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What keeps Museveni in power

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How the President’s success in retaining power rotates around his obsessive focus on all threats to it.

A friend recently sent me a text message saying: “Man, what’s up with the Mbuya and Bombo attacks and an attempt on Kale. Ankunda’s answers in the Observer and Tinye’s incoherence don’t inspire confidence. I hope I am very, very wrong.”

I told my friend that I too hoped he was wrong adding that initially I had thought it was an inside job by security organisations to create grounds for arresting opposition leader Kizza Besigye and charging him with treason and terrorism. I told him that I just cannot understand how any rebel would dare attack a UPDF military barracks like Mbuya unless they are suicidal.


My friend answered by asking me if Besigye is still a factor in Uganda’s politics. I told him that he was asking the wrong question. The right question should be: Does President Yoweri Museveni still consider Besigye a factor in Uganda’s politics? The answer to this is a big YES.

My friend retorted that he had met and had a conversation with Besigye’s wife, Winnie Byanyima, and she did not seem to think “there is any more headway.” I know Winnie as an incredibly astute analyst of Uganda’s politics. When she is not involved in a partisan fight but is slightly detached and analytical, she gives the best insights of anyone I have listened to. If she says there seems to be less headway for the opposition in Uganda today, she has her onions almost about right.

The most important thing is to understand Museveni’s mind. I get the sense that for whatever reasons, Museveni is terrified of Besigye. That makes the president overestimate Besigye and hence overreact to his every move – or even suspected move. And I think this has been Museveni’s greatest strength which the opposition is perennially blind to.

I think one major source of the longevity in power is his obsessive sensitivity to threats to his power. He leaves nothing to chance, takes no risks at all and spares no effort to identify any real, potential or even imaginary threats to his power and nip them in the bud.

Thus our president will tolerate a lot of things in Uganda – public officials that loot the treasury with impunity, incompetent ministers and civil servants who delay dams and roads or build substandard or ghost hospitals and schools etc. Thus, public investments suffer from unnecessary gridlock, senseless public debates and eventually fail or succeed after a decade.

However, if anything posed an existential threat to his power, Museveni will be quick, uncompromising and decisive. The lesson from this is built in the military doctrine of “identification and maintenance of the aim.” A successful commander must clearly define the aim and whatever he does must seek to achieve that aim.

The legendary Chinese military strategist, Sun Zhu, wrote in about 600 BC that wars are lost or won before they are fought. By this he meant that it is the planning, strategising, preparation, reconnaissance, training, logistical build-up etc. that determines the outcome. If your prior planning on all these elements is poor, it is very unlikely you can prevail in war.

The modern equivalent of this Sun Zhu concept was stated by a business strategist I cannot remember. He argued that champions do not win the title in the ring; they are only recognised there. In other words, it is the effort put into training, studying the opponent and mastering his strength and identifying his weaknesses that win the boxing match.

This is exactly the experience I read about the boxer Joe Louis’ first match against German’s Max Schemeling in 1936. Louis had won all his previous 28 matches before he met Schmeling, now aged 30 and considered by critics to be on the downhill of his career. Louis thus underestimated Schemeling, spending more time playing golf than training (a mistake Mohammed Ali made against Joe Frazier in 1971 leading to his loss of the bout).

On the other hand, Schemeling’s managers studied Louis’ boxing and noticed that whenever Louis sent a left hook, his right hand went down, thus exposing his jaw. Schemiling capitalised on this weakness and constantly jabbed Louis on the right. In the thrilling match in the Yankee Stadium in New York, Louis was stunned by this trick and was knocked out in the 14th round.

I recently watched a documentary on Real Madrid’s Ronaldo – one of the most naturally talented soccer players of all time. However, the documentary makers showed that he spends more time in training than other players. His managers have spent lots of time studying the shape of his legs and feet, the pace and flow of his hands and legs when he is running.

They have also studied how he curves each of his feet when he is kicking the ball and the effect of all these on how the ball moves towards the goal. So they design his boots to reflect all these unique features thus giving him greater possibility and probability to score. The lesson I picked from the document is simple but powerful: Natural talent needs a lot of unnatural reinforcement to better its performance.

I suspect the opposition in Uganda has failed to make significant progress in their struggle to wrestle power from Museveni because of lack of proper assessment of their opponent. In every single election battle, he has overestimated their capacity to defeat him while they have underestimated his capacity to win.

They have therefore mobilised less ammunition than is necessary to shake his hold on power. On his part, Museveni leaves nothing to chance, using everything at his command – money, coercion, subterfuge, mass media, and technology.

I do not see this level of doggedness among those who organise resistance to Museveni. All too often, they seem comfortable to lie to themselves that he is weak and wobbly. They assume, quite wrongly, that the public is tired of the general corruption, incompetence, inertia, indifference, apathy and incoherence in his government.

From this assumption, they proceed to project that the public is ready for change. Yet I sometimes feel that many of these dysfunctions are often functional for NRM’s politics. Nothing has been more crippling to the opposition than this constant underestimation of their opponent.

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