The Queen of Uganda’s Museveni Dynasty
The longtime Ugandan leader just won re-election. But his wife may have been the vote’s biggest winner.
KAMPALA, Uganda — There were no spontaneous parties or ululations. No drumming and drinking until the sun came up. After President Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner on Saturday of an election marred by accusations of intimidation and vote-rigging, Ugandans neither celebrated nor took to the streets to protest. Instead, the country seemed to breathe a disillusioned sigh of relief. Relief that all had been relatively peaceful, disillusionment because it had never really been a contest.
Museveni, for his part, can’t afford to be so resigned. Constitutional term limits bar the populist former guerrilla leader from running again in 2021, and at 71 years old, he may not be capable of presiding over a government for much longer, in any case. Museveni, in other words, is at the stage when he must consider who can ensure the survival of his regime, and the distinctive coalition between civilian and military elites that undergirds it, after he is gone.
The answer he seems to have settled on is his own immediate family — and, increasingly, it’s his wife who seems the most likely successor.
The latest election offered a clear statement of the military’s discomfort with any electoral process that in theory — though not in practice — could result in a democratic transfer of power. Museveni’s two leading challengers, Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi, were both placed under house arrest as the election results were declared. (Considered the more potent political threat, Besigye has been detained multiple times in the last week and remains under house arrest.) And as the news of the president’s re-election circulated over the weekend, military patrols fanned out around Kampala, the capital city and a traditional opposition stronghold. The massive display of force, which included the use of battlewagons and helicopters, was meant to prevent post-election protests.
The military deployment and the blatant electoral malpractice that preceded it — including a campaign of de facto voter suppression in the capital and other opposition strongholds, where ballot papers were delivered many hours late — reinforced the perception that the establishment was leaving nothing to chance.
In fact, Museveni probably won a majority of the votes even without the alleged vote-rigging. Besigye had spent much of the previous two years pledging not to run against the president for a fourth time and encouraging his followers to boycott the election unless major electoral reforms were undertaken. As a result, many of his supporters never registered to vote. Then when he decided to run at the last minute, his inability to forge an alliance with Mbabazi ensured that the opposition would split its vote.
But if the president was safe atop his National Resistance Movement’s ticket, party members further down the ballot proved much more vulnerable. Despite the accusations of ballot-stuffing on their behalf, NRM candidates for parliament did worse than expected, netting fewer than 300 out of 458 seats for the first time and potentially losing the supermajority needed to change the constitution. The new parliament will see a resurgent opposition and an increase in the number of independent members — roughly 60 MPs — who may also lean toward the opposition.
Not even members of Museveni’s cabinet were spared. A number of so-called historicals — former guerrilla fighters who have become poster children for the establishment — suffered humiliating defeats at the polls, including the sitting defense, information, and justice ministers. All told, almost half of the members of the president’s cabinet lost their seats.
What this means is that Museveni is headed into what will likely be his final term in office with his authority somewhat diminished. He still wields a great deal of power, but even more so than in the past he will have to accommodate rivals within the ruling clique. In particular, he will need to placate the ambitious, but relatively inexperienced, cohort within the party, government, and army that is presumed to be eager to take over the reins of the state. This includes individuals like Presidency Minister Frank Tumwebaze and the president’s own son, Brig. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, both in their 40s.
Recent history suggests Museveni’s weakened position will lead him to narrow his search for a successor, as he places a greater emphasis on protecting the interests of his family and inner circle.
In 2011, as the Arab Spring spooked leaders across Africa, Museveni was declared the winner of a similarly disputed election, only to face street protests led by Besigye, who was the main opposition candidate back then as well. Security forces violently dispersed the demonstrators, and at least nine people were killed. While the crackdown neutralized any immediate threat to Museveni’s rule, the sudden outpouring of public anger that preceded it left the president’s inner circle deeply shaken and helped scuttle Museveni’s plan to anoint former Prime Minister Mbabazi as his successor. It is now clear — in part from what Mbabazi has said, and in part from what others close to the president have told me — that Museveni’s family objected to Mbabazi because they were uncertain he would shield the president’s acolytes from prosecution for alleged abuses over the years. So instead of being elevated to the role of chosen successor, Mbabazi was sacked from his post and banished from the party (thus setting him up to run against Museveni in this most recent election).
Mbabazi’s sudden fall from grace illustrates the problem that would-be successors face as they try to demonstrate sufficient commitment to the regime: A track record of loyalty is no substitute for blood. Which is why there’s good reason to believe Museveni will attempt to keep the presidency in the family.
Indeed, long before the 2011 election, rumors circulated about a plan to install Museveni’s son as the next president. The so-called “Muhoozi project,” in which Kainerugaba was gradually eased into public life through a series of promotions in the army, gained credence after a top general went public with allegations of a government hit list comprising senior officials who opposed the succession plan. But then, as now, there was a flaw in the Muhoozi project: There exists no clear route from the army to the presidency. Kainerugaba would have to leap from commanding the country’s elite special forces to running a huge and intricately calibrated political machine, an abrupt transition that would expose his political inexperience and could even endanger the family’s grip on power.
But there is another Museveni who is less of a liability. As a former parliamentarian and cabinet minister, first lady Janet Kataaha Museveni has an impressive track record in her own right. She has also arguably emerged as the real winner in this election, spending the entire campaign at her husband’s side and acting as his chief of staff for the campaign, which operated as a mini-mobile government while the president was on the road. She even resigned her seat in parliament to focus on his re-election bid, a telltale sign that she may be in the market for a more important job sometime in the near future.
Unlike other first ladies on the continent, she is a savvy political operator, having served two terms in parliament and as the minister in charge of the pastoral and mining region of Karamoja, whose influence within the NRM is growing. More importantly, she would safeguard the Museveni family’s business interests and be seen as a guarantee against future prosecutions. She also has strong links to the military through her son, which would be an asset should she replace her husband on the ticket in 2021.
Of course, there is another plausible scenario: The NRM could amend the constitution to remove the age limit for presidential candidates and back Museveni’s candidacy once again. The party could also back someone else of the president’s choosing — like the popular current prime minister, Ruhakana Rugunda — but that could easily spook family members once again, leading to a repeat of what happened to Mbabazi.
Museveni campaigned this year on a message of “steady progress,” which proved to be worthy neither of celebration nor of protest. It seems likely the president will stick with this strategy in 2021 and avoid rocking the boat with an unexpected succession bid. As a result, “steady progress” in the next election could very well mean putting Janet Museveni in charge.
Image credit: SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images