Democracy on trial: Uganda in a fine mess

President Museveni. PHOTO/ PPU

What you need to know:

  • The arrest of opposition leaders and their supporters is shrinking political space, with Museveni Mainring a tight grip on power ahead of 2026 polls.
  • “The government has been using all forces and resources available to it to try to kill the opposition. The government has created the impression in the public that the opposition members are criminals, saboteurs, and anti-development and the Police are always eager to ensure that parties do not hold any events,” he says.

On January 24, Ugandans turned their attention to Kikuube District, some 210 kilometres north-west of the capital, Kampala, as President Museveni launched the nation’s first drilling rig for Kingfisher oilfield, billed to fetch the country over $50 billion, just two days before the long-time ruler marked 37 years in power.

Back in Kampala, a local non-governmental organisation had arranged a public debate on the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) at a city hotel. Invited as key speakers were opposition leaders Kizza Besigye and Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine.

However, as early as 6am, the hotel entrance was sealed off and barricaded from the public by a contingent of police and the military.

According to the officers, no one was allowed into the hotel without written authorisation from the inspector-general of police, Martins Okoth-Ochola.

The previous weekend, the police had arrested at least 13 supporters of Kyagulanyi, a former presidential candidate, on claims of holding an unlawful assembly in the eastern Uganda city of Jinja. 

Some people were injured as the officers fired teargas and live bullets to disperse the function, which the musician-cum-politician had termed a peaceful gathering.

The blocking and arrest of opposition leaders and their supporters is the tip of the iceberg that is increasingly shrinking political space in Uganda, with Museveni maintaining a tight grip on power ahead of 2026 elections. The opposition is increasingly finding it difficult to carry out political activities, including rallies and other gatherings, with both armed police and military only too willing to crack down on them on a whiff of instructions of the powers that be.

The violence against Museveni’s rivals has been increasing both in frequency and intensity yet the country opened up its the political space in 2006 after ending 20-year one-party rule.

National Unity Platform (NUP) principal Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine (L) flanked by former FDC president Dr Kizza Besigye at an event recently. PHOTO/ FILE

Through extra-judicial regulation and application of laws such as Public Order Management Act, the government has kept opposition leaders confined in their homes and offices, only managing to speak freely once outside Uganda.

For example, in the run-up to the country’s January 2021 elections, security forces were on the spot for arresting presidential candidates and their supporters as well as journalists, and disrupting rallies under what was then termed as prevention of the spread of Covid-19.

Uganda’s elections and post-election period are always characterized by violence as security forces take sides to harass and intimidate opposition leaders and their supporters. Cases of soldiers taking sides and asking the public not to vote opposition are common, with some uniformed officers intimidating the public with threats of violence.

Struggles of opposition parties

When the National Resistance Movement (NRM) under Museveni captured power and took control of the Uganda government in 1986, they introduced a broad-based governance structure and effectively banned operations of political parties.

Parties were not allowed to hold rallies, field candidates in elections or even open offices.

In July 1995, the Constituent Assembly, which debated and enacted the new Constitution, extended the movement’s system of government for another five years under Article 269 of the then new Constitution, and barred parties from engaging in “any activities that may interfere with the movement political system”.

According to Prof Sabiiti Makara, a lecturer of Political Science at Uganda’s Makerere University, it is surprising that the opposition has continued to attract members despite the heavy military boots placed on its neck.

“The government has been using all forces and resources available to it to try to kill the opposition. The government has created the impression in the public that the opposition members are criminals, saboteurs, and anti-development and the Police are always eager to ensure that parties do not hold any events,” he says.

Wooed or bribed into government?

While it may not be clear whether the opposition members are convinced or bribed, many have ended up in Museveni’s government, leaving their followers in disarray— the latest being the Democratic Party President General Norbert Mao, who joined the government last year and was appointed the justice and constitutional affairs minister.

Mr Mao’s faction of the Democratic Party followed in the footsteps of Mr Jimmy Akena’s faction of Uganda People’s Congress, which jumped into bed with the NRM in 2016 and Akena’s wife, Betty Amongi, was rewarded with a ministerial post.

Mr Mao says his was an alliance between his party and the NRM, but his former president the late Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere joined Museveni in the same fashion.

Others such as Betty Kamya, Florence Nakiwala, Betty Anywar, Gilbert Bukenya openly denounced their parties and fully joined NRM upon which they were appointed ministers, with Bukenya rising to be vice-president for over eight years.

There are over 50 opposition members in Uganda’s Parliament representing four of the country’s leading political parties, but their influence on decisions and national agenda is minimal as they face more than 450 legislators from the ruling NRM party in a 529-member chamber.

Some of the legislators have been either intimidated or bribed into silence or have realized that the NRM will always bulldoze them on any decision.

The most telling was during a vote to change the law to cap the presidential age limit at 75 in 2018, where despite their effort, NRM carried the day, giving the now 78-year-old Museveni the leeway to contest for eternity.

Succession debate comes in

As the opposition struggles for political space, President Museveni’s son seems to have grabbed the space and taken the country by storm.

Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the presidential adviser on special operations and former commander of the land forces, has jolted structures in the military and the ruling party with a declaration of presidential ambitions.

