icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Museveni's Post-election Politics: Keeping a Lid on Uganda's Opposition
Museveni's Post-election Politics: Keeping a Lid on Uganda's Opposition
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
A policeman stands in front of the gate of opposition leader Kizza Besigye's office in Kampala, Uganda 19 February 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Commentary / Africa

Museveni's Post-election Politics: Keeping a Lid on Uganda's Opposition

Six months after its February general election the political atmosphere in Uganda is unsettled, securitised and paranoid. Opposition leaders and some supporters – seeking to rally a popular movement against the regime – are regularly harassed, accused of treason and temporarily detained. The ruling elite is clearly concerned about the opposition’s growing support. Its hard-fisted approach to the problem, alongside a stuttering economy and no foreseeable transition of power, is likely to see political pressure continue to grow

When I last wrote about Ugandan domestic politics, the February 2016 presidential election was still six months away. The big news was that Amama Mbabazi – the former prime minister – was running. Mbabazi had been sacked by President Museveni the year before and was seeking to forge an opposition ticket from an ambiguous position, not quite in and not quite out of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Mbabazi told me that his candidacy was “the biggest ever threat to Museveni’s leadership”. This seemed fanciful, and it was unclear whether a third figure on the normally polarised political scene would break open the competition. Would there be a crumbling of consensus within the ruling elite? If so, would it threaten the country’s internal stability?

Now, ten months on, the answer is clear. Not yet. Museveni won comfortably with 61.8 per cent of the vote. But something else might still unsettle the status quo. Museveni spent a lot of time and resources fighting Mbabazi. In doing so, did he take his eye off his opponent for the last four elections, Kizza Besigye? 

Post-election Tensions

Besigye won 35 per cent and made considerable advances in urban areas – particularly Kampala (an opposition stronghold), but also Mbale in the east, Fort Portal in the west and Gulu in the north. This spooked the NRM, which decided that the best way to deal with the threat of post-election anti-government demonstrations was to keep Besigye under house arrest. The NRM clearly understands it faces a big challenge in containing political opposition in the five years before the next polls. Overcoming that challenge will require more creative political solutions than current hard-fisted attempts to shut down the operations of serious opposition. 

The president’s inauguration on 12 May looked like it might put a full-stop to a jittery post-election period. First, in late March, the Supreme Court dismissed a legal petition by Mbabazi challenging the election results. Then, in early April, Mbabazi’s Head of Security, Christopher Aine – presumed killed after clashes with pro-government supporters during the campaign – turned up. In a piece of well-choreographed political theatre, Aine – the son of one of the “historical” 27 who started the liberation struggle in 1980 – handed himself in to the president’s influential younger brother, Salim Saleh, contrite and apologetic for all the worry he’d caused. The incident underlined the enduring importance of the elite’s close personal ties in managing its own fragmentation. 

Bouncing around Kampala in April on one of the ubiquitous motorbike taxis, it was easy to forget about the continuing proliferation of armed police and soldiers on the streets. In Uganda you get used to the subtle militarisation of everyday life: the president is often seen in military fatigues (sometimes accessorised with an AK-47 over his shoulder), the police inspector general and interior minister are serving generals and the president’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, heads the special forces. Ugandans live under a regime in which, despite the trappings of a representative democracy, the military still calls the shots.

Two months later and back in Kampala it was clear that the post-election hangover had worsened. On 11 May, Besigye had staged a parallel inauguration ceremony – a fantasy-like scenario in which he, not Museveni, became president – the day before the official event. Soon after the video of his “inauguration” started doing the rounds on social media, Besigye was arrested and, in a transparent attempt to keep him away from his support base in Kampala, flown to Moroto in the remote north-eastern Karamoja region and charged with treason in the local magistrate’s court. A few days later, Besigye was whisked back to Luzira prison in the capital where he remained until bail was granted on 12 July. 

