Once upon a time, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was hailed as the face of change in African politics, he was scathing of leaders who would not relinquish power. Now, after thirty years in office, he is running for president once again. The president’s main challengers in the February 18 election — his former doctor, Kizza Besigye, and former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, deride Museveni as the old man who has — to use his own words — “overstayed.”
Besigye and Mbababzi are not the president’s only critics. Human rights organizations lament his continued intimidation of opposition politicians. Western governments, who initially lionized Museveni for turning Uganda’s economy around in the 1990s, have more recently begun to fret over his refusal to allow free and fair elections. Even some stalwarts from his own party have begun to whisper that it is time for the old man to go, although they will not say so publicly. But despite the growing pressure and Museveni’s advancing years — he is 71 — there are no signs that he is planning to leave office any time soon.
And yet, if the result is a foregone conclusion, and all of the parties know this, why is the campaigning so heated? The candidates have thrown themselves into the race with genuine zeal. The country is covered in colorful campaign posters — mostly yellow, the color of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM). Presidential and parliamentary candidates have spent weeks touring their constituencies, blaring music and campaign messages through loudspeakers and making stopovers in towns and trading centers for mass rallies and small ad hoc meetings. So even though most Ugandans don’t believe that Museveni will lose, many are still following the doings around the election with rapt attention. The whole spectacle bears a remarkable resemblance to genuine political competition. How do we explain this seeming paradox?
To some extent, the simplest answer is that the ruling party suffers from the kind of paranoia common to dominant parties around the world, and will not allow itself to relax despite its public statements that it expects to win by a landslide. This has been exacerbated by the candidacy of Mbabazi, the president’s former right-hand man, who was rumored to have vast funds at his disposal, as well as promises of support from disgruntled NRM insiders. As a result, the NRM is contesting this election as if it were behind. Recent figures released by a civil society coalition, the Alliance for Campaign Finance and Monitoring, show that the ruling party is responsible for 88 percent of all campaign-related expenditure. Given this vast outlay, and the tight control that the president enjoys through his authority over the security forces, most believe that Museveni will win the presidential election, just as he won the last four. Opinion polls bear this out, though the gap has closed a little in the most recent polls. And Museveni is a master at using state resources, including state-controlled media, to outmaneuver his rivals.
Yet that’s only part of the explanation. The reality is that this election is less about the present than the future. The opposition candidates are competing not just against the president, but also against each other, jockeying for pole position in anticipation of the day he stands down. Even powerful members of Museveni’s own party are doing their best to prepare for the post-Museveni era. In this sense the 2016 election represents a dress rehearsal for the power struggle to come.
Uganda is currently witnessing two different versions of this struggle at the same time, and it is the combination of these contending forces that explains the intensity of the competition in an election that few believe the opposition can win. On one level, opposition leaders are competing for supremacy in the hope of benefitting from future conflict within the ruling party. Facing an unmovable rock and an unpredictable political future, Museveni’s rivals must compete for the status of heir apparent. Both are unlikely to win power on their own in the short term, but could emerge as presidential favorites if they are able to draw support from the factions that might emerge from a possible collapse of the ruling party — a prospect that, as we will explain below, is by no means remote.
As a result, the contest between Mbabazi and Besigye is in many ways as significant as the contest between them and the president. At present, the evidence suggests that Besigye’s stronger national profile and organization has enabled him to outmaneuver Mbabazi. Although the latter, a former NRM stalwart, split from the party last year to great fanfare, he already appears to be downscaling his campaign in recognition of its limited impact, spending 23 percent less in December than November. A strong finish for Besigye — which looks increasingly likely — should protect his status as the heir apparent, especially if Mbabazi comes in a distant third.
