What you need to know:
- By the end of this eighth Museveni term (two of them unelected) he will have been in power almost exactly twice as long as the previous seven governments that preceded him combined. The only other earthly power to have ruled post-1884 Uganda longer than Museveni is the British colonial regime.
This January 26, Uganda’s ruling National Resistance (NRM) and President Yoweri Museveni mark 36 years in power.
By the end of this eighth Museveni term (two of them unelected) he will have been in power almost exactly twice as long as the previous seven governments that preceded him combined. The only other earthly power to have ruled post-1884 Uganda longer than Museveni is the British colonial regime.
Such a long record can never be down to luck, a grant from the gods, or the fecklessness of the king’s opponents. To start with, coming to power after 20 years of instability and conflict, Museveni found a largely tattered state. It was all but a clean slate, and he had the astuteness to realise that that allowed him to rebuild as his own apparatus without any institutionalised Opposition. And he did. A country exhausted by conflict and state terror needed peace and quiet. Outside the north and northeast that remained ravaged by conflict, the Museveni government delivered peace in the lower east, south, and west. Mothers tired of seeing their children and husbands murdered and jailed were grateful and swung massively for Museveni. The Opposition made a mistake, and for years were scornful about how “people can’t eat peaceful sleep”. Turns out they did.
After a series of false steps, in 1988 the NRM launched the liberal economic and market reforms that created a lot of wealth, admittedly for a few, but for Museveni, it meant he had an economic class in the country which saw him as its high priest.
However, even if you have your bread, you need some butter or jam to eat it with. For the Museveni government, the butter was a mix of violence, repression, and vote-rigging; the jam was economic growth.
Then, Museveni also understood from Ugandan history that he needed to build the military into a formidable political force and to firmly control it. He did both.
Perhaps less appreciated, has been Museveni’s ability to co-opt his opponents’ ideas. The idea of universal free primary education (UPE) was first floated by Democratic Party doyen Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere in his manifesto in the 1996 election. Museveni just grabbed and made it his.
In 2001, so many ideas, including virtually all the agriculture sector reforms that have been made since were first mooted by Dr Kizza Besigye. Museveni did his thing, and the rest is history.
If you think of it, Ssemogerere and Besigye are actually ruling Uganda, but they are not in power.
A lot of that seems like a long ago, as the NRM government has now “ruled forever”, the sin it condemned others for trying to do, and the corruption, nepotism, violence, election cheating it despised, have now become among the things it’s most famous for. Additionally, a large enough number of people have seceded from Uganda-Museveni, and after struggling, make a living and thrive independent of it. We have five Ugandas in one. One of those Ugandas is one has that grown from privileged NRM – several children of regime heavies, espousing a more cosmopolitan and inclusive Uganda, culturally progressive, and who have turned their backs on their parents’ ugly politics. They have created a moderate ambiguity to the Museveni government among several Ugandans, where there would have been only visceral hatred.
Other forces that enabled him are more complex to unpack. Ugandans, and other Africans, for example, note that Ugandans on social media make fun of the worst things in their country to levels others simply don’t. It’s a coping mechanism, yes, but it is passive political resistance too. A significant part of the country seems to have reached a point where it actually needs the government to be incompetent, for leaders to make fools of them, to thieve, to be tribal, and even violent.
The signs are that this allows them to despise the leaders, and for them to see their oppressive rulers who they can’t change through a fair election as inferior to them. They see its political and state functionaries and business allies as talentless and uncouth, who have the jobs and wealth they have only through state patronage and plunder.
And Museveni? Well, he is no pan-African, grand visionary, moderniser, or philosopher-king. He is just in it for himself and his clan, not for something bigger. A small man.
He’s no better than Idi Amin, or Milton Obote. If tomorrow Museveni stopped fiddling votes; ended the violence and released political prisoners; jailed the corrupt; and appointed young, bright, talented ministers and officials who represented the broad face of the country, the Opposition, and most of Uganda would be in crisis and panic. They wouldn’t know how to respond and would think something was terribly wrong with him.
Uganda isn’t ready for good Museveni. And it probably doesn’t want good Kaguta either. And that is his meal ticket.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]