UGANDA’S LONG-RULING PRESIDENT, Yoweri Museveni, was declared elected for another five-year term in the third week of February. The country’s Election Commission, considered to be a government rubber stamp, announced that Museveni got 60.8 per cent of the vote.
The opposition parties and most of the international election observers have criticised the way the election was conducted. Museveni’s main challenger, Kizza Besigye, who was credited with getting more than 35 per cent of the vote, has described the election as a sham and the “most fraudulent electoral process ever witnessed in Uganda”.
Museveni, who has been in power for the last 30 years, has habitually ridden roughshod over his political opponents. Besigye faced arrest in the run-up to the election and was put under house arrest soon after the results were declared for trying to lead a protest march. He has been arrested 34 times in the past four years. Another political rival of Museveni, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, was also briefly arrested after the election. Mbabazi said the election was “fundamentally flawed”. He should know, for he played a prominent role in orchestrating Museveni’s victory in the 2011 presidential election, which was far from free and fair.
The chief of the European Union (E.U.) observers’ mission, Eduard Kulkan, told reporters in Kampala that the Election Commission was noted for “a lack of transparency and independence”. In their report, observers from Commonwealth countries said the election “fell short of meeting some key democratic benchmarks”. Besigye, who was Museveni’s personal physician during his days as a guerilla fighter in the 1970s and 1980s, urged the international community not to recognise the results. His party, the Forum for Democratic Change, has demanded fresh elections. Many polling stations in Kampala, where the opposition is strong, did not receive polling material on time, and so voting began only late in the evening. One-fifth of the polling stations in the country, according to election observers, received improperly sealed or unsealed ballots. One-third of the polling sites experienced proxy voting or they lacked essential polling equipment. Mobile phones were banned from the polling booths, in an obvious attempt to prevent the recording of ballot stuffing and other malpractices.
No term limits Museveni is now all set to begin another term, which many Ugandans hope will be his last. The Ugandan Constitution forbids candidates who are over 75 years from running for the post. Museveni is 71 and will be legally barred from contesting again. His critics, however, allege that moves are already afoot to amend the Constitution to remove the age bar. Museveni came to power in 1986 and ruled for two terms, when elections were last conducted. He has won four elections since then, three of which were disputed. Museveni said in a recent interview that Ugandans “do not believe” in term limits, adding that the people have the power to vote rulers out through the ballot box. He scrapped term limits for the presidency more than a decade ago. He was supposed to have stepped down in 2006 but had the Constitution amended so that he could continue in power. Now, he is on the verge of scraping the provisions concerning the age limit, too. The opposition, which is of the view that no fair and free elections are possible with Museveni in power, is planning “a defiance campaign” calling for the removal of the President and the holding of fresh elections.
Uganda’s neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda and the Republic of Congo, changed their Constitutions recently so as to enable their Presidents to continue ruling indefinitely. Among Museveni’s strongest regional backers is Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda. Kagame urged the Ugandan people to give yet another resounding mandate to his old comrade. “I know that Ugandans will choose a person who will ensure stability and continue with development projects,” Kagame said. He and Museveni had fought together in the wars that changed the political map of East Africa. They were both part of the Tutsi-led army that took over in Kampala in the mid-1980s. Subsequently, Kagame assumed power in Rwanda with the Ugandan government’s support. Since then, Kagame has been running an authoritarian regime that brooks no dissent. In comparison, Uganda’s “dictatorship lite” allows the opposition to function within limits. Museveni is also not known to send assassins to eliminate his rivals outside the country. But like many other leaders in the region, he is loath to give up power. He has not bothered to name a successor and seems to be busy grooming one of his sons for the top job. His wife, Janet, holds a senior position in the Cabinet.
The President has encouraged the formation of new paramilitary groups and the revival of some old ones. Before the election, the President allowed a paramilitary group known as “Crime Preventers”, which is nominally under the police force, to browbeat and threaten opposition supporters. More than 100,000 of them were deployed during the recent election. Officially, their job is to control crowds, guard ballot boxes and gather intelligence. But they were preoccupied with harassing opposition politicians and their supporters.
Growing discontent However, the opposition is much stronger now than it was five years ago. The ruling National Resistance Front (NRM) is no longer as united as it once was. Many of Museveni’s supporters want this new term in office to be his last. There is evidence of a growing disconnect between the President and the younger generation of voters. Eighty per cent of the country’s voters are below 30 years of age and were born after Museveni became President for the first time. Although the quality of life improved dramatically in Uganda after the end of the chaos unleashed by Idi Amin and the resultant civil war, the economy has started slowing down since the beginning of this decade. Job opportunities are drying up in the formal sector. The agricultural sector also is not doing too well. The government hyped the discovery of oilfields, but these potentially lucrative finds are yet to be fully exploited. In 2011, there were widespread food riots in the country. The security forces had to resort to firing in many places to disperse protesters.
Many leading figures, besides Mbabazi, have broken with the ruling party. Museveni’s former spy chief is one of them. General David Sejusa, who had played a key role in ensuring Museveni’s victory in the 2006 and 2011 elections, has become an avowed critic of the government since his return from a self-imposed exile in London in 2013. He said Museveni lost to Besigye in the 2006 election but the results were altered by the government. Besigye contested in the last three presidential elections. Mugisha Muntu, a prominent army general, has also become a leading opposition figure.
Proximity to the West Museveni’s political longevity is to a great extent due to his proximity to the West. He has been one of the United States’ strongest allies in the region. Although Museveni started out as an idealistic left-wing revolutionary in his days in the bush, he changed tack after coming to power. When Bill Clinton was President, he had said that Uganda under Museveni was “a pillar of democracy” in the African continent. Clinton had projected Museveni as a role model for emerging African leaders. The U.S. State Department describes Uganda as a “key U.S. partner” in the region. Washington and Kampala are working closely in the Horn of Africa. Uganda was among the first countries to dispatch troops to Somalia to keep the rump government in Mogadishu from collapsing. The U.S. has been financially supporting the Ugandan military effort on its behalf. The Barack Obama administration has been providing logistical support and military trainers in Uganda’s fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army led by its fugitive leader, Joseph Kony.
Paul Omach, Professor of Security Studies in Makerere University in Kampala, said one of the main reasons for the U.S. selecting Uganda as a military ally is because of Museveni and his personal control of the army. Museveni, according to Omach, is a risk-taker who does not “have democratic encumbrances”. When Al Shabab suicide bombers killed 74 civilians in the country in 2010, there were no major political repercussions for Museveni. The Al Shabab attack was in retaliation for the presence of Ugandan forces in Somalia. “The paradox of external military assistance in authoritarian states is that it ends up supporting authoritarianism, either intentionally or unintentionally,” Omach said.
It was Museveni’s support for a Bill that criminalised homosexuality that upset many in Washington and the international donor community. Under the Bill signed into law by the President in 2014, homosexuals can be jailed for life. Many European countries were quick to cut off development aid to Uganda. Uganda gets more than $2 billion in aid every year from donor countries. Much of this aid is now delivered directly to non-governmental organisations in the country, bypassing the government.
Although it is widely accepted that there was selective rigging and skulduggery in the February elections, it is also a fact that many Ugandans, especially those in rural areas, still support the “old man” as Museveni is popularly called by his countrymen. The ruling party used the huge funds at its disposal to distribute freebies to rural voters just before the election.