Yoweri Museveni is great fun

4 July, 2016 marked the fortieth anniversary of perhaps the most audacious and brilliant military operation that I remember occurring in my lifetime. I refer to Operation Entebbe, in which a crack squad of Israeli Special Forces somehow landed at night at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, rescued 102 heavily guarded hostages (Israeli passengers from an Air France airliner hijacked by Palestinians), and spirited them away. The operation took one week to plan and 90 minutes to execute. The hijackers, 3 hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. Five of the Israeli rescue unit were injured and one was killed.

The reason that Ugandan soldiers were involved was that Idi Amin, the brutal buffoon that was that country’s dictator, supported the Palestinian terrorist hijackers. Uganda’s current President, Yoweri Museveni, was part of the movement that overthrew Amin.

He invited Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Entebbe as part of the celebrations to mark this anniversary. That was an appropriate diplomatic gesture; and it had a poignant added layer. His elder brother, Lt Col Jonathan Netanyahu, was the rescue unit’s commander and the single Israeli killed.

President Museveni made a speech.

There is a short version of edited excerpts from this speech. They are compiled from Museveni’s attempts at a précis of Jewish history, and are posted on YouTube against the adjective ‘hilarious’. In truth it is very funny and no surprise that it has been viewed nearly 180,000 times. Nevertheless, wearing my rhetor hat, I want to examine this speech as a whole, in the context in which it was delivered.

He begins with a Hierarchical Hello. On occasions such as this these are de rigeur. For many reasons they are ghastly to do, and I have witnessed too many speakers racing to get the bloody things over and done with. That is a mistake, for both protocol and practical reasons. Protocol is obvious; but practically, you merely highlight your own uneasiness with this OBN catalogue. Museveni does exactly the opposite: he sticks huge pauses in there, and I salute him for it.

He goes on to stick huge pauses everywhere, and I am on his side here too. The subliminal message that accompanies many long pauses is one of supreme confidence. Even if you proceed to commit a series of gaffes (which he does) the conveying of an air of nonchalance over that, combined with a readiness to indulge in self-deprecating laughter (which he also does) is very appealing. He is not here to help anyone with their PhD in Holy Land history, and he will laugh as loud and as long as anyone at his own remarks like –

“Herod was a bad gentleman, or something like that.”

When he gets away from that subject matter he knows better whereof he speaks, and it shows. How many politicians at a high profile event such as this would take on the knotty distinction between freedom-fighting and terrorism? All terrorists would self-identify as freedom fighters, but Museveni has a succinct way of separating them out, and makes a reasonable case.

Then he goes back into the history of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu enjoys it, and I venture that he is laughing with Museveni, not at him. Camera shots of other people in the audience display a certain tight-lippage, but who cares about them? Museveni doesn’t: he and his mate Benjamin are enjoying their own jokey party.

There’s a long, rambling, hugely enjoyable story about a conversation he had had with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, concerning the whereabouts these days of the ‘Medians’. After a while I worked out that he spoke of the Medes – as in Medes-and-Persians. In that part of the old testament it’s one of those indivisible pairings, like gin and tonic. Where are the ‘Medians’ now? he asked Ahmadinejad. He had no answer, so an ancient professor from the university had to be summoned. Ultimately Museveni concludes that there exists a lot of ignorance, and so the speech meanders on in largely enjoyable fashion. Most particularly it concludes very well.

Let us consider the purpose of this speech. Museveni is a host, welcoming an honoured guest to his table and putting him at his ease. As an instrument for delivering that, this speech is first class. If you don’t believe me, look at how much the honoured guest is enjoying it. Rectally challenged students of diplomacy can ‘tut’ all they like about imagined faux pas, but who cares? In its way, and for what it is setting out to do this is a triumph.

It is not an easy act to follow, and guess who is following? I intend next to look at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reply.

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