For example, while the police battled opposition supporters in Jinja, 80 kilometres east of Kampala, Gen Muhoozi was leading a political procession through Mbale City before addressing a public rally at Mbale Rugby Grounds, 140 kilometres from Jinja City.

He had already addressed another rally in Kapchorwa, urging the youth to rally behind him.

And Dr Besigye pointed it out before he was forcibly driven away. He said it was unfair for security to allow Gen Muhoozi, who is a serving military officer, to traverse the country holding public rallies while other citizens are blocked.

“Muhoozi Kainerugaba has been all over the country holding public rallies but police can’t allow an indoor discussion?” the four-time presidential candidate said.

Gen Muhoozi’s recent comments on leading the youth for change, which point to his desire for Uganda’s top seat, are causing jitters inside the ruling party, which his father heads, as well as the army, from which he has not retired.

Senior minister and a bush war comrade of his father General Kahinda Otafiire faults Gen Muhoozi on breaking the rules of the army, which he says the bush war fighters painstakingly put in place to protect the institution of the military.

Some NRM mobilisers are also uncomfortable with his 2026 talk, insisting that he is better serving the country in the army.

The Constitution of Uganda requires members of the UPDF to be non-partisan and subordinate to civilian authority. Therefore, Gen Muhoozi is already breaking the law, although the UPDF has been silent about it.

The increasing public display of defiance by Gen Muhoozi, most of it tolerated by his father, the commander-in-chief, has raised eyebrows in political circles as no serving army officer in Uganda’s history has enjoyed such level of political expression or freedom of opinion without sanctions.

Another group that calls itself Transformer Cadres Association Uganda (TCAU) has been asking President Museveni to retire Gen Muhoozi so that he can fully take part in politics.

They are also pushing for a constitutional amendment to remove universal adult suffrage and give Parliament powers to pick the president.

In this, they hope Gen Muhoozi will not need the universal suffrage, where his popularity may be put to test, but will need support of a few hundreds of legislators, which his father’s party already has, to assume the top office.

Ibrahim Kitatta, an NRM mobiliser, says the declaration of Gen Muhoozi for the 2026 elections and the silence of the NRM forced them to come out and “guide the country to avoid confusion in the coming years.”

“We support President Museveni as our permanent power source, but we also support Muhoozi as a standby generator, waiting to be turned on in case the main power source falters or bows out.”

Any talk of President Museveni bowing out, however, looks like wishful thinking. With the lifting of term and age limits, he can legally contest the presidency any time elections are held.

Gen Muhoozi, who has previously used social media to rally supporters, has now taken to open rallies.

Muhoozi’s Twitter account, with more than half a million followers, has been the headache of Ugandan civil servants and his father.

On that platform, he has not been rallying supporters, mainly the youth who form more than 70 per cent of Uganda’s population, but also causing diplomatic tiff through his comments on foreign affairs, defence, wars in Congo, Ukraine and Tigray, and state officials have had to clarify or apologise.

But groups like Team Chairman, Revolutionary Guard, MK Army, MK Originals, all of which campaign openly for him to throw his hat in the ring in 2026 for the presidency, have ignored his flaws. Surprisingly, most of them are led by the brothers of the president.

However, the worry in the political sphere is that supporters on both sides of the divide, for or against anything associated with Museveni, could drift into a collision.

Some ruling party leaders are calling on the president to give guidance, but the party’s secretary General Richard Todwong says Mr Museveni is aware of what is taking place.

Hadijah Namyalo, one of NRM party leaders supporting a seventh term for Museveni, says the country needs the services of Muhoozi as an army commander.

“He cannot contest the presidency,” she said. “The country still needs President Museveni badly. Since he is still fresh blood, we ask him (Muhoozi) to handle issues of the army and security while Museveni accomplishes the task ahead of him.”

Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba

Museveni’s 2026 candidature

In October last year, Vice-President Jessica Alupo, Minister of Internal Affairs Gen Kahinda Otafiire, Defence Minister Vincent Sempijja, and many other senior NRM leaders endorsed Museveni as the sole candidate for the 2026 race.

However, President Museveni, who has not hinted on whether he will come back in 2026 or not insists: “Uganda has owners. The issue is not who leads, but what has to be done.”

 “Ugandan leaders are not elected by Twitter; they are elected by the people. So, if anybody has got interest in leadership, when the time comes, they will be audited, and he (Muhoozi) will be audited. Whatever he was saying will be part of the audit,” he said.

Rival endorsements

Three days after Gen Muhoozi made his presidential ambitions known, the youths in Isingiro district, in western Uganda where Museveni enjoys near fanatical support, endorsed him for president in 2026.

However, Mr Todwong announced that the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the party had already decided that Mr Museveni, who is Chairman of the party and also chairs CEC, would be the party’s presidential candidate in 2026.

Before the first elections under the new constitution in 2006, Museveni said he would not wish to leave power until the East African federation and a greater African Union are realized.

Despite his push for the two, they are still distant dreams and therefore, his goal remains unrealized.

Whoever decides to contest, whether Muhoozi or any other opposition leader, will definitely face Museveni again and defeating him will not be a walk in the park.