One of the most intriguing golden threads interwoven in political debates, and casual talk in Uganda, which I must, from the outset admit incapacity to comprehend, and gargantuan scorn for, is the oft-said line, “Besigye has become a stumbling block for and in the opposition.” Singer and ghetto president, Robert Kyagulanyi, in a veiled jab at Dr. Kizza Besigye this week said, “Some people have made the opposition their position,” and added that they (Besigye) will do anything to ensure no one else emerges.
Besigye, a four time presidential candidate in Uganda’s elections since 2001, was on the receiving end of the same volley of criticism in respect of ex-army commander Maj. Gen. (rtd) Mugisha Muntu whose growth he was accused of frustrating.
I have also listened to some legislators like the good-looking Kampala Women MP, Nabilah Naggayi and the once outspoken Beatrice Anywar of Kitgum, Ms. Alice Alaso and several others, make the same claim against Besigye.
Similarly, Gen. (rtd) Yoweri Museveni, in power for 33 years now, has not been spared similar criticism by both NRM members and those opposed to him. He has been accused in private and public, of blocking the growth and institutionalization of the NRM party, condemned for not giving room to succession and thwarting the ambition of others. His leadership style, ex Prime Minister, Mr. John Patrick Amama Mbabazi said, is centred on him, “everything is about me.”
Another senior politician I have heard the same claim being made against is Ms. Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of the parliament of Uganda.
Like Besigye and Museveni, she has been accused of thwarting the growth of anyone else in Busoga, frustrating anyone eyeing the speaker job and one top NRM woman politician told me, “fighting anyone from the East who shines and overshadows her.” Like Besigye and Museveni, the charge against her, is standing in the way of other leaders. Empire building, we call it corporate governance.
I have also heard, in whispers, especially younger civil society actors, accuse the ageing guard like Mr. Godber Tumushabe of standing in the way of new stars. Sometimes Ms. Miria Matembe and her generation of women leaders and activists, have also been accused of hanging around for a tad too long, hence not giving room to the younger turks to shine. At Law school and LDC, my classmates, lawyers a class or two ahead of me and others a few years into practice, with whom I have interacted, have also not been slow and shy to bemoan the dominance of the old guard in the profession, whom they accuse of stifling growth of the younger generation and putting their old foot forward for even the smallest deal. They, their critics ferociously charge, aren’t giving younger people a chance to breathe and be.
I share these examples to set out, in clear terms, the boundaries and context of my argument tonight and why, I have held, with utmost contempt, these narratives and seek to, in no uncertain terms, debunk the hollowness in some of them. To do so goes to the heart of the premise of this piece.
Whereas they may be based on fact and sowed on fertile moral ground, these arguments, in my humble view, are out of touch with, a) the true nature of human beings and b) the harsh realities of politics for the purpose of this write up, and life in general.
72 year old American author and libertarian pundit John Stossel said, “People acting in their own self interest is the fuel for all the discovery, innovation, and prosperity that powers the world.”
The universe, Mark Scott Zicree wrote in Babylon 5, “Survivors”, G’Kar, “is driven by the complex interaction between three ingredients: matter, energy and enlightened self-interest.” Robert A. Heinlein in Lazarus Long, captured it succinctly, “Never appeal to a man’s “better nature”. He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.”
Anyway self-interest has been the subject of study, reflection, speech and writing by philosophers across geographical space and historical time. In truth, those we accuse of “standing in our way” have every reason, no matter what they say in public or claim to stand for such as a unitary, almost egalitarian public interest and such notions as ‘democracy, rule of law, human rights’, to do so if it is in their self-interest. You may hate and despise it but that is just the nature of life, unless of course you intend to rewind the wheel.
So, for a young lawyer to expect that somehow Mzee Katende, Ssempebwa, and the Ugandans Above 40 like Mr. David Mpanga, will somehow, exit the stage and let you grab the next deal, is not only out of touch with the realities of life but also expecting too much. That is akin to my respectable friends, as a matter of example, Messrs. Canary Mugume, Raymond Mujuni, Frederic Musisi and other younger journalists expecting and assuming that somehow, the older guard who have stood out in their generation like Andrew Mwenda, Paul Busharizi, Eriasa S. Mukiibi, Barbara Kaija, Carol Beyanga, Margaret Vuchiri, Charles Mwanguhya, Chris Obore, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa, Tabu Butagira, Risdel Kasasira, and others, should exit the stage to let them also make their contribution and shine. This is nonsense! Come on! You got to find your way around and stand out. Yes you can and should get mentorship and all the support you need to grow for a candle loses not its light by lighting another but, don’t expect that those who have sweated their way up will simply leave you to make your mark by exiting the stage for you. This is the type of casual talk dominant in our politics. Old guard out, young turks in, as though it is a light one switches on and of. Woe unto you!
So, don’t expect that as a young pastor, somehow, Pastor Kayanja or Pr. Kakande, who have aged in the trade, should, in the interest of, “allowing younger people” take over, somehow slow down. Or that somehow, Sudhir Ruparellia who has worked his way up to the dominance of the real estate market in Kampala, should give way to younger real estate businessmen or that the likes of Amos Wekesa should somehow, slow down their activity just so that young investors in tourism too, have a chance. No. I say, they must work their way up and either be noticed or sit down. I say this because I have never accepted the notion that because I am in my 20s, that should be my bargaining tool for opportunities, be they scholarships or consulting opportunities. Between 22 and 23 years I negotiated to do a documentary for Aljazeera, pitching a story, among some of the finest and old guard from Africa, in Ghana on its merits, accepting criticism on its merits and not expecting that the older guard from across the continent should somehow understand and make way for a younger journalist.
