One of the reasons why Uganda has been politically stable over the past 31 years in ways it wasn’t for the first two decades after Independence is a number of lessons President Yoweri Museveni seems to have learnt and internalised. These derive from mistakes his predecessors made, leading to their downfall.
When former president Milton Obote made the decision to get rid of monarchies, he did not realise how much what seemed like a simple act intended to solve a problem would leave large numbers of people feeling angry and humiliated.
Nor did he realise that it would turn them into eternal enemies, potentially willing to sacrifice everything to revenge. Then he dragged the army into politics and neglected to keep it under close watch.
Little did he realise that, having shown soldiers how politically important they were, it was imperative to ensure they did not become political actors in their own right. Soon enough they found reason to topple him and had the necessary space to organise a coup.
The hate he provoked among some monarchists created a reservoir of potential insurgents and set the stage for the war Museveni and company would wage against him almost 20 years later, whose conclusion saw him toppled for the second time.
And to the potential insurgents of Buganda kingdom, he added Rwandan refugees, seen at the time as accessories to Museveni’s subversive activities.
Obote’s decision to expel the refugees back to Rwanda, where they were not wanted and where their lives would be in mortal danger, gifted Museveni and his group with more allies ready to put their lives on the line.
Lesson one: Keep the army under complete control.
Lesson two: Do not create enemies who feel they have nothing to lose by fighting you. The army in Uganda has never been as tame as under Museveni. As for enemies, it is not as if Museveni has not made any.
For many years, much of northern Uganda was the site of insurgencies rumoured to have enjoyed significant sympathy, if not support, from locals. In electoral terms, the sub-region became an opposition stronghold. Then Museveni went to work. Today the sub-region has switched allegiance.
Many there no longer vote for his opponents. Instead they return healthy majorities for him and his allies in presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. It is debatable whether this is a sign of friendship or affection.
What is clear though, for now at least, is that many have chosen to support him rather than fight him. Which makes it difficult to imagine another insurgency taking root there soon.
Lesson three: Do all you can to take your enemy’s friends away from him. In that way, he cannot use them to fight you.
If in the past one had to become a member of parliament or a minister to taste power, today opportunities are so numerous that anyone who wants to become a politician can, provided they have sufficient drive to pursue their objective and, in most cases, money to buy support.
You do not have to be a member of parliament or a minister to feel important or powerful and personally fulfilled. One can be a district council chairperson or a local councillor or even a village head with immense opportunities for self-actualisation.
And if you belong to the ruling party or are known to support Museveni, with relatively few exceptions here and there, mainly in urban areas, the higher the chances you will get the position you want if you stand for election.
“Political analysts” on radio talk shows may argue otherwise, but this is why the ruling party boasts heavy majorities from parliament all the way to local government.
Lesson four: Disperse power and enable as many people as possible to have access to it and to attribute their good fortune to you. They will thank you for it and affirm that without you they would not have got where they are.
If Museveni has many enemies as tends to be the case with all politicians, and 31 years in power is long enough to have accumulated multitudes, so does he have friends and allies.
Thirty-one years of “managing” enemies; of being careful not to make permanent enemies of potentially powerful groups; of opening up opportunities for power seekers, have created a large enough network of people with intersecting interests who are sufficiently invested in the status quo to want it to remain.
So what should political rivals who want Museveni off the scene do? Perhaps the more interesting question as opposition parties begin laying strategies for their next attempt at dislodging him, is what they should not do.
Do not underestimate the level of support he has out there. It can only lull you into false confidence that you can defeat him easily. Do nothing to frighten his supporters into thinking that with him out of the way they will have a price to pay. If you do, they will work even harder to make sure he stays put so they can be safe.
Do not threaten to cause chaos. Museveni’s greatest selling points at home and abroad remain his ability to maintain peace, stability and security. Failure to take these simple truths seriously explains why opposition groups keep floundering.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]