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Is Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni beating the same fateful path as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi? J. Oloka-Onyango analyses Museveni’s latest election victory.

When the lithe, 42-year-old guerilla leader Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (‘M7’ or ‘Ssevo’ to his supporters) emerged from a five-year ‘bush’ war to claim the presidency of Uganda in 1986, few observers gave him much of a chance. Many questioned whether he had the credentials to lead such a fractious, decimated and demoralised population out of the doldrums.

Twenty-five years later, Museveni remains at the helm of Ugandan politics and on 18 February 2011 he received yet another endorsement in an election that extends his term until 2016. By that time, Museveni will be 72 years old, and at 30 years in power will have long since entered the record books as East Africa’s longest-serving leader, outstripping both the late Julius Kambarage Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenyan ex-President Daniel arap Moi.

But it will also be the time to ask whether his legacy will be that of the former Tanzanian president, who left office still revered and loved, or that of a figure of tragedy and hatred like Moi? Indeed, as North Africa witnesses the collapse of long-term dictatorships from Tunisia to Libya, it is necessary to inquire how it is that Museveni won the 18 February election, and what lessons this has for political struggle and freedom on the continent.

Drawing on Libya for comparison is particularly apt since Museveni has long been an ally of President Muammar Abu Minyar al Gaddafi. In one of many trips to Kampala, the eccentric and now beleaguered leader urged Museveni to stay in office for life, arguing that revolutionaries are not like company managing directors.

It is a lesson Museveni took to heart, removing presidential term limits from the Constitution in 2005, and setting himself well on the way to a de facto life presidency.

So what explains Museveni’s February victory, especially given that while largely predicted, the margin by which he won – 68 per cent of the presidential vote and 75 per cent for his National Resistance Movement (NRM) in the parliamentary poll - stunned many. This margin should be compared with the three previous elections in 1996 (when he won with 75 per cent), in 2001 (69 per cent) and in 2006 (59 per cent).

According to the pundits, while still popular, dominant and thus likely to win, the downward trend would continue. Some even predicted that there would be a run-off because the 50.1 per cent margin would not be reached in the first round. The other issue of surprise was the relative calm and lack of violence that attended the election. Most foreign observers - from the European Union to the US government - described the vote as generally peaceful, free of bloodshed and (in the usual parlance of those who have emerged as the guardians of African electoral politics) largely a ‘free and genuine’ expression of the wishes of the Ugandan people.[1]

The local media described it as the most boring poll in recent Ugandan history, lacking as it did much of the drama, intrigue and confrontation that Ugandans had become accustomed to. It is thus not surprising that Museveni’s rap song - ‘Give Me My Stick/You Want Another Rap?’ - garnered more attention than the substantive issues at stake.

To fully comprehend the outcome of Uganda’s recent poll, it is necessary to understand a number of basic facts. The first is that Uganda is yet to become a functioning multiparty democracy. For the first nineteen years of Museveni rule, the country operated a ‘no-party’ or ‘movement’ system of government, which was little better than a single-party state. Under that system, government and party institutions overlapped right from the lowest level of government (resistance or local councils) through to Parliament. Indeed, in many respects, Museveni took a leaf from Gaddafi’s popular councils, creating these ‘LCs’ as supposedly representative of ‘grassroots’ democracy, but essentially a cover for single-party dominance. Today, many of the no-party structures remain intact and operative. They function as the main conduits of political mobilisation and for the channeling of state resources, buttressed by a massive local bureaucracy of government agents and spies.

Of course the fact of incumbency guarantees Museveni unfettered access to state coffers, such that the NRM reportedly spent US$350 million in the campaign, testimony to the benefits that come with office. The enduring image of the past several months has been the President handing out brown envelopes stashed with cash for various women, youth and other types of civic groupings.

The other reason for Museveni’s victory lies in the highly militarised context within which politics and governance in Uganda is executed. Following five years of civil war (1981 to 1986), and 20-plus years of insurgency in the north of the country, Uganda has never been free from conflict. Unsurprisingly, the idea of peace and security loom large within the national psyche. For older Ugandans there is fear of earlier and more chaotic times, while for the younger generation who have only experienced Museveni, the claim that he has restored peace has a particular resonance. Ironically, both groups also fear that if Museveni lost an election, he would never accept the result, and instead would either return to the bush or cause such instability that it is not worth it to even think about an alternative candidate. This explains what to many is the most surprising outcome of the election: Museveni’s victory in Northern Uganda despite facing two ‘sons-of-the-soil’, ex-diplomat Olara Otunnu and the youthful Norbert Mao.

The looming presence of the military also explains why the turnout for the election at 59 per cent was much lower than any of the previous three polls, where figures were closer to 70 per cent. Many people simply stayed at home, partly out of apathy, but more on account of the fact that the streets of Kampala and other parts of the country were swamped with military personnel. More akin to the army in Libya than in Egypt, the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force (UPDF) is not reputed to exercise restraint when dealing with civilian insurrection or politically-motivated opposition.

Museveni’s performance in the North reflects the other side to the story, and that is the fact that Museveni is only as good as the opposition he faces. The dismal performance of the opposition is attributable to a host of factors, not least of which is the fact that there are really no opposition parties in Uganda. Rather, there are only opposition personalities - epitomised by three-time presidential contender Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), who have constructed around themselves weak or non-existent party structures that only come to life in the run up to the election.

Uganda’s opposition is also bereft of firm ideological positions, and while the death of ideology is an ailment affecting the ruling NRM too, its absence among the opposition has proven particularly harmful as there is a lack of a central organising message around which the opposition can translate obvious disgust and support against Museveni into electoral victory. Thus, at the start of the election season, the opposition wavered between a united front against Museveni or a boycott, citing the bias of the Electoral Commission and the un-level playing field.

Neither option was adopted, and at the end of the day all major opposition parties decided to field candidates in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, while decrying the inequality in the contest. Nevertheless, Besigye assured his supporters of both victory and of the ability to protect his vote in the event of an NRM poll-rigging, a show of bravado on which he was unable to deliver.

However, UPC candidate Olara Otunnu took the cake by failing to show up to cast his vote on election day in a classic example of the ailments afflicting the opposition. At the end of the day, while Museveni’s victory is not much of a surprise, and in the short run ensures the continued charade of economic and political stability that has characterised the last two decades, it portends considerable apprehension for the future of the country.

While the President has dismissed comparisons with the fallen dictators of North Africa, there are indeed many parallels. The state in Uganda has assumed what can only be described as a ‘Musevenist’ character, such that an election such as the recent one can only be an exercise in shame-faced endorsement of the incumbent. That state has also devolved to a situation in which there is little to distinguish between the personal and the political, and where it is increasingly being marked by the growth of family/personal rule. While Museveni has only one son (in comparison to Gaddafi’s seven), Muhoozi Kainerugaba is clearly being groomed for greater things. Thus, he has taken charge of the Special Presidential Brigade, the elite force designed to guarantee his father’s personal security, and he recently wrote a book about the bush war to burnish his credentials as an intellectual-cum-soldier able to fit into his father’s rather large shoes.

This is clearly the same path that Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi pursued, only to find themselves thwarted by the movement of the people. While it may be true that revolutionaries don’t retire, if there is no other lesson of the recent Northern African upheavals, it is that revolutionaries can be forced to resign. It is all simply a matter of time.


* Professor J. Oloka-Onyango is director of the Human Rights & Peace Centre at the Faculty of 
Law, Makerere University.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] To its credit, it was only the African Union (AU) that declined outright to describe the poll as ‘free and fair.’