In 2004, the agitation to remove Article 105(2), which limited presidential terms to two, hit fever-pitch.
President Museveni had indicated during campaigns in 2001 that the term ending in 2006 would be his last. After an acrimonious campaign against his former personal physician Kizza Besigye, many had hoped to witness the first peaceful handover of power in Uganda’s post-independence history.
Mr Brian Cooksey, a Tanzania-based consultant, writing in a paper titled Elixir or poisoned chalice? The relevance of aid to East Africa presented at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development forums in December that year noted that even aid donors were speaking in tongues on “President Museveni’s machinations to ‘run for a third term’, arguing that this is an issue for Ugandans to decide themselves.”
“Aid continues at high levels despite Uganda’s escalating military budget, poor anti-corruption record, and lack of progress towards multi-party politics. Museveni alternates between trying to appease donors and calling their bluff. Aid accounts for half of total government spending,” Mr Cooksey wrote.
Mr Museveni during a visit to Washington during the reign of George Bush Jr in the early 2000s, was asked by the US leader to retire and tend to his cows in the countryside, a story which was carried in the Daily Monitor and confirmed by US State Department officials.
In 2003, Mr Museveni, feted as among a new breed of African leaders, was offered a coveted position at the UN to pave way for his retirement, which he rejected.
The removal of term limits was launched in March 2003, during a Movement National Executive Committee meeting at the National Leadership Institute, Kyankwanzi, and in 2005, MPs voted to drop Article 105(2) from the Constitution giving Mr Museveni a chance to stand again for presidency.
After the fallout from the removal of term limits in 2005 and a violent political election campaign in 2006, President Museveni volunteered to venture into the restive Somalia, where American commandos suffered a humiliating defeat during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, which changed the West’s view of him.
In 2007, Uganda deployed the first contingent of UPDF to Somalia under the AMISOM banner.
The President has routinely said Uganda’s abiding interest is to pursue a pan-Africanist agenda by combatting an aggressive neo-colonial agenda. He has of recent accused his opponents of being lapdogs of the West.
But he has appeared conflict and often warmed up to the West and in the grand scheme of things, he became the US and its European allies—point man on regional security in the volatile Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa enclave.
Early last December, President Museveni briefly halted his campaign to speak to British and American diplomats on the South Sudan political crisis pitting president Salva Kiir against deputy president Riek Machar.
Uganda too is cheered for its benevolent refugee policy, and the country hosts close to one million refugees.
‘Our man’ in Africa
“The West doesn’t lose sleep about what’s going on in Africa. If they feel threatened they will do something, if they don’t or get what they want; everything else is collateral damage,” political analyst Nicholas Ssengoba said.
“During the cold war, there was a phrase the CIA—sons of bitches—used to refer to dictators but there was also ‘our sons of bitches’ the likes of Mobutu who did America’s bidding.”
He added: “Many think the way the state is crafted here is the same in the West; the State Department may think of something differently from the Pentagon or the White House. For instance, if it’s the war on terror, that a collective rallying point; others, the ideals on human rights, equality, not so much.”
Since ascending to power in 1986, President Museveni has largely been a darling of the West.
In the early 1990s, Mr Museveni’s then progressive government was quick to adopt the liberalisation and privatisation doctrine by the Bretton woods Institutions—the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—which opened taps for foreign aid.
When Bill Clinton as a sitting US President visited in 1998, he spoke of a new breed of African leaders, among them President Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, who he was confident were reform-minded.
These leaders, Clinton foresaw, as progressive who would not cling to power like the old guard.
President Clinton was succeeded by George Bush, who upheld relations with Uganda, and even visited the country once during his eight-year term. Only President Barack Obama and his successor Donald Trump did not visit Uganda.
President Obama rebuked African leaders, who do not want to give up power, besides routinely condemning Mr Museveni’s government excesses, participated in ejecting Libyan strongman Muamar Gaddafi.
President Trump largely ignored Africa, and Mr Museveni, a frequent flier to foreign capitals, visited the United States only once during his time.
President Joe Biden, who was sworn in last month, is the seventh US head of state during President Museveni’s 35-year presidency.