Meanwhile, tensions have grown within Besigye’s opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which prevaricated over whether it would take up its seats in parliament. Eventually it did, even though some in the party argued that they shouldn’t legitimise the institution after their supposed electoral victory had been stolen. FDC’s president, Mugisha Muntu, seen as more pragmatic, was accused of failing to back Besigye’s “Defiance Campaign” with sufficient fervour. Some senior activists talk of launching a National Dialogue with the government – an idea borrowed from the more crisis-ridden Sudan – although there is little prospect of Museveni agreeing to share power with any serious political opponent. 

Adding to the sense that all was not entirely settled, in early June several military officers, including the Entebbe Air Base garrison commander, and FDC MP Michael Kabaziguruka were arrested and charged with planning an alleged coup or rebellion (the terminology varied). Although these men may have reservations about the government, they would be in no position to seize power and probably had no real intention of doing so. 

Finally, in a still unexplained incident, on 12 June the Central Police Station in Gulu, a northern town, was attacked by unidentified gunmen. The government has attempted to play down the incident, saying that it was an attempt to break out of jail a local political leader from the Democratic Party, but no one was entirely convinced. Uganda’s boisterous press had a field day and included references to “coups”, “rebellions” and “treason” in their headlines.

What Next?

Where will Uganda’s politics go next? First, a note of caution: this is not the first time Besigye has been arrested and charged with treason. Shortly after the 2006 general elections, when he won 37 per cent of the vote (and also claimed victory), the same thing happened due to an alleged association with an ill-defined, probably non-existent rebel group, the People’s Redemption Army. The case was eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence. 

However, his latest charge of treason is appreciably different from those which saw him under house arrest during and immediately after the election. Those were largely preventive measures intended to disrupt the opposition’s ability to demonstrate on the streets – something the NRM has been wary of since the 2011 Walk to Work protests which brought out thousands of people and precipitated several violent confrontations with the security services. Now, Besigye’s charge is specific – although overblown and probably un-provable. 

Besigye has spent much of the last decade fighting a seemingly recurring battle against Museveni and not getting very far; constantly harried by tear gas and arrests, ultimately defeated by a partisan political system weighted against him and his movement. If Besigye’s tactics and their outcome have changed little, the political context may have. The next election will be in 2021 and if the NRM is to field Museveni again as its candidate, then it may have a serious fight on its hands. A question that repeatedly comes up is whether there could be a transition and, if so, to whom? As yet there is no answer.

There was a flurry of speculation on the question of secession in June when both Museveni’s son Muhoozi and his wife Janet received promotions in their respective fields: Muhoozi to major general in the Special Forces Command (SFC) and Janet to education and sports minister (she had previously been Karamoja affairs minister). Muhoozi’s promotion coincided with the announcement that the special forces would be elevated to a third service on a par with the air and land forces, while Janet went from a state ministry under the Office of the President to a full cabinet ministry. But neither promotion fundamentally altered the exalted status they occupy within the establishment, but rather confirmed that they would remain key actors. 

Museveni’s choice of ministers for his new cabinet was mostly a confirmation of the status quo. Several key allies received promotions – for example Jeje Odongo is the new internal affairs minister – or hung onto their jobs; Kahinda Otafire is still justice minister despite losing his seat in the election. Henry Tumukunde, a former senior intelligence official and ally of Salim Saleh, was made a security minister. The president also managed to co-opt opposition MPs, with both Uganda People’s Congress and Democratic Party members accepting cabinet positions, thus neutralising any future effective opposition to the NRM. 

In the short term, Museveni’s major concern seems to be deciding how to contain the threat from Besigye. This may be the best explanation for the sudden proliferation of supposed coup plots and nascent rebel groups, which feed the rumour mill and force Besigye to defend himself against progressively more preposterous accusations. Keeping the opposition leader in legal proceedings helps put a brake on any political momentum that he may have gained during the election. 

Feeding a febrile political climate with arrests and accusations could also be an attempt to make a pre-emptive strike against elements within the security services, particularly the army, which are thought to contain increasingly anti-Museveni elements. Causing some consternation within the regime, voters at several polling stations close to or associated with military barracks voted against the president in significant numbers in February – the lower ranks are thought to be unhappy with their poor pay and conditions. While this amounts to some form of political protest, and some officers may be engaging in more radical conversations, a coup attempt seems highly unlikely.

