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Revolutions, Museveni and longevity

By Peter Nyanzi

How Besigye return shows why Museveni will be around for some time

What explains President Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year stay in power, and still counting? In order to answer that question, a look at revolutions in world history is inevitable. Also, a look at Dr. Kizza Besigye, Uganda’s leading opposition politician, would help us find important clues.

Besigye has bounced back three times to contest against Museveni because his revolutionary style appeals to a sizable section of the population. But he is yet to defeat Museveni and probably never will because most people don’t think Uganda is ready for a new revolution. The principle of popular sovereignty, which Museveni has perfected over the years, has indeed endeared him to the citizenry and making his government almost impossible to deracinate. Many people therefore believe that what Uganda needs at this point in time are a few tweaks in the body politic and fresh ideas from a new president but not a complete overhaul of the system through a new revolution. That partly explains why The Democratic Alliance (TDA) has also shown preference for former Prime Minister and NRM Secretary General Amama Mbabazi to Besigye who represents a radical opposition. I will return to that point later.

That President Museveni swept to power through a popular revolution is without question. A political revolution, by definition, has to do with the overthrow of an established political system by citizens usually with the leadership of a champion.  The concept derives its name from the Latin word ‘revolutio,’ which means a ‘turnaround.’ Many people would agree that compared to the pre-NRM era, Museveni’s NRM, despite its unmistakable failures, can be credited for engendering an irreversible revolution on Uganda’s political, social and economic scene. Historically, champions of revolutions become so deeply entrenched that it becomes very difficult to dislodge them. That’s why 30 years later Museveni is still a force to reckon with. Though a few revolutionaries do entrench themselves through autocratic rule, a cursory look at world revolutions over the decades shows that the people usually develop a deep-rooted sentimental attachment to the champions of successful revolutions, which makes it very difficult to let them go. I will cite a few examples to illustrate.


After leading his Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) rebel group in an armed struggle against white minority rule in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, a former political prisoner, emerged as the iconic hero of the struggle for independence. He won the first general elections in 1980 and was appointed prime minister, later to became president of Zimbabwe until today. He is the current chairman of the African Union, an indication of the popularity he continues to enjoy on the continent despite criticism from the West about his human rights record.  In Mozambique, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), founded in 1962 to struggle for Independence, has been in power since the country gained the Independence in 1975. The immensely popular Samora Machel led the country until his 11-year presidency was brutally cut short by a plane crash in 1986.  In Gambia, Yahya Jammeh has been president (21 years) since his revolutionary coup in 1994. His party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, has won elections with landslide victories in four elections in a row. In Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo is one of the continent’s longest-ruling presidents. He has been in power for 36 years following a revolutionary coup that toppled President Francisco Ngueso in 1979. Since then, Obiang has won every election handsomely, some of them unopposed.

In India, Mahtama Gandhi famously led the struggle against British rule with a defiant procession in 1930. Gandhi’s revolutionary association with the Indian National Congress, with his ‘Gandhi Dynasty’ at the helm, was the reason the party was in power for half a century.  In Iran, the Islamic Revolution led to the ousting of the Pahlavi dynasty and its eventual replacement with an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini, the champion of the 1979 revolution. Khomeini was the supreme leader of Iran until his death in 1989. To date, Ayatollah Khomeini is by law “inviolable” in Iran, and any public insult of him could earn a person severe punishment.  His successor, Sayyed Ali Khamenei whom Khomeini personally hand-picked, has been in power for the last 26 years.  There was a national crisis in Cuba in 1952, which was sparked by Gen. Fulgencio Batista’s overthrow of the government of President Carlos Prìo Socarrás. Fidel Castro, a young lawyer then, successfully led a revolution that eventually forced Batista to flee into exile in 1959. Castro took control since then and was President of Cuba for 32 years until he became too sick and handed over to the current president, his younger brother. In 1912, the Chinese Revolution against the Manchu Dynasty led to Communist Party rule and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong (Tse-tung) as a communist leader. He was in power from 1949 until his death in 1976 (27 years).

In Russia, the Russian Civil war started with an armed insurrection by the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin against the Russian Provisional Government. After creating the Soviet Union in 1922, Lenin’s leadership was cut short by death from stroke two years later. He was succeeded by Joseph Stalin, whose 20-year regime was also cut short by a stroke. However, the setbacks did not stop their ruling party from remaining in power for 80 years until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The French Revolution of 1789 led to the collapse of the absolute monarchy which had ruled France for centuries, within a period of only three years.  A Republic was proclaimed with Napoleon Bonaparte at the helm. Even after being deposed by foreign forces for two years, Napoleon still managed to bounce back to his throne in Paris albeit for 100 days on account of his immense popularity.   In Spain, the Spanish revolution led to the defeat of the Republicans in 1939, with Francisco Franco Bahamonde taking over. His 37-year hold on power was only cut short by his death in 1975 at the age of 82.

