By Ian Katusiime
The president has in the last ten years envisioned himself as the be-all and end-all of Uganda
Over his 30 year reign as President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni has placed the desire to retain and consolidate power over and above everything else. He has consistently gloated of how no one has the capacity to unseat him whether militarily or democratically through an election.
Museveni’s journey from 1971 when he founded FRONASA, an idealistic liberation movement to 1986, when he captured power after leading a five year guerrilla war, was the climax of unbridled ambition and a deep sense of nationalism.
The then 41-year-old was received with so much promise and enthusiasm from Ugandans for liberating the country from tyrannical past regimes. The reception from Africa and the wider world was even more effusive. He was later feted by the West as a new generation of African leaders alongside Paul Kagame and late Ethiopian Prime minister Meles Zenawi.
But as Museveni made himself comfortable around a modest State House and preached austerity, he soon realised the futility of this in the long haul. The demands of ruling a third world nation dawned on him and it was not long before he repudiated his Marxist beliefs and the new NRA government went on a privatisation spree.
The economy rebounded impressively and the Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) averaged at 7% per year in the 1990s through to the 2000s, according to World Bank statistics. Museveni equally won praise for pushing back the spread of HIV/AIDS at a time when the disease had decimated thousands of Ugandans.
However, a new Museveni was emerging amidst this boom and regeneration. Previous hopes of him serving only 10 years faded and he began to turn into the real and cunning politician he was always meant to be. He romped to victory in his first election in 1996 and although it seemed unfathomable that he would contest in four more elections, it all looks like a well laid out agenda in retrospect.
In the 2001 election, as he faced his first daunting challenge from Dr Kizza Besigye, a former minister and political commissar in the government, Museveni left no doubt about how he would deal with any threat to his stranglehold on power. The 2001 polls provided arguably the most violent campaign. Kalangala Action Plan, a ragtag outfit manned by Kakooza Mutale, a fanatic supporter of Museveni, caused mayhem as they flogged supporters of rival candidates. And so did an overzealous Brig. Henry Tumukunde who has reprised his role in the 2016 campaign period.
When Museveni tactfully amended the constitution to banish term limits in 2005, it seemed like only nature would stop him from taking part in an election on top of winning it.
Now with a largely partisan Police force blocking Besigye and Mbabazi, the leading opposition candidates from visiting hospitals, churches, going on radio and disrupting their rallies at whim, with an Inspector of General of Police he fondly addresses as a “true NRM cadre”, and an Electoral Commission Chairman who would not look Museveni in the eye, some surmise the election is Museveni’s to lose.
Even though he remains popular with voters across the country- garnering a 59.9% lead in the latest Ipsos poll, Besigye at a distant 20%, Museveni has made imperial measures to retain this support.
In March last year, he appointed a 73-year-old Philemon Mateke as State Minister for Regional Affairs. Mateke hails from Kisoro district and he is said to be a kingmaker in the wider Kigezi sub region. Apparently, the former Minister of Education in the Obote II regime initiated several developmental projects in the area that earned him enormous clout. Sources say Museveni rushed off to appoint Mateke as Minister after being tipped off that Mbabazi was courting him for support in the region. This has been one of Museveni’s oldest tricks. Just two months ago, he appointed to Cabinet three people, including a Deputy Prime Minister, all from the same region in eastern Uganda.
Museveni in the last ten years has envisioned himself as the be-all and end-all of Uganda. On several occasions, he has used the analogy of a hunter who captured his prey and is now unwilling to let anyone else tamper with it. Then next was Uganda’s oil, discovered in the Albertine region in 2006. “I cannot trust the opposition with my oil”.
From calling the opposition “wolves”, past leaders “swine” and mystifying his vision for the country, Museveni has painted a self-portrait of revolutionary invincibility.
Okello Lucima, spokesperson of Uganda Political Congress (UPC), one of the oldest parties says Museveni’s state over the last thirty years has been based on divisions, inequalities and personalisation.
“I have never seen a more divided country than the one under Museveni. It is a very corrupt state, highly ethnicized, polarised with deep inequalities. This has also resulted into ethnic student unions. In our days, there were more student associations and they were regional and quite broad but now we have Banyakigezi, Madi students union etc.”
Lucima says people have retreated into their small enclaves because they have been captured by a small group of people and he insists that with the prevalent system of technical know who, it is the only way to access state resources. “Corruption is now the icing on the cake”.
