Museveni, the Covid-19 President. Abused the pandemic for political purposes. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
[The View From Uganda]
Here in Uganda, politically speaking, 2020 will forever be remembered as the year of missed opportunities. Covid-19 struck the world between the eyes, before hitting Uganda incrementally.
On March 18, public gatherings including places of worship, pubs, weddings, music shows, rallies and cultural meetings were suspended for 32 days. Allied to that, foreigners and Ugandans arriving in the country were put under 14-day mandatory quarantine at hotels in Entebbe, near the airport, designated by the government. We exhaled, hoping the worst was over.
Then, on March 22, the first case of COVID-19 in Uganda was confirmed. On March 23, the Ministry of Health reported eight new cases, bringing the total up to nine. On March 25, public transport was suspended for 14 days. Only private cars with not more than three occupants were allowed on the road.
On March 26, police and other security personnel were heavily deployed in all city suburbs, slums and along the streets to enforce the president’s directives. There were reports of beatings as civilians were violently dragooned into their homes by overzealous Local Defense Forces (LDUs), the militias. On March 30, President Yoweri Museveni declared a nationwide curfew from 7 pm to 6:30 am, which would run for 14 days to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It then finally hit home: the country was officially at war with Covid-19. The president, on the night of March 30, seemed weary: his candle burning at both ends.
Now was the time, the president declared, for us to close ranks with a complete lockdown to deprive the virus of safe harbor. We thus found ourselves in limbo; at home with nowhere to go. That’s when the presidential addresses began.
They were the hottest television show in the country. So hot, one needed a fire extinguisher to switch them off. Commanding our undivided attention, they bridged gaps between core and periphery, religious and irreligious, young and old. Step aside, Game of Thrones.
There was a new sheriff in town, and he was called President Yoweri Museveni. Previously, he would talk into our sleep. Suddenly, we couldn’t dare sleep when he was scheduled to speak. Like moths to the flame, we basked in the soft-glow of the television screen. Then, the president’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed image sprang forth into our living rooms. After which, he began to speak. We watched his every move, hung onto his every word. If he sneezed, we’d pull out a handkerchief.
The revolution of great expectations was upon us and the president was at its vanguard. This was not by design, it was an accident of circumstance. Covid-19 had forced us to circle the wagons and place our president at their center. It’s where he’s always wanted to be, and it showed in his often bubbly TV persona. A Pavlovian reality then took hold.
Allow me, if you will, to elaborate. Through experiments, the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov found that objects or events created a conditioned response.
The experiments were set in motion by Pavlov showing how the presence of a bowl of dog food—stimulus—would result in an unconditioned response, salivation, from his dogs. Pavlov noticed that after his laboratory assistant served his dogs with food, the dogs began to associate the laboratory assistant with the food. This created a learned and conditioned response. Pavlov then used a bell as a neutral stimulus. As he gave food to his dogs, he rang the bell. Then, after repeating this procedure, he tried ringing the bell without providing food to his dogs. On its own, an increase in salivation occurred. The result of the experiment was a new conditioned response in the dogs.
In our case, Museveni’s speeches served as the stimulus. While the unconditioned response was we the people mentally salivating as he opened his mouth to announce yet another measure placed between us and oblivion. As a consequence, we started associating his speeches with the perception that they would change our lives. Which, to a large extent, they did. As viewers, we received verified experiences of the president’s powers of speech through the announced prohibitions and practices adopted to combat Covid-19 after every presidential address. These diktats shaped our conditioned responses. They also guaranteed our automatically undivided attention whenever he was on television.
Museveni could’ve commanded us into the void, and we would have eagerly followed. Instead, he started exploiting lockdown measures to gag political freedoms. Police arrested Mityana Municipality member of Parliament Francis Zaake for “distributing food to his starving constituents”. He was then hospitalized after being tortured while in police custody. On April 8, members of Parliament allocated themselves 20 million shillings each—which is about $5,300 each, a fortune in a country where the average annual income per head is $770—totaling about $2.7 million from a $252.6 million supplementary budget earmarked to combat COVID-19.
Then, other news stories circulated of “Ugandans who were more Ugandan than other Ugandans” getting rich during this lockdown which has left most of us impoverished. This is when we started seeing the president and his government in their primary colors: as enemies of the people.
Suddenly, the Pavlovian spell we were under vanished, and people stopped listening to President Museveni. Even on the occasions when his message of the dangers of Covid-19 hit the mark, people had already mentally tuned out. One might argue that the 28,168 Covid-19 cases, including 225 deaths, are partly due to his government’s callousness.
When President Museveni speaks now, Ugandans look at him and echo the words of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also call’d No-more, Too-late, Farewell.”