Parallel to this battle within the opposition, another conflict is taking place within the ruling party itself. NRM leaders are competing to replace President Museveni when he finally stands down. This battle is being waged behind closed doors, but it is heated and has already generated instability within the party, leading a large number of candidates who have lost primaries to stand as independents in the parliamentary elections. Such competition can be profitable: in their bid to demonstrate their value to the regime, many senior NRM leaders are campaigning like never before. But it can also breed instability, and unless President Museveni manages the succession process well — which means finding a replacement acceptable to all major factions — a split within the NRM is likely. This would transform the Ugandan political system, and significantly increase the prospects for regime change.
One might argue that this seemingly paradoxical situation — a ferociously-fought election that is unlikely to alter the current balance of power — has its roots in the career of the man who continues to dominate Ugandan politics like no other. Museveni’s political biography has left him with a deep-seated distrust of multi-party democracy — yet his rise to power through his leadership of an armed resistance movement has made him profoundly aware of the need to maintain at least a semblance of legitimacy through the ballot box.
The president grew up in the radical fervor of Africa’s nationalist moments in the late colonial and early colonial period. University study in Dar es Salaam — and a visit to the guerrilla camps of Mozambique’s FRELIMO liberation movement — shaped an ideology that wove nationalism, anti-colonialism, and Marxism together to legitimize revolutionary violence. After graduation, he worked briefly for the intelligence services of Milton Obote, Uganda’s first independent ruler — at a time when Obote was creating a left-leaning, one-party state that justified its rule on its ability to protect the country from ethnic and sectarian rivalries.
The overthrow of Obote’s government by Idi Amin in 1971, and the subsequent chaos of Amin’s rule, were seen by Museveni to be a consequence of multiple, overlapping, ethnic and sectarian divisions. These pitted the old kingdom of Buganda against the rest of the country; Protestant against Catholic against Muslim; north against south. All this fueled Museveni’s fear that political parties would become the vehicles for ethnic and sectarian rivalry.
This attitude was reinforced by the multi-party elections of December 1980, which followed Amin’s overthrow. Museveni took part in these, though he would have preferred no-party polls in which candidates stood on the basis of individual merit. The ruling Military Commission that presided over the elections systematically favored Obote through a combination of gerrymandering, intimidation, and occasional outright cheating; international observers endorsed the results. For Museveni, this experience of electoral malpractice confirmed earlier lessons. Elections can be all too easily manipulated to give power to irresponsible leaders who do not understand what Uganda’s people really need; only force really guarantees political power.
When Museveni’s forces took Kampala in 1986, having gone “back to the bush” after the 1980 election, his new NRM government quickly banned the party politics that he believed had fostered — as he put it in a speech in 1987 — “sectarianism, indiscipline, ideological and political opportunism.” For Museveni, his presidency is the only thing that prevents disorder. His election campaigns — under a no-party system until 2005, and under a multi-party system since — have made much of the ability of the president to prevent disorder, an argument calculated to resonate with those who remember the chaos of life under Amin. In 1996, the government published newspaper ads showing piles of skulls, from the victims of those who had died in the war of the early 1980s, as a grim illustration of the alternatives to NRM rule. Similar images have been used again in recent days.
Museveni has many other campaign tricks, and has proven to be a master at manipulating the electoral process to his own advantage. Pretty much every election held under his leadership has been condemned as unfair by both outside observers and defeated opponents, who have documented widespread intimidation, violence, malfeasance, and, more recently, extraordinary flurries of gift-giving. The bottom line is that Museveni does not trust anyone else to guarantee his legacy, and does not trust elections to generate responsible leaders. As a result, he is likely to try and retain power for as long as is feasible — and may even contest the 2021 elections, when he will be 76. The longer the president remains in power, however, the harder it will be for his party to maintain its credibility, both with disaffected Ugandans and with the international community, increasing the prospects of economic and political instability.
In the photo, protesting supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye burn election posters of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala on February 15, 2016.
Photo credit should read ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, February 16, 2016: Amama Mbabazi was formerly a member of the ruling NRM party before splitting from it in 2015. An earlier version of the piece mistakenly described Kizza Besigye, the other major opposition candidate for president, as having left the party last year. In fact, he left it much earlier.