Defying the ‘African Way’

February 6, 2006

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – If man is by nature a political animal, as Aristotle said, then the best place for the best politicians is in the wild.

This is what I’ve advised the president of Uganda (in my mind). “Yo, go back to the bush. Get some perspective man. Really. Return to your roots.”

You’ll recall from previous dispatches that President Yoweri Museveni has so much going for him that, to ensure Ugandans can keep him, he’s changed the law to allow unlimited presidential terms.

Winning Uganda’s national vote Feb. 23 would extend his reign to 2013. That totals 27 years. In dog years, that’s a couple of German Shepherds. And even by African standards, a very long time.

It really defies, up to now, the African Way.

The African Way is this: A government is elected. A rebel group opposes it. It ousts the leader in a coup. There’s civil war. Atrocities occur. Millions starve. Rock stars sing about it.

The UN intervenes. Peace is restored. The cycle restarts.

Yes, no continent on Earth is wracked with more mindless bloodshed than Africa. It needs a sign at every port of entry: “Welcome to Africa: Now run for your life.”

Think of 3,000 killed in the U.S. on 9/11 and multiply it a thousand-fold to get an idea of lives lost in the brutality and mayhem of recent decades. Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Angola, Rwanda — take your pick.

Museveni knows it. As a guerrilla rebel leader in Uganda’s bush country from 1980 to 1986, he fought like a lion against former president Milton Obote. Hundreds of thousands died before Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) won the day.

The resisters then settled down to govern. With some stability. The NRM brought Uganda’s army under control, built a macro-economy, helped reduce AIDS, initiated free primary education, and even helped restore the decimated elephant population.

It’s all very fine. And last week the NRM celebrated its 20 years in power with plenty of tanks and jets and whatnot to show how secure and hip Uganda is. Still, the opposition complains. Corruption is wild. Poverty is up. The north, where the cultlike Lord’s Resistance Army operates, is a neglected disaster. Three million Ugandans need food aid. Now with the recent imprisonment of the opposition leader for several weeks, democracy itself is threatened.

The critics want change. And if it’s not through the vote, there’s always, you know, the African Way.

Which is why I advised the president (still in my mind) to forget the state house for now, and return to the bush.

“Take some mobiles and laptops, and resist the establishment again,” I said. “Run an opposition campaign. You’ll look and feel 20 years younger.”

“You think?” he said.

“Yes sir. In Africa, resistance is always the future. Besides, when you’re so darn good, a Museveni vs. Museveni match is the race everyone wants. Think about it. You can’t lose.”

“You’re right.”

“It’s tricky,” I added. “It’s one thing for Moses to set up in the wilderness to battle Pharaoh. It’s quite something else for Pharaoh to battle Pharaoh. But you can do it.”

“I can. I will,” he said.

“Remember,” I added. “As long as you’re resisting leaving office, or resisting the government, both of your personas can keep “resistance” in your party names.”


“But one of you needs to ditch your ‘peace, unity and prosperity’ slogan. Instead, use this: ‘The only thing worse than a present African leader is the next one.’ It will seriously hurt the opposition. Just be careful which one of you uses it.”

“Yes, of course,” said the president.

“The two of you should also mimic each other. Have the same walk, the same facial expressions, the same voice, you know. Then your current self will always be seen as youthful, and your past self will be seen as experienced.”

“It’s brilliant. I like it all,” he told me. “But how can I be in two places at once?”

“That’s where the computers come in,” I said.

“Do the Wag the Dog thing. Remember? The Dustin Hoffman movie? Today’s technology can easily show you in a virtual world that doesn’t really exist.”

“Yes, yes, I remember. But didn’t they have to start a fake war in that movie?”

“Exactly,” I said. “And isn’t that better than the real thing?”

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February 6, 2006 • Posted in ,
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