Long term, Museveni and the NRM political elite face the serious challenge of how to control growing popular resentment – caused, in the main, by a startling youth bulge (nearly 50 per cent of the population are under fourteen) and chronic unemployment – without being able to point to recent developmental and economic successes. Throw into the mix uncertainty over succession in the NRM and you have a recipe for a politics that is fractious at the grassroots and authoritarian at the top. 

Workable solutions to the downward spiral of Ugandan politics are currently hard to define. They might include holding a political dialogue between government and opposition and laying out a timetable for leadership transition. However, this seems unlikely while Museveni and the NRM enjoy a renewed mandate conveyed by an election victory and no genuine extra-political threat to their authority. International actors, including the European Union and U.S., remain engaged and occasionally critical but more concerned with competing regional priorities, notably South Sudan and Somalia, where Uganda remains a key security actor. 

While Museveni has retained his presidential stature, standing atop the system with grandfatherly poise, the political landscape remains in a state of flux. It is clear that the NRM is not a relaxed or settled regime and is uncomfortable with giving its main opponent any political space. This is surely an expression of weakness not strength. Besigye’s incarceration and harassment is no solution to the problem of an opposition which, with only 34 MPs in a parliament of 375, has no real means of expressing itself. Resorting to such tactics, although tiresomely familiar, only serves to store up greater problems for the future and increase the risk, one day, of more serious reactions. 

Commentary / Africa

De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes

President Tshisekedi’s plans for joint operations with DR Congo’s belligerent eastern neighbours against its rebels risks regional proxy warfare. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage diplomatic efforts in the region and Tshisekedi to shelve his plan for the joint operations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Since assuming office in early 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) president, Félix Tshisekedi, has stressed his determination to dismantle the dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups blighting the troubled east of the country. He has also prioritised repairing ties with neighbouring states, which have historically both backed and fought against rebels in the eastern DRC over various cycles of war in the last two decades. Today, tensions are again mounting among the DRC’s neighbours – between Burundi and Uganda, on one hand, and Rwanda, on the other – potentially compounding the country’s security challenges. Alongside Tshisekedi’s diplomatic efforts to calm tensions, he has floated plans to invite these three neighbours to deploy their armed forces into the DRC to conduct joint operations with Congolese forces against rebels. Yet insofar as tensions among those countries remain high, such operations could pave the way for them to step up support to allied groups even while fighting rivals, and thus fuel proxy warfare. Civilians in the eastern DRC are likely to suffer most.

In line with its December Foreign Affairs Council conclusions that lay out the EU’s plans for re-engagement with the DRC, and to help President Tshisekedi de-escalate regional tensions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes region, an informal gathering comprising the UN (including both the UN’s special envoy to the Great Lakes and the head of its mission in the DRC, MONUSCO), the U.S., the African Union and South Africa, as well as the EU and several European states that are important donors in the region, such as Belgium, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The EU and European governments could designate senior EU and other European ministerial appointees to fill the group, over and above the working-level desk officers who normally tend to participate.
  • Use the increased clout this would bring to push for a mechanism whereby each of the three neighbours airs allegations against states they believe are backing armed groups in the DRC and supports the charges with evidence. Allegations can then be investigated by the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (the ICGLR comprises regional states and is a guarantor of a 2013 regional peace agreement; its joint verification mechanism and the UN expert group already have mandates to investigate claims of support to armed groups). Their findings could inform diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions among neighbours and end their backing of insurgents in the DRC.
  • At the same time, encourage President Tshisekedi to shelve, at least for now, his plan for joint operations with neighbours’ security forces.
  • Offer financial and technical support for the national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, to ensure that Congolese militias linked to foreign rebels operating in the eastern DRC have a safe pathway to giving up their fight.

Security Challenges

In recent months, eastern DRC-based foreign insurgencies have escalated attacks on both the Congolese army as well as soldiers and civilians in neighbouring countries. The Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan presidents are all rattling their sabres in response, accusing one another of proxy warfare.

