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Museveni's Post-election Politics: Keeping a Lid on Uganda's Opposition
Museveni's Post-election Politics: Keeping a Lid on Uganda's Opposition
Uganda’s Museveni Clings to Power – But Trouble Lies Ahead
Uganda’s Museveni Clings to Power – But Trouble Lies Ahead
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. 

A voter casts a ballot in the presidential elections in Kampala, Uganda, January 14, 2021. REUTERS / Baz Ratner
Q&A / Africa

Uganda’s Museveni Clings to Power – But Trouble Lies Ahead

Official results indicate that President Yoweri Museveni will extend his 35-year rule in Uganda. But the contested election, marred by fraud claims, illustrated many citizens’ frustration with his administration. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Murithi Mutiga explains why the path ahead will be rocky.

What do the results indicate?

Ugandan election authorities announced on 16 January that President Yoweri Museveni had secured a sixth term in office, claiming 58.64 per cent of the vote. His main challenger, Robert Kyagulanyi, best known by his stage name Bobi Wine, received 34.83 per cent of ballots, according to official tallies. Wine immediately rejected the results, denouncing the election as marred by widespread fraud. In a lengthy televised address after the tallies were released, Museveni thanked voters and claimed that the outcome reflected the will of the people.

The playing field going into the vote could scarcely have been more uneven. Even by the low standards of recent Ugandan elections, the 2021 election cycle stood out for the brazenness of official attempts to intimidate the opposition and the ferocity of the police response to protests. Hundreds of opposition supporters, human rights activists and journalists were detained during the campaign and a number kidnapped, according to local media reports and rights groups. Opposition leader Wine was arrested multiple times and one of his aides killed during the campaign, reportedly after an army truck ran over him. 

The bloodiest episode came in the third week of November, when protests erupted in many parts of the capital Kampala following one of Wine’s arrests. Police responded with lethal force. At least 54 were killed in a 48-hour period, mostly by police bullets. Officials also barred many election observers from taking part, denied some foreign media outlets accreditation and shuttered the internet on the eve of the election. The opposition said the internet shutdown was designed to thwart their efforts to compile a parallel tally. They said they would soon table evidence of widespread electoral manipulation, including video evidence showing pre-marked ballots in some polling centres. 

Why were these elections more hotly contested than past ones?

Bobi Wine, the 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, provided Museveni with a challenge unlike any he had confronted before. Wine assembled a cast of popular musicians to channel into song widespread frustration with Museveni’s rule, electrifying audiences among urban youth in particular that might otherwise have sat out the political process. He also turned the lopsided political environment on its head, countering repression with ever-more creative, low-cost methods that further endeared him to his supporters. He was largely locked out of mainstream TV and radio. Instead, he set up a number of free online channels whose live broadcasts of his rallies drew tens of thousands of viewers. His snappy social media posts provided a stark contrast to Museveni’s hours-long evening addresses in mainstream media. Aggressive police action against him also boomeranged on the authorities. A day after officers shot at Wine’s vehicle on a campaign stop, the candidate began appearing in public dressed in a bulletproof vest, dramatically illustrating the risks he was taking and further entrenching his support.

Bobi Wine, the 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, provided Museveni with a challenge unlike any he had confronted before.

His campaign brought dividends in the parliamentary vote. His National Unity Party (NUP) secured 61 seats, an impressive haul for an outfit formed only six months ago. It will now be the second biggest party in parliament (Museveni’s ruling party won 310 seats) and an NUP party nominee will take the post of official opposition leader. The party completed a near-sweep of parliamentary seats in Kampala and in much of central Uganda. It and the other major opposition outfit, the Forum for Democratic Change, which won 29 seats, also unseated more than a dozen ministers from Museveni’s incumbent government.

What’s likely to come next?

Opposition protests are likely in the days ahead. Kampala was mostly calm on 17 January, a day after results were released, and on 18 January when authorities restored internet access. The internet shutdown during balloting rendered it difficult for the opposition to mobilise and most people stayed home, amid a massive police and army presence. A few sporadic protests reportedly took place in some districts of Kampala after tallies were announced but protesters were quickly dispersed. The next few days almost certainly will see more substantial protests. In a BBC radio interview, Wine said he and his supporters would pursue all options to overturn what he termed a stolen election, including peaceful protests.

