An outspoken Ugandan general was arrested last week. Upcoming elections in the country are a backdrop to the struggle for power within the ruling regime.
The arrest last week of David Sejusa, a dissident general, has raised tensions in Uganda ahead of elections on 18 February. Few doubt that the reasons are political. Sejusa is an outspoken critic of President Yoweri Museveni and potential figurehead for post-election unrest. The incident reveals an important truth about the upcoming contest: whatever happens at the ballot box, it is the balance of power within the regime that really matters.
Museveni has good reason to be jumpy. Though he remains an overwhelming favourite to win a fifth elected term, there are signs of opposition. Kizza Besigye, the main challenger, has been drawing strong crowds, especially in the impoverished east; reports suggest that Museveni’s campaign there is in disarray. A recent poll, though unreliable, puts Museveni on just 51%. Fall below that, and he would be forced into an unprecedented second round.
The likeliest scenario is an official victory for Museveni, followed by opposition protests. After thirty years of Museveni’s rule, few public institutions are seen as impartial. His party, the NRM, is deeply entangled with Uganda’s military state. Without an independent referee, the election will widely be seen as unfair – a perception confirmed by the Supreme Court on previous occasions – and opposition is likely to take to the streets. Besigye has led post-election protests before: in 2011 he was pepper-sprayed for his troubles, while tens of his supporters were shot. Anti-Museveni sentiment is concentrated among young men in urban centres, making unrest more likely.
In this context the declared results are less of a final outcome and more of an opening gambit, setting the stage for possible confrontations ahead. The narrower the margins, the easier it becomes for Besgiye to argue that Museveni has ‘stolen’ the presidency. But street protests on their own are unlikely to dislodge the former guerilla fighter, now the seventh-longest serving leader in the world. Besigye will be hoping that fissures in the elite can open a pathway to power.
That’s why the arrest of Sejusa was significant. He is one of eight four-star generals at the top of the Ugandan army (Museveni is among the others). In 2013, Sejusa fled to London after alleging a plot by Museveni to install his son, Muhoozi Keinerugaba, as the next president. He has since said that Ugandan elections are a ‘waste of time’ and that the NRM is ‘a dictatorial regime that must be dismantled’. He has declared his support for Besigye – who has maintained a prudent distance – and was likely preparing post-election demonstrations, possibly through ‘Power10’, a pro-Besigye youth group described as a ‘militia’ by the government.
A military court has charged Sejusa with insubordination, participation in political activities, and being absent without leave. On Tuesday he was denied bail until 23 February, five days after the vote. Sejusa’s lawyers point out that he has previously tried to retire from the army, only to have his application dismissed. Others note the timing of the arrest, given that those same charges would have stuck at any time since Sejusa’s return from exile in December 2014.
Other senior figures have also recently split from the regime. Most prominent is Amama Mbabazi, Museveni’s prime minister from 2011 to 2014 and for a while his de facto number two. Mbabazi is now running for the presidency himself, accusing Museveni of breaking a promise to step down. After a promising start, his campaign has faltered. But although he is no friend of Besigye – the two failed to unite on a common ticket – his candidature could make it harder for Museveni to rig the election. Mbabazi boasts that he knows how previous votes have been fiddled, and will use his extensive contacts to prevent the same happening this time.
Friends in high places
This makes the regime nervous: Mbabazi’s campaign has faced notable repression, including the worst violence of the election when his supporters clashed with NRM heavies at Ntungamo, Museveni’s home district. The growing independence of NRM members of parliament, especially from the younger generation, will also give Museveni pause. But other critics, such as former intelligence chief Henry Tumukunde, have been brought back into the fold (after several years under house arrest, Tumukunde now has a key role in NRM election strategy). In truth, there are few signs that the key organs of state – especially the army and security services – will turn against their commander-in-chief.
The police force, for example, has undergone a creeping militarization over the last two decades. Police officers were once sceptical of NRM rule. No longer. In 2001 Museveni appointed Edward Katumba Wamala, an army commander, as Inspector General of Police (he has since returned to the military, and is now Chief of Defence Forces). In 2005 Wamala was replaced by another army man, Kale Kayihura, who has turned the police into a quasi-military force through the furtive recruitment of soldiers, ideological training, and the purchase of armoured personnel carriers.
