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With opposition candidates roughed up, arrested and held in house detention for fear they might ‘disrupt’ the electoral process, the man who once preached that staying too long in power would lead to corruption has been “re-elected” for an incredible fifht term to stretch his 30-year reign - and now himself lives under a cloud of corruption and abuse of power. What can Ugandans do?


President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda was ‘re-elected’ last month for a fifth term in office. Some may argue it is his sixth or even seventh term, if we include the honeymoon period between 1986, when the National Resistance Movement/Army took power, and 1996, when Ugandans went to the polls for only the second time since the 1962 pre-independence elections.

Two days after the February 18 elections I arrived back in the country from the diaspora where, unfortunately, I had had no chance to vote. I was nervous on landing at Entebbe after most of my relatives had advised me to cancel my ticket and travel at a later date. I had insisted on going, partly out of optimism, partly out of lack of choice given the limited time I had for fieldwork at home and for the school duties back in Japan. It was, in any case, sad that anybody could be worried of travelling to Uganda two days after an election in the era of ‘fundamental change’.[1]


Despite all those mixed feelings, I was nevertheless surprised by the nervous quietness that I saw on the streets of the colonial capital and airport city of Entebbe, and all the way to Masaka, 114 kilometres southwest of the capital Kampala. The relative who had come to pick me up from the airport decided to avoid Kampala, and took a short cut joining Entebbe to the Masaka highway. Tuned to the car stereo, we were just in time for the scheduled Saturday four o’clock announcement of the results of the presidential polls: the incumbent had allegedly secured 60.75% of the votes, with FDC’s Kizza Besigye runner-up with 35.37%. Museveni’s recently dismissed prime minister and former ruling party secretary general, John Patrick Amama Mbabazi, was pronounced third with 1.43% of the votes. The rest had been shared among five other candidates who included a retired major general (Benon Biraro) who, together with Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi had been fellow combatants under Museveni during the 1981 – 1986 bush war.

The results were mainly significant for their incredulity. All the voices I heard around family and friends that Saturday night and all through the weekend were questioning the Electoral Commission’s incompetence and lack of integrity to organise free and fair elections, let alone announce the rightful winner. If there were any folks that believed in the validity of the results that had been announced that late Saturday afternoon, they were too scared to stand out.

Three days later, on Tuesday February 23, I headed back to the city. What I saw and felt was also captured in the sentiments of a columnist in the leading independent daily newspaper, The Monitor:

‘Moving through Kampala after the results of the just-concluded election, one would be mistaken for thinking that the country was in mourning. The winning side was not celebrating. The losing side was obviously heartbroken and asking the dampened spirit to rise up and be happy would be asking too much.’ [2]

Meanwhile the leading opposition candidate and runner-up, Kizza Besigye, had by that day been arrested four times in eight days. Police were clearly determined to arrest him every time he tried to leave his home at Kasangati in the suburbs of Kampala in case he took any steps towards filing a petition against the disputed election results. Police spokesperson Fred Enanga said that confining Besigye was a preventive measure to ensure that he did not cause chaos in the city, and it could not prevent (his party) FDC from filing a petition if they so wished.[3] The party leader Gen. Mugisha Muntu insisted, on the other hand, that their candidate was unable to file a petition because the police had confined him to his home almost since election day, arresting him every time he attempted to move out. It was only former premier Mbabazi, who, according to official results, came third with just over one per cent of the votes, managed to file a petition against the election before the end of the 10th and the last day of the window, which the law provides for any candidate to dispute the results in court.

Three weeks after the elections, Besigye is effectively still under house arrest. Police still insist it’s a preventive arrest. State minister for internal affairs, James Baba, told parliament: ‘The bottom line is as long as his defiance campaign and disobedience continue, the police have the right to ensure peace and stability.’ [4] He was responding to challenges by opposition parliamentarians and the Hon. Speaker, Ms Rebecca Kadaga, to explain the situation at Besigye’s home. Surprisingly, Besigye has at least not been given a chance, not once, to lead any defiance campaign or show disobedience since he has been stopped at the gates of his own home any time he tried to step out. The only time he managed to leave his home without being detained was on February 28 when he was picked up by a certain Rev. Augustine Magala and taken to All Saints Church in Kampala escorted by a crowd. Even then, he ended up in detention when after church he disagreed with the police on which route to take as he went back home, forcing police to tow his vehicle to a suburban police station. [5] Museveni has been surprisingly quiet about him. He has instead issued a sheepish, albeit detailed response to Mbabazi’s petition.

But why should John Patrick Amama Mbabazi, who left the Museveni camp only one year to the 2016 polls, and who got only 1.43% of the votes, be the one free enough to file a petition? Why should Uganda, in 2016, and under Museveni, if he should be there at all, have to waste so much money, time and other resources on a perceived fraudulent election? Why, by the way, should the list of candidates include four former ‘freedom fighters’ that had gone to the bush, in the first place, to protest the 1980 stolen election?


