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Uganda’s possible Tahrir Square

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Given Museveni’s long rule and potential for family succession, is Uganda now vulnerable to an `Arab Spring’

I argued in this column last week that Africa has almost similar structural conditions as the Middle East on the eve of the Arab Spring – sustained economic growth for almost two decades, investment in mass education, penetration of modern communication technology like mobile phones and internet, a youth bulge alongside their joblessness and social and political frustrations among the middle class.


Yet I sense that an Arab Spring is less likely in sub-Saharan Africa. This is largely because – in spite of their one million and one imperfections and except for a few countries – the political systems in our region are sufficiently participatory, a factor that mitigates against revolution. The Middle East had long serving rulers with an expectation that when they die, their sons will take over (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen); they had near one party states, tightly controlled media, gagged civil society and elaborate security systems to enforce these restrictions.

A couple of readers wrote to me saying Uganda is almost similar to the Middle East: it has a long-serving president with potential for a family succession; an increasingly educated and urbanised yet unemployed youth; a dominant ruling party backed by the military; a government increasingly seen as corrupt, nepotistic and incompetent by a large cross-section of the population especially the more educated and exposed urban elites.

My view is that Uganda today is a meeting ground of contradictory realities. On top of the above realities, political contestation and participation are high; every general election has been highly competitive even generating a real possibility that President Yoweri Museveni could lose it. This was especially so in 2001 and 2006. Uganda has a very high anti-incumbency bias: Over 65 percent of all Members of Parliament (MPs) and local council officials don’t get re-elected in every election. Contrast this with the USA where 90 percent of all incumbent legislators are assured of re-election.

Uganda also has a fairly free media (in spite of a few hitches), a vibrant civil society (even if it is foreign aid funded) and highly vocal opposition political parties (even though weak organisationally). Also, the NRM as a revolutionary movement enjoys deeper penetration of society than ordinary political parties. Coupled with this, there is a near constant cooptation of elites that makes the system flexible enough to adapt to new realities by accommodating emergent demands and thereby reducing the risk of revolution.

From the above therefore, one can say that the 2011 election seemed to have changed the direction of Uganda’s politics. First, Museveni’s percentage vote had declined in every election; from 75 percent in 1996 to 69 percent in 2001 and further to 59 percent in 2006. His absolute vote had also fallen from 5.1million in 2001 to 4.1 million in 2006. This had created hope that at least there was a chance the president could be democratically removed. However, in 2011, his support went up by 10 percentage points – to 68 percent and his absolute vote increased from 4.1m to 5.4 million.

The opposition in Uganda missed this changing dynamic in spite of several indicators that the political ground was shifting. All previous general elections had been preceded by defections from the NRM to the opposition. In 1996 it was Paul Ssemogerere and his allies in the Democratic Party. In 2001, it was Kizza Besigye with the firebrands of NRM. Then 2006 saw the largest exodus of key pillars from NRM to the opposition – Eriya Kategaya, Mugisha Muntu, Amanya Mushega, Bidandi Ssali, Richard Kaijuka, David Pulkol, John Kazora, Miria Matembe, Sarah Kiyingi and Mathew Rukikaire.

Yet the period preceding 2011 saw a reverse trend as key opposition politicians like Chris Rwakasisi, Badru Wegulo, Jacob Oulanyah, Osindek Wangor, Henry Mayiga, John Butime, Alex Onzima, Agnes Okiror (former woman MP for Kumi0, Rhoda Acen (former woman MP for Amuria) etc joined the ruling party. People like Kategaya, Kaijuka, Matembe, Rukikaire, Mushega who had supported the FDC directly and indirectly were now absent from the campaign to topple Museveni.

Yet Museveni’s victory in 2011 was double-edged. On the one hand it seems to have demoralised many opposition supporters thereby making them cynical and apathetic about politics. Indeed, it may even have made some join the NRM in resignation – “if we cannot beat them, let us join them”. Yet on the other hand, this defeat also seems to have radicalised Museveni critics who now believe there is almost no possibility of changing government democratically. This radicalised group, largely led by Dr. Kizza Besigye, has now opted for civil protest to promote regime change.

Therefore, a tendency towards an Arab Spring exists in Uganda but largely as a marginal force. For it to become mainstream Museveni needs to make grievous mistakes that create prolonged economic hardship (just like sky the rocketing inflation we saw last year) followed by reduced economic growth. Adverse conditions like these would play into the hands of those seeking to lead social unrest, forcing government to respond with increased repression. This would most likely harden its opponents while drawing many more Ugandans unto the streets.

For now, the chances of prolonged economic decline and repression seem low but possible. If Museveni regains the economic initiative, controls inflation and gets growth back to above 6.5 percent, he may stave off mass unrest at the price of producing more restless, unemployed yet educated urban youth. Under such good economic circumstances, political frustration would continually be mitigated by the availability of many avenues to voice dissent – newspapers, radio and television talk shows, civil society and political party activism. Thus, change may have to come within the existing political arrangements rather than by dismantling them first.

Therefore, while one cannot rule out the possibility or probability of an Arab Spring kind of insurrection in Uganda, one also has to be more sceptical about it. Yet Besigye seems to have concluded the opposite: That he needs to bring about change by shifting from FDC to For God and Country (4GC).  It seems to me that the most prudent approach is to improve the organisational effectiveness of FDC and move its main thrust from the fanatical fringe of the political debate to the political centre in order to appeal to a larger body of Ugandans.

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