April 10, 2016

Uganda: Museveni Forever

Yohannan Chemarapally

UGANDA'S long ruling president, Yoweri Museveni, was declared elected for another five year term in the third week of February. The opposition in the country along with most of the international observers have criticised the conduct of the elections. Museveni's main challenger, Kizza Besigye, who was credited with getting more than 35 percent of the vote, has described the election as a sham. Uganda's Election Commission, which is considered to be a government rubber stamp, had announced that Museveni got 60.8 percent of the votes. After the results were declared, Besigye said that the latest election was the “most fraudulent electoral process ever witnessed in Uganda”. Museveni who has been in power for the last thirty years has habitually ridden roughshod over his political opponents. Besigye has faced arrest during the run-up to the elections. After the elections results were announced this time, he was promptly put under house arrest for trying to lead a protest march. Besigye has been arrested and charged 34 times in the last four years. Another political rival, Museveni's former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, was also briefly arrested after the elections. Mbabazi has said that the elections were “fundamentally flawed”. He should know. Mbabazi had played a key role in orchestrating Museveni's victory in the 2011 presidential elections. The elections held five years ago was also far from being free and fair. NATURE OF THE CONDUCT OF ELECTIONS QUESTIONED The chief observer of the European Union (EU) Observers Mission, Eduard Kulkan, told reporters in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, that there was “a lack of transparency and independence” at the Electoral Commission. The observers from the Commonwealth countries in their report said that the election “fell short of meeting some key democratic benchmarks”. Besigye, who was Museveni's personal physician during his days as a guerrilla fighter in the 1970's and 1980's urged the international community to not recognise the results of the February poll. His party, the Forum for Democratic Change, has termed the election as “fraudulent” and called for new elections. Many polling stations in Kampala, where the opposition is strong, did not receive polling material on time and voting could only start late in the evening. One-fifths of the polling stations in the country, according to foreign election observers, received improperly sealed or unsealed ballots. One-third of the polling sites experienced proxy voting or they lacked essential polling equipment. Cell phones were banned from the polling booths in an obvious attempt to prevent the recording of ballot stuffing and other illegal activities. Despite the hue and cry about the conduct of the elections, Museveni is now all set to begin another presidential term. Many Ugandans hope that this will be his last term. The Ugandan constitution forbids candidates who are over 75 years from running for the post. Museveni who is 71, will therefore be legally barred from contesting again. His critics, however allege that moves are already afoot to amend the constitution and remove the age bar. Museveni had come to power in 1986 and had ruled unelected for two terms. He has won four elections since then. Three of them were disputed elections. Museveni said in a recent interview that Ugandans “do not believe” in term limits, adding that the people have the power to vote them out through the ballot box. Museveni had scrapped term limits for the presidency more than a decade ago. He was supposed to have stepped down in 2006 but got the constitution amended. Now he seems to be on the verge of scraping the age limit provision too. The opposition, which is of the view that no fair and free elections will be held with Museveni in power, is planning “a defiance campaign” calling for the removal of the president and the holding of new elections. Neighbouring countries like Rwanda and the Republic of Congo have all changed their constitutions recently so as to enable their presidents to continue ruling indefinitely. Among Museveni's strongest regional backer is Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. Kagame openly 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 eighties. After that, Kagame with Ugandan support came to power in Rwanda. Kagame has since installed 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 out 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 elections, the president allowed a paramilitary group, known as the “Crime Preventers” that is nominally under the police force, to browbeat and threaten opposition supporters. More than 100,000 of them were deployed during the recent elections. Officially their job is to control crowds, guard ballot boxes and gather intelligence. But they were more preoccupied with harassing opposition politicians and their supporters. However the opposition is now much stronger than it was five years ago. The ruling National Resistance Front (NRM) is no longer as united as it once was. Many of his supporters also want this new term in office to be his last stint as president. There is evidence of a growing disconnect between the president and the younger generation of voters. 80 percent of the country's voters are below 30 and were born after Museveni first became president. Though the quality of life improved dramatically in Uganda after the chaos unleashed by Idi Amin and the civil war that followed, the economy has started slowing down since the beginning of this decade. Jobs are drying up in the formal sector. The agricultural sector also is not doing too well. The government hyped the discovery of oil fields but these potentially lucrative finds have 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 protestors. Many leading figures besides his former prime minister, who had played a prominent role in the rise of Museveni, have broken with the ruling party. The Ugandan president's former spy chief being one of them. General David Sejusa, who had played a key role in ensuring Musevini's victory in the 2006 and 2011 elections has become an avowed critic of the government after his return from self imposed exile in London in 2013. He has said that Museveni had lost to Besigye in the elections held in 2006 but the results were altered by the government. Besigye had been a candidate in the last three presidential elections. Another prominent army general, Mugisha Muntu, has also become a leading opposition figure. PROXIMITY WITH THE WEST Museveni's political longevity is to a great extent due to his proximity with the West. He has been one of America's strongest allies in the region. Though Museveni started as an idealistic Left wing revolutionary during his days in the bush, he changed tack soon after coming to power. Uganda under Museveni was hailed as “a pillar of democracy” in the African continent by President Bill Clinton when he was in the White House. Clinton had projected Museveni as a role model for emerging African leaders. The US state department describes Uganda as a “key US partner” in the region. Washington and Kampala are closely cooperating 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 US has been financially supporting the Ugandan military effort on its behalf. The Obama administration has been providing logistical support and military trainers in Uganda's fight against the Lords Resistance Army led by its fugitive leader, Joseph Kony. Paul Omach, Professor of Security Studies in Makerere University in Kampala, has said that one of the main reason that the US has selected Uganda as a military ally is because of President Yoweri Museveni and his personal control of his army. Museveni, according to the professor, is a risk taker who does not “have democratic encumbrances”. When the al Shabab suicide bombers killed 74 civilians in 2010, there were no major political repercussions for Museveni. The al Shabab had carried out the attack to retaliate against 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”, according to Omach. 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 the government. Uganda gets more than $2 billion in aid every year from donor countries. Much of this aid is now delivered directly to NGO's in the country bypassing the government of Uganda. Though it is widely accepted that there was selective rigging and skullduggery 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's had used the huge funds at its disposal to distribute freebees to the rural voters just before the elections.