On 18 February, Ugandans will vote for their president. Thirty years after seizing power, Yoweri Museveni looks likely to win again – but not in a fair fight.
Thirty years ago, a rebel army marched on Kampala. At its head was Yoweri Museveni. Trained by guerillas in Mozambique, he had been fighting successive Ugandan governments for most of his adult life. On 26 January, 1986, his men seized the capital; four days later he was sworn in as president. After two decades of violence and misrule, he promised a new start, writing that ‘the problem of Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power’.
Today, Museveni is standing for his fifth elected term of office. His face smiles from countless posters, pasted on walls, on traffic signs, in hospital wards. The former rebel now looks paternal, the military beret long since replaced by a trademark broad-brimmed hat. ‘Steady progress’, some of the posters say. ‘My country, my president’, say others.
Museveni no longer talks of stepping down. The original constitution, written in 1995, imposed a two-term limit on the president. That was scrapped in 2005. As so often, Museveni led the way: leaders in Rwanda, Burundi, Cameroon, Congo, and Burkina Faso have since attempted to do the same, with mixed success. The current generation of African leaders, unlike many of their predecessors, are committed to regular elections. The trick is to keep winning them.
And Museveni is the master. He has comfortably won four elections in the past. In the most recent, in 2011, he increased his share of the vote, to 68% (though turnout fell to 59%). Another victory looks likely this year. But, for the first time, there are two serious candidates to challenge him: Kizza Besigye, an opposition figurehead, and Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister. Both were with Museveni in his rebel days; both now accuse him of betrayal. The election is as much about the past as it is about the future. It is a struggle for the legacy of the rebellion, and to escape the violent history that created it.
No country for old men
Uganda today is one of the most stable places in the region. But before Museveni, it was a country in turmoil. Some 800,000 Ugandans were killed by the regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote: victims of civil war, petty revenge, or dictatorial whimsy. Museveni had fought against both, first from a base in Tanzania, and latterly from Luwero, a region just north of Kampala. Those years ‘in the bush’ have taken on a mythological status: former rebels are feted as ‘historicals’, the date of victory is celebrated as Liberation Day. The official story tells of national redemption, with Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) at its centre.
The last thirty years have not been free of conflict. Museveni’s early rule was marked by multiple insurrections, and he helped launch Africa’s deadliest war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the north, the government fought a long struggle with the Lord’s Resistance Army, a cultish movement that drew in part on Acholi disaffection with Museveni’s regime. But for most people, most of the time, the Museveni era has been the most peaceful since independence. And prosperous too: economic growth averaged 7% for much of the period, more than twice the regional average.
Few now remember a time before Museveni. Uganda has the youngest population in the world, with 78% of people are under the age of thirty. In some ways, that helps his prospects: many find it hard to imagine anyone other than Museveni in power. But his record as a unifier has less purchase on young voters. They worry about jobs, not the horrors of the past. The 71-year old president seems out of touch.
Museveni himself turns his age to his advantage. ‘Vote for the old man in the hat,’ he tells voters at rallies. He mocks the relative inexperience of his rivals, comparing a recent televised debate to a high school debating competition (he was the only candidate not to attend). He refers patronisingly to the 67 year-old Mbabazi – the challenger with the most time in government – as his ‘younger brother’.
But Museveni also has a more sinister way of dealing with the past: to preserve it, in a state of suspended animation, an alternative present from which Ugandans can never truly escape. The constitution begins by recalling ‘our history… [of] political and constitutional instability’ and ‘struggles against the forces of tyranny, oppression and exploitation’. Museveni is still fighting that struggle, not only by exaggerating the threat of his rivals, but also by creating the conditions of latent (and sometimes actual) violence that deter Ugandans from voting him out. ‘We can’t be in the middle of the forest,’ he said in a recent speech, ‘and want the old man to go’.
