‘Vote Museveni’ t-shirts, with the President’s faded but smiling face, and the washed out election posters covering any and all available outside spaces provide a reminder of the fragility of Uganda’s democracy. Yoweri Museveni is a president entering a fifth term of office after yet another election clouded by widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Museveni has a clear band of loyal supporters, who often praise the stability created by the president, a stability that has by no means been a certainty for Uganda given the country’s violent past. Following a tumultuous decade during the 1970s under dictator Idi Amin, and in comparison to many of their sub-Saharan African neighbours, Uganda has seen relative political peace since the current president overthrew the oppressive regime of Milton Obote in 1986. Yet, with a set homosexuality laws condemned across the globe, an economy struggling to pass on its growth to the wider population, and a significant structural reliance on NGOs, Uganda has not reached the levels of prosperity that this supposed relative level of stability should have allowed. This has led to questions over the legitimacy of the state and whether sacrificing free elections for the sake of apparent peace and stability has been worthwhile – questions that have been increasing in frequency among the younger generation of Ugandans following another Museveni victory, and six months of oppression of the opposition leader, Dr Kizza Besigye.
Such a dubious state of democracy is not uncommon in East African states, but this has not prevented many in the East African Community from achieving sustained growth and development – Rwanda under Paul Kagame has been heralded as the epitome of this. With the guilt over the 1994 genocide looming over the West, aid has been generous and comprehensive in Rwanda. Paired with Kagame’s iron leadership forcing the nation to modernise, admittedly at the expense of freedom of speech and expression, Rwanda has seen one of Africa’s most remarkable improvements in public health and the economy. At times during his presidency, Museveni had been heralded as one of the dynamic, progressive African leaders that could heavily engage with the West, and help lead the development of the continent, a role often also allocated to Kagame. The common spiel from Museveni’s supporters is that the 72 year-old president has worked along a common vein to Kagame, bringing an end to nationwide conflict, and defeating many major insurgency groups, including the globally recognised Lord’s Resistance Army. Under the charismatic leadership of Joseph Kony, the heterodox Christian cult and rebel group today comprises fewer than 240 fighters, with Kony in hiding in the failing state of South Sudan. Museveni claims his presidency has seen the most effective response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. However, for many Ugandans this is not enough to justify Museveni’s multiple amendments of the constitution to extend his permitted number of terms in office. For supporters of Colonel Doctor Kizza Besigye, leader of the opposition and the rival presidential candidate to Museveni back in February, this constant referral to his bringing of peace is simply an excuse for Museveni’s long stay in government. They argue that the idea that he alone is capable of preventing Uganda from slipping into civil war is a myth designed to protect the ruling party’s own privilege. This idea is in no ways new – Besigye has contested Museveni in each election since 2001, each time losing despite pre-election polling often telling a very different story.
Besigye’s collection of titles come from his stint as the personal medical doctor of President Museveni during the 1981-86 Bush War, the result of which allowed Museveni to take power. Following the victory of the National Resistance Army under Museveni’s leadership, the new President made 29 year-old Besigye Minister of State for Internal Affairs, despite the doctor’s minimal engagement with the political side of the Bush War. Besigye’s rapid rise through the political ranks led to him being viewed as a potential threat to the president, hence the doctor was given work further from the political forefront during the 1990s. Increased disenfranchisement with the work of the National Resistance Movement (the party to which Museveni and Besigye both belonged to at the time) and a stray from what Besigye felt were the principles of Museveni’s armies during the 1980s Bush War led to his publication of a document critical of the government, “An Insider’s View of How the NRM Lost the Broad Base”, which accused the party of being a one-man dictatorship. Despite his official apology for the document in 2000, Besigye was forced to flee to South Africa the following year, alleging persecution by the state. Since his first contest of Museveni’s power in the 2001 elections, Besigye has been frequently arrested, a pattern that has continued well into 2016, with the opposition leader spending time in a cell 34 times in the last five years.
Following the February elections this year, Besigye was imprisoned by Museveni yet again, and placed on trial on treason charges, for enacting a presidential swearing-in ceremony on the same day as the president was officially sworn in for a fifth term in office. Since his release from house arrest in between court sessions, Besigye has taken to the streets of Ugandan cities, waving to supporters from the roof of a moving car. Pro-opposition protests in the post-election period have led to serious revisions of protocol regarding the treatment of demonstrators, with the right of the police to use of tear gas and rubber bullets being revoked. As an alternative, police have taken to beating protestors from the streets of Kampala using sticks. This violence was not reserved for the immediate pre- and post-election periods, with protests being seen in the recent weeks following Besigye’s release from prison.
While travelling in Uganda this summer, the author spoke to a number of Ugandans about their views of the country’s political situation, and what they viewed as the main root of its problems. Whilst the actions of the crowd have inspired many of Uganda’s youth to engage in opposition politics, many of the older generation have little sympathy with those seeking political change. ‘In the cities, protests in favour of Besigye have just been used as an excuse for people to loot,’ stated an elderly supporter of the current president in Isingiro district, in southwestern Uganda. However, for him, the key issue was the interference of outside powers with Ugandan politics. “The UK changes its mind over whether it supports the President or the opposition very often. And for us, for Ugandans, this has a big impact. If America and the UK would stop getting involved with our political parties, maybe we would have fewer problems.” This led onto a discussion about the wider implications of Western interference in African politics. “The Cold War is over – they should leave Africa free. Look what America did to Angola, to Nigeria, to Congo.”
In the southwestern region of Uganda, the home districts of Museveni, and the recipients of significant investment from the President’s government, belief in corrupt practices from the electoral body are still widespread. A young teacher and recent university graduate living in the region explained the difficulties faced by the opposition in the southwest. “Before the election, Museveni’s campaigners spread deep into the remote villages of the district, giving the poorest farmers maybe UGX 10,000 (equivalent of £2.32) to secure their vote. People away from the major roads are so desperate they are swayed by amounts that little. Many are illiterate and know nothing of politics, so they are happy to vote for the familiar face and receive such a gift.” Highlighting two key issues many Ugandans feel are holding back their country most, the teacher’s comments are far from unusual. Rural poverty is persistently endemic. In Busheyni district, Ugandans from well-connected towns and larger villages spoke of the struggles in their home villages and farms. “You see, life in the village is very hard. Out there the people struggle to survive.” Another man referred to the problems of violence still present in politics, explaining the difference between Museveni and Idi Amin, “The difference between Idi Amin and Museveni is that Amin used to shoot you in the street with the whole town watching, but Museveni will poison your food or stage an accident. That’s why he’s even worse.”
The second issue brought up was that of corruption, a factor preventing the development of states across the African continent. A man in his early twenties spoke from the backseat of a taxi of his anger at the corruption of the state back in Isingiro district, highlighting the fact that many of successful development projects in the region had been the work of the EU or USAID. “The money is there. There is just such a culture of corruption, it is everywhere in Africa. It is worst in the family of Museveni himself – you see his wife is Minister for Education and Sport. Of course that office has received a large increase in funding since that appointment.’ Asking if there was any chance of a reduction in such practices in the next few years, the response was sceptical. ‘Don’t allow the two in the front seats to hear, but I’m counting the days until Museveni dies. That’s our only chance for political change.”