Wednesday October 4 2017

Idi Amin is dead. Long live ‘Life president’ Amin




Amidst chaotic and violent scenes in the Uganda Parliament last week, a Bill to amend the Constitution and lift the 75 years presidential age limit made its way to Parliament.
As happened in 1966 when Milton Obote overthrew the 1962 Constitution, security forces laid siege to Parliament. This time though, unlike 51 years ago, security officers entered the chamber and bundled out Opposition MPs. The age limit amendment, which would allow President Yoweri Museveni to stand for an eighth term (two of them unelected) in 2021, when he officially will be 77 years, is the last step in his president for life project.
The first key step was the removal of the presidential two-term limit in 2005.

Museveni would thus become Uganda’s second President for Life, after military dictator Field Marshal Idi Amin. That is a very select group, so it is appropriate we go back to Idi to see what set Amin and Museveni apart, and also what unites them on the common path. It might help refresh Amin, and clarify Museveni and the politics of our times – for those without a great sense of history.

Amin was declared “life president”(sic!) in 1976. He had only been in power for five years at that point, so on first impression it was an unnecessary act. Museveni has been in power now for 31 years, six times longer than Amin, so there is more mathematical substance to his quest to be president for life. There is more meat there.

So why would Amin have sought to be “life president” after just five years. It’s important to remember that during the “military coup era” in Africa (late 1960s to start of the 1990s), there was an unofficial term limit in play. Very few generals who seized power ruled for 10 years (two terms).

It was normal for a coup leader to survive just days in office, before he was murdered or ousted by other mutinous soldiers. Amin was largely on the backfoot by 1976. The attack by Uganda exile dissidents from Tanzania, including Museveni’s FRONASA forces, had failed four years earlier, but the amped crackdown had built up greater domestic resistance and the exile forces were regrouping.

Tensions between Tanzania and Uganda were up sharply. In a bid to rouse nationalist sentiment, in February 1976, Amin laid claim to Kenyan territory and it seemed the two countries would go to war. The economy was hollowed out, following the expulsion of Asians in 1972, and the flight of capital and sanctions that followed in the years after. In July Amin was humiliated when the Israelis staged the hostage rescue in Entebbe and blew up his Airforce’s jets.
Museveni faces a very different geopolitical and regional environment. Ever since the defeat of Joseph Kony and his LRA; the independence of South Sudan; the normalisation of relations with Rwanda some years ago; and the return of relative peace in the eastern parts of DR Congo border with Uganda, Kampala doesn’t have to lose sleep over hostile neighbours.

Amin was a loud supporter of the Palestinian cause. Museveni’s Kampala has since shifted and made peace with Israel, and Palestine has disappeared from the government’s language. Amin also had his dramatic moments around the apartheid regime in South Africa.
He would frequently hold mock military exercises of attacks on the racist regime. It didn’t make much practical difference, but at a time when the apartheid regime seemed unbeatable, Amin’s exercises were symbolical significant morale boosters.
Museveni fared much better, being able to do more to support South African liberation, and offered the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and other groups a base in Uganda in the years ahead of the end of apartheid.

Given the perilous nature of being a military leader, an unfavourable international environment, regional threats all around him, an economic crisis and mounting domestic dissent (there was another assassination attempt on Amin early in 1976), Idi needed to project strength and a sense of stability. The presidency for life was politically and geopolitically necessary, if you look at it from his point of view.

There is no equal bigger picture necessity for Museveni to be president for life, but there is from a personal power perspective and the dynamics of dynastic politics in which he is caught. Also, with dramatic demographic shifts, and wider social changes in Uganda as in the rest of the world, it’s not so much that Uganda wants to get rid of Museveni, as that it has moved ahead of him. The presidency for life locks the door so that Uganda doesn’t bolt from under him.
Amin needed to be president for life. Museveni, on the other hand, wants to be president for life. That is what sets them apart most.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3