What you need to know:
- The jinx of peaceful change of government, and President, has loomed large since 1962, far more pronounced today than ever before. Because Mr Museveni has been in power for so long, the stakes are exceedingly high. When and how he leaves is the most critical issue to contend with.
This question has been put to me many times, most recently at a lecture I delivered (remotely) at Manchester University, UK. The biggest political question in Uganda today, and for the foreseeable future, is presidential succession.
The jinx of peaceful change of government, and President, has loomed large since 1962, far more pronounced today than ever before. Because Mr Museveni has been in power for so long, the stakes are exceedingly high. When and how he leaves is the most critical issue to contend with.
Uganda has been politically independent for almost 60 years, but the only time we came close to a peaceful transfer of state power was in December 1980 when Milton Obote returned to power.
Obote retook power from the Military Commission under Paul Muwanga and Yoweri Museveni, which overthrew President Binaisa in May 1980. Muwanga was holding the seat for Obote. So, strictly speaking there was no substantive hand over as Muwanga was Obote’s hatchet man.
All six Presidents before Museveni, from 1962 to 1986, left power unceremoniously and often violently: Edward Mutesa, Milton Obote (twice), Idi Amin, Yusuf Lule, Godfrey Binaisa, and Tito Okello.
Given the troubled history of violent changes of government, the 1995 Constitution provided for presidential term limits, two five-year terms, as a way of ensuring that incumbent Presidents do not cling to power as to be forced out violently.
The removal of term limits in 2005 was the most egregious assault on the Constitution and marked the start of the decline of the constitutional consensus embodied in the 1995 document. Once Mr Museveni succeeded in eliminating the constitutional hurdle in 2005, and further orchestrated removal of the age limit provision in 2017, it meant that we will likely have to face two possible outcomes: either Mr Museveni will die as President or he may be forced out of power.
It is has become unlikely that Museveni will work out an exit plan and step down in an orderly and peaceful manner. The trap of power has tightened and the President can’t contemplate living a quiet life as a private citizen.
But the random course of nature cannot be defied indefinitely, so Mr Museveni will leave at some point, and that will be Uganda’s nightmare moment. The President and his supporters like to point to the Constitution, so there is no cause for worry as matters will be handled according the laws of the country.
Fair point, only that Uganda’s real Constitution is not that otherwise venerable 1995 document, it is Mr Museveni who’s the supreme law of Uganda today. It is him who can do Ugandans a favour and let the country move on. Museveni is not just the most important actor, he is the most consequential institution. So if he left suddenly or ceremoniously, what are some of the possible scenarios?
First, the Constitution may well save the day! You have to hold your breath deep for this. It is not entirely impossible but highly improbable.
Some years ago, someone close to the presidency told me that in the early 2010s, perhaps after walk-to-work, Mr Museveni met with key family members and a few critical figures in the military and Cabinet to give a message for the record: Should he be no more anytime, the Constitution must be strictly adhered to, meaning the vice president takes over.
He also had a name as his preferred successor: A top General who on a good day would be a compromise candidate even among hardened opposition warriors. Is this still a possibility? I highly doubt. Has Museveni moved away from this position? Most likely.
Second, a Chad and DR Congo situation where Deby junior (2021) and Kabila junior (2001) takes over following dad’s shocking death. Will there be enough minimum consensus in the military and security forces for this to happen in Uganda? Perhaps. Third, and related, we may just get an outright military coup.
In all these scenarios, including the first, the military will be crucial. That is where Museveni’s power lies and it is where the country standing is located. What actors in the military do or do not will be hugely consequential.
The fourth scenario, which to me is the ideal and best way forward, is convening a national conference to dialogue and deliberate how the countries gets back to a viable path. This will entail candid and concerted discussions on social justice and national healing, to repair our tortured soul, pursue reconciliation and reform.
Through an inclusive and deliberative process, Ugandans would be able to rewrite the political rules of engagement and generate a new national political consensus. We will need candid conversations on a viable national project and tackle head-on deep-seated ethnic animosities. This is a process that Mr Museveni could in fact kick-start now!
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Any of the above scenarios are possible, but the first and last increasingly look unlikely.