Most Ugandans are better off than they were a quarter-century ago, when Yoweri Museveni became president. But frequent demonstrations and violent crackdowns indicate many are deeply dissatisfied with his administration. This is largely the consequence of a slow shift from a broad-based constitutional government to patronage-based, personal rule. In this respect, Museveni has followed a governance trajectory similar to that of his predecessors, although without their brutal repression. Like them, he has failed to overcome regional and religious cleavages that make Uganda difficult to govern and has relied increasingly on centralisation, patronage and coercion to maintain control. Unless this trend is corrected, Uganda will become increasingly difficult to govern and political conflict may become more deadly.
The British Protectorate of Uganda amalgamated a highly diverse region of competing kingdoms and more loosely organised pastoral societies into a single entity. Colonial policies created further divisions. The British ruled through appointed chiefs rather than customary clan heads and allied with Protestants at the expense of Catholics and Muslims. The authorities also began economic development in the various regions at different times, and the consequences can still be measured today in numbers of clinics, schools and average wealth.
Milton Obote, independent Uganda’s first president, and Idi Amin made old divisions worse. Both northerners, they were frequently accused of favouring their region and ethnic groups. They entered office with broad coalitions that soon foundered over colonial cleavages, and turned instead to patronage and coercion to remain in power. After the National Resistance Movement (NRM) seized power in 1986, Museveni also seemed at first to put the country on a more inclusive path, to restore civilian control, rule of law and economic growth. He created a non-partisan “democratic” system that many enthusiastically embraced. An elaborate consultative process led to a new constitution in 1995 with checks and balances.
Museveni also recognised the kingdoms Obote abolished, but as cultural, not political bodies. Restoration of Buganda’s Kabaka as a cultural king without executive powers in 1993 proved an expedient compromise rather than a stable solution. Monarchists wanted their kingdom, not just their king. Their goal was federalism, with control over land and the power to tax, while Museveni wanted decentralisation based on districts dependent on funds from the central government and insisted on keeping final authority. His manoeuvres to limit the Kabaka’s influence backfired.
Democratic initiatives lost momentum after the first decade of Museveni’s rule. Instead of supporting the no-party system as the framework for unfettered participation, the president began using it to further his own objectives. Over time, he replaced old politicians and longstanding NRM members who criticised his policies with trusted members of his inner circle, often from his home area. He also created a patronage network loyal to him.
In the 2001 elections, the president faced a credible opponent in Kizza Besigye, who had been a senior National Resistance Army (NRA) commander, Museveni’s personal physician and occupant of important government and NRM positions. He burst into national politics in 1999, when he publicly criticised the government for losing interest in democracy while tolerating corruption among top officials. The election campaign involved considerable violence and intimidation. When the electoral commission reported that Museveni won, Besigye asked the Supreme Court to nullify the result. All five justices who heard the case agreed there had been serious violations of the electoral law, but by a three-to-two vote they sustained Museveni’s victory, arguing the irregularities had not affected the result.
Museveni then developed a new, although paradoxical, strategy to consolidate his position by restoring multi-party democracy and removing constitutional restraints. At a 2003 NRM meeting, he called for “opening political space” to permit competing parties, reducing the powers of parliament, the judiciary and watchdog agencies – and dropping the two-term presidential limit. The latter proposal conveniently opened the way for him to retain power. The 2006 elections were the first contested by multiple parties. Museveni, however, exploited a loophole that extended the NRM’s official status until the vote, thus enabling it to use its organisation as well as official resources, while all other parties were limited to seven months to organise from scratch after the constitutional referendum. Moreover, Besigye was arrested and imprisoned on charges of rape and treason and forced to appear in court during most of the campaign. A High Court judge dismissed the rape charge only a week before the elections, suggesting the prosecution had badly abused the court process (the treason charge was dismissed in 2010).
Museveni’s fourth-term victory, in February 2011, followed the pattern of earlier elections but was less violent. The president injected huge amounts of official funds into his campaign, and the government and NRM harassed the opposition. While Museveni received majorities throughout the country, including in the north for the first time, it is uncertain whether this reflected more his popularity or the power of his purse and other resources.
The discovery of significant oil reserves (estimated at 2.5 billion barrels) is unlikely to reduce social and political tensions. The oil may ensure Museveni’s control by enabling him to consolidate his system of patronage but also will increase corruption and disrupt the steady growth produced by economic diversification. Five years after learning that the country will become a major oil producer, the government is just beginning to put a regulatory framework in place.
Meanwhile, popular protests are increasing. “Walk to Work” demonstrations – ostensibly over high fuel prices but clearly also directed at Museveni’s rule – continue in Kampala and other urban centres despite a violent crackdown. The October 2011 parliamentary revolt over the lack of transparency in oil contracts and alleged resulting large payments to ministers also suggests the president’s control is far from absolute. Increasingly, Museveni fails to anticipate opposition, some of it from NRM politicians and his inner circle. His re-election, access to material resources, tactical skill, ability to deflect international criticism and ambition to control its transition to an oil exporter suggest that he will try to continue to consolidate his personal power and direct Uganda’s future for some time to come, despite the consequences this may have for long-term stability. Unless Museveni changes course, however, events may eventually spiral out of his control. Considering Uganda’s violent past, conflict might then become more deadly.
Nairobi/Brussels, 5 April 2012