Museveni's Post-election Politics: Keeping a Lid on Uganda's Opposition
Museveni's Post-election Politics: Keeping a Lid on Uganda's Opposition
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
The Kampala Attacks and Their Regional Implications
A policeman stands in front of the gate of opposition leader Kizza Besigye's office in Kampala, Uganda 19 February 2016.
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 8 minutes

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. 

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