Thirty odd years ago I used to follow keenly the speeches of a young rebel turned president. I was not the only one. Many others were fascinated by him. He was not the usual type of rebel – rough and intimidating.
Yes, he had come to power through force of arms, but he was also ready to debate issues and convince people by force of argument. Or at least that was the impression.
That man was Yoweri Museveni who had just become president of Uganda after waging a five-year bush war. What he said had a ring of freshness about it. Coming after years of listening to the uninspiring exhortations of Mtukufu Rais (Daniel Arap Moi) in Kenya and Amin’s jumbled words that were both intimidating and amusing, this view was understandable.
He said the right revolutionary things that young people found attractive. There was some impatience about it, of a man who was in a hurry to fix things that had been broken for a long time. He had this brashness, impudence and arrogance that added to the attraction.
He lambasted past leaders of Uganda and called them very colourful names such as “swine”
Many thought this was a case of youthfulness and inexperience in government and the euphoria of victory. They thought that the cares of state would eventually temper it. They were mistaken. The arrogance appears to have grown with stay in office and spread to his associates, and in cases turned to impunity. One hears of generals who do things that ordinarily are crimes but get away with it because they think they are perfectly entitled to exceptional conduct.
President Museveni and his associates in the National Resistance Movement (NRM) were dismissive of anyone who did not share their ideological persuasion and accused them of many sins. For instance, they were guilty of bankruptcy of every sort or of obscurantism. Or they were backward or had fascist tendencies.
When he made these accusations, he would go into teaching mode, to explain these words to the rest whom he deemed not to have the wit to understand them. That was another trait whose real nature went unnoticed at the time. It now appears that what passed for a desire to explain was actually a case of condescension.
Some of the freshness was due to his story-telling and folksy manner. His speech was spiced with very colourful language and proverbs from Runyankore. That was then. Now the stories, jokes and proverbs have been repeated so many times that they have become stale and predictable and no longer amusing.
Over the last three decades, some of those words he used frequently have dropped from usage. You don’t hear people being called backward or bankrupt. There are no more accusations of obscurantism. But the change is not because what they defined has not disappeared.
They have actually become more entrenched and visible. That may explain why it is not necessary to call a thing you see everyday by its rather unusual name. They have become so usual that they are no longer strange or exceptional.
Take obscurantism fro example. It is a word rarely used outside intellectual or philosophical discourse. In fairness we must give Museveni and his NRM cadres from the bush credit for liberating it from such limited usage and bringing it into everyday language.
The irony, however, is that they have become trapped by it and become adherents of its practice, especially in relations with other states.
What exactly does obscurantism mean? According to different dictionaries, it is a policy of withholding knowledge from the public, deliberate obscurity or evasion of clarity, a deliberate act intended to make something obscure, or practice of deliberately preventing facts or the full details of some matter becoming known
The above definitions are apt descriptions of the way the Uganda government presents to the public the cause of the current frosty relations between Rwanda and Uganda. They have deliberately prevented their nationals from getting the correct facts about these relations. They have chosen to present the problem between the two countries as a border issue, actually accusing Rwanda of closing the border.
Only last week in Kabale district of south-western Uganda bordering Rwanda, President Museveni assured the residents that the border issue would soon be resolved. That is the same line his government and the Ugandan media has taken.
Yet as everyone knows, including President Museveni and his government, the issue with the relations is not the border. First of all, it was never closed. Only one crossing point at Gatuna was partially closed to heavy traffic. The other two, Cyanika and Kagitumba, have remained fully open.
The real issues that have been personally presented to President Museveni and also made public are these: the Uganda government’s support for genocidal and terrorist organisations (FDLR,RNC and others) intent on destabilising Rwanda, the abduction of countless Rwandas, their torture and detention without trial and in unknown places, and blocking Rwandan exports passing through Uganda.
Museveni, his government and the media in Uganda have studiously kept silent on these issues as if they do not know them or they do not exist. They prefer to peddle the border closure lie.
It is shocking that the media has become complicit in obscuring facts when its role is to unearth them and get them known. This is not due to lack of information. It can only be because it has either been compromised or intimidated.
And so thirty three years on, obscurantism has ceased to be a term of abuse reserved for people supposedly intellectually and ideologically inferior. Uganda government officials have become masters of the art they once derided. I don’t know whether that helps them or not. Probably hurts them.
But as they say, you can obscure facts, but you won’t erase them. You can hide the truth for a while, but eventually it will come out.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.