On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan authorities blame the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. They say the FDLR is working with another DRC-based rebel group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), which they allege is run by one of President Paul Kagame’s former generals. They also say both the FDLR and the RNC enjoy Burundian and Ugandan support. In a speech, Kagame vowed to retaliate against anyone seeking to attack Rwanda.

After the Kinigi killings, fighters crossed into Burundi from the DRC to launch two separate deadly attacks. Burundian RED-Tabara rebels, whom Burundian officials say are backed by Rwanda, claimed the first attack. No one claimed the second, but Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, recalling Kigali’s support for mutineers in a 2015 coup attempt, blamed Rwanda for both attacks, alleging that Kigali supports RED-Tabara. Ugandan officials, for their part, assert that Rwanda is collaborating with the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel movement with roots in Uganda that is implicated in dozens of massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu since 2014.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other. Both governments have purged their security services of suspected traitors. Rwanda has now also closed a main border crossing into Uganda, suffocating trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, Burundi and Rwanda have dispatched troops to their mutual border while Uganda has deployed troops to its western frontier facing North Kivu. Should these tensions heighten, they could fuel more proxy fighting in the eastern DRC, further threatening regional stability.

Recognising the dangers, Tshisekedi invited Rwanda and Uganda for talks in July and August hosted by Angolan President João Lourenço in the Angolan capital Luanda. They culminated in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August, in which both countries promised to halt “actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries”. In addition to these diplomatic efforts, the DRC president floated plans that would involve the armed forces of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda conducting joint military operations with Congolese forces against insurgents in the eastern DRC. Absent political de-escalation among the neighbour governments, such operations could pave the way for all three to ratchet up support to proxies opposing their respective rivals. The eastern DRC could again become the arena for a multi-sided melee.

Calming Regional Tensions

In its latest Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the DRC in December 2019, the EU asserted its readiness to redefine its relationship with the country. This comes after relations between Brussels and Kinshasa cooled at the tail end of Kabila’s presidency, when the EU sanctioned some of his top henchmen in late 2018. President Tshisekedi has expressed an increasing willingness to work with Brussels even as the EU renewed sanctions in December 2019 against twelve of the fourteen Kabila-era officials. In particular, the EU could help de-escalate regional tensions and lessen neighbours’ support to foreign armed groups while contributing to pathways to surrender for Congolese fighters allied to such groups.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours while putting aside, at least for now, plans for those neighbours to conduct military operations in the eastern DRC. The EU’s best bet for pressing for an approach along these lines would be to increase its influence in the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes, the informal group to which it and a number of European states belong. Brussels and other European capitals should commit more senior officials both to the contact group itself and to liaising with the group and with regional governments. Together with the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, Xia Huang, who has recently been instrumental in bringing together the Burundian, Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs to discuss their deteriorating relations, the EU should use its weight in the group to prioritise the need for a political solution to tackling foreign armed groups in the eastern DRC.

Such a solution could entail Xia encouraging the three states to lay out their allegations and evidence of support by their rivals to armed groups in the DRC. He could share all information received with the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. The evidence provided by regional states, and investigations conducted by the expert group and joint verification mechanism, could collectively inform diplomatic efforts to halt or diminish support to DRC-based insurgents.

By financially and technically supporting the national DDR process, the EU can also back Tshisekedi’s priority of tackling the plague of Congolese armed groups. Congolese insurgents, many of whom are sucked into alliances with more powerful foreign armed groups, often lack an alternative in the absence of a fully funded DDR program. Under Kabila, the Congolese authorities gave only limited resources to DDR. Several donors pulled out, frustrated by Kinshasa’s lack of commitment to funding a national program. Despite the uptick in attacks in the east, there are signs that some fighters are placing greater hope in Tshisekedi’s presidency and expressing greater desire to surrender. MONUSCO’s new mandate, adopted at the end of December 2019, encourages the DRC’s government to appoint a senior coordinator to lead the DDR effort. The EU could consider supplying this person with the necessary funding and expertise to carry out the mandate.