Musevenism: When the President Has to Handle Every Issue
Museveni at Rwakitura press Conference.

Musevenism: When the President Has to Handle Every Issue

What happens to government institutions when the President has to handle every issue?

By Gerald Rulekere
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First published: August 24, 2011

The dire economic times in Uganda have once again brought up the issue of whether Uganda's government institutions are functioning the way they should be. As different groups of people rise up to express their concerns and discomfort, there is an increasing trend of every group only settling after meeting the President. It is like no other government office or official in Uganda can ever do anything trustable other than the big man himself.

The opposition has for long been criticizing the NRM government, led by President Yoweri Museveni, of failing to foster the growth of government institutions. But what has not been clear until recently is how bad the situation is when an every issue seems only solvable by the President.

When a group of traders under their umbrella group Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) recently went on strike over the decreasing value of the Uganda shilling over the dollar, URA charging taxes in dollars and high license fees, their strike was only stopped after they met and “got assurance from President Museveni that their issues would be handled”.

The Minister of Trade and Industry Amelia Kyambadde had held two meetings with the traders but they refused to halt on their demands until “they meet the President”.

Minister Kyambadde had made many promises including suspending trading license fees (which she later retracted) and the Bank of Uganda intervening in the forex market to save the Uganda shilling as well a possible talk to URA over requiring taxes on imported goods in US dollars. The traders only calmed down and called off the strike after meeting president Museveni immediately after his return from a four day state visit in South Africa.

Just a few days later, a group of taxi drivers in Kampala unhappy about the way the Uganda Taxi Drivers and Operators Association was conducting city transport declared a sit down strike. The country was shocked when the chairman of the group- Drivers and Conductors association (DACCA) Mustafa Mayambala said the President had called him and promised to meet the drivers to look into their concerns.

The same drivers group had attended a joint meeting between them and UTODA concerned by the Vice President Edward Kiwanukan Ssekandi. The complaining traders refused to call off the strike despite an order by Ssekandi for UTODA to halt collection of some fees (which even UTODA did not honour). The drivers resumed work the next day only after meeting the President at Statehouse Entebbe in which he assured them that their concerns will be handled.

Not long after this incident, teachers under their Uganda National Teachers Union went on strike asking for 100% salaries increase from the current average of 200,000 shillings that a teacher in primary schools earn. The teachers have long demanded a pay rise saying the money they are paid is too little to even look after one person. The situation was exacerbated by the rising price of essential goods and services both for schools and in their personal homes.

Despite several meeting with MPs, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Finance officials, the teachers continued with their strike until the President, who had earlier said their demands cannot be met, agreed to meet them. Museveni met the teachers’ leaders at State House and set up an inter-ministerial committee to look into their demands and meet them within a month.

These are just some of the recent incidents which depict the worrying situation where government offices and officials up to the Vice President are treated with contempt or side stepped by those with any demand until they meet with the President and his view or directive on the matter.

There have been long held concerns over the President and Statehouse directing activities in many government offices, included purchases of key equipment, solving land conflicts, employment of key staff as well as allocation of scarce resources.

There are concerns that such a situation has reduced public confidence in government institutions solving people’s day to day problems and meeting the service delivery needs of the public.

But how did this come about, and what are the implications of such an attitude towards government institutions and the general governance of Uganda?

Wafula Ogutu, the Spokesperson of the leading opposition political party Forum for Democratic Change says Museveni’s leadership has from the beginning concentrated on promoting him as a person and neglected building public institutions that should adequately handle routine government business.

“That is exactly what Museveni wants. To be the alpha and omega of everything in Uganda. Every government activity rotates around him. He has managed to make Ugandans to believe that it is only him that matters and is the solution to every problem,” he said in an interview.

It is not only the opposition leaders that are concerned. One of the NRM leaders recently criticized Museveni for over concentration of powers in the Presidency, leaving his ministers and other government officials with almost no power to handle issues concerning the nation.

 The youth national coordinator of NRM, Sewava Serubiri termed the trend as ‘Musevenism’. He says that the act by the president to meet every group of people who have grievances with the way the government is handling issues undermines powers of ministers and other government officials.

“All these groups are playing with the president. But it could also be because he is a more accessible leader. It is hard for the local masses to access ministers than the President because of the long process in seeking an appointment with the ministers,” Serubiri says.

Prof. Aaron Mukwaya, a political science lecturer at Makerere University says while in being easily accessible the President manages to respond to people’s needs and demands, this should be done in a way that does not compromise state institutions and undermine public offices.

“If the President is being consulted as the highest authority on any matter, that is ok. But if he has to respond to everything that comes up, what will other public officials running government institutions do? The government structure and hierarchy needs to be respected. We also need to know whether the President is acting alone or with the responsible public officials on a given matter in arriving at a decision,” Prof. Mukwaya says. 

Some people are also concerned that public officials manning government institutions might fear to do their work because the president might have his own take at things should anyone complain. Not so long ago, it was reported that Bank of Uganda Governor Prof. Emanuel Tumusiime Mutebile had expressed concern at the way the government was spending when the President ordered for the purchase of two fighter jets at 1.7 trillion shillings from the government treasury, which money was not budgeted for.

Mutebile later came out to say he did not question the President’s decision or directive, and has since said little at the current economic crisis where inflation is at 18%, the Uganda shilling is strongly weakened against major foreign currencies, and prices of essential commodities like food, sugar, soap and fuel are rising by the day beyond the affordability of most Ugandans.

Museveni has always insisted there is no problem in Uganda, attributing the price fluctuations to imported inflation, over dependence on imports and drought. A cabinet meeting has been called on Thursday August 5th to discuss the dire economic situation but it is not clear whether any minister or government technocrat will push views centrally to what the President thinks.

While the principle of collective responsibility binds all ministers and government officials to follow the government’s official line, and no one can practically expect a minister of subordinate to contradict their boss, more Ugandans are getting concerned that little will be done on any issue (however small) until the President or State House is involved.

By Gerald Rulekere
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First published: August 24, 2011
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Gerald Rulekere is a Journalist and member of Ultimate Media Consult. He has written and published extensively on business and gender issues and been writing for Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd for the last two years. A professional and graduate journalist, Rulekere is always looking for an opportunity to better his writing especially for international media.