Museveni can say what he likes, people will still vote for him

A short video clip circulating on social media in Uganda has President Yoweri Museveni making remarks that give pause for thought.

For anyone encountering the old revolutionary for the first time, it is easy to imagine he was caught off-guard, or that he could have made them in a moment of indiscretion, possibly the outcome of a temporary lapse in judgment.

It could also easily be seen as evidence of breathtaking arrogance, given he is in the middle of a campaign for re-election, or insensitivity, given widespread and longstanding concerns in the country about corruption and leaders serving their personal interests rather than those of the general public.

In the clip, clearly extracted out of longer footage, Kenyan journalist Jeff Koinange asks the president: “Do you wake up sometimes and feel, you know what, this is too much for me? Listen, this is too much! You don’t feel appreciated enough.” Koinange’s question is well aimed.

After 30 years in power during which he has fought off more insurgencies than any of his predecessors, endured much verbal abuse more or less on a daily basis, put up with all manner of accusations of wrongdoing and faced bruising electoral contests followed by embarrassing court battles in which the authenticity of his victories has been questioned, one would imagine the man has considered throwing in the proverbial towel and heading home. But has he?

With Koinange’s wide-open eyes firmly fixed on him and as the journalist shifts in his seat in ways that suggest he believes he has his man cornered, a calm, relaxed and confident Museveni shoots back: “It doesn’t matter, because I am not working for I am working for myself. I am not working for other people. I am working for my grandchildren my children”.

As one would expect in even calmer times in a country where political debates and controversies are something of a national sport, the clip has elicited much excitement.

His detractors, to whom the remarks came as a huge gift, have been quick to claim that what he said captures what they always knew about him: That his refusal to leave power is all about him and his family. In a sense, the accusations are given mileage by the presence in the government of both distant relatives and members of his immediate family.

This being high campaign season, one would have expected the president to be more careful, and not to say things that could cost him votes.

That he wasn’t, however, testifies to two things that must be familiar to Uganda watchers over the past three decades. One is that he would not consider such pronouncements to be problematic.

It is not the first time he has made comments that, were he to be president of a country where what leaders say counts as much as what they do and where both impact on voting behaviour, would have made life difficult for him politically.

From bragging about his personal wealth when many are complaining about poverty, to defending or seeming to defend ethnic imbalance in access to opportunity when many are decrying sectarianism, or insulting opponents and calling them names in a society that treasures politeness and good manners, Museveni has been and remains something of a master of telling it as it is and getting away with it each time.

The other is that were it to be even remotely true that he is working for his family in the crude sense implied by his remarks, taken out of context as they seem to be, he would not be the only politician or public figure doing it.

When Ugandans complain of misappropriation, misdirection and mismanagement of public resources, they are hardly complaining about Museveni alone. On the contrary, they have in mind a large number of people, the vast majority not even remotely connected to him directly.

That does somewhat diminish the impact of his remark — after all, everyone is doing it.

This may seem like defending the indefensible, but that’s how some Ugandans react to these things. It explains why when it comes to decisions about how to vote and whom to vote for, they count for very little.

Sophisticated urbanites may hate to be reminded of this, but it is well known that those who vote for Museveni, at least in the countryside, are concerned about issues such as accountability but evidently not as much as they are about peace and stability, two things they keep believing that only Museveni can deliver.

It means that those who seek to dislodge him from power via elections would do better to convince Ugandans who value peace above all else, including integrity in leaders, and who believe, rightly or wrongly, that only Museveni can guarantee its continuity, that this is not necessarily so.

Ugandans, like other people, want leaders who work for them rather than for themselves. The question, however, is what risks they are prepared to take in the search for them.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: