tone to make his ambitions feasible.