OP-ED

NRM Godfatherism and the paucity of political mentorship in Uganda

By Samuel Lukanga

The return of democracy in Uganda starting with the present-day NRM era has worsened the situation as the nurturing of political leaders in the country is no longer based on merit but on imposition with political godfathers in various state apparatus.

Historically, NRM’s political mentorship at NALI-Kyankwazi has been the basis of leadership development, a conduit through which the wisdom of seasoned statesmen is passed down to the next generation. Such can not be said in the present Ugandan situation, a nation grappling with the complexities of governance, yet this once important tradition is fading into obscurity, leaving aspiring leaders to navigate treacherous waters without the compass of experience to guide them.

Many Ugandan politicians lure unemployed young men into committing acts of political violence by making extravagant promises of employment and other forms of illegal government patronage that those officials are unlikely and perhaps unable, to deliver.

Uganda’s godfatherism phenomenon is not unique to the ruling NRM, but as with many of the other abuses described in this article of mine, it is seen most often in the conduct of NRM officials as both a cause and a result of the party’s success in maintaining itself in power.

Despite record-setting government revenues in recent years of NRM’s regime, corruption and mismanagement remain a major cause of Uganda’s failure to make meaningful progress in improving the lot of ordinary citizens. Corruption pervades all levels of government in Uganda.

Because violence and corruption make political competition a very expensive endeavour in the country, many politicians are far more accountable to powerful and violent political godfathers who sponsor them than they are to their constituents. Public revenues are not only stolen and misused but often pay for the services and weapons behind the political violence in the country.

Not all aspirants to political office in Uganda can raise on their own the substantial resources usually necessary to compete in the country’s violent and corrupt political system especially if they do not enjoy control over public resources to begin with. As a result, in many parts of the country, successful candidates are often those who are “sponsored” by wealthy and powerful individuals known in Ugandan parlance as political godfathers.

These proud NRM godfathers are not mere financiers of political campaigns. Rather they are individuals whose power stems not just from wealth but from their ability to deploy violence and corruption to manipulate national, state or local political systems in support of the politicians they sponsor.

In return, they demand a substantial degree of control over the governments they help bring into being not in order to shape government policy, but to exact direct financial “returns” in the form of government resources stolen by their lucrative government contracts awarded to them as further opportunities for graft. The same godfathers also require their sponsored politicians to use government institutions to generate patronage for other protégés.

NRM’s godfatherism is both a symptom and a cause of the violence and corruption that together permeate the political process in Uganda. Public officials who owe their position to the efforts of a political godfather incur a debt that they are expected to repay without end throughout their tenure in office.

NRM’s godfathers are only relevant because politicians are able to deploy violence and corruption with impunity to compete for office in contests that often effectively, and sometimes actually, exclude Uganda’s voters altogether. But their activities also help to reinforce the central role of violence and corruption in politics by making it even more difficult to win elected office without resorting to the illegal tactics they represent.

While my write-up dwells on political mentorship, it is satirical to mention here that this ugly trend is also found in all facets of leadership in Uganda, be it religious, traditional, private and public organisations, or non-governmental bodies.

The meagreness of role models who embody integrity, accountability, and a genuine commitment to democratic tenets is very evident in our political landscape. This has created a lacuna that opportunistic figures are quick to exploit to manipulate public opinion, consolidate power, and advance personal agenda as recently witnessed in the fiasco that engulfed the national leadership transition talks in the country.

The emergence of this disconcerting trend: the dearth of political mentorship and the simultaneous rise of manipulative leadership have paved the way for a breed of politicians who manipulate rather than inspiring.

Following Uganda’s independence in 1962, the country’s political landscape was marked by a sense of optimism and the challenge of establishing a united progressive Uganda. The leaders of that era played dual roles as both statesmen and mentors. Their wisdom and guidance were crucial in piloting the nascent nation through the complexities of nation-building, fostering unity, and instilling a sense of purpose in the political heirs they nurtured.

Through the advent of military rule in the country, they cast a long shadow over the nation’s political mentorship journey by stifling democratic institutions, political mentors persevered in nurturing political consciousness and advocating for a return to democratic governance. The struggle against military rule became a rallying point for the opposition mentorship, as leaders imparted lessons of resilience and enduring value of democratic ideals.