Following the December 1980 election, which was almost certainly rigged, Obote returned to power after nine years. After that election, as Daniel Kalinaki noted, ‘politics continued to be subordinate to whoever was able to mobilise the greatest and most lethal forms of violence…’ DP opted to take up its seats in parliament as the official opposition. The ‘winner’ did not have military resources to defend its win or, as Museveni had put it during his campaign rallies, ‘did not have a spear to protect its meat from the kites.’ Obote also constantly mocked Ssemogerere – the DP leader – during the campaigns over his lack of military commanders. ‘The inherent logic of such statements, indeed the reality, was that the army in Uganda was a personal instrument subordinate and answerable to its owner and president.’ [6]

Obote was emboldened by his control of the core of the post-Amin army, the Uganda National Liberation Army, which became the defender of his fraudulent regime rather than the people of Uganda. Ssemogerere and his Democratic Party had won a popular vote, but had no army to defend their victory and the people who had led them to it. Museveni, on the other hand, knew well the value of ‘owning’ an army, and had indeed, for years, been organising a core unit of FRONASA fighters that would form the bedrock for his National Resistance Army.

Obote was to spend most of his second term (1981–85) fighting his rival Yoweri Museveni and other guerrilla groups who had launched an armed opposition to what they saw as Obote’s fraudulent regime. Human insecurity became rampant by the year especially in the areas where the guerrillas operated, but even in the confines of Kampala and other districts. Obote, who was obsessed with defeating Museveni, let his ‘northern’ army loose. They arrested, tortured and often killed suspected guerrillas and collaborators within the security forces, among politicians and the general public. Museveni and other minor groups fighting Obote campaigned and recruited in rural areas hostile to Obote's government, especially Buganda and the western regions of Ankole, Rukiga, Toro and Bunyoro. Estimates put the overall death toll anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 by January 1986 when Museveni and his rebel forces overran Kampala.

Despite those tremendous sacrifices, especially in Buganda, which was also the support base of the Democratic Party, nobody expected Museveni to hand over power to Ssemogerere and the winning team of 1980. Instead, there was a general consensus to give him a chance to unite the nation and restore the populace’s confidence in the army. After all, the president-turned guerrilla leader himself seemed less interested in power than any of his lieutenants. As Kalinaki testifies of Besigye’s own experiences with the man himself, Museveni seemed, on taking Kampala, to be more interested in solving the many unanswered questions that hang all along the history of the nation, especially the role of the army in politics:

‘Those unanswered questions and that sense of history hung in the air that balmy January day as Museveni, his little body barely filling out the green army fatigues, and with an intense, impatient stare in his eye spoke to the meeting at Lubiri. How long should we stay in power, Museveni asked? Several hands went up and answers poured forth from across the room. “Five years.” “Seven.” “At least 10.” Finally Museveni spoke. His tone was admonishing, like a headmaster speaking to a school assembly. Had all the ideological speeches he had given during the war been in vain? Were they not aware of Uganda’s history? Soldiers like them, Museveni said, had no business staying that long in power. They would hand over power to civilians in two years and return to the barracks where they belonged. There were quiet murmurs around the room. Some of the soldiers around the table, like Besigye, were barely in their thirties. Many had joined the rebellion fresh out of university. Others, like [Museveni’s half-brother] Salim Saleh, had dropped out of school altogether much earlier. After five years of the pains and rigours of war they had achieved victory. Now their leader wanted them back to the army barracks in 24 months? Eventually Amanya Mushega spoke. Mushega had finished a law degree at the University of Dar-es-Salaam and a master’s degree in law from the University of Ontario, Canada. He had dropped out of the PhD programme at the London School of Economics to join the NRA in 1982 where he, eventually, became the chief political commissar and leading ideologue. He was someone Museveni could listen to. Two years was too short, he said, appealing to Museveni directly. There were military operations to be undertaken to pacify the country, especially in the north, an economy to build, and a new constitution to write. They should stay in power for four years, he advised. Eventually Museveni was convinced. The new government would stay in office for four years before holding elections and handing over power to an elected civilian government. A team led by Mushega drafted what would become Legal Notice No 1 of 1986, formally establishing the NRA/M government and suspending parts of the 1967 Constitution. Among the clauses suspended was the provision specifying a five-year term for the President. However, the notice did not spell out how long the new terms would be, by default leaving the matter of who would be President, and for how long, to the NRC, or until the end of the interim period.’ [7]

Now we know that the issue of presidential terms was eventually taken care of by Ugandans themselves in the 1995 constitution when they imposed, by popular opinion, a two, five-year-term limit. We also know that since the law would not apply retrospectively on President Museveni, he could stand for election in both 1996 and 2001 and serve another 10 years in addition to the 10 he had served since taking power in 1986. We know that would give him an unprecedented 20 years at the helm. But we also know that during his second elected term (2001 – 2006), Museveni manipulated cabinet and bribed ruling party MPs to vote and lift term limits. [8]

After 30 years in power, Museveni, now heading for 35 unless something dramatic happens, claims he still has unfinished business to do. The fact is, however, each day he stays entrenches patronage, clientelism and corruption, as this author has noted in a previous article. [9] Each year he stays takes us another year back. That’s the pain of the nation of Uganda. Each day in power for Museveni undermines his own legacy. Above all, it burdens him with a history of lies and inconsistencies. There is a generation of Ugandans, those under 30, who have known no other leader but Museveni. They have grown up thinking a leader can say and do anything to stay in power. They may be mistaken to think ‘tear gassing’ government opponents and locking them up with impunity is part of the political game.

