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How Museveni’s power works

By Andrew M. Mwenda

So we pick our story from last week. For the elite, it matters little whether you fought him yesterday or insulted him last week. As long as you want a job in exchange for either your silence or support, President Yoweri Museveni is always willing to give it.

Thus, former critics like Aggrey Awori, Ephraim Kamuntu, Omara Atubo, Steven Mallinga and Miria Mutagamba have been integrated in cabinet. Some allies have walked out and returned like Eriya Kategaya and David Tinyefuza. This approach has also been employed to win over even those opponents who have fought him militarily.

By expanding the budget for public administration, he has increased the wages, allowances and privileges of the elite who are willing to either side with him or acquiesce to his political ambitions. By tolerating corruption, he has increased the returns from and lowered the risks of public theft.

For the business community, Museveni has fostered a favourable investment climate even though poor infrastructure and erratic power supply inflict costs on them. Hence the private sector has enjoyed robust growth. He has also allowed them to evade taxes. If any of them supported the opposition, a legitimate tax audit would lead to a hefty tax bill and possible bankruptcy.

The bargain with the elite has led to chronic corruption and institutionalised incompetence which have in turn led to the near collapse of public goods (hospitals, schools and roads) and public services especially healthcare and education. But because of a liberal economy, elites can find private sector alternatives for some of these here or abroad. The real cost of poor public services is borne by the poor.

Carrots are necessary but not sufficient to sustain power. So to counter the likely defection of elites to the opposition, Museveni has also greatly escalated the costs of such an undertaking. For example, when Kizza Besigye first challenged him for the presidency in 2001, Museveni placed him under 24-hour security surveillance. He manipulatively allowed security reports to be leaked to him showing that he (Besigye) was about to be arrested for treason. Fearing for his safety, Besigye ran to exile in August 2001.

Museveni increased pressure on Besigye’s wife, Winnie Byanyima. In 2001, he jailed her for an entire week at Jinja Road Police Station. He harassed all her siblings ‘ either through direct political intimidation or by closing economic and professional opportunities to them ‘ thus sending all of them (except one) out of the country.

When Besigye returned in 2005, Museveni arrested and detained him, charged him with treason and added rape on it. When courts seemed to want to give Besigye bail, Museveni threw in terrorism charges and took him to a military court martial. Then he brought LRA’s murderers in court to testify that Besigye is their ‘ally.’

Museveni also jailed Besigye’s brother (who later died after he was released from jail) and threatened his sisters, sending all of them to exile. He has also intimidated Besigye’s friends, jailed and tortured many of his supporters and friends. He has intimidated anyone who shows sympathy to Besigye and highly rewarded those who have tormented him.

Having bought off the elite, how does Museveni avoid a revolution from below? Official figures show that 73% of Ugandans depend on agriculture for a livelihood. Yet agricultural growth has averaged 0.9% over the last ten years in a country with a population growth rate of 3.3%. This means that per capita growth in agricultural output is -2.7%. If these figures are correct (I suspect they are not) Uganda may be avoiding an agrarian crisis by massive transfer payments from people in the city.

Secondly, while agriculture contributed over 60 of GDP in 1990, its share has fallen to below 15% in 2010. This means that 73% of Ugandans depend on only 15% of its income. With these figures, we should expect the rural areas to be the hotbeds for resistance to Museveni. Yet we see the exact opposite ‘ the deeper you go into rural areas, the higher is Museveni’s support and vice versa. How does he pull this one off?

First Museveni’s strategy to win over the rural poor has been shaped by both his ideological background (Marxist-socialist) and by the populist posture of his allies in the international aid industry i.e. welfare. Therefore, as the conditions of the impoverished masses get worse, Museveni responds with welfare provision and tax relief.

Thus in 1996, Museveni promised and delivered free primary education. In 2001, he reduced graduated taxes from Shs 10,000 to Shs 3,000. In 2006 he abolished market dues, graduated tax and promised free secondary education. He defends squatters from landlords who want to evict them and has also promised micro credit to the poor. For the urban poor, he has protected market vendors from eviction and boda boda operators from taxation.

Although the budget makes reference to agricultural extension services and to control the spread of pests and to vaccinate animals, most of this money gets stolen by elites. This leads to the second basis of Museveni’s power. By allowing elite corruption in a context of a liberalised economy, he has separated the interests of the elite from those of ordinary people. Therefore, mass discontent below (i.e. followership) does not find organised political expression from above (i.e. leadership)

It seems to me that agriculture in Uganda is stagnating because NRM’s political strategy of winning over rural constituencies prioritises welfare provision and tax relief over growth. Museveni is able to afford this welfare provision and tax relief by leveraging growth in urban areas and foreign aid. This way foreign aid actually facilitates poverty by undermining incentives for our government to pursue an agricultural growth strategy.

How does Museveni keep donors on board? He has embraced their economic policy reforms, presented himself as the fulcrum of national and regional stability and may also show occasional respect for press freedom as long as it does not threaten his power. When it does he will not hesitate to illegally and arbitrarily close down a newspaper or radio station or jail journalists. He may also tolerate some elements of the opposition but when they appear strong, like Besigye, he will breach every rule in the book of civilisation.

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