By David Lewis Rubongoya
A few days ago, I read an article by Sergei Guriev & Daniel Treisman titled “How modern dictators survive” (2016). The authors argue that unlike the dictators of the past who mostly relied on violence to stay in power, modern dictators use other strategies to portray themselves as competent or as indispensable.
They key strategies employed by modern dictators are- indoctrination of supporters so that they perceive the dictator as indispensable; manipulation of information to portray the dictator as having achieved a lot; censorship of independent media; sponsorship of propaganda targeting the less educated population; encouragement of self-censorship by bribing media owners and journalists; co-optation of the elite through outright bribery, giving them well-paying jobs or government contracts; patronage and reward for loyalty targeting the elite; harassment and humiliation of opponents; adopting strategies to divide and weaken the opposition; strategically interacting with armed forces so as to avoid coups; equipping the police and military with tools of repression, and resorting to extreme violence when threatened.
Reliance on extreme violence is usually a last resort for modern dictators, because they want to portray themselves as democratic, benevolent and magnanimous.
They do not want to be isolated by the international community for killing one thousand opposition activists, unless it becomes extremely necessary. As such, a modern dictator would rather bribe nine hundred of those activists, imprison fifty, and kill (or maim) the remaining fifty who have refused to be compromised.
The modern dictator must also portray himself as respectful of human rights and so, puts in place a smokescreen- a semblance that human rights are respected in his country. Thus, Mr. Bobi Wine and Dr. Kizza Besigye will be permitted to go on NBS television in Kampala and say whatever they want to say, but they will never be permitted on a radio station in Karamoja or Bukedi.
The reasons are clear – NBS Tv is mostly watched by the enlightened population and urban dwellers, most of who are already opposed to the regime. So you can go ahead and preach to the converted but you will not be permitted to speak to the people of Karamoja, for example, and charge them to stand against the exploitation of the mineral resources underneath their land.
But mind you, when you complain of lack of freedom of expression- state propagandists will quickly pull out an image of Mr. Bobi Wine on NBS Tv and ask what more freedom of expression you want!
Anyway, as I read the paper, every paragraph almost represented Uganda! To their credit and to the detriment of our country, those who rule over us have mastered these tools so well that there seems to be no end in sight. However, as I will indicate in the conclusion, these tools can only delay the inevitable, and increase the cost of the resistance. But first, let us briefly examine how these tools are being applied in Uganda.
On indoctrination of supporters, some citizens, who ironically are the poorest and most marginalized, have been so indoctrinated that they perceive the current rulers as a true gift of God from heaven.
A visit to the remotest parts of this country- including Karamoja, where 84% of the people live in extreme poverty, will prove this point. Indeed, some people have been so indoctrinated that they perceive President Museveni and those closest to him as immortal. When they speak about him, they want to cry.
Radio stations in upcountry locations, on which opposition voices are banned, are the most used for this purpose. The cadres who appear on these radios, with airtime paid for by the state- have been to Kyankwanzi and gotten their share of indoctrination before being commissioned to go ye into the world and make disciples of all men!
In some parts of this country, the state has sponsored local artistes to compose folk songs and other traditional pieces of art to further project President Museveni and his government as all powerful, all knowing and all present. I have a friend who used to lead FDC strikes at Makerere a few years ago.
Then he visited Kyankwanzi, and other places. Today, when you listen to him speak, it is as though you’re listening to Squirrel praise Napoleon on the Animal Farm. He is nothing but praises for President Museveni who he sings about ‘for the many sacrifices he has done for Uganda.’
Regarding manipulation of information, they have long mastered the art of manipulating information to project NRM as the best thing to ever happen to Uganda and Africa. When you listen to NRM propagandists or read their documents, you may think that an average Ugandan lives very comfortably.
They will throw around figures which are many times cooked, inaccurate or incomplete. Those who have watched Andrew Mwenda speak have witnessed firsthand, the deliberate application of this tool.
He will shout out concepts like GDP, GNP, per capita income, etc. The few Ugandans who understand the meaning of these macro-economic terms will not bother to cross-check the accuracy of these facts and figures. When the President constantly says, “In 1986….” and follows it with some statistics he knows that 80% of the people he is speaking to were not alive at the time or were too young to follow what was going on.
But he will want to make them believe that Uganda then was the worst place on planet earth. None of them will tell you that Uganda at one point had the same GDP as Kenya! They will tell you how they have revived Uganda airlines but they won’t mention why Kenya has five airports of international standing, Rwanda is building more, but Uganda has one whose condition is that of an airport found in remote places of some countries.
They will throw around numbers to say that fewer children are dying, but none of them has time to explain how accident victims can sleep on the dirty cement at the causality ward of the nation’s referral hospital.
Because most of us don’t have the patience to read long pieces of work (this is already too long for most people’s appetite), I will not delve into how the media has been censored; how the regime invests massively in propaganda; or how it rewards loyalty through patronage.
Most of these are too obvious. So is the harassment and humiliation of opponents – the torture meted out on Bobi Wine is still fresh in our memories. The rape charges brought against Dr. Besigye were a classic case of humiliating an opponent.
They must be cooking some more! Dividing the opposition has been their forte. FDC believes some of their number are moles. DP and FDC have been at loggerheads. Some, in the two camps believe People Power is disruptive.
