ANDREW MWENDA: The Museveni -Among bromance

By Andrew M. Mwenda

After the hue and cry on social media against our looting speaker of parliament, Anita Among, President Yoweri Museveni appeared in her constituency with her. It was the inauguration of a “private” hospital built by Among. The hospital is appropriately named after Museveni’s son, the current Chief of Defense Forces (CDF) and potential heir to the presidency, Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba. One of the wards was also named after Muhoozi’s wife, Charlotte.

Some friends and acquittances close to power insisted that Museveni was going to arrest Among and send her to jail. They said that he had collected a large inventory of her loot including her real estate assets and was ready to pounce. I insisted that would not happen. People often forget that Museveni is half lion and half fox; but the fox in him is more lethal than the lion. From the perspective of real politick (you can call it Machiavellian politics if you like), it makes no sense for Museveni to jail Among. I will return to this later on.

For now, let us deal with the entertaining hospital-opening show starring Museveni and featuring Among. The speaker of parliament knelt before the president and declared: “I know you don’t believe in kneeling, but I am kneeling for you. I want to tell you that you are the only person who is there for me. You are the only person who knows me as an asset. I will never disappoint you and this is my commitment.”

Then she pulled out the clincher: “I want to thank you for promoting our brother, Gen. Muhoozi, to become CDF. For us we believe in the Father, the Son and the Holly Spirit. We are still here with you the Father. When you tell us to move, we shall move to the son and be guided by the Holy Spirit.” Watching on television, I found myself muttering almost to myself, “brilliant, simply brilliant!” and then the camera turned to Museveni. Seated there with an almost impenetrable expression, I peered inside his soul and saw the president beam with ironic satisfaction.

Then it was Museveni’s turn to speak. “I have been hearing people attacking Anita Among and some other MPs. Many of these young MPs are learners direct from university… sometimes they may be excited and get loans, debts, … or make mistakes. But within NRM we always see how to help our people and get them out of their mistakes,” the president said wearing a tough face and went on, “How can you talk so much on social media about Anita Among? How about those who are working with foreigners? We are going to expose those traitors!” It was a magnificent performance.

Clearly, the tone of this article is celebratory of Museveni and Among’s antics. Many of my readers get upset at me for this tone which seems to endorse this kind of crass materialism in politics. So, let me first climb the moral ladder and express my self-righteous moral indignation at this circus. Let me first act the “original Andrew Mwenda” many readers are always keen to remind me.

The NRM revolution was born in a moment of great promise and great hope. It is almost impossible for me to recapture the emotional tone of that moment. But the depth of it, the fullness of it, and the promise if offered left a mark on all those who were in any way touched by the events of that time. It was seen by many as a new era, a new dawn, a new beginning, a rebirth, a reawakening.

So many of the men and women who fought for the NRM revolution did so for high-minded public-spirited reasons: to fight dictatorship and end tyranny, tribalism and corruption and to bring about democracy, respect for human rights plus ensure a clean and honest government that serves the people. In pursuit of these ideals, tens of thousands of lives were lost, families left behind, careers abandoned, property destroyed, educations sacrificed.

But the dreams of that time have given way to disillusionment. The shamelessness with which public officials plunder public resources without any care for the country as a hyena does to its prey; the ruthless suppression of political movements and individuals seeking to oppose this mismanagement; and the sullen cynicism of many Ugandans today reflect how far we have sunk. Public institutions no longer embody a collective vision but instead reinforce a pattern of private advantage that is harmful to the country.

When I look at Museveni today, he represents a pale shadow of the man who inspired us in our youth. Standing there defending Among, after she had systematically looted public resources and been exposed on social and traditional media, was tragic. What happened? How did Museveni climb down from his moral pedestal to a pathetic figure defending the indefensible? It is then that my soul reaches out to this giant of a man, this old revolutionary, a victor in a thousand battles, this, the hero of my youth, now caught in the contradictions of power and politics beyond anything he imagined.

It is then that I climb down from my self-righteous pedestal moral indignation and return to the reality of politics – politics as it is, not as it should be. I stop being a moralist and become an analyst. When I analyze politics, I feel sympathy for Museveni. In war, they say, even the best of military plans collapses on the first contact with the enemy. In politics, even the highest of ideals collapse at the first contact with its reality – except, perhaps under rare circumstances like those we find in post genocide Rwanda.

“Men make history”, Karl Marx wrote while commenting on the coup by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it in circumstances selected by themselves but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” Museveni must deal with Uganda as it is, not as it should be or as he would wish it to be. But before I come to that, let me first return to Among.

The years 2022 and 2023 were a good for her. She drew large sums of money from the public purse and used it generously on herself. For most human beings, the personal is always the most attractive. She bought and renovated a mansion in Nakasero at a cost of $3.5m. She built herself gorgeous mansion in her village and is now building an even grander one in Munyonyo at a colossal amount. She bought her husband luxury cars. One time her designer in London did for her a dress at $67,000 (53,000 GBP).

Yet I think this part of Among’s spending on herself, though morally revolting, blinds us to the purpose of her loot. Most of her loot is used for political purposes – to buy off MPs; to ensure the house serves the president and the NRM agenda.

