Museveni’s ‘new’ term and democracy in Uganda

On Saturday 20th February, Badru Kiggundu, the chairman of the outgoing Ugandan Electoral Commission, declared Yoweri Museveni the winner of the just-concluded presidential election. At the end of the new five-year term, his fifth as an elected president, Museveni will have ruled Uganda for 35 years.

Not surprisingly, the freeness and fairness of the elections have been called into question by many local and international observers. From the outset, they were set to be dubious. During a trip to the country last December, I couldn’t help but notice an atmosphere of tame resignation. The general sense was that the posters of opposition candidates jostling for space on the country’s electric poles were part of a game whose outcome was already determined.

Museveni wasn’t going to lose.

During the election, two opposition candidates were effectively under house arrest by the military. The most viable opposition candidate, Dr Kizza Besiggye, had been in and out of scuffles with the police for the whole week. Many polling stations in his strongholds in and around the capital Kampala received ballot papers within minutes of 4pm, when polls were supposed to begin closing. There was sporadic violence and rumours of violence, and my friends in Uganda had to resort to VPNs to circumvent a social media lockdown.

In the end, more than 5.4 million eligible Ugandans didn’t take part in the exercise. There certainly are many reasons for this. One of them, and I think the most pertinent, is the one a Ugandan who was in Kenya during the election week gave; his vote wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.

It’s not easy to make conclusions about what happened in Uganda, given the proximity of the event to the time of writing. But for a Kenyan, the similarities with the time of our President Moi were inescapable, as much as that is possible for someone who only lived through the tail end of those days. The election was staged more as a rubber stamp to the continued rule of a strongman than as an open platform for the projection of the voice of the people he seeks to rule.

Museveni apparently wanted another term — a 2006 constitutional amendment struck down term limits — because he was worried about leaving the country in the wrong hands. The effect is that he sounds like a man who thinks he’s the only one who can lead the country, which smacks of a longing to rule forever and is the hallmark of all dictators’ desperate claims to legitimacy. He might sound concerned about the country, but he is also going against the statement he made at his first swearing in in 1986 that ‘democracy is the right of the people of Africa.’

But even against the backdrop of Museveni’s inveterate penchant for presidential terms, one also shouldn’t be too quick to canonise the opposition candidates. Their every tribulation shouldn’t be seen as evidence of the government’s high-handedness and nothing else. On some occasions, Besiggye tactically provoked the government to act in a manner that would suggest intimidation. Not one to be outdone in a game of egos, Museveni responded in these cases with impressive and witty swiftness, detaining the man more than once one week before the election.

That way, Besiggye came out the martyr. When he therefore claimed two days before the elections that they would neither be free nor fair, but that he would win nevertheless, he sounded like the one on the right side of history. With this in mind, one easily ignores the fact he has been cut from the same tree as Museveni, having served the president as his personal physician during and after the Ugandan Bush war, which brought Museveni to power. Sure, that’s not reason enough to dismiss him, but it shows that there is more to their rivalry than a desire to bring Uganda to its best days.

Given that Museveni hasn’t been too enthusiastic to jump onto the liberal bandwagon, boldly standing up to western-pushed calls for gay rights, reproductive health services (quite a misnomer) and condoms in the fight against AIDS (a battle in which the country has made great strides anyway), there is an overwhelming temptation for many to paint him the devil and Besiggye the saint, and many have done just that. As a matter of fact, a glowing tribute was paid to Besiggye in the Daily Nation — Kenya’s largest newspaper — by Nic Cheeseman, an Oxford professor of African Politics who was in western Uganda during the elections.

Certainly, Museveni hasn’t played it fair this time. If he had, maybe he still would have won. After all, his main support base is in the rural areas, where the vast majority of Ugandans live. But he would have been above reproach. The effect of his antics has been to associate his resistance to the west with an illegitimate presidency, which isn’t exactly a good thing. Denying his countrymen the right to a free and fair election and denying them gay rights are seductively easy to equate and use as evidence of African conservativism’s dictatorial tendencies.

Like it or not though, he remains the president of Uganda, and that means a lot for the region’s geopolitics. It means Kenya’s government retains a stalwart eastern friend and an indispensable ally in the battle against al-Shabaab, given that Uganda’s troops constitute the largest AMISOM (an AU mission in Somalia) contingent. Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, maintains a close friendship with Museveni, and braved a backlash from Kenyans when he congratulated Museveni in his victory.

The victory also means the US has to keep working with him in tracking Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). The LRA’s 25-year insurgency in northern Uganda, the Central African Republic, Congo (DRC) and, more recently, Sudan’s Darfur, has claimed thousands of lives and ruined even more. American advisors have been part of the search for Kony since 2010, following a popular law signed by Obama.

Maybe it’s a preposterous statement, but Museveni might have the best chance of lassoing Kony, since he’s been on his trail longest and with most success. But even here he is not above reproach. For one, his support for the en masse African withdrawal from the ICC and witty dismissal of the court during the campaigns goes against his referral of the Kony case to the same court in 2003 and certainly occasions one or two doubts of his commitment to the fight. Time only can tell whether this will be the term when he finally captures the elusive renegade.

Ultimately though, despite Museveni’s antics, democracy seems on the rise in Uganda. It is possible, almost certain, that, just like Kenya moved from its one party days to the political melee that it is right now, Uganda will one day say goodbye to Museveni and have a taste of what we hopeless moderns call real democracy, where the people you elect end up doing exactly the same things the ones you’ve kicked out used to. One can only hope that Museveni will bow out gracefully, and humbly overlook the few banana peelings that will be thrown at him during the handing-over ceremony.

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