What happened in the US, the champion of democracy, is even more interesting. The revolutionary five-year American Civil War, which was fought between northern and southern states, was credited for bringing about the most radical socio-politico reforms in U.S. history. The assassination of the war president, Abraham Lincoln, led to Andrew Johnson’s short stint at the White House before he was impeached. In the subsequent general election, it was Ulysses Grant – the war general who heroically commanded the war – who the people put faith in to lead the war-torn country to peacetime recovery and to bring about the reconstruction and the unity that the country desperately needed.

Despite his government’s scandals in his first term, Grant continued to command immense popularity and was re-elected for a second term with a rare Electoral College landslide of 286 to 66. He was succeeded by Rutherford Hayes. But four years later, the Republicans literally begged Grant to return to the White House for a third term in the 1880 election, which was a hitherto unheard of violation of the sacrosanct two-term rule that had never been breached since George Washington. At the Republican Convention, Grant was only 66 votes away from bouncing back for an unprecedented third term. A compromise Republican candidate was eventually elected President.

What happened to Grant is exactly what the voters have been doing to Museveni in Uganda and would probably have done if he had quit earlier. They will keep on electing him until it will be practically impossible for him to continue or to bounce back.  That’s why he has been winning even in constituencies where Opposition Parliamentary candidates have won over the last four elections. Will the trend change in the 2016 elections, especially when Besigye, Museveni’s archrival, will again be the one on the ballot? Let’s look at the numbers to answer that question.

Besigye got his largest number of votes against Museveni in 2006 (ten years ago) when his total votes increased by 26% compared to 2001. However, in 2006 when Besigye got his biggest tally, Museveni’s votes decreased by only 19.7% compared to the previous election. In 2011, the most recent election, Besigye’s total votes shrunk by 20.3% while Museveni’s shot up by 32%. But it’s the difference in the total number of votes each got that we need to pay most attention to. Compared to the 2006 election, the difference between Museveni’s and Besigye’s votes more than doubled, rising 121%. As a matter of fact, Museveni got the biggest number of votes over Besigye in the most recent election (2011), an indication that his support base has remained largely unflinching. So, what has changed dramatically on the ground over the last five years that would give voters the confidence that Besigye would get his biggest haul of votes ever in order to defeat his rival? Not much, if any. On the contrary, the confusion in the Opposition appears to be giving Museveni even more breathing space.

So, did TDA make the right decision to overlook Besigye and entrust Mbabazi with the Opposition ticket in the next elections? They must have read the voters’ mind. In their wisdom, they must have felt that if Besigye persuaded just one million from his radical voters to vote for Mbabazi, the former PM would perhaps snatch another one million votes from conservative NRM members from Museveni’s camp. Then, because of the synergies in the Opposition and the ‘feel good factor’ about eventually being able to bring about peaceful change, at least two million of the 5.5 million voters who stayed away in 2011 would be persuaded to head for the voting booths. That would bring Mbabazi’s tally to a comfortable 4 million votes – enough to bring about a peaceful hand of power for the first time in Uganda’s history. Should Mbabazi and Besigye run, it is likely that Mbabazi would get more votes. This is because while Besigye promises total change, most voters would view a new revolution as unnecessarily disruptive.

Yet, many political observers say Mbabazi would most likely just tweak a few things in NRM’s manifesto and would almost be looked at as a ‘harmless’ and natural successor for Museveni. What does this show? That many voters think that instead of an environment of adversarial politics, Uganda, at least in the medium term, is better off either sticking with Museveni or with NRM reaching a consensus on a successor for Museveni should he decline to seek another term in future.

Paradoxically, that is the same mentality that Besigye’s supporters have. The “radical” Besigye has kept bouncing back with moxie because his supporters think he is the man who is most qualified or ‘who has paid the price’ to bring about a revolution in Uganda. Why else would Besigye’s pro-revolution supporters choose him ahead of his successor Mugisha Muntu to be the party’s flag bearer in next year’s general elections? What does this show about the current situation in Uganda’s politics? That populism and charismatic appeal are the main reasons why the supporters of Besigye and those of Museveni have stuck with them over the years. It’s typical of what people have tended to do to revolutionaries over the decades.

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The writer is a journalist

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