Most come in as saviours but leave as dictators

Yesterday’s liberators are today’s oppressors in countries where presidents refuse to leave office

In Summary

• Many African leaders are liked and respected at first, but power gets to their head

Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni used to be allies
Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni used to be allies

I’m old enough to remember the era of Idi Amin in Uganda, and how friends and family who had been in Uganda but had fled, spoke with longing of “the good old days”.

With hindsight, I guess the halcyon days they were talking about were a brief window during their undergraduate days at Makerere in the late 1950s and 1960s, up until the beginning of the end of President Milton Obote’s first regime.

Like all leaders coming in after the colonialists, Obote arrived on the scene as some sort of saviour but twice was forced to leave after having become the villain of the piece.

By the time Idi Amin carried out his military coup in January 1971, while his hitherto boss and partner in corruption was attending a Commonwealth summit in Singapore, the Pearl was looking thoroughly tarnished.

The masses welcomed Amin as if he was some conquering hero, conveniently forgetting his role in the Obote regime and believing in the hype that this vicious, murdering, over-promoted general was just a friendly buffoon who would eventually step aside after he had sorted out the nation’s problems.

Eight years and about 500,000 deaths and several hundred disappeared people later, Amin was forced out by the Tanzanian army and some Ugandan rebel forces to live in comfortable exile until his death in Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Obote, who had been plotting, planning and scheming in Dar es Salaam, returned from exile straight to power through a dodgy election with the help of his great friend Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the President of Tanzania.

Soon enough he was at his old tricks again and by 1985, history was to repeat itself as his own army commanders threw him out again. Meanwhile, Amnesty estimated Obote had killed 300,000 people during his second administration.

The feeling was Uganda needed a saviour and Yoweri Museveni, who’d been fighting a guerilla war since before Obote’s second coming, seemed to fit the description.

"This is not a mere change of guard,” Museveni said, “it is a fundamental change. The people of Uganda are entitled to a democratic government. It is not a favour from any regime. The sovereign people must be the public, not the government." 

Sure enough, during his first few years, he drove the political and economic regeneration of the one-time basket case country into something resembling functional.

A decade later, Museveni went and got himself democratically elected to the presidency. Meanwhile, along with Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Meles Zernawi in Ethiopia, Museveni was considered one of the blue-eyed boys of a Western world dominated by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Presidents Pierre Nkurunziza (Burundi), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Paul Kagame (Rwanda) and DP William Ruto at the 23rd Ordinary Summit of the AU in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Presidents Pierre Nkurunziza (Burundi), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Paul Kagame (Rwanda) and DP William Ruto at the 23rd Ordinary Summit of the AU in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Image: DPPS

In the West’s image, this new club of African leaders replaced discarded Western favourites, such as Presidents Moi of Kenya, Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Mobutu of Zaire. 

Of course none of these guys were democrats in any real sense, but they looked good, sounded intelligent to the Western press and knew how to play the new game in London, Washington and New York.

Since then, Blair and Clinton have pretty much faded into the sunset. Zenawi’s death in 2012 took him out of the equation and Rawlings left office after his second democratic term in 2001. Kagame and Museveni, however, continue to hang on to power.

Kagame doesn’t seem to be struggling yet, but for the last decade and more, his erstwhile benefactor Museveni has been behaving like some of the African leaders he once scorned.

He should have gone home like Rawlings when he was still liked and respected by most people and let someone else have the job of taking Uganda into the future. 

However, because we were all complicit in encouraging his saviour complex way back when, he now believes his own hype and will not leave power because he can’t see anyone worthy of succeeding him. 

When that happens, you know for sure you have a dictator on your hands.

Edited by T Jalio