Africa’s Cautionary Tale

Libya 1

The Arab Spring as was represented in Libya was about the human spirit rising up against an oppressive stronghold on humanity. It was about young people rising up against a dictatorship that had taken away basic freedoms, like the freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly. It was a fight for the right to dream of possibilities, a fight for a vision of a better future. It had to have taken a tremendous level of solidarity and sheer determination that could only have come from a place of desperation. The indestructible energy discharged from a burning desire for freedom, was harnessed into a call to arms characterized by homemade firepower at first, and later NATO Tomahawk missiles that would eventually bring Gaddafi’s army down to its knees climaxing in the gruesome images of a wounded Gaddafi just before his death. It was a triumphant moment for Libyans and the human race. But make no mistake about it; there would be a heavy price to pay. Unfortunately the cost of freedom has been an unstable nation with rival factions orchestrating random deadly attacks on civilians and Government establishments. Other African nations have looked upon Libya’s situation as a cautionary tale. Should the people topple an oppressive government and risk catapulting a country into the unstable unknown; or should they just stick with the status quo and try to make the best of it? One can only know when they reach that point of no return. Episode 4 of Parts Unknown portrays an exuberant mood at Martyrs’ square in Tripoli. There are families hanging out, kids launching fireworks in all directions, bikers and skater boys doing tricks as honking cars drive by. Young men in camouflage, standing by to keep order, sporadically join in on the fun. Ambulances circle the area in the occasion of an accident. It’s the day before Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, but this is much more than just one celebration. “It’s Christmas, 4th of July, all rolled up in one,” as Michael Cousins, founder of the Libya Herald puts it to Bourdain. “There are puritans, extremists, militants trying to stop this. Remember Libyans didn’t have fun before this. So this is also a defiance of that.” There would be more killings and kidnappings as Libya struggles to become a fully functioning democracy, notwithstanding the long tradition of religious and customary hierarchy. Indeed the dozens of young men loitering in camouflage and the special security guys protecting Bourdain with rifles give this episode a thriller vibe. But it also shows proud young men that put their lives on the line for the next generation, freedom fighters that defeated an oppressive regime that claimed thousands of lives.

Parallels should be drawn between Gaddafi, and President Yoweri Museveni, the leader of my country, Uganda for the past 32 years, democratically elected in all of the last 5 elections. I want to call Museveni a dictator so badly because he’s been in power for so damn long, and will stop at nothing to stay there. But I can’t do it just yet. The closest thing I can say is that he will be remembered as a dictator if he doesn’t change the current political trend. Uganda was once ruled by a dictator, and his name was Idi Amin. Like Gaddafi, he was largely a megalomaniac who killed and tortured thousands of his own people. Museveni went to war and ousted Amin with the help of the Tanzanians. He served as a cabinet Minister in the ensuing government, and later took up arms again in a guerrilla war that facilitated his rise to the presidency in 1986. He formed the National Resistance Movement government which oversaw the transition of Uganda into a new brand of democracy where merit was emphasized over tribal or religious based political party. He was a man with a vision, and has to be credited for Uganda’s improvement in education, health, and general modernization. However, Uganda today needs a different president; period. When Museveni came to power, he laid out a 10-point program as a mission of his administration to uplift Uganda from the perils of a young democracy and economy to a thriving country. Fast forward 32 years, millions of dollars a richer man, presiding over a struggling and mostly young population, he’s talking of “11 bottlenecks” that he wants to eradicate as president. His presentation at the last African Peer Review was a very glass-half-empty analysis of some of the major problems preventing African countries from taking that next step to prosperity. Problems like ideological disorientation – sectarianism based on religion, tribe and gender chauvinism – would never be solved in the foreseeable lifetime of anyone alive today. Credit Museveni, he never presented that panel with a whiff of a solution; just problems. When asked in an Al Jazeera interview what he wants to achieve before he leaves power, he cites these “11 bottlenecks.” In other words he will rule until he dies.

