Uganda’s Colossal Failure Is Down To Feeble Institutions

Uganda's Colossal Failure Is Down To Feeble Institutions

1. A strange fallacy peculiar to post-independence Uganda constantly turns up whenever times get tough. It is a fallacy in which some in Uganda call for a freedom fighter, while others call for a Pan-African nationalist, and yet another lot, call for a benevolent dictator. Apparently, the people of Uganda are accustomed to waiting for one visionary freedom fighter or other, and when he is found, the supposition goes, “happy the people who recognize and follow him.” This logic’s inevitable conclusion is, everything must be done for the poor people of Uganda, nothing of value can ever be expected of or accomplished by them. This rationale, if taken to its highest water mark, must, by destroying the free conscience of a people to decide for themselves, as we clearly witnessed in a recent bogus Uganda presidential election of 2021, rapidly descends into a soul-destroying autocracy, the like of which we now see choking the very life out of the Pearl of Africa.

Freedom fighterism is idolatry

2. For freedom fighterism as understood by many in Uganda today, is a form of human idolatry in its worst form; it is a worship of raw power, which is as degrading in its effects as the worship of mere money. A far healthier option, if I may be bold to suggest one, is to inculcate into the mindset of the people of Uganda, the love of robust and resilient institutions; and so soon as this love is thoroughly consummated and carried into action, the people’s yearning for yet another freedom fighter to come to their rescue will come to an end. The two ideas are clearly antagonistic to one another; they are as opposed to each other as the Pen is opposed to an AK47 machine gun, for the one obliterates the other. But before we can beguile Ugandans away from the love of freedom fighterism and cause them to fall in love instead with institutions, let us first consider what we mean by institution(s). So then what is an institution?

An institution is a set of binding values that make life worthwhile

3. Each time I hear the word institution, I am transported back to my undergraduate days at Buckingham Law School; where my interest in institutions was first piqued after I was introduced to a little book, beloved of common law lawyers the world over, and written by a British legal scholar, A. V. Dicey. It was first published in 1883. It is still in print. In his ‘Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution,’ A. V. Dicey, wrote that in Britain, actions of political actors and institutions are governed by two parallel and complimentary set of rules. He said, “The one set of rules in the strictest sense ‘laws,’ since they are rules which (whether written or unwritten, whether enacted by statute or derived from custom, tradition, or judge-made maxims; collectively known as Common Law) are enforceable by the courts… The other set of rules consists of conventions, understandings, habits, or practices that – though they may regulate the conduct of several members of sovereign power, the Ministry, or other officials – are not really laws, since they are not enforceable by the courts.” While I am the first to admit that the rise to power by Mr Johnson following the Brexit referendum of 2016, has driven a coach and horses through British constitutional conventions, thus rendering Britain’s posture to resemble one of a bull in a china shop; and yet, the logic of conventions is as practical today as when Dicey first wrote about them. They are the focus of remainder of this blog-post. For conventions speak more about the sustainability of a social practice (norm), without which, ordinary life as we know it is neither worthwhile nor possible.

4. Moreover, the second half of Dicey’s definition agrees with another famous scholar at Harvard University, the late American political scientist, Samuel P Huntington. He is on record to have said that institutions are “stable, valued recurring patterns of behaviour.” Thus institution(s) may refer to a form of mechanism or processes, which govern the behaviour of individuals within a given community, and are identified with social purpose which transcend the individual by mediating the rule(s) that govern a given living behaviour. We may therefore agree that the term ‘institution’ – applies to both informal institutions such as commonly agreed upon customs or behaviours important to, and since we are here speaking specifically about Uganda, a given tribe on the one hand; and, on the other, to particular formal institution created by official decree such as an Act of the Parliament of Uganda.

