Museveni ensured another victory because he doesn’t trust anyone else

Friday February 26 2016

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni used to be critical of African rulers who refused to relinquish power.

However, the recent Ugandan elections — in which President Museveni was announced the winner, before results from all the polling stations had even been announced, with 60.75 per cent of the popular vote — suggest that Museveni is not simply reluctant to hand over power. He just can’t believe that it would be safe to do so.

President Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement pulled out all the stops in the election. There was unprecedented spending; thousands of youth were hired and trained as “Crime Preventers” — a community policing initiative that soon became a means of recruiting additional NRM supporters — while interest groups (from women and youth groups to farmers associations) were given handouts with the promise of further contributions if communities voted for the NRM.

At the same time, the threat of violence, economic marginalisation and insecurity permeated down into almost every village. Party activists and agents were threatened, and sometimes physically attacked or arrested.

NRM campaigners promised development if communities supported the party’s candidates, but also threatened that projects would be denied if an area voted for the opposition. Some also suggested that an opposition victory would bring war or a military takeover — no idle threat in a country with a long history of violence.

The events of the election itself confirmed the impression that the incumbent had no intention of losing. Polling stations in opposition strongholds opened suspiciously late; results were released in partial and non-transparent ways; police and soldiers ostentatiously patrolled urban streets — and the main opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye was repeatedly detained. Symptomatically, Museveni’s victory speech offered not reconciliation, but threats, to his opponents.


But why does Museveni seek to hang onto power in this way? At one level, he is encouraged by aides who realise that the NRM is likely to fracture without him. There are also various vested interests — from the protection of economic assets accumulated to impunity for past abuses.

However, a full explanation also needs to recognise how Museveni’s politics have been informed by his experiences as a young man, and confirmed by the botched transition to democracy that followed Idi Amin’s fall from power in 1979.

Museveni is an old-school African nationalist. He believes that the state’s duty is to modernise, and to rescue from poverty and ignorance a population who may be blind to their own best interests; and he is perpetually wary of foreign interference.

Self-consciously intellectual, he is at the same time suspicious of educated “opportunists’” and worries that electoral politics can be all too easily manipulated to give power to irresponsible leaders.

Early in his political career he worked briefly for the government of Uganda’s then leader, Milton Obote, when it was wrestling with the question of how to prevent ethnic politics derailing plans for a one-party election that would confirm Obote’s hold on power.

When Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1971, Museveni fled to Tanzania. After Amin’s madcap attack on Tanzania in 1978, Museveni led one of the factions of anti-Amin rebel groups that fought alongside Tanzania’s soldiers to topple the dictator.

As a member of the transition government that took control in 1979, Museveni was an advocate of no-party elections, for he suspected that otherwise Obote — whom he now regarded as an opportunist and would-be dictator — would confuse the masses and manipulate multiparty elections to return to power.

Museveni wove his particular strand of radicalism together with the idea of an authentic African political culture of consensus: Uganda had no classes in the Marxist sense, and so parties must be banned, for they would inevitably become vehicles for ethnic and sectarian rivalry.

Multiparty politics

Museveni lost the argument over elections, and Uganda held multi-party elections in December 1980. They confirmed all of his misgivings. The elections were manipulated to give Obote victory.

Despite this, a Commonwealth observer mission — the first ever in a sovereign state in Africa — endorsed the election result, fearing that the alternative would be a military coup and chaos. For Museveni, as for many in Uganda, this was a key moment that consolidated a deep suspicion of multiparty electoral politics.

Museveni subsequently turned his back on party politics to lead what became the National Resistance Army in a guerrilla war against Obote. When Museveni’s forces finally took Kampala in 1986, he was sworn in as president, dressed in his trademark plain fatigues that offered a symbolic assertion of both egalitarianism and authoritarianism.

In power, egalitarianism has remained a rhetorical touchstone, but has increasingly been eclipsed by the need to retain power at all costs.

Once in power, the NRM government banned the party politics that he believed had fostered sectarianism and opportunism. In its place, he offered the vision of an inclusive national politics based on “individual merit.” It was only in 2005, after sustained international pressure, that political parties were allowed to campaign.

But even under “no-party” rule there were still elections. Those elections — like those which have followed under multiparty rule — were condemned as unfair by both outside observers and defeated opponents, who have documented widespread intimidation, violence, malpractice and, more recently, extraordinary flurries of government spending and presidential gift-giving.

Winning really matters to Museveni

While Museveni has always made it clear that he has no expectation, or intention, of losing elections, winning really matters to him. He apparently sees the ballot not as a choice, but as evidence of a compact with the people that legitimises the authority he initially derived through force of arms, and which he must use to pursue what he sees as the best interests of the people.

What those popular interests are has evolved over the years. Consistent in his pragmatism, the president left behind his Marxist roots, and state bodies were privatised, while tariffs and controls on trade were reduced and simplified. Uganda’s foreign debt was largely written off and aid flowed in, allowing the reconstruction of a state apparatus services and infrastructure that had almost collapsed.

Museveni insists that his early achievements and his ability to deliver political stability are too quickly overlooked by a younger generation demanding change for its own sake.

Where critics see a corrupt and militarised government, dominated by men from the southwest of the country, and unable to meet the needs of a still rapidly growing population, Museveni sees a significant nationalist achievement. He insists that his 30-year rule has rebuilt both state and nation, overcoming the embarrassment of the Amin years, and the humiliation of the brief occupation by Tanzania.

But the task is not yet complete, and Museveni sees enemies everywhere: As critics have observed, his security escort has become ever larger and more elaborate over the years. What for his opponents is a struggle for democracy looks to the president like a renewed assault by the forces of “sectarianism,” one which threatens the stability of Uganda.

Museveni has ensured another electoral victory not because he has lost his principles, but — at least in part — because he does not trust anyone else to uphold them.

Gabrielle Lynch, University of Warwick. @GabrielleLynch6