Uganda’s political climate, characterised by growing discontent over President Yoweri Museveni’s apparent desire to change the Constitution and remain in power, risks plunging the country into a leadership crisis.
The observation was contained in a 34-page report released on Tuesday by Belgium-based NGO International Crisis Group (ICG), titled “Uganda’s Slow Slide into Crisis.”
The report was compiled against the backdrop of a controversial debate in parliament on a private member’s bill by a legislator from the ruling National Resistance Movement, which seeks to amend the 1995 Constitution to lift the 75 year age limit as President Museveni will be ineligible in the 2021 general election: He will be 77 years old by then.
The NRM claims that the alteration seeks to remove discrimination on the basis of age, but some insiders say the party sees no viable replacement for their party chairman whose candidature is an assurance of victory at the polls.
ICG however warns that if this succession question is not addressed, Uganda could find itself in crisis.
At the time the report was released, former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had been forced to resign by ZANU-PF, ending his 37-year reign. In some quarters in Uganda’s NRM, as was the case in Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, questioning the president’s succession plan is treated as treason.
“There has been no broad conversation about what a transition would look like. The combination of marginalised groups’ expectations, potential intra-elite jockeying for spoils and the absence of a clear succession roadmap, means that the incumbent’s unexpected death potentially could prompt violence.”
Fuelling these concerns, the report says, “is the lack of an obvious successor. The president has not groomed an heir — at least not openly. Nor does his family, which likely will seek to control succession politics, appear to be united. Many see Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, and wife Janet, as the most likely contenders.”
To stop the country from a possible crisis, the organisation recommends that the government holds a national dialogue on presidential succession, reform the “partisan police force,” stop postponing local elections, initiate broad consultations on land reform, and donors to avoid projects that perpetuate political patronage.
Ugandans are yet to witness a peaceful transfer of power since Independence in 1962.
Deputy government spokesman Shaban Bantazira however said the crisis in the country is due to the opposition’s failure to mobilise and persuade citizens that NRM is an unviable vehicle to fix their socio-economic challenges.
“But assuming we went into a crisis, what would the International Crisis Group do? The international community is known for doing nothing each time African countries are in crisis. Are they saying one man’s popularity can be interpreted as potential crisis?” Mr Bantariza said.
The report said Uganda suffers “inefficient patronage politics and a downward spiral of declining governance, poor economic performance and local insecurity, and Museveni appears unwilling to step down; supporters and detractors alike expect him to rule until he dies or engineers a handover to a close ally or family member.”
President Museveni is credited with bringing stability after civil wars, and eventually defeating the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion. However, he risks spoiling his legacy.
“With political and institutional reform, there still is time to avoid such an outcome. The decline in governance has ripple effects across the system. It stymies attempts to improve core services — particularly infrastructure and agriculture — that are strained by the demands of a rapidly growing population.”
The report contends that the country’s infrastructure projects and sluggish oil sector have suffered delays, further depressing investment.
Government initiatives, “nominally aimed at stimulating the economy, typically take the form of handouts, particularly to under-employed youth, designed to secure political support, and politically motivated creation of new administrative districts has not improved local services, but instead increased the size of the public sector, straining an already overwhelmed public purse.
“Police officers carry out functions that are nominally intended to preserve public order yet in reality function as the president’s first line of defence against rivals. They spend much of their time disrupting opposition activities. Allegations of criminal activity within the police undermines its legitimacy; officers are reportedly involved in protection rackets, organised crime and turf wars. Violent crime, including murder, is on the rise as police ability to carry out regular duties declines,” the report states.
The report concludes that Uganda is in urgent need of political and administrative reform to prevent a slide towards a dysfunctional, corrupt and insecure system.
The report also urges the government to institute merit-based promotions in the senior command of the Uganda Police force, and end the use of informal, non-uniformed groups, chiefly the Crime Preventers.
President Museveni has often warded off the succession question, arguing that the Constitution is clear on the process and that the NRM party will have the last word on his candidature.
Presidential press secretary Don Wanyama said Ugandans will determine their country’s issues and don’t need lectures from international groups.
“Those NGOs in Germany cannot posture to understand Ugandan issues better than Ugandans. Everything that happens here is democratic and the president is here by the will of the people, it is a democratic practice that must be respected.”