A mere eight months after he was declared winner of the February 2011 general elections, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni cannot be said to be enjoying the gilded age of his 25-year reign. Having inflicted heavy defeat upon the opposition, especially his arch-rival Kizza Besigye, and defying predictions of violence with the most peaceful election in a generation, Museveni and his lieutenants could be forgiven for anticipating a period of extended stability. It wasn’t to be.
The famous victory, it turned out, had left a sharply bitter taste in the mouths of a sizeable number of ordinary citizens. Their quality of life was coming under increasing threat by an economy scarred by the profligate election spending, some of it allegedly using sizeable sums of money syphoned from the country’s cash reserves. There is no firm evidence to back up widely-believed claims that the government raided the national treasury for the purposes of funding Museveni’s re-election campaign.
Nonetheless, it was the same government that brazenly endorsed a vast supplementary budget that proposed cuts to education, health and agriculture to recuperate the losses accrued by the ministries of defence and the president’s office, in the midst of an election campaign. For a government not famed for probity and the judicious use of national resources, such a move played into the hands of those who believe it is not above fiddling with taxpayers’ money. And here the record of financial scandals in which its officials, some at the highest levels, have been implicated, speaks for itself.
And then it emerged that in addition to the large supplementary budget, the government had clandestinely forked out hundreds of millions of US dollars, again from the national reserves, to pay for fighter jets. Parliament, the public was told, had been wilfully bypassed as the executive schemed to keep the spending spree secret. It was not clear why a country which faces no obvious military threat, except from a much-diminished Lord’s Resistance Army already hiding away in the forests of the Central African Republic, could justify investing in military hardware of that sort. Sources privy to the reasons why the jets were bought, suggest the government was arming itself in the event that war broke out in Sudan ahead of the referendum for the independence of South Sudan.
The view within official circles, according to sources, was that if, as in the past, such an eventuality were to occur, Uganda would support the southerners. This would inevitably goad the Sudanese government into taking retaliatory measures – and in the past it has been accused of supporting and providing succour to the Lord’s Resistance Army.
It was expected that this time it would do the same, possibly carry out direct attacks as well. A key fear in the minds of Uganda’s military planners was that in the event of hostilities, Sudan, with a relatively well-equipped air force, might decide to bomb targets such as Kampala, upcountry towns, as well as bridges, possibly even the country’s main power-generating dam, the Owen Falls dam. In the absence of some form of air defence, it was argued, they would be powerless to prevent the onslaught. These calculations were not known to the wider public, which explains why when it came to light that millions of dollars had already been spent, the news caused much outrage.
As with the supplementary budget, the public became suspicious and open to the suggestion by the government’s critics, that the government’s rush into purchasing military hardware in the run up to election campaigns had been motivated by the imperative to find money for its political activities. It is well known that such procurement by public bodies provides opportunities for officials to make money through kickbacks. For example, a fairly recent World Bank study showed that up to 500 million US dollars is lost to the national treasury through procurement-related corruption.
In both cases, therefore, President Museveni and his handlers had gifted their political opponents with the basis of a good propaganda campaign portraying the government not only as corrupt, but also as unconcerned about the plight of ordinary people, many of whom lack access to social services. Handed an opportunity with which to whip the government, opposition parties proceeded to exploit it to the full.
The rising cost of living and associated hardships further undermined the government’s standing in the eyes of the general public. Opposition parties called for mass protest, including urging people to walk to work to demonstrate their unhappiness against run-away extravagance. It did not help the government that coinciding with its raid on the national coffers was a rise in petrol and diesel prices, which it refused to do anything about.
And so began a series of protests. The government reacted with gratuitous violence, sending out members of the police and official, semi-official, and unofficial security agencies to beat up unarmed civilians. What it got in return were loud protests, by its own supporters as well as the donor community, at the savagery.
It is several weeks now since the government pulled the teeth out of the walk-to-work protests and went on to institute measures to curb popular unrest. However, whatever victory it scored through the putting down and silencing protests came with a heavy price. Its image, already tainted by corruption scandals, electoral malpractices, and general incompetence, was left with even larger dents. The Museveni government of today is without the esteem in which it was once held. And for Museveni personally, he has long lost much of the shine he once radiated.
Museveni’s troubles today as well as those of his government are not entirely the handiwork of opposition parties, recalcitrant civil society groups and fickle donors. Many members of the ruling party are in rebellious mood and have been at the centre of many of the ruling party’s difficulties in parliament and outside of it - seeking to force key members of the cabinet accused of corruption to vacate office and make way for investigations into their activities. Today, more than ever before, both the ruling party and the government are looking wobbly. It is a situation that has got many commentators talking about them in terms of being hopelessly divided and facing imminent collapse. This, I would argue, is rather hasty.
A government that has been in power for as long as Museveni’s and one with such a loyal military does not collapse so easily. Granted, larger numbers of Ugandans, a sizeable number of Museveni’s own supporters included, would like to see a change in the country’s leadership. That, however, does not translate into wanting change at any cost, even if it meant risking instability. Studies conducted around the February general elections show clearly that the fear of possible instability in the event Museveni were to lose made many would-be supporters of change vote for Museveni or stay away from the polls altogether. Those who stayed away did so in many cases because they could not bring themselves to vote for a highly-divided opposition whose capacity to hold the country together and ensure continued stability was far from certain. The Museveni government has lost ample amounts of legitimacy, but until the opposition parties convince skeptical voters that they have what it takes to win power and manage it in ways that do not threaten stability, both Museveni and the National Resistance Movement will continue to be the beneficiaries of “better the devil we know” syndrome.
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