President Museveni a sly despot

By Chido Makunike

THIS week’s visit by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni provides an opportunity to examine some of the interesting contrasts between his style of governing and that of his host President Rob

ert Mugabe, and how those differences have impacted on their countries.


Museveni is an unlikely state visitor given the opposite side of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) war his country fought on when Zimbabwe also got involved in that country.


Much was made then about how Zimbabwe’s involvement was on the basis of “principle”, while countries like Uganda were said to be involved for selfish territorial and material interests. A few years later we do not have much to show for those “principles”, not even particularly good relations with the DRC, but at least we have a handful of diamond millionaires in the top ranks of the government and armed forces!


In Mugabe’s heyday, when he was genuinely well-respected in Africa and beyond, he would not have had the time of day for somebody like Museveni. A relative newcomer to power, he was not among the first generation of leaders to be involved in the independence struggles of their countries and he does not have the ideological fundamentalism that Mugabe seems to take as a badge of honour.


But I suppose isolation can make one more flexible about who you consider to be your friends, and if Museveni can help one to say “look, I still have one or two presidents willing to come and visit and be pictured publicly with me”, why not invite him?


Museveni has been successful in following an iconoclastic domestic and foreign policy in a way that has benefited his country. The more arrogant Zimbabwe of previous years would have probably dismissed him as an unprincipled puppet of Western countries that have been so generous with aid for Uganda under Museveni.


Despite Museveni not sticking to the self-imposed ideological straitjackets that were once considered necessary for an African leader to be considered “revolutionary”, neither can he easily be dismissed as anybody’s lackey. He has somehow managed to appear to be his own man in the pronouncements and decisions he makes, while at the same time benefiting from good relations with much of the world that we are told finds Comrade Mugabe a little too independent-minded.


Museveni’s African street credibility will benefit from his visiting outcast Mugabe among those who consider the latter to be an anti-Western hero, but without endangering Museveni’s sources of largesse because of his deftness at saying different things to different audiences.


When the fierce Comrade Mugabe “slams” the evil imperialists for their various purported plots against him, Museveni will be by his side clapping politely, but when he gets back to Kampala he will maintain the same good relations with them that he has always had, to the tune of millions of dollars in investment and infrastructural and other assistance! Mugabe will remain with the satisfaction of his rhetorical heroism in a crumbling country.


Whether this makes Museveni a two-timing turncoat or simply a pragmatic leader would be an interesting question to debate. I predict that for the time being there will be so much gratitude to him for coming to be seen in Mugabe’s presence that the official spin will be that he is a principled African hero against the attempts of the West to divide African brothers, despite the many holes in this explanation in regards to Museveni and Mugabe.


At home Museveni has not allowed himself to be constrained by ideological romanticism. Whether in regards to his country’s economic challenges or HIV and Aids, he has taken a relentlessly pragmatic approach to problem-solving.


Unlike others who frame their approach to problems to whether the approach fits the way of thinking one locked himself into decades ago and has convinced himself it would be “unprincipled” to stray from, Museveni mainly only asks if a certain approach is likely to work before adopting it.

In our case it sometimes seems like the more outlandish and unworkable a particular strategy, the more likely it is to be adopted. The subsequent outrage of citizens and the world at its unworkability is taken as proof that there is an international conspiracy against the country and its “revolutionary” government!


One thing Mugabe and Museveni share is a paternalistic approach to how much freedom the people they rule over should be allowed. In this case what has given Museveni an edge in being accepted by the same Western countries that cannot stand Mugabe is a cleverer sense of public relations.

Museveni may be a despotic, but he is more sly about couching it in terms that allow the foreign currency to keep rolling in! If our government weren’t so desperate for friends, nasty editorials and name-calling features in the state media would surely be written about what an African sell-out Museveni was!


Whatever their differences and similarities, we appear to have in these two men a clear contrast between rulership that moves a country forward on the one hand, and on the other one that moves a country constantly further back in virtually ever respect.


*Chido Makunike is a regular Zimbabwe Independent contributor.