As I wrote in my first column on this issue, Among has been a very effective speaker. Just put yourself in Museveni’s shoes. The president’s biggest headache has always been parliament. Getting bills passed, budgets and loans approved or even the constitution amended is tough business. Under Rebecca Kadaga, there were even fist fights on the floor of parliament that went viral globally. This is embarrassing.

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Among had tamed parliament, thereby making Museveni’s job easier. Having come from the opposition and joined NRM, Among has been a bridge between the two sides. She has close personal relations with MPs on both sides of the isle. They all share with her their most intimate worries and anxieties. As Museveni said at her function, most of these are financial.

A few years ago, media reported that 50% of MPs don’t get any salary at all. It is deducted at source to pay back loans. Another 30% earn less than 50% of their salaries. Only 20% of MPs get more than 50% of their wages. Debts have compromised our legislators. Yet these are the people we expect to hold the executive to account!

For many years, speakers at Uganda’s parliament had not learnt how to exploit this vulnerability. Many government projects were rightly and sometimes wrongly delayed by MPs who have power to approve them. It is among who has helped Museveni to effectively exploit this vulnerability to maximum advantage. Most of the cash she steals serves an important political purpose, the balance she indulges herself.

This has been the price of our democratization. From 1986-96 Museveni was president and speaker of parliament, then called the NRC. If he needed something important from parliament, he would wear military fatigues, personally chair the house and forcefully bend it to his will. When we democratized, Museveni could no longer use intimidation. He began using bribery. The budget for gifts at state house grew.

Then came Among. She is crude but effective. Instead of waiting for Museveni to invite MPs to state house for tea and then buy them off, she would get money from the house budget and sort them out herself. For Museveni, Among killed two birds with one stone. The financial strain on state house was reduced, so the president could deploy his budget to other pressing matters. Second, the president no longer needed to be personally involved in the day-to-day business of buying-off of MPs. Among did it.

But a new problem emerged. This cunny use of the parliamentary budget to control MPs gave Among enormous power. As she became more and more powerful, intelligence (and some competitors) began claiming she has presidential ambitions. Museveni was inundated with constant reports of her ambitions; the money she is raking to realize them and the MPs she has under her palm. Among has businesspersons close to her. Some were called and asked not to give her money, saying she is becoming a threat. Her bank accounts and those of her PA and bodyguard were printed as well.

Many people thought Museveni the lion would pounce – because this is the part of him they fear. Yet it is Museveni fox who has acted. Most people fear the lion part. The lion is always a weapon of last resort. With such evidence of her indiscretions, Museveni did not need to jail Among. He must have seen that he can use all her skills to control parliament while avoiding the risk of her presidential ambitions. If you are Museveni’s handler, it was time to leak her loot, for then she becomes vulnerable. Compromised by her own indiscretions, you can use her as you want. That is why she was kneeing in Bukedea and openly declaring that only the president can save her from her greed. And be reassured her.

I wrote in this column that this is politics 101. It is the way the game is played in every country on this planet – with a few exceptions. But even in these exceptions, it is because of circumstances rather than because of the morals of the players. Museveni can now eat his cake and still have it. He can have a powerful and effective speaker of parliament but also one who can do his bidding with zero capacity to threaten him and whatever succession plan he has. If Among went off script, she would be sent to jail and the country would celebrate the president for finally making “the right decision.” Brilliant!

This power dynamic was on full display in Bukedea. Museveni always refers to public officials of high rank by their official titles. Did anyone notice that on that day in Bukedea, not once did he refer to Among as speaker? He constantly referred to her as Anita Among as if she was his daughter or underling. Ideally, parliament and the executive should be equal. Among has placed the house under Museveni’s control, with her acting as his assistant. This is the sin Kadaga committed: she always tried to assert parliamentary independence.

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I have spent years studying politics. I have immersed myself in the intricacies of politics in USA and UK, reading every major book I could lay my fingers on. I have read politics in ancient Greece and Rome and read widely great power politics. I find Museveni’s behavior, even though morally reprehensible, normal politics. Any of his critics, given a chance to be in his position, would act exactly like him or fail.

The only difference between him and them is that he is in power, they are not. If they got into power, they would find that the rules of this game demand that you act exactly as he does. Those who fail to act this way lose power. The sad thing is that it makes little sense to uphold your moral principles, lose power and go home. Why? Because you have no guarantee your successor will have such moral scruples.

When I was young and intelligent, I tended to reduce all judgment to what is morally right. But reading helped me mature. Now I think I am old and wise and less prone to make moral judgements on what leaders do. Instead, I try to assess politicians with clinical detachment. This has been a good relief for me. It freed me from partisan anger.

And once I was no longer angry, I became less inclined to making conclusions that righteous anger demands: I am right and virtuous, and the other persons are wrong and evil. Now I can study politicians’ motivations with less moral baggage and empathize with their dilemma even when I am personally revolted by their actions.  Welcome to the older, mature and I would even say, wiser, Andrew Mwenda.

Welcome to the older, mature and I would even say, wiser, Andrew Mwenda.

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