Libya 2

Gaddafi’s brand of dictatorship is dead. The regimes of Muhammad Hosni of Egypt, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe among others have since followed suit. Libyans rallied around a common enemy because Gaddafi oppressed all Libyans. To say anything in opposition meant death. The country was crippled by sanctions, cut off from most of the Western world, leaving young people hopeless, hungering for simple things like Kentucky Fried Chicken. “It’s the taste of freedom,” a young former freedom fighter declares to Bourdain as he bites into an “Uncle Kentucky” sandwich. Not to take the killings, random imprisonments, and other inhumanities lightly, Gaddafi’s magalomania is worth another mention here. He changed the days of the week and the dates of the Islamic calendar, systematically monopolized the news, and ruled an entire country as if they were children in his own house. He did not foresee the freedom social media would bring though. In fact various security consultants used Twitter to communicate with NATO to launch a series of bombings at strategic locations, a move that proved key to defeating Gaddafi’s heavy artillery. Museveni is way too smart to make the same mistakes. He moves his agenda through political actors. This is a common practice in well established democracies, but Museveni pays his politicians handsomely, and will use the army to intimidate and even haul off members of the opposition to safe houses to stop them from voting on key issues. He’s also been accused of locking up and killing dozens of political opponents, but nothing as blatant as Gaddafi. In elections, he is admittedly unstoppable. Most enlightened Ugandans will tell you the elections are rigged. Long before my Museveni fatigue kicked in, the story was Museveni would always win the rural areas because the people that lived there were older and remembered the bad times all too well. In retrospect, he would consistently lose in Kampala by a landslide, and make it a close race in the other handful of metropolitan cities. However, there is no way this theory would hold up today after large populations have migrated from the poor rural areas to urban centers. The anti-Museveni sentiment in cities has been bubbling out of the pot for decades now. And of course the elephant in the room is the young people. The young men and women under 30 make up all of 85% of Uganda’s population, the youngest country in the world! I will say it again. The vast majority of Ugandans are desperate to see another man or woman at the helm of their country.

No one in Uganda today represents the political sentiment of the youth like former singer now turned Member of Parliament, Bobi Wine. Recently Museveni’s presidential guards made the mistake of capturing and torturing Bobi Wine and his colleagues when protesters threw rocks at a heavily armored presidential convoy. Bobi Wine’s driver was shot dead on the spot when the soldiers, closing in on the hotel he was staying at, mistook him for Bobi Wine. The charges brought up on Bobi Wine included treason and inciting violence among others. However, thanks to a loud global outcry on social media, almost all the charges were dropped, and he was consequently released from jail. Currently in the US getting treatment for his injuries and doing several press conferences, Bobi Wine recognizes his own popularity and does not take his public image lightly. “I would request that you don’t focus on me as a person,” Bobi pauses for a subdued applause from a Boston gathering desperate to rally behind his bigger-than-life personality. He continues, referring to himself, “This was just an artist, an ordinary artist standing up and representing something much bigger. This vote does not represent my strength. It represents the dissatisfaction of the people.” Words that only a polished politician who has rubbed shoulders with the likes of President Obama and Bill Gates would say. And so the Star of Bobi Wine continues to rise. Museveni may have stumbled in his dealings with the young politician, but his record shows that he’s smart enough to trade the the deep waters that Bobi Wine is swimming in. Unlike Mugabe, Museveni will not be ousted by his own army, an army in which his son heads the strongest division known as the Presidential Guard Brigade. “He owns the army,” is not an uncommon phrase in reference to Museveni. While Bobi Wine calls for political activism from all citizens of Uganda, the country is considered not to be of particular strategic interest to the Western world. As such, Ugandans can rule out foreign military intervention.

Libya 3

So what are Ugandans left with? 1. Active protest, and all forms of democratic political activism. While the fear of violent and often deadly retaliation from Museveni’s army may be warranted, this is one way of getting the International community to seize Museveni’s wealth which is very likey concentrated in foreign banking and financial institutions. In the wake of the Magnitsky Act and the new laws following the Rwandan genocide, the International community is obliged to sanction particular individuals, and to intervene in a situation where a government fails to protect its own people. 2. Perhaps the more likely fruitful scenario for the Ugandan people is for the Old Man to voluntarily step down. May be I should have titled this article “An appeal to President Museveni’s better senses to do the right thing for his country.” If you (Museveni) truly love your country and your people – and you’ve shown reason for me to believe it – if you are truly setting up your family for an everlasting prosperous future with millions of US Dollars stashed away, you would step down before you die in office. Because, who knows what will happen to your country that you love oh so dearly if you, the president who controls everything just up and dies one day? Who knows what will happen to your family, your family’s wealth? If you step down, maybe with that army that you own, you can still pull the strings from behind the curtain, like the Wizard of OZ. May be your highly ranked soldier son won’t be chastised and persecuted by rival ranking soldiers. May be the country will forgive you. I will certainly forgive you if a young politician, like Bobi Wine who represents the values of most of the Ugandan population becomes the president of our country. God bless Uganda. God bless Africa.

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