Authorities are liable to respond to any demonstrations with force. Museveni has shuffled the leadership of his security forces in recent weeks, placing loyalists in key posts. Officers who fought in Somalia and took part in the 2010-2012 urban warfare that ousted Al-Shabaab from that country’s capital Mogadishu, where Ugandan soldiers are deployed as part of an African Union mission, now hold key posts at home, including that of deputy inspector general of police and commander of the security forces in Kampala. Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba was in mid-December appointed head of the special forces, an elite force that guards the president. The army and police have engaged in a show of force over the past few days. Snipers were placed on rooftops, helicopters buzzed overhead in Kampala most hours of the day and soldiers patrolled in armoured personnel carriers. Before the results were announced, police deployed to the homes of several opposition candidates, including Wine, and barred visitors. Wine reported that the police badly beat an opposition MP who tried to enter his home.

What are the implications for Uganda’s future?

The election, in which Museveni received his lowest percentage of the vote since multiparty elections were reintroduced in 1996, has once again highlighted deep frustration at the incumbent’s rule, primarily among the country’s youth. Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world with 78 per cent of the population below 30 and a median age of just sixteen. Many young people see Museveni as the face of an out-of-touch gerontocracy unable to meet the needs of the country’s masses of unemployed. These frustrations, tapped adroitly by Wine, who made pursuing solutions to unemployment the centrepiece of his campaign, are likely to reverberate throughout the last years of Museveni’s presidency. 

The immediate priority will be to ensure that protests are not met by brute force. Uganda’s partners, including the incoming Biden administration in the U.S. and the European Union, should strongly urge Museveni to restrain the security forces from using live ammunition in response to protests. They should further call for the release of all opposition supporters detained merely for backing Wine and the safe return of those that have gone missing. In a welcome first step, Biden’s nominee for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, warned the authorities that the world was watching and that “Bobi Wine [and his] supporters should not be harmed”. International actors should sustain that pressure. The opposition has thus far exercised considerable restraint and vowed to pursue only peaceful methods of protest. In a welcome move, Wine promised to go to court to press the NUP’s claims that the vote was tainted by widespread fraud. This step is wise. Even if Uganda’s courts rarely rule against the executive in matters of real import, the court challenge could offer Wine and his team the chance to demonstrate the election was unfair, which would win them a notable moral victory at home and beyond.

The immediate priority will be to ensure that protests are not met by brute force.

The more difficult issue is a longer-term one: succession management. At 76, Museveni is unlikely to be in a position to secure a seventh mandate in 2026. After coming to power in 1986, following a guerrilla campaign, Museveni was widely hailed for bringing stability, for presiding over a period of economic growth and for one of the continent’s most effective responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Even today, older Ugandans who recall the turmoil of the 1970s back him. So, too, do farmers who appreciate efforts to improve infrastructure that have opened up markets for their produce in neighbouring countries such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. Still, for many Ugandans, the overwhelming impulse is one of frustration. The longer he has stayed in power, the more Museveni has relied on patronage politics, breeding a bloated, ineffective government with one of the largest cabinets on the continent. State-driven spending has fuelled economic growth but failed to spur employment even as the security forces have grown ever-more undisciplined and predatory. 

Ideally, Museveni would signal early on that his sixth term will be his last and, if he is to mollify the opposition, show he is willing to accept a succession process that is fairer than the election he just presided over. As Crisis Group reported in 2017, Uganda is stuck in a downward spiral of declining governance, poor economic management and local insecurity. These problems could grow worse in the years ahead, particularly as suspicion heightens that Museveni seeks to engineer a succession to his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the special forces commander. Instability in Uganda would have negative consequences for a region in which Kampala is a central security and political actor, influential in countries ranging from South Sudan to Somalia, Burundi and the DRC.

Museveni should draw the right lessons from a campaign that has revealed in stark terms his growing unpopularity.

To prevent this outcome, Museveni should draw the right lessons from a campaign that has revealed in stark terms his growing unpopularity. His young challenger, or indeed a similar candidate in the future, is likely to continue to draw strong support from the street. If Museveni seeks another term, he could face an even stronger challenge next time around, and so could any successor he might anoint. Uganda’s Catholic bishops have already called for a broad-based national dialogue. Such a process might offer the president a venue in which to pledge not to seek a new mandate and discuss institutional reforms that will level the playing field for the time when the succession election comes around.