When I go to the bank to negotiate a mortgage facility to develop commercial property, I do so, not expecting that I am some 25 year old waving young man interested in real estate business with a land title and business proposal at hand, who must get funding because somehow the bank should understand that this is a young man. No. It is up to me to organize my paper work, consult as widely and make a case on its merit, the same way a 40 year old would.
I refuse therefore, sometimes, to honor invites, speaking engagements or even job offers because of the line, “You are one of the young people….”. I say, if I am to moderate a session, do a consultancy as I do for a number of NGOs and donor organisations, I do so, because someone thinks my skill is value addition and trusts my delivery, not because somehow I should get it in the interest of encouraging young people. I refuse that affirmative action but respect those who ride on it. Their right!
It is for this reason that I find it despicable and despisable, listening to young people claiming their seat in civil society, legal practice, politics and other spaces, on the account of age, not skill, ability and eagerness to learn and get mentorship as someone starting out. I have recently been speaking to tourism investors in South Africa and Uganda like the incredibly gifted, inspiring and ambitious Amos Wekesa, trying to appreciate the tourism sector in Uganda with a view to starting out investment in the area soon. I don’t expect that Amos should make way for younger Okudas interested in the same business. The most they can do for us is lift us up and show us around the complex maze of life in the sector. Our claim to seats at their table cannot be that we are young and new so those old guard should somehow ease up space. That is the expectation of Ugandan politicians on Besigye, Museveni and Kadaga, used here, purely as examples. Your claim to fame and space should be on the strength of your superior or equally good abilities, not just that you represent a new wave or shift or some imaginary generation.
So don’t expect that somehow, Besigye, Kadaga or Museveni will exit the stage and let you take over, however well-meaning they might be. They can only do so, if again, it is in their self-interest to do so. For that, dear brethren, is just the nature of life. In short, as Bishop Zac Niringiye recently told young people, “organise, organise and organise, don’t expect that someone will give you space.”
No one made way for Norbert Mao who in his campus days became Guild President and has remained, 25 years later, relevant and become a recognizable quantity in our politics. No one made way for Obore, Mwenda, Mwanguhya, Patrick Kamara, Busharizi, Charles Odoobo Bichachi and all those journalists you hear of. Or even Anderson Cooper or Christian Amanpour or Sorious Samura or Theresa May or Raila Odinga in Kenya. They cultivated their way in, they cannot cultivate their way out simply on the account of young and new blood in their fields. Why should they?
My senior colleagues in the legal profession from whose mentorship I have benefited, like Messrs. Fred Muwema, Julius Galisonga, Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, David Mpanga, Robert Kirunda and several others, didn’t stand out among their generation by bemoaning how the Katendes, Sebalus had stifled space for growth, they, through sheer hard work and discipline, dedication and foresight, hustled their way up and can now share a table with those old men and women they otherwise would have chosen to curse out of their assumed spaces. Rather than rant about how the old guard like Professors Oloka Onyango, Mahmood Mamdani, Sylvia Tamale, Fredrick Jjuko, Chris Maina of Tanzania aren’t easing up space in the academia, people like my law lecturer, Dr. Busingye Kabumba chose to learn from and stand on shoulders of these giants, innovate, burn the midnight oil, work hard and the world is not only noticing but I dare add, also starting to reward him. It is people like him who inspire me.
Again, it is for this reason that I simply don’t understand the notion that Mr. Museveni, Dr. Besigye and Ms. Kadaga, (these used as example ) have stifled the way for others. It is in their self-interest to protect their turf (forget the altruistic Sunday School rhymes and lyrics about politics). It is therefore, incumbent upon those who seek to dislodge them or take up their space, to counter-organise and size up.
It is why I was happy that Gen. Muntu, possibly feeling suffocated in FDC party, took the bold step of stepping out, and started his own party just as Mr. Mbabazi did when he couldn’t breathe in the NRM with his ambition. He, unlike many NRM leaders who choose to backbite Museveni, rose up to the occasion. For this reason, him and Muntu impress me just like Gen. David Sejusa, who, unlike many disgruntled military officers who bad mouth their commander in chief in private, chose to ,man up and try to pull the rug out of his feet. They may not have achieved their ultimate aim but they gave their best shot and it is such men and women who shape history. Besigye, chose in 1999 to exit the NRM and challenge Mr. Museveni for he couldn’t keep saying the man has stood in the way of progress. He took a leap of faith and took the man on. He is not where he is today, by mistake just as Mr. Museveni who, disgruntled with the 1980 status quo, and seeking to gain power at all costs, didn’t sit on his laurels but rose up to the occasion. It is such men, who choose to create space and organize to counter those they think wrongly occupy or have over stayed in the space, that make and shape history.
The exaggerated and delusional expectations of young people that they should be given space as a matter of right accruing from age, is atrociously naïve!
Therefore, as long as Besigye, Museveni, Kadaga or any of those men and women you think have dominated without eyes on the exit, whatever space you feel entitled to, has not imprisoned, maimed, castrated or silenced you, you surely cannot accuse him/her of not giving you space and trying to construct an empire. You are duty bound to demolish that empire, counter organize and outsmart him, proving you are finer; for politics is a competitive market place of ideas, slogans, stunts, ideals, programs, actions and as argued earlier, human beings and self-interest are inseparably conjoined. Get to work. Stop belching with delusional self-entitlement. The world owes you not a living.
Ivan Okuda is a Ugandan Lawyer and Investigative Journalist with the Daily Monitor