They are not mourning his death when they do this. Rather, they regret missing the opportunity to live in a prosperous country with a strong modern state that is capable of discharging its functions.
They believe Mobutu had the greatest chance of transforming the backward society the Belgians bequeathed them. That chance lay in the immense wealth he had at his disposal, which he did not put to good use. It lay, also, in the breathing space accorded him by the absence of a strong and in a sense, disruptive opposition.
There are many African countries where explanations for why their people remain so poor, are rooted in lack of money to finance the necessary transformation and in the disruptive politics their political elites have chosen to use as a vehicle for pursuing their aspirations, which they often believe represent national aspirations.
The politics-based explanations focus on the acute competition among political rivals vying for power. Usually, the higher the degree of contestation, the more likely it is that those in power will focus on preventing their rivals who want to acquire it from doing so.
The imperative to retain power compels those in government to expend time, energy, and resources on schemes designed to block and frustrate political rivals.
Much money is spent on buying support from this or that individual or group, or keeping rival political groups divided and busy infighting over tactics, not strategy.
For most of the time he spent in power, Mobutu did not have a “strong opposition” to contend with, that one can say distracted him from doing those things he needed to do to fight poverty, disease and ignorance while also modernising and transforming Zaire, as the DRC was then called.
Congolese who argue that his time in power was a lost opportunity therefore have a point, it seems to me.
Uganda is another country where one can see evidence for the argument that preoccupation with regime maintenance can distract leaders from effectively addressing the imperative to build a strong state that can ably discharge its functions.
There are several examples to illustrate this. Recently, there was a fire at a school in which several students perished. This is one of several fires that have had tragic consequences for families in recent years.
Investigations into their causes have not always been successful. However, in their aftermath security agencies and the Ministry of Education have issued a plethora of measures that all schools ought to implement in order to ensure that fires do not result in avoidable loss of life.
Schools are not supposed to install burglar proofing in dormitory windows, for instance. In that way, students can escape easily in the event of a fire.
Also, dormitories are not supposed to be crammed with beds. Too many beds prevent easy escape. That the school where the recent fire occurred had burglar proofing in the windows and dormitories with too many beds, demonstrates the government’s failure or inability to enforce its own regulations.
The fire incident happened amid longstanding concern and discussion about incidents of insecurity involving armed criminals attacking members of the public in their homes at night in Kampala and elsewhere.
The lucky ones lose only property. The unlucky ones lose their lives. The government has offered many high-sounding solutions, but they are far from getting on top of the problem.
In recent times, the criminals have extended their attacks to foreign investors, mainly Chinese industrialists. According to media reports, the Chinese have reacted by threatening to go and invest elsewhere if the attacks are not stopped.
The government’s reaction to the investors’ agitation has been interesting, to say the least. It has come up with a special approach. From now on, industrial parks where Chinese investors own factories and live will be protected by contingents of army and police personnel, and in due course will be fitted with security cameras.
Meanwhile, the rest of us who are not Chinese investors are asking ourselves: When will the government, whose leadership gifts billions of shillings in cash to various groups, ostensibly to improve their incomes, dedicate similar resources to non-palliative measures that should make us feel as safe as we did in the past, when building consensus, not regime maintenance, was the key priority?
There is a seductive argument that advocates of “opposition politics” invoke in discussions about how to make governments do what they are supposed to do, or how to render them responsive to popular concerns.
They assert that opposition is necessary, and that the stronger – and presumably the noisier and more assertive – it is, the better.
There is a sense in which Mobutu’s Zaire seems to vindicate them. However, Museveni’s Uganda seems to suggest that opposition that keeps a government on its toes can have the opposite effect to what conventional thinking envisages.
Many Ugandans now believe that the best days of Museveni’s leadership were before Uganda returned to political competition. And then multiparty politics came and regime maintenance became the key priority, for which we are all now paying the price.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]