But this is not true, not even in Africa where in the last 25 years of Museveni’s 30-year reign we have generally seen a dramatic shift away from authoritarianism. Their short, 30-year history itself overburdens Museveni because they have not experienced the atrocities of past regimes, and they may, therefore, take the changes and progress happening in other countries for granted.

I was turning 21 when Museveni and his army marched into Kampala 30 years ago. In the eyes of my generation, there is no way to understand how the facts, desires and aspirations of a nation can be lost to a man and his movement whom we saw then and was rightly described as almost ‘puritanical and ascetic’. [10] What could have made Museveni think Africa, or Uganda for that matter, has turned back on its own history, making him forget what he said when he was inaugurated in 1986, in one of the most famous political speeches in Uganda’s history, that the NRM’s capture of power was ‘not a mere change of guards, but, I think, a fundamental change’. [11] Why and how could a man of Museveni’s calibre, once, and for long, considered one of a ‘new breed of progressive African leaders’, so easily forget what he said on that same January day, and during the same speech: ‘The problems of Africa, and Uganda in particular, are caused by leaders who overstay in power … which breeds impunity, corruption, and promotes patronage.’?

The president will argue that he has been in office by virtue of being voted in by the public. Most Ugandans you speak to would disagree. The country has had regular elections, and Mr. Museveni has ‘won’ each time, but they have always come with mixed feelings. The 2016 elections have particularly vindicated the sceptics. Events before, during and after the elections, especially the treatment rendered to the main opposition candidate and his party at large, raise doubts whether, especially this time, Yoweri Museveni’s hold on to power is because of the people’s vote or the use of force and fraud. No amount of demonstration, or walking, by an unarmed opposition candidate, can bring down a legally elected government. Equally, there is no need of pouring thousands of security personnel on the streets of Kampala to safeguard a fairly and popularly elected government.


As the stalemate continues, President ‘elect’ Museveni will go on to swear in for a sixth, or seventh term. He will, because he cannot stop at any moment and doubt the military might that he possesses. He will engrave his own name deeper into the stone of ‘fame’ bearing the names of Africa’s longest ‘serving’ leaders. He will deploy more and more force to try and silence his opponents, and the patronage machine will milk the nation’s coffers deeper, to the bone. But here is the good news. Ugandans are peace loving people. The generations that have known more than Museveni did after all live under all sorts of pain paying for the sweet honey that the last 30 years were supposed to have been.

The ‘Museveni children’ have themselves grown resilient. They have been told lies about their education, and they have been denied a right to medical care, even to a decent meal. They have seen their parents retrenched or paid off to live against their will. They showed a lot of restraint over this election season. They did not ‘explode’, not because Besigye is locked up in his own home, nor because most parks in Kampala have been turned into barracks. They have learnt to move on with hope that as Museveni grows even older, he will feel the weight of his own words from 30 years ago, and give up power peacefully. It is never too late. But for now we all have to fasten our seat belts for the five-year bus ride, more so the driver Museveni himself, lest he falls off under the weight of his 30 years at the steering. And that will be disastrous for the bus!

Recently I learnt an old Japanese saying: Tora wa, shi shite, kawa 0 nokosu; shito wa, shi shite, namae o nokosu (Literally: when a tiger dies, it leaves a skin; when a man dies, he lives a name.) I don’t know about Mr. Museveni, but I would have liked to die like a man, especially if I were a leader of a nation of other men and women!

* Vick Lukwago Ssali is based at the Department of English Language and Cultures, Aichi Gakuin University, Japan.


1. Museveni’s description of his own capture of power in his swearing in speech on 29 January 1986 (see note 11).
2. See Nicholas Ssengooba, “Expecting free and fair elections is asking too much,” in The Monitor, Tuesday February 23, 2016, p.19.
3. See Erias Mukiibi Serunjogi and Solomon Arinaitwe, “Why Besigye did not file election petition,” in The Monitor, Wednesday, March 2, 2016, p. 3.
4. See Yasin Mugerwa, “Kadaga orders govt on Besigye arrest,” in The Monitor online, Friday March 11 2016. Available at:
5. See Richard Sanya, Norman Katende and Cecilia Okoth, “Besigye, Biraro petition God at All Saints Church,” in New Vision, Monday, February 29, 2016, p.4.
6. See Daniel K. kalinaki, Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution (Nairobi, DominantSeven Publishers, 2014) 49.
7. Ibid. 90-91
8. Ibid. 228
9. See Vick Lukwago Ssali, “Patronage, clientelism and economic insecurity in Uganda,” in Pambazuka News, January 8 2016, Issue 756.
10. See Aili Mari Tripp, Museveni’s Uganda: paradoxes of power in a hybrid regime (London, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010) 1.
11. Yoweri Museveni, Swearing-in speech, January 29, 1986 (see note 1).



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