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Uganda's "Bad Politics": Museveni, the Military and an Assertive Parliament

President Museveni and other high-level officials have warned of a military coup to "refocus the country's future". What does this mean?
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President Museveni, political playmaker, at a charity football match. Photograph by CICC/Oriane Maillet.

This January, Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) and its leader, President Yoweri Museveni, marked 27 years in power.

Museveni and the NRM came to power in 1986 following a five-year guerrilla war against Milton Obote’s government. Since then, Museveni, who has retained close links with the military, has managed to keep a strong hold on power, winning four elections, somewhat controversially, in the process.

Recently, however, Museveni seems to be feeling more under threat. Parliament is proving more assertive and Museveni, Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga and Chief of Defence Forces Aronda Nyakairima have all warned that the military could intervene to “refocus the country’s future” if the current “bad politics” in parliament continue.

Talk of a military takeover is clearly a flagrant threat to parliamentary independence and constitutional rule. At the same time, however, Museveni has also hinted at reforms to the constitution and budget process. Though less spectacular than the prospect of a coup, these suggestions are far more insidious and, if realised, would increase the NRM’s ability to discipline its members and hugely weaken parliament’s oversight role.

Up until now, Uganda has retained a space for democratic manoeuvre, allowing parliament to assert a degree of independence vis-à-vis the executive. This space has been continually negotiated and policed by parliament and the executive alike. Many critics already claim Museveni is an undemocratic despot, but a lot nevertheless remains in the balance should parliament lose its already limited scope for independent action.

Parliament – a more assertive stance?

Despite its large majority of NRM MPs, the 9th Parliament (2011-16) has gained a reputation for its assertiveness. As was the case under the widely acclaimed 6th Parliament (1996-2001), the 9th Parliament’s independent stance hinges on NRM MPs’ willingness to break with the official party line and mobilise through bipartisan coalitions. While opposition MPs play an important role in galvanising debate, without the support of their NRM counterparts the debate would not go very far.

First-term NRM MPs intent on fighting corruption within government led some commentators to speculate early on in the 9th parliamentary session that power might be “slipping away from Museveni” within the NRM.

In October 2011, less than six months into the new parliamentary session, a group of ‘rebel’ MPs spearheaded a petition to call back the House over allegations of bribery in handling oil contracts implicating three cabinet ministers.

Subsequent calls for the restoration of presidential term-limits harkened back to a particularly bruising brush with parliament during the 2005 campaign to have term-limits lifted.

In September 2012, MPs threatened to block the budget until Museveni agreed to channel more funds to prop up the “dead” healthcare system. In December, parliament and the executive were at loggerheads again over a clause in the Petroleum Bill, which MPs insisted should be amended to ensure an independent Petroleum Authority handle the licensing process rather than the Minister of Energy (and, in practice, Museveni).

And in the most recent flare-up, suspicions relating to the death of a vocal parliamentarian, and the abuse of some members who suggested government involvement, prompted MPs to rally around a petition demanding that the president come before parliament to explain his remarks and his apparent disrespect for parliament and the separation of powers.

These signs of parliamentary opposition are characteristic of the so-called “bad politics” denounced by Museveni and his allies in the recent talk of a coup. They point to a wide range of concerns to do with curbing corruption, improving service delivery, and strengthening accountability mechanisms – all of which run afoul of Museveni’s attempts to expand executive control and shelter corrupt members of government.

Keeping parliament in check

Despite visible displays of parliamentary opposition, MPs’ record of actually delivering on controversial resolutions is less impressive. Museveni and his close cadre have effectively resorted to a combination of carrots and sticks to ensure MPs toe the line when it matters. Despite initial opposition, the majority of NRM parliamentarians ultimately give in to executive pressure.

One clear example of this pattern was the parliamentary threat to block the budget over insufficient funding for health. After first resisting calls from Museveni to accept a conservative compromise, a number of NRM MPs capitulated, enabling the passage of the budget. It was later alleged that these U-turning MPs were offered bribes.

Museveni also uses NRM caucus meetings to harangue MPs about their allegiance to the party. NRM parliamentarians tend to return from these gatherings in a far more quiescent mood, as was the case with the most recent disagreement over oil licensing regulations.

Of late, Museveni is resorting to still more aggressive strategies of intimidation. At the height of the most recent controversy, several NRM MPs were jailed and abused after they allegedly ‘incited violence’ by implying government involvement in the death of their erstwhile colleague.

The fact that Museveni has managed to circumvent parliamentary obstacles does call into question the significance of a more vocal parliament. But despite the disappointing lack of tangible results, parliamentary resistance to the executive has contributed to the apparent erosion of Museveni and the NRM’s legitimacy and electoral support, as reflected by a series of opposition by-election victories.

Additionally, parliamentary debate, even when it results in MPs voting against their own conscience, also indirectly increases transparency. Regarding the oil debates, one opposition MP commented, “Yes, the clique can still loot the proceeds from oil but we have made everybody aware of what is going on”.

Were Museveni to succeed in pushing through constitutional reform strengthening the power to discipline NRM MPs, the feisty attitude of the 9th Parliament would most likely die down. This is what is at stake as Museveni works to outmanoeuvre parliament and single out ‘rebel’ MPs for party discipline.

The military factor and foreign support

Whether or not a coup is likely, and many would argue it is not, the fact that it is being openly threatened leaves no doubt about the gravity of the current political crisis, as Museveni sees it. The recourse to military posturing reflects the power base of the NRM regime. The NRM came to power through a rebel insurgency and Museveni continues to don military fatigues when his power is challenged.

Museveni has often prioritised the military to the detriment of social services, and there is growing cause for concern that, whilst Museveni retains control of the military, there will be little means of dislodging him through democratic process.

Foreign actors are also implicated in emboldening Museveni’s militaristic stance. Although a number of Uganda’s principal donors suspended development aid to the country in response to a corruption scandal, military assistance continues to flow in support of Uganda’s involvement in the African Union mission to Somalia. While the American ambassador to Uganda has indirectly denounced talk of a coup, when push comes to shove, the US has long turned a blind eye to Ugandan military deviance rather than risk jeopardising links with its strategically important ally.

The NRM’s current military posturing attests to the uncertain state of its power. Up until now, Uganda under the NRM has displayed all the qualities of a ‘semi-authoritarian’ regime. The scholar Aili Tripp suggests that Museveni has cultivated a degree of legitimacy by concealing his more authoritarian tendencies behind a façade of constitutionalism and electoral competition.

But this precarious balance is inherently crisis-prone, and the NRM regime seems to be entering into a new phase, with its fragility is apparent in its inability to reconcile its own internal contradictions. For now, however, Museveni’s power remains formidable as he continues to toy with various strategies for further consolidating his authoritarian control.

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