Uganda: When Museveni Finally Grows Up, Can He Ever Be Like Benin’s Kerekou?

You can stand in Nigeria and casually shake hands with your friend in Ghana and neither of you would notice that you have at least two separate countries – Benin and Togo – under your arms.

The two bu-countries are that small: short, narrow cul-de-sacs or truncated corridors that would be easily swallowed up if the Ogas in Nigeria and the Asantehenes in Ghana decided to do a merger.

A reckless bus driver leaving Nigeria for Ghana would in all likelihood crush both Benin and Togo under him and then rightfully plead innocence as he didn’t see them in the first place. And if you are flying from Nigeria to Ghana, blink once and you’ll have missed both countries… and basically everyone in them.

At 11 million, Benin (which as a boy I knew as Dahomey) is really small fry; a pack of hyenas looking for subsistence would starve to death after quickly running out of people to eat!

In numbers, Benin is a quarter the population of Uganda; and, in theory at least, one could transfer all the Beninese to, say, Karamoja and each of them would die of too much land. Yet its size of nation and country notwithstanding, Benin holds some really delightful and crucial records in Africa.

It has the distinction of being the very first country in mainland Africa to engineer a peaceful transition from a sitting president to a fresh one – in 1991.

When he took power in a coup in 1972, Mathieu Kerekou assumed communist tendencies, complete with the autocratic claptrap and bunkum that is inevitable in such circumstances.

But he had the good sense to perceive that he was not immortal and that he was only a drop in the ocean known as Benin.

When Communism began its spectacular collapse in 1989, and prominent European Capitalist leaders like Francois Mitterrand called for opening up the political space in Africa, Kerekou heeded the call.

Funny enough, at an angle he could easily have been mistaken for Uganda’s Gen Elly Tumwine, especially if he wore dark glasses; except that Kerekou was a good man. At least he wouldn’t rub salt into the bleeding wounds of grieving families, by claiming the police has a right to kill.

And even though he, like President Museveni, initially took power by force, again, he was a good man and a bright one because he knew when it was time to relax his grip, aware that Benin didn’t belong to him.

In fact, in 1990, Kerekou had the humility to take the stand and apologise to the nation for the mistakes of his government – something that Mr Museveni really needs and must do, but we all know he simply cannot – and he begged the Beninese for forgiveness.

Then he did another thing that Mr Museveni can never, ever do: organise a peaceful, free and fair election in which everyone has an equal chance to compete.

Kerekou didn’t call the military to shoot and kill those who displayed their dislike of the government of the day, when protests broke out in the transition period.

As matter of fact, he lost the election, in 1991. And again he did what Mr Museveni has vowed never to do: hand over power to the winner of the election.

Kerekou withdrew into what was termed ‘silence of penitence’. Yet he came back and won the 1996 elections and the following ones in 2001.

When it came to 2006, Kerekou said it was time to go home, having served two terms, very well. As Mr Museveni was bribing Members of Parliament to remove the term limits so he could continue in power, Kerekou was busy retreating to enjoy a well-earned rest.

And as we all now know, that (walking off into the sunset) is another thing Mr Museveni cannot do, after promising to retire so many times.

Last October 15, Benin took a moment to remember the passing on, five years ago, of a remarkable politician who changed from Saul to Paul; and is now labelled “Benin’s father of democracy”.

You want to hope and pray that when Museveni finally grows up he will want to be like Kerekou.

Mr Tegulle is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda

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