Review of Sowing the Mustard Seed: the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda, by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (Moran, 1997).
[NB A second, updated edition of this book was published last month, just a few days after I purchased the 1997 edition. This is a review of the first edition.]
The autobiography of Uganda’s president is an inevitably partial account, but also offers insights into his mind and motivations.
It is the fate of African leaders not to be taken seriously. Their problems are seen as parochial, their ideas absurd, their solutions self-serving. While Western leaders wrestle with history, the story goes, African leaders pointlessly repeat it, in a familiar parade of archetypes: the brutal dictator, the lapsed revolutionary, the buffoon. Only Mandela, the exception to the rule, can ever ascend above the footnotes. To him alone is ascribed that most elusive of historical virtues: significance.
This situation is bizarre. If significance is weighed in the scales of human experience – lives touched, for good or ill – then many African leaders dwarf their counterparts from the West. Compare, for example, the careers of Angela Merkel, Europe’s dominant figure, and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. Merkel struggles with a sluggish eurozone; Museveni inherited a war-ravaged economy that had shrunk by 42% in the fifteen years before he came to power. Merkel worries about Russian aggression; Museveni has seen on his borders the world’s fastest genocide (Rwanda), the deadliest conflict since World War II (the Democratic Republic of Congo), and the independence and violent collapse of a new country (South Sudan). And Merkel is not alone in facing a refugee influx; Uganda hosts half a million refugees (by 2006, 1.7 million Ugandan citizens had also been displaced by a prolonged insurrection in the north).
Museveni, like Merkel, has not handled all his problems well – some, such as the Congolese war, are partly of his own making. But if he does not deserve praise, he at least deserves recognition. Museveni is a remarkable politician, entangled in events of undeniable importance. Like him or loathe him, he is a leader who should be taken seriously.
So it is worth reading Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni’s autobiography, first published in 1997 (a second edition was published last month, too late for this review). Like most books written by serving politicians, it reads at times like a manifesto. Our hero is never wrong. His opponents are fools, or worse. Being in power ‘has been one endless story of sacrifice’. But read past the inevitable self-justification and there are insights to be found.
Cattle and battles
Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was born in Ntungamo sub-county, south-west Uganda, around 1944 – his surname comes from those Ugandans who fought in the 7th Batallion of the King’s African Rifles during the Second World War. His parents were Banyankore cattle-herders, and even today he never misses a photo opportunity with his beloved cows.
Museveni became political at school, flirting with the opposition Democratic Party, and was attracted to Dar-es-Salaam University for its revolutionary reputation. He arrived there in 1967, in the early days of independence, when ideas of socialism, nationalism and pan-Africanism were in the air. The young radical attended lectures by the Guyanese intellectual Walter Rodney, and mixed with activists from across Africa, including the future Sudanese revolutionary John Garang. It was there, too, that Museveni first made contact with Frelimo, the Mozambican rebel movement, from whom he received guerilla training.
Museveni returned to Uganda in 1970, working briefly in the office of then-president Milton Obote. Eight months later, Obote was overthrown in a coup led by his army chief Idi Amin. This was a pivotal moment in Museveni’s life: he fled to Tanzania, resolving to launch a guerilla war. After the defeat of Amin in 1979, and rigged elections in 1980, Museveni returned to the bush to fight a resurgent Obote and his successors. He emerged victorious in 1986, after fifteen years of on-off fighting. It is a struggle which is central to Museveni’s identity, and to this book.
At times, all that warfare makes for a tedious read. Budding guerillas may appreciate the tactical tips, such as how to set an ambush or when to abandon vehicles, but other readers will yawn. Still, there is enough jeopardy and derring-do – much of it embellished, no doubt – to keep the story flowing. These chapters read more like a Boy’s Own adventure than a political tract.
There are moments, too, when Museveni reveals his political prejudices. In the bush, he writes, he trained his soldiers to ‘eschew popularity, intrigue and double-talk, tribalism, corruption and liberalism’. The last of these he defines, tellingly, as ‘a situation in which a person of authority knew what was right and what was wrong, but because of his weak leadership, he would not stand firmly on the side of right’.
This gets to the heart of Museveni’s leadership. For Museveni, dissent is destabilizing, and disagreement divisive. This worldview comes in part from his military background. But it is also shaped by his reading of what went wrong in Uganda during the years of dictatorship and war. The problem, he writes, was ‘sectarianism’, both of religion and tribe, manipulated by scheming politicians such as the ‘intriguer’ Obote and Amin’s ‘gang of ignoramuses’.
African societies, he argues, have undergone ‘an incomplete social metamorphosis’. Whereas Europe has an advanced economy, with middle- and working-classes, a country like Uganda is dominated by a single ‘peasant’ mass. Since political parties cannot organize around class, as they do in Europe, they instead exploit ‘pre-capitalist polarisations based on identity’. Museveni’s personal experience makes him deeply distrustful of political parties; in his view, it was the multi-party politics of 1962-66 that engendered the chaos to come.
Indeed, after seizing control in 1986, Museveni established a system of ‘no-party democracy’. Political parties could not contest elections, though Museveni’s own National Resistance Movement was officially considered a broad-based movement rather than a party in the usual sense. Museveni dismisses those who wanted multi-partyism as foreign lackeys: ‘trained in the colonial tradition of not thinking for themselves but instead imbibing whatever others tell them’.
That was written in 1997: multi-party politics was eventually reintroduced in 2005, as a quid pro quo for the scrapping of presidential term limits. But Museveni’s suspicion of parties remains. He characterizes his rivals, like four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, as ‘wolves’ who stir up division, and uses the threat of instability to justify repression: the house arrest of Besigye, the deployment of security forces, the suppression of protest.
The irony is that Museveni is actually rather good at party politics. He has been popular for much of his thirty-year rule; though many now detest him, especially in the towns, others still support ‘the old man in the hat’. He is a strong communicator, impressing foreign visitors with his debating skills and farmers with his humour. In a fascinating section towards the end of the book he describes how he picks accessible images – comparing his leadership, for instance, to the role of a rubengo-carrier, shouldering the heavy grindstone as a family moves to new lands.
Moving on, of course, is something Museveni refuses to do. In the penultimate sentence of Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni hints at his retirement. ‘There are now people of presidential calibre,’ he writes, ‘who can take over when I retire’. If he ever believed that, he doesn’t any more. Nineteen years on, he has just secured another term in office (thanks, in no small part, to bribery and intimidation). There is every indication that he plans to rule for life.
This book gives hints at why. Museveni sees himself not as a mere politician, but as a national saviour – an east African Moses, leading his enslaved people to the promised land (the original Moses took forty years, and died before he got there). Sowing the Mustard Seed is one-sided, as you’d expect. But it gives an insight into the complex personality of Yoweri Museveni: a flawed, arrogant, often repressive ruler, and also a significant one – not only for Africa, but for the world.