Across the country, police have been training groups of ‘crime preventers’: civilian volunteers, recruited ostensibly to help the police with minor crimes. Numbers are unknown, but some reports suggest 30 per village, or 1.7 million nationwide. Officially, the crime preventers have nothing to do with the elections. But reports suggest otherwise. Trainees have been seen wearing NRM colours; one recruit told Human Rights Watch: ‘the commander told me that I should fight hard and fight the other parties’. Human rights groups have called for the programme to be suspended. The Inspector General of Police, a close ally of Museveni, has described crime preventers as ‘my CCTV’ and told critics that ‘you can hang’.
The crime preventers are just one element in an atmosphere of intimidation that surrounds the election. Uganda is no dictatorship: opposition candidates campaign publicly, their actions covered by an independent press. But key institutions – notably the police, the Electoral Commission, and the Media Council – have been bent in favour of Museveni and his NRM.
Opposition candidates meet constant harassment. Both Besigye and Mbabazi have been arrested; their supporters have faced tear gas, rubber bullets and, on occasion, live ammunition. In October, an opposition activist was stripped naked while being arrested by police. Candidates are banned from visiting public institutions, such as schools and hospitals – an attempt to cover up the poor condition of many government-run services.
Violence is common. The worst incident so far occurred on 13 December at Ntungamo, in western Uganda, where Mbabazi supporters clashed with NRM activists attempting to disrupt his rally. The head of Mbabazi’s security team, Christopher Aine, has since disappeared: his family claim he has been captured, and perhaps killed, by police. Rumours were fuelled by a photo of a dead body circulating on the internet; when the photos were published by a popular tabloid the police response was to arrest the editors responsible.
The media and civil society organizations are under threat. A recent report by Human Rights Watch documented pervasive interference with the activities of journalists outside Kampala, especially radio journalists working in local languages. Journalists have been suspended, and stations shut down, after hosting opposition candidates; others have been offered money and trips in exchange for favourable coverage of the NRM. A new law, currently under consideration, threatens three years’ imprisonment for NGO workers whose actions are deemed ‘prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda’.
And so it goes in Uganda: a semi-authoritarian state, more open under Museveni than under previous regimes, but far from a functioning democracy. In such a system, the costs of public opposition are high. For both the main challengers, in their different ways, the experience of this election is sadly familiar.
Kizza Besigye has been here before. This is the fourth election he has contested against Museveni. The two were once close friends: Besigye was Museveni’s personal doctor during his years in the bush, and was appointed to senior posts in government after the NRM came to power. He fell out with his former patient in the 1990s, accusing Museveni of betraying the democratic ideals of the rebellion. In fifteen years as the figurehead for opposition he has been arrested, tear-gassed, and beaten. Before the 2006 election, he was charged with treason and rape (the allegations were later dropped). In 2011, while leading an anti-government protest, he was almost blinded after being pepper-sprayed by a police officer.
Amama Mbabazi, the other main challenger, should also be unsurprised by the intimidation: he used to be responsible for it. Mbabazi, like Besigye, supported Museveni during the guerilla days. But he remained loyal for much longer, climbing up the party to become Prime Minister in 2011, and Museveni’s de facto number two. He was sacked in 2014, weighed down by corruption scandals but also accused of organizing against Museveni within the NRM. For his part, Mbabazi accuses Museveni of breaking a promise to step down. Mbabazi’s recent experience of government explains the irony of his current position: he helped to craft many of the same byzantine laws which are now being used to restrict his campaigning.
This is the first time that Museveni has faced two serious challengers simultaneously. For a while, there was talk of the opposition uniting behind a single candidate; negotiations took place in London in November, helped by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general. It came to nothing. Besigye and Mbabazi are too different, in history and in outlook. Besigye – unsurprisingly, given his experiences – has become increasingly hostile to the regime, calling for open ‘defiance’ and warning that he will challenge the result on the streets, rather than in the courts. Mbabazi, by contrast, remains a member of the NRM, and has extensive contacts within it.
