Widely respected political scientist Jay Ulfelder recently wrote that Uganda was the second ‘ripest’ country in the world for a transition to democracy.
He also estimated that the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government was the 22nd most likely to experience a coup. Through complex statistical modelling taking into account proxies such as infant mortality rate and degree of democracy, Ulfelder predicts that 2012 could well see the end of President Yoweri Museveni’s 26-year rule.
Other evidence also points to potentially dangerous political instability in Uganda. For one, the much-lauded Ugandan press experienced a heavy crackdown last year. Amid various opposition protests throughout 2011, police opened fire on reporters, arrested photographers, and repressed journalists. As a result, Uganda tumbled 43 places in the recently released ‘Press Freedom Index 2011/2012’ from 96th to 139th of the 179 countries ranked.
With civil liberties under threat, activists such as the long-time leader of the main opposition party, Dr Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), have recently escalated their rhetoric.
At a rally two weeks ago, Besgiye proclaimed, “when the right time comes, [local] leaders will communicate effectively to you the public on when to rise up against President Museveni… Wait for the signal… We shall demonstrate in [police stations] and see if they will arrest and keep this whole country”.
Similarly, a 2011 Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) National Council resolution stated “it is now manifestly clear that it is not possible to achieve democratic change in Uganda working within the mould, framework, institutions, processes and arrangements which are organised and controlled by Yoweri Museveni and his regime”.
Such political disaffection is even creeping into Museveni’s own party; 100 NRM MPs – over a third of the caucus – boycotted a recent party retreat. Their anger is not without justification. Not only has Museveni indiscreetly hinted at his eagerness to stand for the presidency in 2016 (potentially extending his rule to 35 years), but the alleged printing of millions to finance the president’s re-election campaign last year sent negative reverberations through the national economy.
Aiming to counter this sudden injection of cash, the Central Bank was forced to resort to wildly unpopular monetary tightening. Combined with the eurozone crisis, this dynamic moved the International Monetary Fund to predict just 4% growth for 2012, the lowest annual rate since 2005.
And when a corruption scandal threatened to implicate the president in the loss of £40 million ($63 million), two prominent NRM ministers were forced to fall on their swords. Such developments seem likely to accelerate the erosion of Museveni’s legitimacy.
To assess Uganda’s stability, however, we must examine these risks within the context of Museveni’s politics. Despite the outward appearance of weakness and illegitimacy, Museveni is able to check dissent by employing a style of governance perhaps best described as ‘semi-authoritarian’.
As scholar Aili Mari Tripp writes, the NRM government relies on a delicate balance of constitutionalism and autocracy, employing both carrot and stick. Over the years, Museveni has adopted legal-democratic rhetoric, reformed the judiciary, and submitted to domestic and international pressure to broaden civic participation. All the while, however, he was been capriciously abusing civil rights, extra-constitutionally strengthening the executive, and informalising the function of political power.
As a result, institutional autonomy is purposely left in question. And a vacuum is created in which Museveni can wield broad authority.
Mitigated authoritarianism, the defining feature of Ugandan governance, is the result of Museveni’s efforts to combat democratisation in the wake of the Cold War. Fearing the end of aid from the West, Museveni bowed to demands and instituted competitive elections while reining in military influence and ensuring no reform was bold enough to induce genuine reform.
In Tripp’s words, while elections became the norm, “the early, broad-based NRM government, which had sought to incorporate a wide spectrum of political, ethnic, religious, and other interests through political appointments and processes of consensus building, was replaced by a smaller clique of loyalists, whose activities were cloaked in secrecy”.
This dual agenda worked. Between 1990 and 2005, annual receipts of Western aid averaged roughly $793 million while Museveni’s grip on power only tightened.
Examining the threats to Museveni’s rule in the context of Uganda’s semi-authoritarian system, a coup or forced democratic transition seems less likely.
Emboldened by recent by-election victories, the FDC, UPC, and other minority parties are increasingly calling for more radical change while contesting political power through institutionalised processes. This remains true even as Museveni’s security forces illegally detain activists. Besigye himself boasts: “I have been arrested over 11 times and taken to court but have never defended myself. Charges against me could not be sustained”.
However, while an independent judiciary may seem like a check on the president’s power, it in fact functions as an intentional counterbalance to the repressive police force that holds ultimate authority. Functioning courts and a relatively free press are a distraction from the informal practices with which Museveni governs. The façade of impartial institutions grants the opposition enough rope with which to hang itself – or at least marginalise its own voice.
No case better exemplifies this process of opposition leading itself into self-imposed irrelevance than the recent signing of national petro-contracts. Concerned MPs, some from within the NRM, had previously passed a resolution delaying the development of Uganda’s recently-discovered oil and natural gas, apparently placing a legal barrier between Museveni and this massive windfall.
Yet on February 2, they learned – through an undisclosed Western diplomat, himself informed through clandestine sources – that the president was to sidestep this resolution and sign production agreements with the Anglo-Irish firm Tullow Oil at 2pm the following day. The MPs immediately organised to draft a legal injunction on the morning of February 3, deciding the courts would be the best impediment to an egregious presidential power-grab. To their shock, however, this plan was thwarted: Museveni was, it has been reported, illegally monitoring their phone calls. He moved the signing to 10am, and by the time the injunction was written, the rushed contract’s ink had already dried.
Museveni was able to achieve his desired political result by exercising informal authority over the security community and ensuring that tentative parliamentary resolutions are not enforceable. He granted MPs the legal options of resolution and injunction, only to sidestep such mechanisms through backdoor tactics.
A master class in the workings of semi-authoritarianism, the Tullow agreement took on the appearance of legitimacy while ultimately undermining Ugandan institutions and sidelining any opposition. As always, fierce resistance to Museveni’s plans amounted to all smoke and no fire.
Despite solidifying his power through largely illegal means, Museveni has managed to sustain goodwill at home and abroad by allowing piecemeal institutionalisation of the press, civil society, and the judiciary. By giving the opposition the appearance of avenues for contesting political power, these decades of lukewarm reform have ironically made it less likely that a ‘Ugandan Spring’ will sweep the NRM from government.
Although the risk of a coup or violent transition cannot be discounted, it seems unlikely that 2012 will see the end of Museveni. Instead, what little space has opened over the past twenty years will likely be probed at and widened as the opposition tries to build its base.
While there are many indications that Ulfelder’s projections may yet be confirmed, more plausible is that the slow, lurching democratisation that has characterised the last half of Museveni’s reign will remain. Ugandans may yet have many more years to wait for real transition.
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