Uganda’s Would-Be ‘President for Life’ Can Be Beaten

Obama just needs to make good on his pledge to help show Yoweri Museveni to the door.

A man in a crowd of supporters holds up a sign portraying the face of Uganda's incumbent president Yoweri Museveni on February 16, 2011 during Museveni's last public rally at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala, two days before the general elections. Uganda entered the final day of campaigning today in elections that will likely secure another term for President Yoweri Museveni, already the longest-serving leader in the region. AFP PHOTO/Simon Maina (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)
A man in a crowd of supporters holds up a sign portraying the face of Uganda's incumbent president Yoweri Museveni on February 16, 2011 during Museveni's last public rally at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala, two days before the general elections. Uganda entered the final day of campaigning today in elections that will likely secure another term for President Yoweri Museveni, already the longest-serving leader in the region. AFP PHOTO/Simon Maina (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)

“Nobody should be president for life,” declared U.S. President Barack Obama during a pointed speech in July before the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As parts of Africa boast rising standards of living, more stable democracies, and burgeoning modern industries, the scourge of prominent autocratic leaders who perpetuate their rule through meticulously stage-managed elections remains a deadweight that is holding down a continent on the rise. Chad’s Idriss Déby has reigned for almost 25 years; Sudan’s murderous Omar al-Bashir for 26; Cameroon’s Paul Biya for almost 33; Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe for 35; and Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso for 31 in two separate stints at the helm (on Oct. 25, voters will decide whether to change the constitution so that he can seek yet another term in 2016).

Among the most wily and influential of Africa’s gang of would-be lifers is Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled over the country of 37 million since 1986. A professed proponent of term limits when he first entered office — “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power,” he wrote in 1986 — Museveni amended his country’s constitution in 2005 to eliminate presidential term limits and pave the way for his own reelection to third and fourth terms.

In February 2016, Ugandans will again go to the polls, potentially cementing Museveni’s hold on power through 2021. By that time, Ugandan students who graduated university when the president first took office will be nearing the end of their statistical life expectancy of 59 years. Sick of widespread cheating at the ballot box, payoffs to parliamentarians, and narrow Supreme Court majorities rejecting challenges to Museveni’s rule, Uganda’s opposition politicians are trying to make 2016 a historic turning point: A fragile opposition coalition known as the Democratic Alliance (TDA), which includes several high-profile former Museveni allies, is scrambling to mount a united front to finally push the longtime president from power. But without international support for transparent and fair polling, a clear plan for power-sharing, and a message to Museveni that the election shenanigans must come to an end, Obama’s July pledge before the African Union will remain empty words to a generation of Ugandans.

As African would-be “leaders for life” go, Museveni is not the worst. A former communist rebel commander, Museveni first entered office pledging to uphold human rights. In the 1990s, he was hailed as a new brand of African leader, an antidote to the strongmen — like his notorious predecessor Idi Amin — who pillaged their countries and ruled based on cults of personality. In 1997, the New York Times hailed Museveni as the continent’s answer to Bismarck. The Ugandan president fostered economic growth, enacted reforms that qualified his nation for substantial international debt relief, and, perhaps most importantly, acted decisively to cub the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

As he enters a fourth decade in office, though, Museveni is not wearing well. He is an autocratic decision-maker who requires officials to travel to his rural farm to seek his blessing for even minor policy shifts. Uganda has been painfully slow in exploiting oil reserves discovered nearly a decade ago, depriving the country of vast potential wealth. Uganda is estimated to have proven reserves of 6.5 billion barrels, enough — according to the World Bank — to pull the country up from an average per capita income of about $572 in 2013 to middle-income territory within a generation. As Museveni has clung to power, many of the country’s most talented public servants have left government, leaving a hollowed-out, patronage-based civil service of Museveni acolytes. In 2015, the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report ranked Uganda 150th out of 189 countries surveyed, citing red tape and pricey transportation costs as deterrents to investment.

