Greetings from Berlin where I am attending the Global Diplomacy Lab hosted by the German Foreign Ministry. As you recall Museveni was here last week at the invitation of the German business community. Museveni was tight lipped on governance issues in Uganda especially the repression of the opposition following the disputed recent elections. He dwelt on threatening and blasting the Germans that they seem to be blind to the investment opportunities in Uganda. He advised them to be like the Chinese who invest without asking too many questions about democracy and corruption. “You need to borrow the Chinese spectacles so that you can stop seeing the problems we have and instead see opportunities”, he exhorted the gathering of the German private sector.
But as fate would have it Mr. Muller, the German government representative to the meeting who is also the International Development Cooperation Minister took the podium before Museveni. He did not mince his words. He told Museveni that German businesses wish to invest in Uganda but they are discouraged by the political uncertainty characterized by police brutality, the disputed elections and the repression of the opposition. He warned Museveni that investor confidence will continue to fall unless he realizes that the opposition also has rights which should be protected and not arbitrarily denied.
Sensing the minefield he was about to walk in Museveni decided not to respond to these sensitive issues raised by Mr. Muller. According to a highly placed source that attended the meeting, Museveni’s speech was largely self contradicting. For instance he said that Uganda’s economic growth rate has declined because Ugandans are underspending! One wonders how Ugandans can underspend when they don’t have the income to meet their basic needs in the first place!
Mr. Muller obviously read the Riot Act to Museveni. He may have ducked the issues but I am sure he heard them loud and clear. Polite but firm, Muller said the absence of rule of law in Uganda is seen in the way the opposition is being persecuted. He wondered what confidence investors would have in case they ever have a dispute with the government of Uganda. Apart from calling for the education of a skilled workforce in Uganda, he was emphatic that good governance is a precondition for the sustainability and growth of foreign direct investments.
With Museveni’s feathers ruffled by a highly placed German government official, Museveni made a hasty exit from Berlin and his usually vigilant image makers on social media were uncharacteristically silent. This is no surprise as Museveni who closes down Entebbe road and the central business district of Kampala whenever he has an activity in the city, received a lukewarm welcome. His plane was reportedly ordered to land in the cargo terminal of the airport and unlike in some countries where he gets a red carpet reception this time he had to make do with a welcome from the local MP and of course his business hosts who hope to make quick money in Uganda. Since the German businesses rely on briefs by their government it is likely that Museveni’s charm offensive to the German business community may not bear fruit unless he gets things right on the governance front.
Museveni has four years to deliver his promise to make Uganda a middle income country. With so many experts including central bank governor Mutebile skeptical about the possibility of achieving this goal, Museveni is in a Catch 22 situation. Continue with repression and demoralize serious investors. Make concessions on governance issues and lose his halo of omnipotence. The first choice will erode investor confidence further and diminish any chance of achieving middle income status. The second choice will increase investor confidence but will demystify him making him even more vulnerable to internal challenge within the NRM. There may be another Amama Mbabazi-like person lurking in the shadows waiting for an opportune moment to strike without missing. You never know. It is a conundrum. Each option comes with problems. Those close to Museveini should advise him that he has lost his shine in the eyes of the international community that previously adored him. His mantra that he is better than Amin and Obote has lost currency and traction after thirty years. He has now become like the proverbial monkey that laughs at another monkey’s long tail forgetting that it also has one. Maybe in future he will look for another person to send on trade and investment promotion errands. Mr. Muller’s remarks were obviously unflattering to Museveni but unfortunately they are true. Sooner or later the Western powers will have to deal with the elephant in the room that Museveni has become.
Norbert Mao the author is the president of Democratic Party of Uganda.