People who experience extreme atrocities develop several complexes, which include the saviour complex. In times of crisis, specific individuals acquire the trust of desperate people looking for a ‘Moses’ to bail them out and they remain attached to him if he delivers. The need for a saviour can be due to a natural or manufactured crisis.
The gravity of the crisis makes people so desperate that they cling to individuals who appear to know what to do. Desperation generates heroes with messianic attributes to deliver the suffering from mythical Egypt to equally mythical Canaan.
Desperation appears in different settings. It was common in colonial times in Africa and produced many ‘saviours’ who became Moses, leading their people to the Canaan of independence. It was also common in post-colonial Africa as the leaders quarrelled and plunged their countries into desperation. Few countries exhibit this desperation for a messiah more than post-colonial Uganda. It found that person in Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, and he believes it.
Independence had produced acrimonious leaders in Kabaka Muteesa as president and Apollo Milton Obote as executive prime minister in 1962. Obote imagined himself liberator as he, with the assistance of a former Kings African Rifles ‘Effendi’ Idi Amin Dada, overthrew the Kabaka and assumed the roles of both president and prime minister. He was thereafter answerable to no one, tried to force conformity with his 1969 ‘Common Man’s Charter’ and alienated Ugandan citizens, and neighbours. Having developed into a tyrant with socialistic inclinations, he made Ugandans crave for a saviour.
This made Idi Amin appear like a saviour in January 1971 when he turned against his mentor. Amin had learned many things from Obote on how to be unquestionable. Like Obote, he expelled people but targeted Indians. He lacked ideological pretensions and liked large-scale killings that attracted the wrong attention. He picked quarrels with Julius Nyerere in Tanzania partly because Nyerere protected Obote. More than Obote ever did, Amin made Ugandans crave for a saviour who showed up through Nyerere’s invasion that restored Obote.
Nyerere had provided more than a haven for Obote. He had made Tanzania an ideological training headquarters for would-be liberators and messiahs. Among them was a young Museveni. He watched the growing internal chaos as Obote messed his second term and other leaders went for both Obote and each other.
He started portraying himself as a saviour with his National Resistance Movement (NRM), confronting the disorganised others. Cultivating a revolutionary persona, Museveni emerged in 1986 as the man who saved Uganda from itself.
Museveni was a beneficiary of changing power reality in which the West was cutting its geopolitical losses by dumping leaders in African client states. As the presumed head of Africa’s ‘new leaders’ who included Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Museveni personified the saviour political attitude. They appeared young, fresh, focused, and not tainted with corruption and assorted atrocities. They appeared like saviours of their countries from the abyss and most important, they accommodated the wishes of the changing West. They were ‘new leaders’ for a new Africa.
As Uganda’s liberator from its atrocious post-colonial past, Museveni entrenched a saviour complexity that discouraged questioning his wisdom. Ugandans who remembered how it was before Museveni were scared of returning to pre-1986 days. This made questioning Museveni tantamount to political sacrilege. This is what Colonel Warren Kizza Besigye Kifefe, an NRM liberation comrade, committed by challenging the saviour’s longevity in power. Accusing Besigye of conniving with foreigners, Museveni felt justified to continue saving Uganda from its past. It is the same logic used in stopping musician Robert Kyaulanyi alias Bobi Wine from challenging the saviour.
It is difficult to ignore the power of the saviour complex to a people who escape extreme atrocities, whether from external or domestic sources. Museveni is that saviour from pre-1986 chaos that few want to return to. This makes him popular among the scared. He knows and exploits it to the hilt. Besigye and Wine either ignore this reality or are so brave that they see themselves as the new saviours of Uganda.
– Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU