Yoweri Museveni: running on empty

Richard Dowden
23 February 2006

Uganda's election reached its climax today, 23 February, amidst widespread predictions that the twenty years in office of the incumbent president, Yoweri Museveni, will be extended by five more.

If the pre-poll assessments are confirmed, Museveni is likely to see his triumph as more than a vindication of the decision in 2005 to amend the constitution in a way that allowed him to run again for office. Having ruled Uganda since his National Resistance Movement (NRM) guerrillas marched into Kampala in 2006, Museveni now has his sights on even higher things: he announced last week that his ambition is to become the first president of a united East African federation. The planned launch-date for that initiative is 2013.

Before polling day, the indications were that Museveni would receive 54%-60% of the vote, with his main challenger Kizza Besigye – the president's former comrade-in-arms, personal doctor and colleague – expected to win 30%-40%, and an independent candidate taking the rest. The presidential election will go to a second round if no candidate gets more than 50%. It is being accompanied by parliamentary elections on the same day, including those for the seats reserved for women; local elections follow over the next two weeks.

As Ugandans voted in their thousands amid heavy rain on a tense but largely peaceful voting day, there were widespread complaints about names missing from the electors' register, late opening of polling stations and unsealed ballot-boxes. In Rukungiri where Besigye voted, the transparent ballot-boxes were unsealed and Besigye immediately complained. In another town an election observer said that half the ballot-boxes he saw had no lids at all. While foreign election observers might attribute such irregularities to lower African standards, Africans do not accept that but immediately blame the authorities and accuse them of cheating.

Early results gave Besigye a massive lead but they were from the cities which have largely rejected the rule of Museveni. Rural voting patterns are known to be more conservative and will probably back Museveni. Ethnicity plays little or no part in this election since the two leading contenders are both westerners with no tradition of rivalry between their ethnic groups. However the north, especially the Acholi district which has lived under war conditions since 1986, has voted almost unanimously against Museveni.

Uganda’s odyssey

This round of elections is supposed to be Uganda's first "proper", competitive party election since 1980. Museveni has held several "non-party" elections during his twenty years in power, but ironically this multi-party election will make his government less broadly based and more despotic than ever. Many people are even referring to Museveni as the "new Mugabe". It also marks the end of Museveni's experimental "movement" system, which lay somewhere between a one-party state and a liberal democracy.

This allowed, until a conspicuous recent hardening of controls, a remarkable degree of freedom of speech. At the same time, the system allowed political parties to exist but denied them the right to put up candidates; all candidates have had to stand as individuals. This has had the advantage (from the point of view of the system's architects) of reducing the two old main parties, the Uganda People's Congress and the Democratic Party, to marginalised, almost fringe parties, rather than the flag-bearers of democracy they might have otherwise been.

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society

A list of his recent articles is here

Also by Richard Dowden in openDemocracy's "Africa and democracy" debate:

"What's wrong with Africa"
(July 2005)

"In search of Ugandan democracy"
(December 2005)

If you enjoy or disagree with this material please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

How has this come about? Uganda is, like many African countries, a line on a map drawn by the imperial powers to carve up the continent in the late 19th century. A rich, well-watered, populous area north and northeast of Lake Victoria, it encompasses more than forty different ethnic groups all of which had very different social and political systems. They ranged from the well-ordered, hierarchical, Ganda kingdom in the south to the flatter, elder-led Acholi society in the north. In between were nomadic pastoralists, peasant farmers, and tiny forest communities.

When the British arrived the whole region was at war and in flux. The British froze it and imposed the hierarchical Ganda system on all the other ethnic groups, often using Baganda chiefs to rule over them. This both strengthened identities but removed all power from the political structures. The imperial powers also brought another layer, religion. Catholic missionaries – mainly French – promoted an anti monarchical ideology. British protestant missionaries relied on their political masters who promoted monarchy and hierarchy.

At independence political parties emerged that divided the country along ethnic and or religious lines. The official record shows they left a Westminster-style political structure with checks and balances run by a well-educated middle class. What they actually left was an unresolved scramble for power. It remains unresolved.

The magic circle splits

During his five-year bush guerrilla war, Museveni tried to set up elected, local representative committees in rural areas. He was determined to bypass the traditional party-political system which he claimed divided Ugandans along ethnic and religious lines. He pointed out that multi-party democracy grew up in European societies divided horizontally along class lines. The same system, transplanted to Africa, divided it vertically according to ethnicity and region.

Instead he launched the National Resistance Movement, in theory an umbrella structure that all Ugandans could join whatever party or religion they belonged to. The movement set up a hierarchy of elected representatives that dealt with all local matters. To start with, he dealt with powerful local leaders by giving them titles, cars and houses and including them in his government without granting them any real power; national affairs remained in the hands of Museveni and his small group of friends and fellow fighters. No one from the elected NRM or from any rival political power-base was able to break into this magic circle of political and military figures.

However, the magic circle itself began to fragment. First Kizza Besigye fell out with Museveni in 1999 and then in 2003 many of the president's leading intellectuals left the government over the proposed change in the constitution which removed term limits for the presidency. They joined Besigye and set up the Forum for Democratic Charge. Museveni's former girlfriend, Winnie Byanyima who had been with him in the bush struggle, also broke with him. When Museveni went back to his wife, the formidable Byanyima married Besigye and became chief strategist of the new movement.

Besigye ran against Museveni in the 2001 "non-party" election and secured 27% of the vote in a poll that was marred by rigging and violence. He then fled the country but returned in October 2005 to a massive welcome. The government ran scared and arrested him two weeks after his return charging him with "terrorism, treason and rape". After being released from imprisonment by a brave judge, he was promptly rearrested by the feared anti-terrorist squad called the Black Mambas. He is now out of prison but the charges have not been dropped. Museveni openly accuses him of being a terrorist aligned to an unknown group trying to overthrow the government called the Ugandan People's Army. Although two of its alleged members have died in prison, reportedly under torture, many Ugandans doubt that it exists as a genuine entity.

Augustine Ruzindana, a respected former inspector-general of government and anti-corruption czar, also joined the new movement. He has been a political comrade of Museveni since 1971 but now describes him as a "presidential monarch" who presides over corruption and indulges in nepotism and cronyism. "If he wins another term he will continue to remove the checks and balances, and increase the power of the presidency, personalising the whole system."

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