The country now has a 62 percent youth unemployment rate, the highest on the continent. Museveni has increasingly sought to position Uganda as a regional power, launching a combat operation to prop up the government of South Sudan and potentially undermining efforts to broker a peace deal in that country. He has also been a driving force behind Africa’s vicious anti-gay crusade, calling homosexuals “disgusting” and signing a draconian anti-homosexuality law that makes some sex acts between consenting adults punishable by life in prison. (In 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court overturned the law.) As criticism has mounted, Museveni has clamped down, shuttering newspapers and radio stations, imposing harsh restrictions on political meetings and rallies, and arresting opposition leaders under the so-called Public Order Management Act, which mirrors some of South Africa’s notorious apartheid laws by requiring police approval if three or more people want to gather to discuss political issues.

The hows and whens of Museveni’s eventual exit from power have engendered a protracted internecine scramble within his government’s ranks. Museveni has for years been suspected of plotting to engineer the succession of a family member — and targeting those who dare to stand in his way. The Ugandan president has named his wife, Janet Museveni, as a cabinet minister overseeing the affairs of the Karamoja region and his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, as an army brigadier responsible for, among other things, dad’s presidential detail.

The message that Obama delivered publicly to the African Union is not one the United States has conveyed pointedly to Museveni in private. Because Washington enjoys generally productive relations with Uganda, partnering in the war on terror and in efforts to hunt down Joseph Kony and his notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, the administration objects to Museveni’s unending turn in power more staunchly in principle than in practice. It’s also true that overt efforts by the United States to pressure Museveni might play into the wily president’s hands, allowing him to discredit the opposition as doing the bidding of the West. Still, if Obama holds out hope that his Addis Ababa speech will be remembered as something more than wishful thinking, his administration should pay close attention to the political machinations now underway in Uganda and look for quiet ways to help.

For the last 15 years, the Ugandan opposition has been like a foiled underdog in a cartoon plot, always just missing the chance to outwit the villain and enjoy what they’ve long deserved. During the last two elections, the main challenger to Museveni has been Kizza Besigye, a former military general who served as Museveni’s personal physician when the two were fighting a guerrilla war against Ugandan President Milton Obote in the mid-1980s. Besigye is known for his principled opposition to the anti-gay laws and has been a strong advocate for free and fair elections, rebuilding the country’s democratic institutions, and empowering civil society. He has run for president three times, in 2001, 2006, and 2011. Each time he contested his loss, alleging widespread ballot-rigging and voter fraud. Over the years, he has been arrested, threatened with court martial, exiled, and banned from public life.

Two weeks ago, Besigye’s convoy was illegally blocked by a police barricade as he attempted to travel to a rally in Western Uganda. The incident resulted in a car accident, after which Besigye and several leading opposition leaders were arrested and briefly detained. More disturbing, a woman politician in Besigye’s convoy was brutalized and allegedly stripped naked in public by the police — the kind of brutality, once associated with Idi Amin, that has now become de rigueur against opposition politicians in Uganda. And the harassment continues: On Oct. 15, Besigye and 14 other opposition leaders were detained in dawn raids under so-called “preventive arrest” measures aimed to prevent them from holding and attending rallies.

For the 2016 election, Besigye and the opposition in Uganda are trying a new tack. In June, the opposition announced TDA, which aims to bring the leading opposition parties together in an effort to oust Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM). If it can manage to present a united front, the coalition plans to field common candidates for president and parliament. This will be easier said than done: From the start, the bloc has evidenced cracks, with some members, like Besigye, initially arguing that the election process must be drastically reformed to allow for genuinely free competition before members should agree to participate. Having apparently realized that he faces a Catch-22 — a fair election won’t be possible until Museveni is out of power — Besigye now seems willing to give the February polls a go. He and his allies appear to have calculated that if the opposition can muster enough support, electoral shenanigans notwithstanding, the aging leader won’t be able to best them this time around.

There has also been a boiling row over who will serve as TDA’s standard-bearer. Besigye has not given up his presidential ambitions, but he now has a rival for opposition leadership. Amama Mbabazi, who served as prime minister from 2011 to 2014 and was perhaps the leading politician in Museveni’s NRM party, is also vying to head up TDA. (Earlier this year, Mbabazi announced his candidacy for the leadership of the NRM and was promptly pushed out of the party’s leadership by Museveni.) He has pledged that, if elected president at age 67, he will serve only five years (which qualifies as a short term in Uganda) as a transitional leader.