Values are the glue which bind society together

5. It is well said that the safety of the building depends mainly upon its foundation, and if the foundation be not right, you may build as you will, it will not stand. The same is true with an institution. An institution is held together by a foundation of common ‘social’ understandings, some sort of glue if you like, which in turn gives a given tribe or group of people meaning, a vision, a purpose, and an identity. And that glue is what may be identified as habits of behaviour, native conventions, norms, conducts, or unwritten rules which embody a social practice. If, for argument sake, we settle on a phrase of, say, a ‘social practice;’ we’re left with a simple question, namely, what then is a social practice?

A social practice is a habit unlike an individual act

6. The answer to the question is, at the best of times, difficult to convey in simple terms, but it may go something like this: A social practice (norm) is a habit which is unlike an individual act. It is a habit which necessarily involves many people, in which no single person enjoys the singular power to sustain on their own. It is a habit or behaviour which is repeated over a period of time; that is, it is not, by it’s essence, unique. When I first visited Taiwan more than 22 years ago, I remember being mesmerized by the flow of traffic in her Capital City, Taipei; especially during instances where pedestrians and vehicles appeared to compete for very limited space. To a foreigner’s eye, I was very new to the way the Taiwanese society operated; it looked like people were jostling each other in one very big crowd, without apparent purpose.

There is purpose to social practice

7. It took me a while to realise that there was, after all, purpose in the seeming madness. Thus, a habit, a norm or a social practice exits for the realisation of a common venture; and in this instance, the venture was for people and traffic alike to get to their preferred destination. Therefore, despite the seeming chaos, there was considerable coordination and cooperation, else no one would be able to get to their desired destination. And most significantly, there was great skill involved in navigating through the apparent chaos; it involved a process of learning a specific skill, and the collective sum of these skills is what gave order to what at first appeared to me as chaos. In other words, if a single individual set about to go to their home from their office in Taipei, totally oblivious to the needs and concerns of others, he is clearly not engaged in a social practice. Whereas, if the same individual were to set about the same journey, but this time fully cognisant of the needs and concerns of fellow travellers, with a view of not endangering others, he is, in this instance, engaged in a social practice.

An institution is like a living organism

8. The fact that the substance of an institution is a collection of practice(s), which are pooled together for the common good, which qualifies a given endeavour to be a community project. An institution is in one sense like a living organism, which is in turn like an assembly of cells functioning as a stable whole that exhibit properties of life. An example of such organisms may be seen in any living structure such as a plant, animal or bacterium; they are capable of growth and reproduction. And like all organisms, institutions are by their essence fragile and are susceptible to collapse or disintegrate if not properly supported. Accordingly, institutions must be collectively established by continual reiteration and renewal. The process of renewal is possible through mutual trust and expectation, achieved through the setting of roles and rules; which are in turn enforceable by an individual in authority. It is the enforcement which embeds a social practice through roles and rules or conventions, resulting in a binding together of a living group – just as an organism does. It thus marshals itself into a stable, secure collective, which we may call an institution.

Institutions are vulnerable to abuse

9. But the fragility of institutions alluded to above makes then vulnerable to abuse, or in the worst case scenario, can be hostage to fortune, especially where the said institutions are not well established. Thus there are occasions in the life of a given society, especially in a society where social practices and habits are not solidly established, social practices or norms can be seen as both cumbersome and time-consuming; an obstacle in the path of ambitious young men who come to feel their path to success is impeded. These young restless spirits begin to wonder whether the same result may not be achieved by bypassing troublesome rules and procedures all together. They ask: why must we bother with institutions? They argue that, institutions are an anachronism of a bygone age, and in the case of Uganda, not Pan-African enough; and that, living as we do in a globally modern age, a digital age, where speed is of the essence, these institutions might as well be done with all together. In their anxiety to recast their world into something new, many of them have often started rebellions to overthrow the old order, which is often embodied in formal institutions, and in their place, establish a new order, which often takes the form of informal institutions. The irony is frequently lost on them in that they destroy established formal institutions, only to replace them with informal ones; but they are all institutions in nature. These are the institutions which dominate much of the political landscape in many African countries; and most notably, Uganda. They are not a force for good.  In what way then, are they not a force for good?

