Moses Khisa, a Ugandan political scientist professor who lectures at North Carolina State University in the U.S. says the West have no permanent friend with Museveni being no exception. “Whoever can serve their interests, especially for the Americans the primary issues being economic and security, they will move with that person.”
Khisa says that the U.S. and EU are hanging on with Museveni because of issues of security and the refugee situation, “But they are not blind to his waning clout and precarious hold on power.”
He says Museveni’s image among diplomats in the West was altered due to failure to negotiate a way out of power.
“You only need to speak to western diplomats in private. They may still praise him in public and show a modicum of respect for him but in reality they no longer hold him in the high regard they did in the 1990s,” he told The Independent in an email.
Khisa says the view of Museveni in the West as a foresighted and reform-minded leader is long gone.
“The West has kept their support for him at a modest level in part because he can make the argument that he’s still popular inside the country. But we know that Museveni’s support largely stands on quicksand and is more rented than genuine.”
According to Khisa, longevity in power is revealing Museveni’s character and inevitably affecting his relations with Western powers. “What has changed is Museveni’s own posturing. He used to present himself as a doyen of democracy,” Khisa says, “Now he has to justify why he can’t stick to basic norms of democracy like fairness in competition. He has been good at duplicity but that is not sustainable.”
He says the slightest internal rupture will bury Museveni and the West will move on.
Khisa buys into the popular claim that in the event of the smallest threatening challenge to Museveni’s power, the West will abandon him and indirectly shore up the forces arraigned against him. This has been argued due to the palpable anxiety and frustration built up over the last 33 years in Uganda under Museveni.
Uganda and President Museveni specifically, has been a strong ally of the Americans in the Africa Great Lakes region.
An African strongman with a difference
It has been said that when the Museveni hold of power – now in its 33rd year and one of the longest in the world – eventually ends, one question many will ponder is how he was able to work his way into the embrace of different American administrations without major fallout.
Museveni has been a welcome guest at the White House from 1987 when Ronald Reagan first invited him, to George H.W. Bush, eight years of Bill Clinton and eight years of Barack Obama. Only the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, appears to be a major shift.
Unlike most of Africa’s strong men, Museveni has enjoyed a much more favourable relationship with the America. Libyan leader Gaddafi was a pariah in the West for all his 42-year-reign.
In 2011, a coalition of France, U.K. and U.S. seized on popular protests in Libya and ousted Gaddafi in months after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) imposed a no-fly zone over the country. Gadaffi was brutally killed and Libya razed to the ground in the process.
Robert Mugabe who died last month ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist albeit under heavy American sanctions from which the Zimbabwean economy never recovered. The other long serving African strong men like Cameroon’s 86 year-old President Paul Biya, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea are not that influential geopolitically.
Omar-al-Bashir, Sudan’s ruler over 30 years, who was haunted by the West was removed by his own army after events in the country decidedly turned against him.
For Museveni it has been a mix of re-invention, political dexterity at home and knowing when to turn to China, an American rival.
When Uganda passed an anti-gay law in February 2014, it caused so much negative press for the country and Museveni in Europe and North America. The law was struck down by the courts six months later on the technicality of lack of quorum. It was just on the eve of a US-Africa summit in Washington, the American capital, which Museveni attended.
Despite this, the hypothesis holds that Museveni’s continued stable relations with the U.S. of more than 30 years could continue pending the non-occurrence of a black swan event in Uganda in the near future.
Barring popular protests akin to those that swept fellow strongmen like Sudan’s Omar-al-Bashir out of power in April this year, and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, it is safe to say Museveni would have enjoyed uninterrupted relations with America despite bumps being seen today.
There is a belief that recent developments, mainly the rise of 37-year-old Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, a pop star-turned-politician as a poster child of the anti-Museveni resistance, have given America and its Western allies a chance to look at one of their favourite strongmen in a different light.
Although Bobi Wine is a novice in international realpolitik, it is not far-fetched to say he has excited hawkish officials in the various hierarchies of the U.S. government.
This theory also contends that the continued persecution of Bobi Wine and police brutality towards opposition politicians has sullied the international standing of 75-year-old Museveni as an elder statesman not just on the African continent which has a bulging aspirant but unemployed youth population but across the globe where he was heralded in the 1990s as a new breed of visionary leaders.
The reputational decline of Museveni peaked in August 2018 when images of Bobi Wine, writhing in pain due to alleged torture, went viral on social media. Bobi Wine claimed torture at the hands of Museveni’s guards during a violent by-election in Arua at the time.
The alleged torture of Bobi Wine sparked an outcry across cities like Nairobi, Lagos, Berlin, London and New York in an age of Twitter and Facebook where campaigns are amplified by smartphones and hashtags.
Museveni, it is believed, was compelled to skip the 73rd UN General Assembly in 2018 as a result of the Bobi Wine backlash. Just a year ago in 2017, Museveni had already widened the gulf between him and the youthful generation Bobi Wine leads when his NRM party pushed a constitutional amendment through parliament to remove the presidential age limit to enable him run in 2021.