However, the return to democracy in 1986 marked a watershed for political mentorship in Uganda. Beneath the surface of NRM’s regime, shadows of manipulation began to emerge. While the NRM regime made strides in economic reforms, allegations of political interference and strong-arm twisting opposition figures tarnished the democratic veneer. Critics have always argued that the once lofty ideals of transparency and accountability were being compromised, as political maneuvering took precedence over principled governance.

In the due course of NRM regime, the paradox of mentorship and manipulation has become increasingly apparent. On one hand, the NRM National Chairman himself had been mentored by political stalwarts such as Julius Nyerere and had played a pivotal role in shaping Uganda’s post-military political landscape. On the other hand, the political climate of this yellowish era has seen a decline in mentorship, as leaders become more focused on consolidating power than nurturing the next generation.

The erosion of ethical standards and the subversion of checks and balances has created a breeding ground for leaders who have prioritized personal interests over the common good.

Uganda has since been grappling with the repercussions of so many eras of leadership dynamics as the nation has been striving to strike a new balance, with leaders cognizant of the pitfalls of manipulation and the importance of revitalizing mentorship as a cornerstone of political development.

Also, during NRM’s regime, godfatherism has become a prominent feature in Ugandan politics as these godfathers strategically positioned themselves as kingmakers, backing candidates who pledge allegiance to them. In return for support, these candidates often found themselves indebted to their godfathers, leading to a compromise in governance that favours personal agenda over the public good.

The era has witnessed the emergence of powerful political figures, often with deep pockets and extensive networks, playing a decisive role in determining who ascended to political offices. These godfathers, having nurtured political alliances, expected unwavering loyalty and influence over policies and appointments in return.

The story of the Ugandan Youth elections is a great story for a box office movie. It echoes the broader quest for political autonomy, transparency, and a redefined narrative where the voice of the young people reign supreme over the whisperings of political godfathers with personal agendas.

Godfatherism manifested in a subtle but pervasive erosion of governance structures. Elected officials, owing their political success to godfathers, have always found themselves entangled in a constant tug-of-war between serving the public interest and appeasing their benefactors. The result has always been a compromise of policy decisions, the allocation of resources, and the appointment of key officials all done with the implicit approval of the godfathers.

The nexus between godfatherism and corruption has become increasingly evident during this yellowish era, eroding the leadership principles of mentorship. In the pursuit of political patronage, elected officials succumb to the pressure of their godfathers, leading to the diversion of public funds for personal gain. This intertwining of interests fueled a cycle of corruption that further eroded public trust in government institutions.

Years of Uganda under the present the yellowish presidency, the spectre of godfatherism has persisted in our politics. The phenomenon has transcended party lines, infiltrating both the ruling and opposition camps. Godfathers have continued to play pivotal roles in determining the political fate of candidates, perpetuating a system where allegiance to powerful individuals held more weight than commitment to democratic ideals.

The erosion of political mentorship has broader implications for the health of democratic institutions. Without the steady hand of experienced mentors, leaders may become autocratic, side-stepping accountability and undermining the foundations of a thriving democracy. This erosion poses a severe threat to the democratic ideals that Uganda aspires to uphold.

A cursory look into the nation’s political landscape reveals that manipulative leadership are stark and the consequences are felt at every level of society, as public discourse becomes polarized, and the pursuit of the common good takes a back seat to personal ambition.

Curbing the rise of manipulative leadership requires a multifaceted approach. First and foremost, there is a pressing need to institute political mentorship programs. This can be achieved through well-run political parties with very strong youth wings (not political thugs). Strong Political party youth wings can establish platforms where seasoned statesmen do actively guide and mentor emerging leaders can be a powerful antidote to the prevailing trends.

The electorate must play an active role in demanding transparency, accountability, and ethical conduct from their leaders.

Citizens hold the key to breaking the cycle of manipulative leadership, and by fostering an environment that values integrity and collective welfare, they can reshape the political landscape.

The imperative for change in navigating the abyss of manipulative leadership amidst the decline of political mentorship in Uganda has never been more urgent. The revival of mentorship stands as the only hope and a catalyst for a new era of leadership that prioritises the common good over individual ambition.

It is through the collective efforts of mentors, aspiring leaders, and citizens alike that Uganda can steer away from the dangerous currents of manipulation towards a future defined by integrity, accountability, and genuine democracy.

Lukanga Samuel (lukangasamuel55@gmail.com) is a social development enthusiast and an Ambassador of Humanity from Nakaseke District

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