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What separates great leaders from good ones

Ramathan Ggoobi

What separates great leaders from good ones

Mr. President, don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability

This has been a historic week for Africa. The entire world stopped and came to Africa, not to mourn but to celebrate the gigantic legacy of Nelson Mandela. All media (both mainstream and social media) across the globe have been focused on covering the memorial service of one black man. That is unprecedented.  

Warning; I did not pick pen and paper to write about Mandela. There is nothing new I can say that has not yet been said about Mr. Mandela. The reason I picked my pen, this time round, was to address the leadership realities of our country. This being a week of reflection, I wanted us to reflect on the one biggest challenge of our country today.

Modern economists have set out to answer the question; “Do leaders matter?” They categorise leaders into three main types: bad leaders, Ugandans know pretty well the difference between a bad leader and a good leader. We had Idi Amin and we have had you, Mr. President.

Every right thinking Ugandan knows how bad Amin was and how good you have been for Uganda. Therefore, leaders matter in the context of total autocracy. In mature democracies, with good rules (guidelines for decision takers) and good institutions (teams mandated to implement the rules), leaders may not matter a lot!

So in Uganda we know the difference between bad and good leaders. We have lived both experiences. But what about a great leader? Who is a great leader? Great leaders are those that build strong institutions and put in place strong rules to guide those institutions. In essence great leaders are those that make future good leaders less necessary, nearly irrelevant.

Rules & institutions

Mr President, you have been a good leader for Uganda. When you came in 1986, you reformed the politics and the economy of this country. You gave Ugandans a new lease of life. You stopped the army from killing us. You allowed us to vote for our leaders in democratically organised elections. You tolerated critical media and political dissent. You allowed us to profess the religions we want and to belong to social groups that we want. You empowered women and took them out of the kitchen and bedroom into boardrooms.

That is quite agreeable and beyond debate among most politically unbiased Ugandans. However, what is equally beyond debate is the fact that not even 30 years of uninterrupted leadership will put you into the league of great leaders. You have miserably failed to accomplish what Mandela did for South Africans; what Julius Nyerere did for the Tanzanians, what Lee Kwan Yew did for Singaporeans, what Mahathir Mohamed did for the Malaysians, Mahatma Gandhi did for Indians, and what George Washington did for the Americans.

These are men who prepared their countries to stop worrying about their future leaders. They put in place a template of rules and institutions to guide and whip future leaders. That is the reason why South Africans no longer worry whether a certain Jacob Zuma (a man who washes after sex to avoid HIV/AIDS!) becomes President.

Tanzanians are less concerned about who takes the leadership of their country, just like Americans care less when a black, untested young man emerges with a “Yes We Can” slogan. The people of these countries know that their leaders cannot oppress them or steal their money with impunity because there are strong checks and balances to tame them.        

Mr President, your failure to join the league of great leaders has little to do with your failure to leave power. Some of the aforementioned leaders had longer tenures than the three decades you’ve ruled us. Your greatest weakness has been your failure to build institutions and/or your determination to undermine the few institutions that existed.

Overstaying in brewery

You are now (mis)managing a country that doesn’t have a government. I have written before asking: “Is President Museveni now the government? Where are the other institutions?” We see you opening up markets, quelling striking market vendors, boda boda riders, officiating at functions as frivolous as solar eclipse!  

You have undermined all the existing institutions. You have rendered all institutions ineffective. The other day I saw you checking for HIV/AIDs. Worry not about epidemics; presidentialism is the disease that is likely to kill you and along with you the country.

Mr President, I have written in these pages several times that your determination to retain the presidency at whatever cost would eventually become counterproductive. Today nearly everyone, I guess including yourself, is asking, “Is this the Museveni we knew?” “Is it Museveni who said or did that?” “What happened to our president?” Others don’t say anything but just look on in utter shock. Kind of saying, though non-verbally, “Oh God, could this be true?”

For example, we wonder how any serious leaders could stand the embarrassment of chairing a cabinet meeting where his wife and other relatives and friends are members. Indeed power is like a brewery; overstaying in the brewery will inevitably influence you to become a heavy drinker.

Like I wrote here before, the in Buganda we have two proverbs (1) “Ekita ekitava kusengejjero kifuuka wankindo,” and (2) “Nazina obulungi ava muddiiro.”

These are very rich proverbs with very important intrinsic messages. The first warns that overstay will make you develop cracks, which anyone who wants to break you will capitalise on to accomplish their task.

242 mega rallies; no lessons

The second proverb carries the message that if a good dancer fails to know when to leave the dance floor, he may spoil the good dance he has put up. All of a sudden you would start pulling naughty dancing strokes in an attempt to justify your extended stay. Haven’t you seen dancers who remove their clothes to prove to spectators and drummers that they still have stamina? Haven’t you heard of dancers who break their legs or arms trying to impress the already dejected spectators?

This is exactly what has started to happen with you, Mr President. In the last twenty-five years you definitely have done everything that was in your capacity to do. Now you are trying harder to prove to us that you can still offer what is not in your capacity. In the process, you are unintentionally spoiling the many good things you had done for the country.

After “winning” the general presidential elections in 2011, you wrote an article entitled, “Factors behind NRM’s victory”, published in the Sunday Vision of 6th March, 2011. You stated, “My 242 mega rallies in the whole of Uganda have not been in vain. They did not only win us votes but they were social research for me. I now know what the people want and cherish.” I am afraid nothing so far shows you learnt much from these mega rallies.

Uganda has continued to degenerate into a country of undisciplined central policy-making. This has led to an over-committed budget and frequently unanticipated demands, making strategic management of government nearly impossible. Ministries are complaining that they cannot plan or manage well because they do not have a predictable budget.

Uganda ain’t a personal firm

There is a general lack of collective decision-making at the political level. There is deliberate erosion of the role of the Cabinet as a collective decision-making body. You have hijacked every single policy-making and implementation organ in the country.

Nowadays major national policies are initiated and launched by you without any consultations and sufficient attention or commitment to the level of sustained funding necessary for their effective operation.

The other day we heard that you, single-handedly and without any consultation with cabinet, had in a few minutes of meeting with Aga Khan committed the country to buying shares in a private company, Air Uganda, instead of reestablishing a national airline. No cabinet, no Parliamentary input in the decision. Really, is Uganda now a personal firm?  

When you centralise decision-making and come up with unilateral and capricious national decisions, you put the country at the risk of adopting policies that are in conflict with other critical policies and programs. Take the example of programs like PEAP (poverty eradication action plan); it was a very good plan whose effectiveness was impaired Bonna Bagaggawale, creation of new districts, export promotion initiative, and abolition of graduated tax. All these were our personally and unilaterally created projects. No wonder they all failed.

Mr President, great leaders ensure political engagement and ownership of national policies and projects instead of waking up and come up with unilateral ones and expect everyone else to simply tag along them.

It is John Wooden who said, “Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.” We really feel Yoweri K. Museveni should be a name engraved in the annals of great leaders; not just among good leaders. Its owner had the ability to accomplish what his tutors such as Mandela and Nyerere accomplished.



Ramathan Ggoobi is Policy Analyst, and Researcher. He lecturers economics at Makerere University Business School (MUBS) and has co-authored several studies on Uganda's economy. For the past ten years, he has published a weekly column 'Are You Listening Mr. President' in The Sunrise Newspaper, Uganda's Leading Weekly

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