Informal institutions degrade formal institutions

10. To understand the political behaviour of a country like Uganda in the 21st century, it is important to look at how that behaviour is enabled or constrained by informal institutions, and how this affects how formal institutions are run as they’re gradually degraded. For it is an open secret that in Uganda today, informal institutions take precedence over formal institutions – a practice that was first instituted when General Museveni captured state power in 1986, thanks to the barrel of a gun. It is well known that when he took power, he was anxious to retain control of every aspect of government, to the degree that he appointed special National Resistance Movement Cadres to every significant public office, including the Office of the Prime Minister. So, one had a politician as the public face of his office, but in order to carry out his duties, those duties had to be first cleared by an NRM cadre, who was often designated as the deputy prime minister. In the early days of General Museveni’s long rule over Uganda, there were as many as three deputy prime ministers, who were all NRM cadres. These informal institutions of governance have consequently set General Museveni up as something little less than God, and his power is accordingly terrific. Thus, to this very day, the practice is still in evidence with a new caveat; which is, all who serve in his government whether politicians or cadres, must swear fealty to General Museveni alone.

Informal institutions legitimise criminal behaviour

11. In practice by way of example, if there were a high level extrajudicial killing, and there have been many high level assassinations in Uganda since 1986 and following; while it is true that extrajudicial killings are officially against the law of Uganda, nevertheless, the National Resistance Movement/Army, including a myriad of other security organisations within the NRM are in fact both enabled and encouraged by General Museveni as a means of propping up an enfeebled formal institution such as, the Uganda Police. To this day, it is common to find a general or two working side by side with the Inspector General of Uganda Police. Indeed, at one point in Uganda’s most recent history, the Inspector General of Uganda Police was a full 4-star general in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, General Kayihura. What is remarkable about this general, it is alleged, that he is not only a qualified lawyer, but that he also holds a Master of Laws Degree in Human Rights Law, from one of the most prestigious universities in England. The general is infamous for presiding over some of the most notorious torture chambers (safe houses) in Uganda’s history. What a fearful thing it is for a learned man, an officer of the court, that he should be the same man to superintend angels of torture! For if a man so schooled in the mysteries of justice and law should act thus, what hope is there for lesser mortals who are not so privileged?  To wit, all too often in General Museveni’s Uganda, the perpetrators of these crimes are well-known and are rewarded with even higher office within the system. An infamous officer, a man who oversaw the notorious Kasese massacres in 2016, was not only promoted to a full general, but he is also one of the official army representatives in the new Parliament of Uganda.

Informal institutions are held together by corrupt shared values

12. Informal institutions like their counterparts tends to have what we may call socially shared values, rules – which are not written anywhere, but familiar to all, and in this case, well known by all Ugandans, especially those in positions of power. And as such, these rules or values are accordingly referred to as being an inherent part of the Ugandan political culture today. This is how Ugandans have come to accept rampant corruption as an intrinsic part of their political culture, to the degree that after 35 years of General Museveni’s rule over Uganda, there has been a strange alignment of formal institutions and informal institutions to create a uniquely unusual brand of democracy which is rooted in and is sustained by corruption. For corruption is now an integral feature of Uganda’s political culture, it is part of General Museveni’s political DNA; and this is evidenced by the unintended consequence of creating a closed society, instead of creating an open access society – an authoritarian society which only functions at the say so of an order from the paramount chief. Corruption is a way of life in Uganda today. The common characteristic of such societies is dis-functionalism and chaos. And restricting ourselves to Uganda’s specific vicissitudes in the recent past, if Machiavelli had never been written, General Museveni, Uganda’s paramount chief, could have supplied the want – high praise indeed – were it not for the reality of what’s at stake. Democracy is at stake. For General Museveni has a congenital inability to let his right hand even to know about the existence of his left hand.  Let me show you what I mean, with special reference to the law of unintended consequences.