Granted, Uganda is an ethnically diverse country, riven with long running tensions, in part to its colonial history, something Museveni has exploited optimally. For nearly every conflict that has emerged, Museveni has sought to directly be the arbiter, the all-generous chief to whom all communities are beholden.
But also, the Ugandan society being a melting point of different social groups has abetted Museveni’s long stay in power. Whenever aggrieved by regulation issues or whatever the case maybe, boda boda riders, taxi drivers, market vendors, women groups et al as long as they make up the numbers will only reach ‘consensus’ after meeting Museveni. Same applies to elders say from Rukungiri, Soroti to plead for a son of the soil who has fallen out of favour with the regime.
When the Muslim fraternity in Uganda had a severe division in 2006 owing to a fight over property ownership, Museveni had to intervene to save the situation. A picture of Sheikh Shaban Mubajje (Old Kampala faction) separated by a seat from the late Sheikh Zubair Kayongo (Kibuli group) facing Museveni at his country home could not have been more elaborate.
Mike Mukula, NRM’s vice Chairman for eastern region, however argues that Museveni has been able to stay in power due to his record on national security and socio-economic progress. “Museveni fought Lakwena and other reactionary forces in West Nile just after coming to power and also ADF and LRA later. His ascendency to power was based on consolidating national stability; that was his reference point. The biggest problem in the Sub-Sahara region is instability in nations”
The former Minister of Health says Museveni won many hearts with Universal Primary Education (UPE). “The urbanites do not know this. The biggest resistance (opposition) is in the urban centres because that is where unemployment is a real problem. That is why these youth go on these protest rallies but you never see women in these Besigye protests because they are more sensitive to security”
According to Mukula, the President should be given credit for tolerance. “Many people died during Obote I and also during Amin’s regime where 800,000 are estimated to have been killed. Even Obote II, people died. But under Museveni, no one has gone to exile” He says the case of Samson Mande is an isolated one.
“There are no refugee camps of Ugandans in Burundi, Tanzania, Sudan or Kenya. Impunity against innocent people has been contained.” He says oblivious of the hundreds of Ugandans who have been arrested on frivolous charges and kept in detention beyond the lawful time when they are due in court. On the extreme brutality exercised by the police, he terms it as a problem of command and control for which the police needs constant training but sums up “Uganda is a work in progress”.
In the last three months, Museveni has managed to pull a series of moves to lure back some key people to his court. On Independence Day, former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya announced his backing for Museveni saying he did not see anyone in the opposition coalition (The Democratic Alliance) with presidential potential.
Around the same time, UPC President James Akena, was losing identity as a party leader and more of a stooge of Museveni. The 2016 elections have no UPC presidential flag-bearer, something odd for a party which had the presidency twice.
Former Prime Minister Mbabazi who made many foes in government is now a target of unrestrained attacks, a game where Museveni is the ultimate winner. Bukenya, Jim Muhwezi, Kahinda Otafiire have all ganged up against him. Bukenya claimed that he gets nausea at the mere sight of seeing Mbabazi campaigning. Otafiire and Muhwezi who fought numerous internal wars with Mbabazi are in their element denouncing Mbabazi.
Pitting one rival against the other has been Museveni’s story of power play.
While campaigning, Museveni has revealed that Mbabazi failed to run the government and the party when he was Prime Minister and Secretary General respectively but without batting an eyelid, he says his government and party have performed well generally.
Kwezi Tabaro, a fresh graduate from Makerere University says Museveni is a lame duck President whose patronage has only helped him stay around but with little to show for. “I think Museveni’s 30-year journey has been nothing short of the ordinary- he represents a more sophisticated version of Africa’s post-independence strongmen, in that he has perfected his use of the carrot and stick, playing one western partner against another in a balancing act akin to Arap Moi of Kenya albeit with more charm.”
Tabaro posits that apart from Museveni’s commendable economic record and his handling of security acting as an American bulwark against Islamic terrorism in the region, he has also presided over arguably the most incompetent state in Uganda’s history in terms of service delivery.
“Still he is loved by many for his charm and political shrewdness. I don’t see him doing much in the next decade of his rule and I presume he has a feeling he cannot do anything more…but is stuck”.
Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) spokesperson Semujju Nganda, also MP for Kyadondo East slightly agrees with the above view. “Museveni’s knowledge is limited to capturing power. I am not sure he has an idea of how to use it. The things we did in 1960, we cannot do them 50 years later. That is where his understanding of power stops.”