Four-time presidential candidate Besigye told this newspaper that the West’s interests come first.
“All of them, in order for their interests to be sustained they want stability. That is why they trade stability for change that people aspire to; change from undemocratic regimes to democratic creates some kind of instability; he brit pains of democracy, so they’d rather keep an outrightly unpopular regime as long as it can keep stability,” Dr Besigye said.
He added: “These foreign governments account to their populations periodically so they need results; they may not have a long view of a country but rather results which might be got with people who are there. Quite often they become stuck with people who are there than new ones; or they’d rather someone from within the regime to continue stability than a completely new one.”
In the 2016 General Election, diplomatic sources revealed at the time that whereas some Western diplomats knew that former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi had little chance against unseating the incumbent, he was their safe pair of hands for “purposes of continuity” than the more popular Besigye who left the NRM in 1999 after authoring a critical paper detailing how President Museveni had betrayed the ideals of the Luweero bush war.
A powerful lobby group led by former UN Secretary General, Koffi Annan and former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo met in London in November 2015 alongside Besigye and Amama Mbabazi seeking to hammer a deal to have one joint candidate. But the meeting ended in a stalemate.
With the notoriously fickle alliance with the West, Mr Museveni has gradually embraced the East—China and Russia, who are ready to embrace the resource rich Africa and turn a blind eye at African governments’ human rights record.
Ties that bind
Throughout the last two decades, President Museveni and the West have traded barbs over largely human rights issues, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights and corruption amongst others. But as he embarks on a sixth term later in May, some think this love-hate relationship has come under immense test.
Already, one official intimated to this newspaper that plans are underway to hire lobbyists in Washington to clean up the mess that dates back to removing the age limit to allow the President, who is officially 76 to contest in the just-concluded elections.
“Lobbyists is something we are thinking about but it’s not yet official,” the official indicated.
Now among the longest serving non-traditional leader in the world, with the likes of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has reigned for 41 years, Cameroon’s Paul Biya with 37 years and Republic of Congo’s Denis Ngueso with 36 years, President Museveni enjoys a special relationship with the West compared to his peers.
Whatever his shortcomings are, political scientist Frederick Kisekka Ntale said the President “has been and remains a big ally of America’s foreign policy” and in that way insured himself.
“The character of the new President (Biden) is not that combative, so I don’t see him being aggressive towards the likes of Museveni. Plus, the new administration is preoccupied with a lot,” Dr Ntale said.
Part of the reason is, insiders say, the President has the dexterity to remain in the good books of the West; already, Uganda is touted as one of the West’s major allies in the volatile Great Lakes.
In turn, the West doled out millions of dollars in military aid and other forms of donations in vital sectors such as health.
Today the United States, which is the biggest donor funder to the country, pools a sizeable chunk of Uganda’s health sector budget.
Of the $896 million (Shs3.3 trillion) in assistance to Uganda in 2018, $511m or Shs1.9 trillion went to the health sector, specifically interventions in HIV/Aids.
However, others argue that given the instability across neighbouring states, the Kampala regime has in the past tried to establish a cordon sanitaire against the aggressive regimes of Omar Bashir and Mobutu Ssese Seko in Sudan and former Zaire, respectively.
There is a divide in opinion whether the Kampala regime is an anchor-man of stability or relies on brinkmanship to gain advantage in the region.
But with the Democrats returning to office and known for a no-holds barred approach with African regimes with a poor human rights and governance record, Uganda remains on the radar of State Department officials.
The New York Times, quoting State Department officials, reported last month that the US “is considering action against the government”, especially sanctioning officials.
Dr Besigye, however, says Ugandans should stop being deluded expecting a solution from outside, whether West or East.
“Our people should always remember that it is us to get the governments, good governance we desire; not for others to get it for us,” he said. “The level of focus and attention that we give and expect from foreigners is sometimes exaggerated.”
But as the regime seeks to control its grip onto power, and with the military increasingly playing an active role including human rights violations and suppression of the opposition, it remains to be seen whether West can afford to turn a blind eye to their erstwhile ally.