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In search of Ugandan democracy

About the author
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society.

When Yoweri Museveni fought his way to power in Uganda in 1986 he said he would only need five years to clean up Uganda. Some ten years later he said the same thing. In July 2005 he arranged a change in the 1995 constitution which limits the presidency to two five-year terms, enabling him to stand for re-election in the polls due in March 2006. In January 2006 he will celebrate twenty years in power.

Moreover, when his main rival, Kizza Besigye, returned to Uganda from exile in October to run against him for the presidency, Museveni had him arrested and charged with rape, treason and an assortment of other offences. When it seemed Besigye might be given bail, a group of armed men – not in uniform – snatched him from the courtroom at gunpoint and whisked him away.

This surely is the transformation of a dictator who came to power through the barrel of a gun, legitimised himself through tolerance and democratic institutions but, when faced with an election he might lose, reasserted his military might. Or is it?

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society.

A list of his recent articles is here

Also by Richard Dowden in openDemocracy:

“What’s wrong with Africa” (July 2005)

When the British created Uganda they carelessly lumped together disparate kingdoms and peoples that had little in common or had actually been at war with each other. The only concern of the British was control of the headwaters of the Nile, the life-blood of Egypt. This was essential because Egypt controlled the sea route to Britain’s imperial jewel: India. India, Suez, Egypt, Sudan: in such imperial madness Uganda was born. At least the British had stopped the French or Germans getting it.

The British ruled Uganda gently but left it in 1962, finely balanced like a pack of cards: divided ethnically between north and south, divided religiously into Catholic, Protestant, Muslim. It took only four years for the post-independence prime minister, Milton Obote, to arrange the overthrow of the president, Edward Mutesa, and create a one-party state. The man who led the 1966 coup, Idi Amin, himself supplanted Obote in 1972 and ruled for seven brutal years – until ousted by invasion from Tanzania. After Idi Amin there were three years of chaotic politics, followed by the return of Obote in a stolen presidential election.

Museveni and a band of twenty-three others took to the bush and fought a successful guerrilla war. Wherever they liberated by the gun they encouraged the villagers to elect their own leaders and run their own affairs. But they took the young boys – and sometimes girls – with them and forged a young, committed and effective army. Unlike the appalling national army, they did not commit atrocities. Rape and robbery were punishable with beatings or death.

The force’s leaders were the children of Rwandan refugees or young men from ethnic minorities in western Uganda. The foot soldiers were from the villages they passed though, mainly from the Baganda, the largest ethnic group. And they were seen as liberators, bringing security and peace.

Until, that is, Museveni’s band took the capital, Kampala, in 1986 and crossed the Nile into northern Uganda; there they were seen as invaders and oppressors. In Acholi district a strange, atavistic rebellion began. Now known as the Lord’s Resistance Army it has continued to this day, and seems likely to continue even after LRA leaders are indicted by the International Criminal Court.

But in the south, Museveni cleverly opened up political space to anyone who did not challenge him. He swiftly dealt with those who did; and to others who had political support but only wanted the benefits of office, Museveni gave big cars, houses and a nominal seat in cabinet. Despite the grumbling of the World Bank and the donors about the cabinet’s size, he made many powerful politicians happy and rendered them harmless.

Free market, strong state

Yoweri Museveni came from a Marxist background but after coming to power in 1986 proved himself to be an enthusiastic supporter of free-market economics. Ugandans, left to make their own way in a market economy, soon produced an economic growth rate of more than 7%. Museveni also promoted healthcare and education, which reversed years of declining levels of literacy. Uganda was the first country to be hit by the HIV/Aids pandemic, but the president promoted a massive public-education programme, and brought about an apparent dramatic decline in the infection rate. With free-market economics, effective bureaucrats, relatively free civil-society institutions and great personal charm, Museveni gave western donors what they desperately needed: an African success story.

The problem was the politics. Uganda’s “democratic” structure was a hierarchy of elected “resistance committee” representatives that emerged through local rallies. Museveni, being from a minority ethnic group, never liked elections. He argued, with some justification, that first-past-the-post democracy had emerged in Europe from class struggles that split society horizontally according to economic interest. There, class mobility and preservation of the whole allowed compromises and balances to be created. In Africa, by contrast, elections and political parties divided societies vertically along ethnic and religious lines. The result was the creation of fatal, winner-takes-all politics. It was – and is – a persuasive argument.

For many years, Museveni argued that the resistance-movement system was democracy enough. At a local level it worked well – but then much of Africa works well at a local level. At national level Museveni and his guerrilla fighters-turned-ministers were unaccountable. Under pressure from aid donors who pay more than half Uganda’s budget, he was forced to concede more democratic mechanisms.

In 1996 and 2001 “no party” elections were held in which political parties were allowed to exist but could not hold meetings or campaign. Candidates stood as individuals not as party members. In reality it meant only Museveni would use the state machinery – or any electoral machinery. Although not all his supporters got elected, the elections reflected Museveni’s widespread, though not universal, popularity.

Also in openDemocracy’s “Africa and democracy” debate:

Peter Hurst, “Somaliland’s democratic lesson” (October 2005)

Katharine Houreld, “Liberia’s election: striving for peace” (November 2005)

Wilf Mbanga, “Zimbabwe’s election blues” (November 2005)

Wanyama Masinde, “Kenya’s fruitless referendum” (November 2005)

But the more “democratic” the system became, the less representative was his government. After ten years in power it became clear that the core of the regime was the military and ex-military. Political space was limited. This core was also becoming increasingly corrupt and although one or two leading figures were sacked, they were soon reappointed. From the mid-1990s the economic growth rate started to decline and Museveni sent his army into the Democratic Republic of Congo, ostensibly to support his allies, the new Rwandan government. But his troops were soon accused of looting the DRC’s natural resources and the allies fell out. Rwanda and Uganda fought a series of fierce battles in their giant neighbour and nearly went to full-scale war with each other. They remain mutually hostile.

People in southern Ugandan rural areas have two collective memories of the country’s recent past: the oppression, poverty and bloodshed of the Amin and Obote eras, and the peace and prosperity Museveni has brought. In these areas he will have little problem securing a majority of votes. Parts of the north have always hated Museveni but electorally they are irrelevant. Museveni, urged by Nelson Mandela among others to step down as president and assume the role of international statesman, has said that only he has the vision and strength to rule Uganda.

The political parties – not banned but not allowed to campaign – were not able to find a presidential challenger of national appeal but one emerged from within Museveni’s own ranks. Kizza Besigye was Museveni’s doctor and a longstanding supporter. He was popular in the movement and decided to run against his former friend. He also married Museveni’s former lover; this was personal as well as political. Museveni also accused him of being in league with the Rwandans. After losing the 2001 election Besigye and many of his supporters fled into exile.

Besigye’s strongest support comes from the professional middle classes in the capital Kampala and other towns. They resent Museveni’s growing arrogance, the deepening corruption of his cronies, and the manipulation of the constitution. The seizing of Besigye from the courtroom is reminiscent of an identical incident in the early days of Idi Amin. His followers, angry at Uganda’s decline, fear a return to those dark days of dictatorship. The problem they face is that their constitutional path to power appears blocked, yet they have the most to lose in any revolt.


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