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Why Museveni’s system will endure

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The current political system based on patronage has developed a vast array of vested interests with a stake in its perpetuation

Acommon narrative holds that President Yoweri Museveni enjoys unlimited power in Uganda and that this is a major source of our nation’s problems. This view seems self-evident. He has ruled for 28 years. On the face of it, he seems to have effective control over the ruling party, the army and the security services, and has appointed every government official of high rank and presides over our nation like the proverbial colossus. I have increasingly grown to realise that this view is a myth that ignores how actual political power in Uganda is organised, distributed, exercised, and reproduced.


Ironically, the holders of this view also believe that Uganda was best governed from 1986 to 1996 – “the golden age of the Museveni presidency”. This is yet another myth about our contemporary political history. It holds that in that “golden age”, Museveni was democratic and encouraged debate, listened to others; his management style was more collegial, that he exercised less personal control over the state and always pursued public policies that were in the national interest. This myth also holds that today Museveni is power hungry, selfish, corrupt and sectarian.

Like all myths, these around Museveni were not produced out of thin air. They have a basis in reality – but a subjective, selective and convenient use of that reality. If Uganda worked between 1986 and 1996 (as the common narrative suggests) it was not because Museveni was more democratic and the state more institutionalised. On the contrary, it was precisely because the exact opposite then was at play. Then Museveni was not facing elections and therefore did not need to unnecessarily ingratiate himself with voters. And he still exercised greater personal control over the NRM, had absolute loyalty of his followers and his command was law.

For example, the most far-reaching reforms Museveni implemented were initiated during this period. Many of these policies – return of Asian properties, restoration of monarchs, privatisation, retrenchment of the civil service, demobilisation of soldiers, liberalisation, deregulation, decentralisation, cost sharing in education and health services, removal of subsidies, abolition of student allowances etc – were not popular with many constituencies in Uganda. There was resistance to all these reforms and Museveni crashed it with an iron fist. In the case of the abolition of student allowances, there was even shooting and killing of two students at Makerere University in 1989.

Some of these reforms (like in health, education and agriculture) hurt the masses; others hurt powerful vested elite interests within the state and in the market. Many civil servants lost their jobs; Ugandans were kicked out of houses they had occupied for 20 years as they were given back to Asians. Many Ugandan entrepreneurs were kicked of business premises by the restoration of Asian properties policies. Others were driven out of business because liberalisation allowed international capital – with access to cheap credit in their home countries – to enter our markets. There were many efforts at resistance but they had no chance. This was because the vested interests in the state, the economy and society were weak to launch secondary contestations to effectively resist reform.

In 1996, Museveni entered the era of electoral competition and his incentive structure changed. Where he could ignore the feelings of the masses in pursuit of a broader national project, now he needed to court their support. Increasingly, rather than define a project of national transformation and proceed to negotiate with difference social forces to see it through, Museveni now began responding to demands from mobilised demand-groups. Museveni the revolutionary now became Museveni the politician. The revolutionary could hold onto the “correct line”, the politician sought to act in a manner the masses could understand – the tendency for cash handouts being on example. In short, Museveni abandoned idealism and returned to earth.

Between 1986 and 1996, Museveni’s power was less restrained. If he needed to pass a policy and the legislature (the National Resistance Council) seemed resistant, Museveni would wear his military fatigues; call a closed session of parliament and literally bully and intimidate the MPs to accept what he wanted. Today, if Museveni wants to pass a piece of controversial legislation, he would have to call MPs for a meeting at State House, serve them tea, pay off debts of some, give others cash gifts etc. He will still get his way as he used to but at a price. This is not sign of a president with limitless power. So the question is: what has happened?

Over the last 27 years of political stability and economic growth, new forces have consolidated in the state, the market and society. These forces, especially those within the state, recognise that it is in their interest to promote the myth of an all-powerful Museveni by exaggerating his powers. Yet in fact, Museveni’s role has been significantly reduced to refereeing their internal squabbles over access to power, status and privileges. One only needs to study the conspiracies, schemes, machinations and maneuverings that go on in our politics to understand what I am talking about.

Thus, by fixating on Museveni and how he often seems to get his way whenever he wants to, we have missed the nuance of just how the president is more a hostage of his power than its architect. Indeed, Museveni’s ability to remain president has largely been because of his adaptability – his ability to adjust his work methods to suit changing circumstances. If earlier on Museveni had power which he used to promote a national agenda, now different mobilised demand-groups have the power to make him serve their interests. One reason why Museveni cannot leave office, even if he wanted to, is that the different factions fighting over power and access to special privileges need him to stay around because he is their best insurance against the uncertainty of change.

Museveni’s genius is in his ability to maintain some balance among the competing interests. If he ever leaves office – as he certainly will, one way or the other – it will be less likely that the system of rule he has established will go. Indeed, the vast patronage system he has created will outlive its architect because it is now deeply entrenched within our society. Utopian promises of radical change in our politics will mobilise the masses and may even capture power. However, they will all capitulate to this reality.

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