The attempted assassination of the former Uganda Army Commander

13.  While working on this blog-post, a gift from the gods by way of an illustration, fell into my lap: A former Uganda Army Commander, the retired General Katumba Wamala, was on 1 June 2021, on his way to join his wife at a vigil, after his mother-in-law had passed away a few days earlier. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary you might think, but without any warning, a group of assassins on motor-bikes fell upon the general’s official car and sprayed it with bullets, leaving two dead on the spot. Of the dead was the general’s much loved young daughter, who had just recently return to Uganda, from her advanced studies in the USA. The other dead was the general’s driver. The general and his body guard escaped with their lives, but the general suffered minor injuries in both his arms. What is remarkable about this attempted assassination is it took place in broad daylight, eerily similar to many other assassinations which have claimed among others, a government prosecutor, an assistant inspector of Police, and a number of high-profile religious leaders.

The Police in Uganda are like sleeping dogs when it really matters

14.   Moreover, reliable sources on the ground suggest that, the location where the attempted assassination took place, is less than 3 kilometres from the nearest Police station. And yet, the Police, with all its huge investment in modern high-tech equipment, which is always on full display whenever there are political disturbances in Kampala, were nowhere to be seen for a good 30 minutes after the event. Worse, there was no one to come to the aid of the general, except for a lone motor-cycle taxi (boda-boda); witnessed the indignity of the former commander of the Uganda armed forces having to squeeze between the taxi driver and his surviving body guard, on his way to the hospital. Even more troubling, the general was not conveyed to the famous referral hospital at Mulago, a teaching university hospital in Kampala, but was instead delivered to a small private hospital, which was a considerable distance away from the referral hospital.

The want of robust formal institutions makes a people hostage to fortune

15.  The above vignette shows clearly what happens when formal institutions become so enfeebled; and in the case of Uganda, they have completely collapsed – sacrificed at the altar of an all-pervasive culture of corruption. It demonstrates that the want of robust formal institutions makes a people willing hostage to a madman (absolute power makes a man insane); exposing them to bitter poverty, preventable diseases (Covid-19 is having a field-day in Uganda), political instability and conflict. And in the case of Uganda, it shows that there is no functioning formal institution of the police to spring into action the moment a crime takes place, never mind having the wherewithal to do something as basic as securing the crime scene. The institution of a functioning ambulance(s) with trained paramedics to assist a wounded general with first-aid, is simply non-existent in Uganda today. What is so remarkable about this snapshot is, the incessant terror visited upon ordinary citizens by the sight of government officials, including army commanders, cruising the City of Kampala in expensive Armour plated 4X4s, which often drive on the wrong side of the road with sirens blaring. It raises a difficult question: How was it that a full general was, on this occasion, driving a soft skin vehicle at the time of the attempted assassination? This question is significant because General Museveni has thus far lost two former army commanders in what can only be described as dubious circumstances. Now it is not for this blog-post to answer the question per se. This blog-post is merely showing how a deliberate policy to enfeeble institutions cuts both ways, it affects all in society, regardless of social status. Suffice to say that an official investigation into the said attempted assassination has been launched, but, just like all investigations which have gone before, no one is holding out much hope that it will yield any meaningful results.

Informal institutions cannot stand in the face of a severe test

16. The vignette also shows that General Museveni’s government is as a tree which looks ever-green on the outside, but in reality, is rotten at the core. And the day is coming, it may even be upon Uganda right now; when the self-same tree will be subjected to so tremendous a strain, that it will crumble away under its own weight of corruption, along with many informal institutions created in the image of General Museveni. And in keeping with the Paramount Chief’s rebarbative character of never letting a good crisis go to waste, General Museveni turned the crisis into an opportunity to launch, for the umpteenth time, a new campaign to fight rampant corruption in the country; by calling upon the descendants of his comrade freedom fighters, to take on the challenge of corruption, which is posing the severest test to his government since 1986. The logic of the call to arms was set out his State of the Nation speech, which he delivered at Kololo Independence grounds, on 4 June 2021. Calling on the rich children of his freedom fighter comrades, he said something like this: “These are children from rich families who don’t have the problem of poverty-related pressure from home. This is structural change. You’ll see how they will help us to fight this corruption.”

