Today, President Museveni celebrates 26 years in power amid accusations by opponents and independents that he has betrayed Ugandans.
Mr Museveni promised the country as he ascended to power on January 26, 1986 that “No one should think that what is happening today is a mere change of guard; it is a fundamental change in the politics of our country.”
This promise stirred a lot of expectations within a traumatised populations. Twenty-six years after, and about 15 years since Mr Museveni’s 1996 landslide victory in the first general election since the controversial 1980 polls which he lost, the popularity of the regime has waned.
In 2005, the 1995 Constitution was amended to remove presidential term limits after some MPs in the 7th Parliament received Shs5 million each to vote for removing term limits, paving the way for Mr Museveni to run for office in perpetuity.
Former bush-war comrades like Maj (rtd) John Kazoora and the Forum for Democratic Change leader, Dr Kizza Besigye, have long abandoned Mr Museveni, accusing him and other “liberators [of] becoming establishment reactionaries”. Such criticism is, however, thought too harsh by some political analysts.
“Any fair-minded person would give Museveni and the NRM credit for the good things they have done, or those that have happened because of the relative stability they brought to this country’s politics,” political analyst and Makerere University researcher, Dr Fredrick Golooba Mutebi, said.
“And one should not forget to mention the economy which has grown thanks to management by very competent technocrats at the ministry of finance and the central bank.” Available figures indicate that in 1986, the government was collecting only Shs5 billion as opposed to Shs6,000 billion today. But the economy is presently struggling.
Dr Golooba says significantly security personnel no longer kill and rob on the scale Ugandans used to see before 1986. “We have also seen continued attempts at improving the lives of ordinary people. Educational and health facilities have been built, attempts have been made to modernise agriculture, micro credit has been made available,” he said. These interventions have generally brought the regime some goodwill.
The fact that Mr Museveni was also originally enthusiastic about a broad-based government which encompassed all shades of political opinion including the then Democratic Party president, Dr Paul Ssemogerere, would have formed good ground for future political stability.
But Uganda has steadily reverted to a brand of divisive and vindictive politics not dissimilar from the factionalism which ruined the country between 1966 and 1980 as Mr Museveni consolidated his position. Opposition politicians bemoan their conviction that the President has split the country through nepotistic tendencies.
“Nepotism is a reality in Museveni’s government,” Uganda Peoples Congress’ Okello-Okello told Daily Monitor. “If we may carry out an audit of all public employees in juicy ministries and agencies you will appreciate what some of us have been talking about all along. One cannot be employed on merit.”
The veteran Chua MP believes that: “the President’s failure to combat corruption is making matters worse. The fat cats in his government are busy amassing wealth as Ugandans get poorer. The economy is messed up and service delivery is in shambles because of corruption.”
To opposition politicians and independents, say the celebration of the NRM’s liberation day has lost its appeal. Countrywide poverty, restrictions on democracy under Uganda’s pseudo multi-party political dispensation, entrenched corruption, patronage, police brutality and widespread unemployment are some of the reasons Mr Okello-Okello feel “fundamental change” was lost.
Maj. Kazoora, now a senior member of Uganda’s largest opposition group, FDC, notes that the country lost its way when Mr Museveni chose to cling onto power. “President Museveni wrote a book ‘What is Africa’s problem?’ and answered himself, saying ‘it’s overstaying in power’. Unfortunately he is about to clock 30 years in power and he doesn’t see any problem with that. He wrote in the 2005 manifesto eight times, saying that it will be his last term in office but it appears this was a lie”.
Mr Museveni, the longest-serving leader in East Africa, declared in his inaugural address that “the problems of Africa, and Uganda in particular, are caused by leaders who overstay in power.”
Dr William Muhumuza has since published a compelling treatise: “From Fundamental Change to No Change: The NRM and democratisation in Uganda” in which he proposes that Uganda’s transition to democracy under Museveni’s NRM is a typical case of a flawed democratic transition that has fallen prey to vested political interests and manipulations.
An associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Makerere University, Dr Muhumuza argues that despite the initial democratic promises by the NRM government, there has occurred a slow but steady reversal of democratisation since the mid-1990s. There have been clear signs of growing authoritarianism and the hopes of a transitioning to democratic rule have become remote.
But the NRM spokesperson Ofwono Opondo said, in spite of challenges, the country is more democratic and secure. “NRM is not here to satisfy personal demands, we are working for the majority. NRM has no regrets for the 26 years we are cerebrating. Many Ugandans are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
“We have delivered on our 10-point programme. We have established popular democracy in the country and Ugandans from village to national level elect their leaders freely. We have ended institutionalised violence and impunity. We have resettled the displaced persons, invested in infrastructure, improved healthcare, rehabilitated the economy and put in place relevant laws to deal with corruption.”
Mr Opondo believes the NRM is actually a victim of its own success hence the challenges Mr Museveni faces today. He cites the liberalisation of education that has increased universities from one in 1986 to 13 today. “Our challenge is to find jobs for the unemployed graduates. We never used to have schools, we have them but we don’t have enough teachers. We have assisted Ugandans to increase production but we don’t have enough markets.”
But Dr Golooba maintains that: “the problem for the NRM and Museveni is that very little of what they have attempted has been terribly successful. Agriculture has not been improved much.” He said schools were been built but educational standards have generally fallen. The health sector is in a shambles. There may be concerted efforts at road building and repair, but that has only come after years of neglect.”
The fundamental change promised, Dr Golooba said, “cannot be said to have been fully realised.” “Security personnel still misuse fire arms. Generally the security forces behave as if brutalising civilians is part of what they are there to do. Politically they remain as partisan as of old, treating the political opposition as enemies not only of the state, but theirs as well.”
Although President Museveni is praised for having introduced free education which increased enrollment figures, particularly under the Universal Primary Education, the current automatic promotion and lack of facilities in these schools have compromised standards.
Nevertheless, Mr Opondo is persuaded that the country will be fine once: “We reform our legal system focusing on accountability, attract investors to help us create jobs, streamline the tendering process, deal with political indiscipline in government and opposition and ensure that our financial system is predictable to avoid economic shocks such the high interest rates.”
More promises 26 years after the fact.