The early Museveni decisions that reflected lessons learnt in the resistance years
By Odrek Rwabwogo
In this installment, we would like to extend the analysis about Mr. Museveni's role in building the Movement idea. This is majorly for two reasons:
First, because of the invaluable contribution he played in birthing the decisive phase of the struggle. For moving the struggle from discussion groups, diplomatic condemnation of Idi Amin and later Milton Obote atrocities, to recruiting, training and transforming a peasant force to a formidable army, commanding the highest levels of discipline, military organization and the successful execution of war, one must study deeper the manure with which Museveni worked to plant the Movement seeds. One of the most difficult phases in the struggle is to transform a peasant who has had several layers of social and psychological conditioning by years of superstition into a participant and leader of the struggle. To believe that he too can execute modern warfare, organize his life around certain principles of production, is to get a peasant into a new class. Leaders who are able to do this in the struggle must be credited.
Secondly, we have had an opportunity to see in practice ideas that shaped the Movement, now practiced while in government with newer and younger generations and, in a larger measure, have come to understand the basis of thinking of the founders. We argue repeatedly in these series that leaders are like keys to a door. A building shut on all corners from outside is only opened by a small instrument called a key. A door is huge compared to the key that opens it or even the hinge it turns on. Good leaders are like keys to a society. They help open wide doors of opportunity, create immense awareness of the role of each individual and groups, raises the political consciousness of the actors and set the pace for irreversible progress of a nation.
There are three quintessential Museveni decisions that are rooted in the individual lessons learned at an early age. These decisions help us understand the thinking of a leader in extending the frontiers of an ideology and the struggle. Struggles tend to be larger than the leaders but we also know that an oak tree is larger that an acorn seed out of which the larger tree comes from. By studying the properties of the acorn, we can understand the future of an oak tree.
The first decision was the pivoting to the right on the matter of economy, moving in an opposite direction from the highly emotive, even deeply ideological stand point by many movement leaders. This was the belief at the time that a future economy should be centrally planned, borrowing ideas heavily from the Eastern European communist states of the time. Planned economies as the reader might know, wasn't just about agreeing on the path an economy should take. It was a way of life for a society and the direction of a country. The provision of public services, the teaching of history and sciences and the raising of families, was all conditioned by this way of thinking. Professor Ponsiano Mulema, the Movement's first minister for finance and economic planning from January to September 1986, a man picked from the Democratic Party (DP) as part of broadening the base of the new government, had a troubled stint at the ministry.
Having shrank 14 percent by 1980 and inverted by 1985 to a largely subsistence economy through speculation, Magendo, Kusamura (quick gain) and illicit foreign exchange market, Uganda's economy seemed to all, very irreparable. For example, the North African country of Tunisia with which we almost ranked in GDP per capita in 1971 at USD145 against Tunisia's USD320 had so marched forward to USD1,200 while Uganda's in the fifteen years after 1971, was standing at a paltry USD258. We were both exporting textiles and light consumer goods including sugar, tea and coffee by 1971. Uganda however, so regressed while Tunisia surged ahead. It took Uganda about 38 years (23 of these under the Movement leadership) to return the economy to the pace and momentum we had achieved in 1971. Tunisia, for her part, has multiplied her GDP per capita by a factor of 12 and stands at more than USD$4000 today.
Mulema and his government made an early decision to encourage barter trade. In fact, as an example, he instituted a 'Wagons-for-Maize' Programme with Tanzania (Uganda exchanging her maize for train wagons to import or export goods). The Programme collapsed when a certain western nation, wary of Tanzania spreading her 'communism influence' in the region, air dropped maize in southern Tanzania! The minister also made an attempt at reviving the ailing and largely collapsing state enterprises. Shortages of consumer goods was biting as the economy had ground to a halt by 1986. Salt, sugar, beer, bread, soft drinks, were all imported. This was made worse by a low intensity conflict with Kenya at the time, with the latter accusing the Movement government of planning to 'export a revolution'. Uganda on her part accused Kenya of 'protecting' people who had killed the Resistance council chairmen in the early years of the councils' set up.