You cannot know who to tell a confidential matter! But when you look beneath the surface, you won’t miss the hand of the Ugandan state fueling and funneling these narratives. On how modern dictators keep armed forces in check, Uganda provides an interesting case study.
Lest we forget, their numbers still begin with RO – “Resistance Officer”. Likewise, none of us needs to be told how the police and military are regularly equipped with new anti-riot gear, tear gas trucks, pepper spraying gadgets, etc. Hospitals do not have to have drugs, and schools can go without chalk and textbooks- but arming the police and military to crush any form of dissent must happen as top priority!
What else? Co-optation! Modern dictators survive through co-opting influential citizens and the elites. Influential citizens may include religious leaders, traditional leaders, artistes, students’ leaders, influential media personalities, etc.
In Uganda’s case, President Museveni has invested massive state resources in this enterprise. With Parliament in his right pocket and the judiciary in his left, he had to co-opt other institutions and those who represent them.
The big vehicle accompanied by some monetary contribution, given to each Bishop on the day of his installation, is an example. When the President directs the finance ministry to pay Buganda Kingdom 70 billion shillings for their rent arrears, but adds that the money should be paid in installments until 2021, it should be obvious what that is about! Especially when that happens a month after Bobi Wine has performed at Enkuuka; an annual concert organized by the Kingdom.
In the same manner, several persons who held the coveted position of Makerere University Guild President in the past now work in State House- having ascended to the guild position on DP or FDC tickets. It is no surprise that Dr. Tanga Odoi who led strike after strike at Makerere University, now sits and works at the NRM secretariat.
The approach for co-opting the ordinary elites and intellectuals is often different. It is only a few of them who get bribed with millions. Others are not. For starters, what a modern dictator needs to survive is not declared support from most of the elites.
The dictator is assured of another day in power if he can procure the silence of professionals, academics, civil servants, and other elites. As long as such people mind their business, the dictator is sure to manage the state’s business a little longer. (I was not surprise when Kenzo said that he will just keep silent- neither support the opposition, nor the NRM).
Thus, for these ordinary elites, the modern dictator makes the cost of opposing his regime so high that others steer clear from that path. When Pastor Joseph Kabuleta is kidnapped in broad daylight for authoring critical letters, and Dr. Stella Nyanzi spends eighteen months in jail for insulting the President, the message is being sent.
But the other approach is to incentivize many elites through institutions of the state- which state is already under capture. For example, an ordinary lawyer will want to be involved in a transaction involving the state. An engineer will hope to get a UNRA contract sometime. A student of medicine will want to get a place at Mulago hospital or at least not be thrown in a hard-to-reach destination.
They live on hope! To prove that the threat is real, a friend and magistrate who decided a case in favour of some opposition activists was quickly transferred to a less attractive station. Likewise, when Parliament advertised a few jobs recently, thousands of Ugandans applied. As all these waited for interviews and other processes, they dared not post a critical comment on Facebook! This is how modern dictators survive.
Therefore, what has since happened to Eddy Kenzo, Butcherman, Catherine Kusasira, Full Figure and their ilk is part of this enterprise. With the rise of Bobi Wine and the People Power Movement as President Museveni’s biggest threat thus far, he must co-opt some influential artistes.
It takes courage, a clear conscience and strong will to resist these machinations. But those who resist them- at a very big cost- usually have their names engrained in the annals of the history of their countries. Those who sell out become villains of history.
The final point for the citizen to note, is that all the above actions require funding. That funding must be met by someone- in our case, the tax payer. The modern dictator will either raise the tax, borrow money from external sources or reduce government spending on essential public services.
In our case, all these have happened. The taxes are high and others are being introduced. When you see Kenzo or Full Figure in State House, even if he or she walked out with only 200 million shillings, it means that about fifty schools will not get text books and fifty health centres will not have drugs! Do the math and see.
The article I referenced at the start gives a formula- the dictator uses part of GDP for funding propaganda, P, censorship, X, and for rewarding the elites, R. His budget constraint therefore is Y = C + P + X + R, where C is the only amount consumed by the population through services.
Y includes the revenue collected in taxes, as well as money borrowed from governments and agencies ostensibly for development! Imagine if the co-opted, compromised individuals rise to hundreds, like in our case. The money spent on these ventures is sufficient to turn around our healthcare and education systems permanently. Those who ask us for policy alternatives, look no further. Just set right priorities and you will fix this country.
Therefore, instead of laughing and joking about Full Figure’s appearance in State House and being ‘gifted with a new ride’, remember that it is your money which is being used for this. There is nothing to laugh about – there is everything to wail about. There is everything to struggle about.
And ultimately, we who are struggling to see change in our country must first of all understand why modern dictators survive. That will help the forces of change to understand what they are up against and devise appropriate strategies. But what gives us hope is that no matter how manipulative and strategic modern dictators have been, we have seen them fall in a spit second.
The forces of change must keep focus. They must understand that sell-outs and betrayals are part and parcel of the struggle. In fact, they define the struggle. They must also remember that no man outlives a country. A few months ago, the BBC ran a story titled- “Sudan’s master manipulator falls.”