Yoweri Museveni’s 27 years in power is the exception in post-independence Uganda. The country’s first president, Frederick Mutesa II, was deposed after less than three years in power. His successor, Milton Obote, was the victim of a coup led by Idi Amin. Idi Amin was overthrown following the Uganda-Tanzania war. This paved the way for Obote to return to power before he was deposed once again, this time leading to the rise of Tito Okello. Tito Okello was deposed by Museveni in 1986.
Since then, Museveni has managed to maintain power through great skill at manipulating to his own advantage in international, regional and domestic politics, as well as keeping firm control over the military.
Museveni’s first decade and a half in power brought him plaudits and praise from the international and donor communities. He tackled HIV/AIDS head on and presented himself as an intellectual, open to debate and dialogue. Delighted by the 1996 establishment of multiparty elections, the international community swooned and soon Museveni found himself with both strong personal support and plenty of aid money to distribute.
Museveni was seen as an aid darling and part of a new generation of progressive African leaders. Like the other three on that original list – Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki – Museveni’s halo began to slip with the abolition of term limits, increased publicity around cases of corruption, and a greater understanding of the crimes committed during the Second Congo War.
However, Museveni continues to be the West’s indispensable leader in the Great Lakes region, despite more recent allegations of support for the M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The wily old leader can be counted on to cause trouble for Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, a bête noire for the international community, and to provide the manpower for the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Whilst Museveni used to gain support for his internal policies and great PR, now it is geopolitical realities which keeps Museveni in favour despite everything else.
Museveni, like Paul Kagame in neighbouring Rwanda, came to power at the head of a rebel movement, which then became the country’s military and government. Also like Kagame, Museveni never let the military get out of his control and has kept them thoroughly occupied.
First, the military was sent to subdue the north where Acholi, Teso and Langi communities – from which much of Obote’s and Okello’s armies were recruited – resided; this, however, turned into the long running fight with the rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. The Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) – so named after the promulgation of the 1995 constitution – was also deployed to the DRC during the Second Congo War (1998-2003). And now, the Ugandan military forms the largest component of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).
As well as keeping the army busy, Museveni has also been careful not to allow alternative poles of power to emerge within the military. He remained commander of the armed forces and initially promoted many Tutsi Rwandans to senior positions; the Rwandans eventually left the Ugandan military to fight and then overthrow the Rwandan government in 1994. For example, Paul Kagame was Museveni’s first chief of military intelligence after winning the Bush War. Besides this, Museveni has used the age old method of promoting his family – both his son and brother are senior military figures – and using the spoils of war, especially from the DRC, to keep generals happy and at bay.
This strategy of preventing alternative poles of power from emerging has also been what Museveni has relied on to maintain control of domestic politics. Whilst there is opposition to his rule, it has thus far failed to become a major unified force that can challenge power. This is in part due to the ruling party’s divide and rule tactics, but also because of harassment of major opposition figures such as Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s former doctor in during the Bush War.
Museveni also has been successful, so far, in clipping the wings or allowing the wings to be clipped of potential rivals from within his regime. Many feel that Prime Minister Amana Mbabazi’s recent troubles with corruption allegations stem from Museveni not protecting him.
However, there are signs of restiveness in the country. 2011 saw the Walk to Work protests with revolt coming out into the open. And Uganda’s parliament, including Museveni’s own National Resistance Movement caucus, are causing enough problems for the regime and the military to have recently made crude threats about a return to military rule if parliament does not toe the executive’s line.
Museveni’s successes in manipulating domestic politics could eventually prove to be a factor in his eventual demise. He has no obvious successor having prevented anybody from developing to the point where they may be able to challenge him. He has often repeated that he is the only person with the “vision” to lead Uganda and that he will not exit the scene until he has discovered someone else with the requisite “vision”. This is causing problems within his own party as a new generation of MPs have begun to agitate for generational change.
Museveni’s rule is less secure than it once was. But, whilst he may not be the “governance expert” he labelled himself last year, his pure longevity demonstrates that he is a staying-in-power expert.
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