That Museveni moved this debate from the ideological to the practical realm of what must be done under the circumstances of 1987, showed how pragmatic he is. But even more poignant was his choice of the giver of economic advice. It was the Bretton woods institutions (IMF and World Bank), largely reviled by the intellectual class at universities at the time and many in his government. That he took this direction and the economy has been able to expand sixteen times, is admirable. Uganda over the last 25 years has sustained growth rates above 5% per annum even with the some parts of the country in a conflict and a huge dependency burden of the youth on account of a high birth rate. Under the Movement, Uganda has had one of the highest growth rates in the world; been able to manage a prudent public expenditure system and collected increasing taxes every year to finance public infrastructure. Many today might argue Museveni had no option but to take the route he took. This isn't entirely true. There are many leaders of his time who kept a 'commandist' economy even if simply for ideological purposes. Frelimo in Mozambique, CCM in Tanzania till the 1990s and Ethiopia till about 1992, plodded on till it wasn't possible to. We must admit, by this analysis then, Yoweri Museveni abhors dogma yet he is intensely ideological, hates posturing yet he is patient, communicates very well yet he isn't a demagogue. The flexibility and pragmatism with which Museveni decisions have been made over the years, show these are qualities gained early in the trenches of the resistance war.
The second Museveni decision reflecting early choices was the disbanding of half of the National Resistance Army (NRA) (precursor to the UPDF) in 1992. With insurgency still raging in both the north and east, no modern military capability to speak of and political support for the Movement still low in key parts of the country, this decision was as radical and risky as they come. With a hoe, panga and some Mabati (iron sheets), he bid the fighters of the resistance farewell! The country held its breath as to whether a new form of insurgency or robbery on highways would arise with many former soldiers out there with no work. We must remember there was hardly any private sector to speak of at the time and there were no jobs to absorb this force! That nothing went wrong and we have gone on to build a professional Army striding across the region with confidence and discipline, is a mark of great teaching Museveni had on the men and women in the bush! The amazing transformation of the rag tag army the NRA was, to a modern fighting force with all round capabilities on water, air and land is a key reminder in leadership that hard tasks should be done early to avoid the natural slow down societies take to when leaders have no vision.
The last decision to study is the removal of the issue of restoration of the Buganda and other monarchies from the constitutional debate. This was a controversial decision seen by many as an effort to gain favour with the Buganda royalists ahead of the Constituent Assembly deliberations. We got to remember that the NRM is deeply republican and the understanding of many Movement leaders was to let the sleeping dogs lie. This meant that had we gone on to the constitutional debate on the matter, many would have voted nay without a full understanding that a monarchy in Buganda and those areas where the institution is deeply popular, would never understand a legislation of this nature. On this, even the army council had to be convinced, in a seating in Gulu in 1992. Today we realize how foresighted this was for what would the CA pronounce on the return of a cultural institution whose foundations don't come from legislation?
The three decisions mentioned above come from a mind and experience that understands leadership isn't about privilege or being in the front seat. "At that stage within our group, I was considered an initiator rather than necessarily the leader" wrote Museveni about the need to unite people against Idi Amin and put less emphasis about who would lead the struggle. This is about doing the right thing even if a leader has to endure some level of unpopularity and stand alone. To understand the source of this will power, one has to look back at the incident in January 1973. This was the attack on Jack Maumbe Mukwana's house, Number 49, then in the Malukhu housing estate in Mbale. Museveni shot his way out of danger on a split second decision but lost two of his trusted colleagues, Wukwu Kazimoto Mpiima and Martin Mwesiga, the latter having been a friend from the age of nine. He decided then that in certain matters of a sensitive nature, it makes sense if decisions are singularly taken by a leader even if collectively, there might be misgivings. The ability of a leader to stay out alone on a decision, even when there doesn't seem to be immediate consensus or a leader working with limited information to make an important decision, is built in crucible of struggle.
"From that day on, I learnt to become more assertive in my decision making, writes Museveni of the decision to fight 15 advancing Amin policemen at Malukhu housing estate instead of giving in. "Originally, the group had been consultative - every decision was arrived at by consensus. But this practice was dangerous when applied to military situations. This is the problem in young revolutionary groups- the belief in collective decision making. Unfortunately with revolutionary struggles, losses such as this, most of the time is unavoidable. However, such mistakes, costly as they are, steel the experiences of the Movement", he wrote.
As we now have seen, all the three decisions above have largely shaped our stability and strengthened our economy, the key things needed in building a nation. It is the same with the decision to pull all resources in 2001 (23% of all ministries budgets) to fight Joseph Kony in northern Uganda or the 2006 decision to put over 18% of our national budget to roads and bridges construction or focusing on electricity generation and extension to rural areas. All these decisions have had a growth inducing effect on the economy and stability of the country. Leaders are seen before they officially become leaders. A position in central or local government doesn't necessarily make one a leader. It reinforces one's purpose in shaping the future of his nation.
The writer is a farmer and an entrepreneur