By agreeing to combine their efforts — even if they haven’t ironed out the details — Besigye and Mbabazi have signaled a shared determination not to allow Museveni to orchestrate his own triumph once again. If that ambition is to be fulfilled, the alliance will need to work out a power-sharing arrangement between the two would-be leaders that is stable enough to hold through and beyond the elections. TDA will also need to mount an electoral strategy that is cunning enough to overcome the built-in advantages that Museveni has erected for himself over 30 years.

For the moment, the question of who will lead TDA remains unresolved. That 30 years of one-man rule have led to some sharp divisions and even dysfunction within the opposition ranks should come as no surprise. While Besigye and his supporters see value in allying with a partner that knows the inner workings of the Ugandan bureaucracy and could keep state institutions running during a transition, they fear Mbabazi’s deep ties and longstanding loyalty to the NRM. And while Besigye enjoys credibility as an opposition leader, his numerous failed bids for power have stoked interest in Mbabazi as an alternative who may be able to succeed where Besigye has failed. Yet another obstacle is that both men hail from the same region of Uganda, leading their supporters to conclude that they must integrate others into a leadership team, lest their region be accused of dominating national politics. Earlier this month, Kenyan opposition leader and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga met with Besigye and Mbabazi in Nairobi, reportedly urging the two men to put aside their personal ambitions in favor of unity. Other international leaders within and outside Africa have also reportedly volunteered their services as mediators, helping to hammer out a plan for a credible, democratic, and peaceful transition of power in Uganda that brings together leading figures from both the opposition and the governing party.

Even assuming they come up with an agreed-upon ticket, the opposition will face a tough path to victory. A critical factor will be their ability to turn out voters. This will be especially difficult in the opposition strongholds and in rural Uganda, where turnout averaged only 55 percent in 2011 and frustrated voters seem to have given up on the idea of ousting Museveni. Civil society groups have been working to address the apathy. In late September, the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda launched a campaign called “Topowa,” meaning, “Don’t give up.” Livingstone Sewanyana, the organization’s chairman, told the Observer newspaper in Kampala: “As long as one is registered, this is the time to push out those who lie, don’t perform, corrupt, and forget us by using the power of the vote.”

Still, there are reasons to believe that now may be Uganda’s time. The ruling NRM party has seen an unprecedented number of political defections, from Mbabazi on down, so many that it has had difficulty running its usual primary nomination process. The Mbabazi-Besigye alliance, if it holds, has the potential to unite wavering NRM voters with opposition supporters, amassing the numbers necessary to thwart even a rigged voting process. TDA also benefits from the support of former NRM insiders loyal to Mbabazi, some of whom have reportedly shared the inside scoop on Museveni’s methods for controlling election outcomes.

With the pressures of a widening war in Syria, a possible new intifada in the making, and a mass migration crisis in Europe, the international community will be tempted to leave Uganda to its own devices. The difference between 30 and 35 years of one-man rule may not seem all that significant. Moreover, the complex brew of personalities, parties, and political allegiances may make it seem as if a viable challenge to Museveni remains far off.

But having just signed off with great fanfare on a new set of development goals designed to guide the international community for the next 15 years, Europe, the United States, and Uganda’s democratic neighbors should not underestimate the symbolic and practical importance of seeing Museveni to the door. Whether the goal is catalyzing economic growth and private investment, promoting stability in South Sudan, or protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, new leadership in Uganda could be a key catalyst. The United States is Uganda’s largest aid donor and, according to the State Department, channels its assistance toward development, combating HIV/AIDS, and “promoting good governance, human rights, multiparty democracy, and free and fair elections,” among other priorities. If Museveni persists in his tactics of intimidation, suppression of the media, and vote-rigging, that money should be on the line. Washington has applied pressure in the past, cutting military aid to Uganda after Museveni adopted the anti-gay law. It should exert its leverage again now, before the Ugandan president’s rule is cemented for another five years.

While the international community cannot plot Uganda’s political future, it can play a critical role in the next few pivotal months that will determine whether the country’s 2016 election is just business as usual. Foreign ministries, embassies, and international organizations can all assist by supporting international mediation efforts, providing backing for local NGOs and civil society groups striving to render the elections freer and fairer, and working behind the scenes with the opposition parties to put aside their differences and personal ambitions in order to present a unified front. With little over a year left in his final term in office, Obama should do his part to ensure that Museveni leaves the stage before he does.

Photo credit: Simon Maina/AFP

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

Tag: Africa

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola