What you need to know:
In the 1980s, the government was in the hands of Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa’s military junta. Come late 1985 to early 1986, Gen. Museveni - then rebel leader - and his army moved towards Kampala and captured power. Many factors could have played a big role in the NRA success but luck was with the guerrilla fighters.
On Thursday January 26, 2012, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) commemorated their 26th anniversary since acceding to power in Uganda. Their leader, Yoweri Museveni, was sworn-in on January 29, 1986 and has held power since then, making him the longest-serving leader in East African history and currently - and ironically, given how vocally he condemned leaders who hold onto power for years - one of Africa’s longest-serving heads of state.
There are many reasons that have been given for this duration in power by the NRM. Then NRM party faithful explain it as being their support from the people, Museveni has often said it is because of the “correct line” he and his guerrillas took from 1981, and others have attributed it to the weakness in Ugandan society and its inability to sustain demonstrations.
Some, like this writer, have often pointed to the prejudice by southern Bantu-speaking Ugandans against the Nilotic- and Nilo-Hamitic-northerners as playing a central role in the NRA’s ability to manipulate this tribalism and garner support from the south.
Luck sets in
However, one of the foremost of the bitter lessons from 26 years ago and one of the least discussed and understood, is the role that luck plays in world history.
The NRA was, first and foremost, lucky. Just when it had been militarily defeated by the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) in Luwero and many of its top commanders had fled to the Rwenzori mountains in western Uganda, splits within the UNLA and the UPC government led to the July 1985 coup.
The fracture caused by the coup gave the NRA an unexpected lease on life, it re-grouped and by December 1985, had started becoming militarily stronger than the government army.
This disbelief that the nearly-beaten NRA could get a new breath of life and come back to oust them, mainly because of divisions among them, was one of the factors behind the long-raging armed resistance by Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Army, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and Peter Otai’s Uganda People’s Army in the 1980s and into the 2000s at various stages.
The NRA’s leader, Museveni, who had gone to Sweden and all but given up his armed struggle, came into power clearly conscious of the key role that luck had played in the NRA’s victory.
When the NRA commanders came out of the jungle and victoriously into Kampala, many of them expressed astonishment that the Obote government had detailed intelligence reports on the NRA and its leaders but for some odd reason, failed to use it to its advantage.
The victory of the NRA was made more by the carelessness and complacency first of the UPC government and later by the split within the UPC government and the UNLA than any great military prowess by the NRA guerrillas. This awareness partly explains why Museveni made intelligence-gathering the first priority of his new government in 1986.
Living in fear?
Much of the grabbing of state-owned corporations and the greed and massive corruption that has stained the NRM’s image over the last 26 years stems from this: the NRM’s top leaders privately live as though bad luck could just as easily overtake them just as good luck came their way in 1985.
While putting on a brave and confident face, Museveni, his brother Salim Saleh and others who really know the deals that were cut behind the scene to get Museveni into power, who know the rebelling Acholi officers in Fort Portal handed the UNLA barracks and weapons to them, know that they eventually won largely because of this breakdown within the UPC government and UNLA, not because of the NRA’s core military strength.
Everything else in Uganda has been allowed to either collapse or work only at half-capacity in order to secure as much as is possible any gaps that bad luck can exploit. The second lesson about the NRA’s rise to power was given by former President Milton Obote to journalist Andrew Mwenda in the Daily Monitor series on Obote’s life published beginning in April 2005.
Obote told Mwenda, the then Political Editor, that one of his main lessons as president and from the two coups that ousted him was that if you are an African leader and genuinely wish to help your people advance and become truly independent, you must expect that your term will be cut short by the Western powers.
Idi Amin and Milton Obote were this type of African leader, bent on achieving political and economic independence for Ugandans. When these goals became apparent to Western capital, they started running into negative media and academic coverage in the West, resulting in their eventual ouster from power.
Being intent on becoming president for much of his teenage years and after, and having worked in Ugandan intelligence since 1970, Museveni came to power in 1986 exceptionally sensitive to this reality. From day one in office, he must have decided to take extra care never to antagonise the Western powers, particularly the English-speaking West.
If he were to do this, it was obvious the West would turn a blind eye to everything that occurred in Uganda under the NRM. And so, even if numerous photographs have been published over the years of Mulago Hospital falling apart, American ambassadors since 1986 have driven over and felt the pot holes in Kampala’s roads, British High Commissioners know of the Kampala streets without adequate lighting, and the 2009 US State Department documents leaked by the WikiLeaks website show that Washington knows exactly and in tiny detail all the rot in the NRM government, they are relaxed about it and content for the status quo to remain.
Museveni knows all this. Mobutu Sese Seko knew it too. An African head of state can let his country rot and decompose but for as long as he makes clear his intentions never to threaten Western capital interests in his country, he will remain a welcome guest at the White House and 10 Downing Street and will rule for 10, 20, 26 and 32 years.