Kayihura, whose police uniform more closely resembles military fatigues, has repeatedly emphasised that the police are a reserve army. ‘The Minister [of Interior] can at any time announce that police has become a military force,’ he was quoted as saying in December, promising to buy cannons for his men on ‘order from the President’. The arming of police provokes strong fears after recent comments from Justine Lumumba, secretary general of the NRM, in reference to possible protests, that ‘the state will kill your children if they come to disorganise and destabilise the peace and security in Kampala and Wakiso’.
These threats should not be blown out of proportion – Uganda is not a dictatorship as it was under Idi Amin – but the government’s record suggests the danger of violence is real. As well as the killings in 2011 post-election protests, at least forty people were killed, some by police, in 2009 demonstrations demanding greater autonomy for the Buganda kingdom.
The army itself will try to take a back seat. However, a rare public statement from General Wamala emphasised that ‘the army has a mandate to see that peace exists during general elections’. The army, now known as the Uganda People’s Defence Force, is built upon the National Resistance Army that brought Museveni to power after a five-year ‘Bush War’: its top generals are the president’s old comrades-in-arms.
Other public institutions, too, will take Museveni’s side. The Electoral Commission, a supposedly neutral arbiter, is staffed with Museveni appointees. Its chair, Badru Kiggundu, has warned Besigye of inciting the youth to ‘defiance’: in one extraordinary attack, he accused Besigye of risking the safety of other people’s children while Besigye’s own son was ‘enjoying cheese burgers’ in New York. In an interview with one local newspaper he is quoted as saying, in reference to Besigye’s protest talk, ‘I warn you once, twice… the next time don’t blame me’.
‘We have enough force’
If there is violence it may come not from the formal institutions of state but from the shadowy militia groups that both sides are trying to organise. In addition to Besigye’s Power10, local politicians have been mobilising jobless young men – the leader of one group, sporting a military-style red beret, told me that ‘we have enough force to stand against this president’, who he described as ‘the worst dictator in Africa’.
A particular worry is a national network of ‘crime preventers’ – ostensibly a community policing initiative, giving young men training in personal combat and, reportedly, political ideology. Trainees have been seen in the yellow shirts of the NRM, and human rights groups have called for the programme to be suspended until after elections. Kayihura, the police chief, has refused, reportedly telling his critics to ‘go hang’ (he denies this). In the official version of the same speech he tells graduating crime preventers that ‘you are a reserve army, in case of war’. Newspapers have also quoted him as saying that ‘we shall not hand over power to the opposition to destabilise the peace which we fought for’, and suggesting that crime preventers be given rifles instead of sticks (he says the remarks were taken out of context).
The question of whether a defeated Museveni would hand over power is an open one. According to the Daily Monitor newspaper he told a recent rally in Kabale, a town in his western Ugandan stronghold: ‘The Opposition are like wolves lurking around to tear Uganda apart. I will not allow them because I have the support of the majority of Ugandan and my army’. In Uganda’s semi-authoritarian state, he has little incentive to go gracefully; he would be liable to prosecution for corruption and other crimes, and his supporters would be cut off from patronage networks.
But it seems unlikely to come to that, for two reasons. First, Museveni enjoys genuine support, especially in rural areas, where people are grateful for his success in stabilising the country and bringing some measure of prosperity – at least relative to what went before. Though a team of EU election observers found some irregularities in the 2011 election, most analysts think that Museveni would have won anyway (the 2006 contest, when Besigye officially garnered 37% of the votes, is more controversial).
And second, the machinations of regime elites by themselves indicate whether a Museveni defeat is credible. With little hope of a Besigye victory, many opposition supporters will stay away from the polls. Turnout has fallen in each successive election, from 73% in 1996 to just 59% last time round. Turnout tends to be lower in opposition areas – barely half of eligible Kampalans made it to a polling station in 2011 – and among the urban youth who are Besigye’s natural constituency.
Many are fearful of the instability that a close result could cause. Better not to vote at all, one woman told me, rather than risk the ‘problems’ that have hurt Ugandans in the past. Uganda’s political elites sometimes veer into incendiary rhetoric. But, for the regime, the success of such a strategy is that the threats may never have to be carried out.