By James Matsiko
Very early on, a young Yoweri Museveni, at the time cutting his political teeth, learned a hard lesson about identity and politics: His identity, as a Munyarwanda, stood between him and his ambition to someday become President of Uganda. And for much of his adult life Museveni invested heavily in countering and overcoming this fatal obstacle. Ultimately, the individual coping mechanism of denying his own identity coalesced with the political ambition that conditioned him to hate the Banyarwanda.
If the young Museveni had been theorizing about identity and political power, then this was put to the test during the 1980 campaign for the Mbarara North parliamentary seat.
Sam Kutesa, his opponent for the seat, publicly challenged Museveni to show voters his ancestral home and his grandparents’ burial grounds. It wasn’t lost on the voters that Kutesa was alluding to Museveni’s identity as a Munyarwanda immigrant. It worked, and Kutesa trounced Museveni resoundingly.
For Museveni, he was living a nightmare: He viewed his identity as an albatross around his neck that was weighing him down politically.
If he was to continue in Ugandan politics, he had to find a place to rest this disqualifying burden – his ethnic identity. At any rate, his immediate political future was not in electoral politics – the Kutesa effect had just demonstrate that fact.
Museveni concedes as much in his autobiography “Sowing the Mustard Seed.” On page 117 Museveni reflects on his post-election state of mind: “I wanted to keep out of politics and stay in the army,” he writes, before elaborating on this identity-driven phobia.
Museveni’s own admission of this phobia is corroborated by Milton Obote, Uganda’s president at the time, “Museveni has never hidden his abhorrence for democratic means of governance,” Obote says in a December 21, 1981 speech at parliament.
Years later, on February 9, 1985 Obote tried his hand in the Kutesa bag of tricks. A desperate Obote, on the verge of losing a war, went on an angry diatribe with a BBC reporter in which he denounced Museveni as someone who is “not known” to Ugandans, a “refugee” and “not a citizen.” The Kutesa-effect didn’t work for Obote, however.
One, it was clear to Ugandans that Obote was invoking Museveni’s identity in xenophobic kicks of a dying horse. Second, at that point in time, he himself had no moral ground left to stand upon.
Almost one year later to the date, Museveni got his ambition. However, even with power in his grip it was not lost to him that he still had to shed the identity albatross in order to maintain it (political power).
This became an obsession of his. Where he had the opportunity to bolster his credibility and legitimacy amongst Ugandans, i.e. by delivering improved livelihoods, he sought to invest in a pathological hatred towards Rwanda and Banyarwanda using a bizarre logic that went something like, “No one can ever identify me as a Munyarwanda since I have demonstrated how much I hate them.”
Scholars of ethnicity posit that people tend to have unmitigated affinity for those with whom they share kinship ties. But Museveni’s unmitigated hatred towards his kinsmen, the Banyarwanda, clearly stands this theory on its head, upside down.
A burning quest to live out his ambition – political power as a tool to preserve the insatiable appetite of his family and those close to it – has Museveni convinced that everyone, including his Banyarwanda kinsmen, is subject to be sacrificed where these interests are concerned.
Narcissism meets obsession. In his highly acclaimed book “Black Skins White Masks,” Franz Fanon, the renowned psychoanalyst, writes of self-alienation and the desire of those trapped in it to attempt to distance themselves from who they are. A condition of self-alienation is driven by the urge for an outsider to seek to win acceptance of, and belonging to, another group. Often, according to Fanon, the aim is to access some advantages and privileges.
For Museveni the quest for belonging was to fulfil his childhood ambition and then to hold on to it for dear life. In this the Banyarwanda must be sacrificed.
Museveni perceives – as the Kutesa effect demonstrated – that his acceptance amongst Ugandans necessarily involves the rejection of his own identity as a Munyarwanda.
And that this calculus is central to his ability to maintain political power in Uganda. Which is why, even when unprovoked, he feels the need for self-validation, as he did recently in parliament, to remind anyone who would listen that, “I’m not an immigrant from anywhere” – as if it was 1980 all over again, and Kutesa was after his votes!
For him, it has become purely instinctive. These instincts come alive especially when he perceives that his political life is in danger and illegitimacy is creeping in. For instance, he had gone to parliament with a bruised ego due to rampant insecurity in Uganda; meanwhile, he has banked his entire legacy on having brought peace to “every corner of the country.”
During such periods of self-doubt the logic that his identity is the only obstacle standing between him and political power (the Kutesa-effect) returns in its most raw form and self-defence (defence mechanism) kicks in: “I cannot be a Munyarwanda because I hate them” becomes his survival mantra.
Fanon also warns that people who seek acceptance through self-alienation are “never able to do so” because the failure to shed away who you are only leads to an identity crisis, an inferiority complex, and the desire to project onto others this self-doubt.
But Museveni shouldn’t have to run away from himself. It may have made sense to do so in the 1980s when the divisive politics of the day made it a crime to be a Munyarwanda, when people like Obote could exploit it to score cheap political points. Indeed, as someone who was a victim of petty tribal politics, he shouldn’t wish to replicate it through the hatred of his kinsmen; instead, he should rest assured that his Ugandan citizenship is guaranteed by the 1995 Constitution that recognises Banyarwanda, like himself, as an indigenous tribe in Uganda, afforded all rights enjoyed by other Ugandans, including the ambition to become, and stay, president.