But corruptions beget corruption

17. But there is a problem with this call to arms: Anyone alive today, both at home and abroad, knows only to well that General Museveni’s bark on corruption is worse than his bite. For he has been, if we’re to take him at his own word, fighting corruption for as long as he has been in public life. Fighting corruption, it is alleged, was one of the primary reasons he gave for taking up his AK47 and starting a rebellion which subsequently brought him to power in 1986; and more than 35 years later, corruption in Uganda has expanded to affect every aspect of life in Uganda. For corruption under General Museveni’s government is not only skinning Ugandans alive, but it is also flaying them to the very bone. Indeed, corruption begets corruption; so much so that there are silent cries in Uganda today, for a new freedom fighter to rise up and save the country from General Museveni.

The central issue in Uganda today is not money, but values

18. The other problem it seems to me is that, the wiseacres in Kampala, who advise General Museveni, do not seem to have a good grasp of the reality which is staring them in the face; namely, that the central issue in Uganda today is not about money, but values – values which are espoused by those in positions of power. This issue was brought home to me in vivid colours by an Opinion Editorial written by a Ugandan “Poor man’s freedom fighter,” Mr. Daniel K. Kalinaki of the Daily Monitor. In answer to General Museveni’s clarion call, bidding descendants of his fellow bush freedom fighters, to take up the challenge to fight corruption, Mr Kalinaki wrote thus: “When Uganda Revenue Authority was set up in 1991, it was the first such stand-alone tax body in sub-Sahara Africa built around two ideas: Relative independence from the Finance Ministry and other political actors in the discharge of its duties; employees recruited outside the civil service with its restrictive salaries, and paid top dollar in order to avoid corruption. A third idea, introduced quietly soon after, was to staff URA with young ‘born-again’ Christians with the understanding that their upright morals were stiff enough to keep them from bending over to dip their hands in the cookie jar. It ended in premium tears. By 2002 corruption had become so rampant in URA, a judicial commission of inquiry had to be set up to investigate the matter.”

19. Whereas the poor man’s freedom fighter went on to give an eloquent explanation as to what went wrong at the URA, focusing mainly on the role and impact of patronage, which was officially dressed up as selection of born-again Christians – a thesis, I entirely agree with – I will instead focus on the small matter of values. The issue of values is significant because Uganda is probably the only country I know, where public officials proudly wear their ‘born-again’ Christian credentials on their sleeves, for the whole world to see; and with this in mind, we must now ask: What went wrong in this supposedly Christian country?

Uganda’s moral framework is withered and decayed

20. To answer this question, one would probably have to write an entire doctoral thesis. This blog-post is not the appropriate forum to attempt such a feat. But this much I have observed: Considering that Uganda’s formal institutions of governance were heavily influenced by the Christian faith – a faith which was first introduced to the country by Christian missionaries in the 19th century; it is a fair conclusion that the values inculcated into the minds of many Ugandans at the time, have over many subsequent decades, atrophied. From the start, that is, from the time when Uganda’s political awakening first found expression in the so-called Pan-Africanism; Uganda has experienced the casualisation of Christian morals as distinct from the Christian doctrine. This casualisation has subsequently gained considerable strength and status over time. Thus, the peculiar doctrine of Christianity has thus become redundant; and as one might expect, the moral framework which underpinned formal institutions at Uganda’s independence; that is, the very marrow that sustained the bones of social norms and practices, has itself withered and is decayed. The withering of moral values is celebrated in General Museveni’s Uganda; it has as a consequence, robed many generations of Ugandans that which should have supplied them with true life and sustenance.