Disunity, strangely, may bring strength. Besigye’s radicalism appeals to urban youth, but alienates more cautious voters. Mbabazi, by contrast, is tainted by his time in government, but could attract NRM voters who are fed up with Museveni. Neither candidate, on his own, looks capable of forcing Museveni to a second-round (the closest Besigye came was in 2006, when he won 37% of the vote in an election that judges ruled to be not ‘free and fair’, though they allowed the result to stand). But if Besigye builds on his existing support, and Mbabazi peels off enough voters from the NRM, it could pull Museveni below 50% of the vote and force a run-off. That’s never happened before, and could transform the debate.
More of the same
Will it happen? Possibly. Many Ugandans are tiring of Museveni. They complain of the corruption and creeping authoritarianism of his rule. After promising an end to ethnic favouritism, he has increasingly given top positions in the government and army to western Ugandans. His clumsy handling of the Buganda kingdom has alienated many in Kampala and the south (at least 40 people died in 2009 riots). Peace has been restored in the north, but the northern and eastern regions continue to lag economically: they are home to 84% of the country’s poor. Nationally, per capita growth has slowed, from an annual rate of 3.6% in the 1990s and 2000s to about 2% in the last parliament. Many are angered, too, by Museveni’s attempts to groom his son, Kainerugaba Muhoozi, as his successor.
But Museveni retains strong support, using state resources to dispense patronage and buy loyalty: before the last election, one-third of the national budget was spent in January alone. Government money is diverted to NRM campaigning, and Museveni massively outspends his rivals. In the last two months of 2015 his campaign spent twelve times as much as Mbabazi and Besigye combined, according to the Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring, a civil society coalition.
In the countryside, where five in six Ugandans live, the NRM’s organizational capacity dominates the cash-strapped opposition. A recent survey by British academics, for example, found that rural voters are 22% more likely to vote NRM than city-dwellers. Local polling suggests that Museveni is ahead everywhere except Kampala, a pattern consistent with previous elections. Some of this, no doubt, is the result of a system stacked in his favour. But some of it, too, reflects Museveni’s genuine popularity.
Aggregate polling data is hard to come by, and unlikely to be reliable. A recent poll in New Vision, a government-run newspaper, put Museveni on 71%, three percentage points more than the 2011 result. A few days later a different poll, by Research World International (RWI), a Kampala-based outfit, put Museveni on 51%, with Besigye on 32% and Mbabazi on 12%. The latter may be more accurate: RWI called the last election to within five percentage points of the actual outcome. If so, that puts Museveni dangerously close to a second round – and the pollsters suggest his support has been declining since they last checked in July.
For all that, few are predicting anything other than a Museveni victory. He not only manipulates the system – he made it. In the process, he has also made many enemies. There is a high chance that any successor would pursue criminal charges against Museveni, or force him into exile; his supporters would be cut off from the patronage networks which have been sustained for so long. The results of previous elections are generally accepted to have been rigged. The Electoral Commission has trumpeted fancy new voting technology, and a team of election observers from the EU will monitor the contest. But in a close race, these are unlikely to deter Museveni from pulling the same tricks to ensure he wins again.
More worryingly, there is the prospect of violence. Force has been used before to deter post-election protests; nobody knows how far Museveni would go before relinquishing power, or how the civilian army of crime preventers might be used. That prospect – of a return to instability, the shadow of the ever-present past – may in itself be enough. Many voters will stay away from the polls rather than risk the turmoil of a close result.
‘Lwaki temulabira ku Mandela / Yafuga kimu n’ata bbendera’ sings popular musician Bobi Wine: ‘Why don’t you borrow a leaf from Mandela / He ruled a short period and surrendered power’. But Museveni shows no sign of doing so. The old guerilla carries on, promising to save Ugandans from history while threatening to drag them back into it. As he said in 2006: ‘you don’t just tell the freedom fighter to go like you are chasing a chicken thief from the house’.