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Inside Museveni’s political game

By Andrew M. Mwenda  

As we move towards next year’s presidential election, it is important that we establish how President Yoweri Museveni and his ruling party, the NRM, have organised his support base. For most African governments to survive, they need support from the society over which they rule and international alliances for financial assistance.

Governments recruit support and secure loyalty by distributing material and nonmaterial rewards. These may include government or private sector jobs for the elite, economic and social infrastructure like hospitals, schools, and roads, to communities whose support the ruling party wants to court. The ruling party may also extend policy-benefits, such as subsidies, cheap loans, trade opportunities, etc., to specific groups.

However, society is always differentiated; this may be along class, ethnic, religious, gender, age group or occupational lines.  Each of these groups may seek interests at odds with the other. Yet, even within one group competing demands may exist. For example, within the business class the interests of manufacturers may be in conflict with the interests of traders over the tariff policy.

The challenge of any government is to adopt a series of policies and practices that allow it to win over a significant section of the population.  Few regimes have sought to rely almost exclusively on force to sustain their power as Idi Amin, Sani Abacha and Jean Bokasa did. Therefore, in studying politics in any country, it is important to look at the strategies government employs to win and retain the support of the most articulate groups.

In Uganda’s case, the NRM seeks to win multiple constituencies in a highly heterogeneous society; we have many ethno-regional and religious groups, which are divided between the elite and the rural poor. Second is the business community; these are divided between foreign and local capital, traders and manufacturers, big and small business.

Third is the international aid community, who provide the foreign aid necessary to finance many of the public expenditure commitments of the government like UPE and road construction. Donors are divided between countries with geo-strategic interests (the United States, United Kingdom and France), and those that are primarily interested in altruistic causes like ‘poverty reduction’ (the Nordic countries, Netherlands, Ireland, Japan and international financial institutions like the World Bank).

To retain power, Museveni must play on all these constituencies and keep a significant number of them on his side. His strategies have always been subject to adjustment depending on the prevailing circumstances. The president’s main instrument of control is patronage, though coercion plays an important role as weapon of last resort.

Museveni retains power through electoral competition. So he has to secure significant electoral support among the largest section of Uganda’s ethno-regional and religious divide. Although he often employs violence to steal votes, he knows that winning a significant cross section of the electorate is vital to cushion him against the costs of naked electoral theft. It gives him the numbers necessary to mask vote rigging by creating suspicion that ‘even if he had not rigged, he may have won anyway.’

To reach most ordinary citizens, in rural, remote parts of the country and in an ethnically divided society, Museveni speaks through an interpreter. This makes him look alien before the eyes of his electorate. So he has to depend on local elites in a given ethnic group for a bridge to voters in most of the country.

Since the mid 1990s, Museveni has faced electoral competition in the context of economic reform forced on him by the international aid community. He knows that aid is an important political resource because it helps him meet the public expenditure needs necessary to win the support of key constituencies within Ugandan society. Yet, these reforms, especially the liberalisation of the economy and the privatisation of public enterprises limit the opportunities he could use to dispense patronage.

Museveni has therefore always faced an important trade-off. For example, he could resist donor sponsored reforms and thereby retain direct control of the economy. However, he would lose access to vital aid resources and also be stuck with a stagnating economy. Alternatively, he could pursue reform in exchange of large inflows of foreign aid and economic growth. But, this would be at the price of losing direct control of the economy. Museveni’s genius has been his ability to appreciate that it is better to hold a small slice of a growing pie, than a large slice of a shrinking one.

Museveni has a strategy for the elite, and another for the ‘masses.’ For the elites, Museveni’s style is integrative; he has created job opportunities at both the centre and the local government level. Because Uganda has privatised most public enterprises, Museveni’s strategy has been rapid increase in the number of political and electoral appointments by the president. i.e., public administration.

Since 1996, the size of cabinet has grown from 41 ministers to 71; the number of districts from 39 to 111; presidential advisors and assistants from below 25 to 114; parliament from 279 to 345 and commissions and semi-autonomous government bodies from under 40 to 135. In financial terms, the budget for public administration has grown from Shs200 billion in the 1997/98 budget to Shs 980 billion in the 2009/10 budget.

By creating all these political jobs, Museveni has integrated most elites into his government, especially those with skills and experience to provide leadership and organisation to the opposition. He does not demand that all these elites he gives government jobs support him. Those who are enthusiastic to do that are well rewarded. Those who do nothing are not penalised. His interest seems to simply buy their silence and or acquiescence; the principle being that ‘those who are not against us are with us.’

There are some high profile politicians who have resisted Museveni’s lures and still joined the ranks of the opposition ‘ but they are not many. There are also still many on the sidelines assessing the political terrain before making a choice on which side to fall. So, how has Museveni structured the incentives of the political game to hold his opponents at bay? We shall answer this question next week.

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