Uganda is now a failed state in all but name

21.  God knows where Uganda should be today without General Museveni, and only God knows where Uganda shall go with him at the helm. Whichever way you slice the issue; that is, the real problem in Uganda today, there is no mistaking the fact that Uganda is now a failed state in all but name. It is a colossal failure. This failure is down to General Museveni’s success in decisively enfeebling the country’s formal institutions of governance. There are no alternative centres of leadership and authority in Uganda any more. In my Open Letter to General Museveni on 24th March 2021, I appealed to the general’s sense of pride as a renowned African freedom fighter, to save his legacy by “[Talking] with those you disagree with.” The purpose of the letter was to influence him and his advisors to see the merit for reinvigorating formal institutions of governance, which, had he acceded to this good counsel, would probably have opened a way for him to salvage his reputation and legacy. Instead, the general has answered appeals to his better nature by appointing ministers to his cabinet, including a prime minister, that have left commentators completely bewildered. Where a government should be about reasoned arguments over what is possible within constraining circumstances; his preferred choice of a so-called “Cabinet of fishermen,” which is populated by a people not particularly known for their moral values; is a ringing endorsement for a government of mediocrity, adding fuel to the fires of bitterness. Moreover, his choice speaks eloquently to the fact that this is a man who is intent on sticking to the presidential chair like barnacles; as the only functioning institution of governance in Uganda today, and it is a legacy which will haunt Uganda for many generations to come. This state of affairs leaves many right-thinking Ugandans in a quandary. But what must they do in the face of this awful reality?

Embrace patience and time as worthy champions

22.  In answer, I would advise right-thinking Ugandans, including well-wishers in foreign capitals, to take a leaf out of General-Field Marshal Kutuzov’s book on waging war. For when Napoleon marched on Moscow in 1812, the Russian general ordered his forces to sit back. The Russians abandoned their capital and conserved their energies until Napoleon, his supply lines fatally extended, had to retreat and see winter, disease and guerrilla attacks destroy his army and his reputation for invincibility. According to War and Peace, the general’s rational was simple: “We can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions.” As indicated above, General Museveni is clearly on the offensive in his quest to prolong his rule over Uganda by whatever means necessary. Right-thinking Ugandans and well-wishers should resist any temptation to respond to General Museveni’s offensive with an offensive of their own. They must, however, be patient; for time is a worthy ally in the circumstances. Moreover, wisdom teaches us that, it is best to avoid picking fights we know we cannot win, especially when we have not a clue – about how to end them.

23. Accordingly, and as I wrote in my blog-post, ‘I see in Uganda an opportunity, not a lost cause,’ let us not be in a hurry; for meaningful change, especially change to bring about democracy in Uganda, is a work of time. And while we wait patiently for time to work her magic in our favour, let us consider carefully the proposal I set out in that blog-post, namely, to submit Uganda to the United Nations as a possible Mandate. By calling for the establishment of Uganda as a United Nations Mandate, I am not in anyway, suggesting that Uganda should be recolonised. No. For recolonising Uganda is not a viable option, as it will inevitably make a bad situation worse, much worse! Though politically difficult, a United Nation’s Mandate would work differently. I will, in the future, publish a blog-post in which I will endeavour to show how a Mandate would work in a country such as Uganda; and how right-thinking Ugandans may get to be in the driving seat of this instrument, were it ever to come to pass, making it a very different specie of nation building.


Editor’s Note:

For completeness, you may also like to read a two-part blog-post entitled, “A Tale of Two Crimes: of Mayhem and Wanton Theft.” The blog-post is written by Dr Bbuye Lya Mukanga, and is published on Dr Muniini K. Mulera’s blog website. The blog-post will be worth your while. Please click here to read.

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