Fault Lines in Five More Years of Museveni’s Rule

This week, well into his 35th consecutive year in power, Yoweri Museveni was sworn into his sixth term as president of Uganda. Recent years have laid bare many of the well-worn tactics of leaders who remain for decades: security forces committing politically expedient abuses with impunity, partisan law enforcement, state resources weaponized to silence critics, and power and wealth concentrated in an inner circle often facing corruption allegations. What remains unclear is what actions the international community may take, if any, in response to the increasing state brutality and economic fault lines prompted by massive debt, patronage, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Uganda’s 2021 elections faced significant criticism from local and international stakeholders, many of whom were never accredited as official observers, in a move seen as obstructing potential evidence of election malpractice. Each election cycle has taken an increased toll on Ugandans, many of whom are eager to experience their country’s first peaceful transition of power since independence. Democracy, however, exists largely in rhetoric and a sophisticated legal framework, while the government persistently fails to deliver quality basic services or uphold citizens’ rights, especially in rural areas. According to the government, 25 percent of Ugandans live below the poverty line and UN Development Program (UNDP) data indicates that 80 percent are considered vulnerable to poverty.

Western allies have historically pointed to Uganda’s “stability”—and Uganda’s role in regional counterterrorism operations—to justify maintained support. But that stability, and the sustainability of the West’s transactions with Museveni, are increasingly harder to justify as allegations of human rights abuses and fiscal mismanagement mount. Museveni and his government face a raft of serious economic and social challenges, including a massive unemployed youth population—over 75 percent of Ugandans are below 30 years old—who are disillusioned with presidential speeches extolling the victories of his bush war that occurred well before they were born. 

Contested Results, Uncontested Brutality

The recent election results were unsurprising; Uganda’s Electoral Commission declared Museveni the winner with 58 percent of the vote. Like leading opposition presidential candidates before him, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known as Bobi Wine, spent various periods of the campaigns in jail and was physically assaulted and placed under house arrest. Wine ultimately rejected the result, citing ballot stuffing and other voting irregularities.

Voting and results aside, the blatant and brutal state-orchestrated violence that marred the campaigns continues to cast a heavy shadow, especially in Buganda, the central region where Wine is from and where the majority of voters support him and his new party, the National Unity Platform (NUP). A deluge of allegations of extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrests, disappearances, and torture of opposition supporters has been reported in both the local and the international press. The NUP released a list of more than 200 people who it argued were arrested and whose whereabouts were unknown. Horrific images circulated of brutalized bodies and weeping mothers alleging their children had been arrested and disappeared. At least two of Wine’s associates were killed and several of his inner circle remain imprisoned, charged by military courts with illegal possession of ammunition while repeatedly denied bail. Museveni himself admitted in a February speech that the military detained at least 318 people but said some had been freed.

The NUP has argued—like others in Uganda’s opposition over the years—that such extralegal and ruthless law enforcement operations are familiar scare tactics to intimidate the opposition and are designed to compel compliance and silence, often when co-optation has failed. While some believe that the prosecution will eventually drop pending charges after this week’s swearing-in—and likely never had any intention to prosecute—the impact of the raft of abuses may not soon be forgotten.

Wine’s NUP was able to contest fewer than half the parliamentary seats, but it is now the leading opposition party in parliament with 57 of the 527 seats. Aided by the creation of numerous new constituencies, the ruling party gained many new seats and still dominates with a total of 336 seats. But it was soundly beaten in the Central Region, where Wine’s Baganda ethnic group predominates.

The Baganda and the cultural kingdom of the Central Region have historically played an outsized role in shaping Uganda’s politics; they were critical to Museveni’s original assent to power, but the region has increasingly become the beating heart of criticism of Museveni’s rule, which could spill over into other regions. Ultimately, the government may need to increasingly rely on greater violence and brute force to thwart domestic opponents, potentially provoking domestic instability and more persistent social movements demanding change.

Ultimately, the government may need to increasingly rely on greater violence and brute force to thwart domestic opponents, potentially provoking domestic instability and more persistent social movements demanding change.

Drowning in Debt

Concurrent with Uganda’s democratic deficits, its economy is buckling under debt burdens. Public debt—due to a range of loans including to support the Covid-19 response—has increased by about 70 percent in the last three years. By the mid-2000s, nearly all Uganda’s external debt was canceled under the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank debt relief programs for highly indebted poor countries. But the debt pressures returned as the government sought to fund mega-infrastructure projects in the energy and transport sectors.  Over the last decade, China has lent Uganda billions of dollars to fund projects including expanding an airport and constructing an expressway, two hydropower dams, and internet infrastructure, among other projects.

Uganda is now saddled with a public debt stock of $18 billion and is likely to surpass the key 50 percent of GDP threshold by 2022, a potential threat to fiscal stability. Currently, roughly two-thirds of Uganda’s total public debt is held by external creditors like China, the World Bank, the IMF, the African Development Bank, and the European Union. Hammered by the economic effects of Covid-19, growth has nosedived in the last year as gross domestic product contracted by 1.1 percent. Revenues are taking a hit and authorities will likely struggle to obtain funds to clear the mountain of debt.

Many are already increasing criticism of the Ugandan government’s recent proposal to cut the health budget by a reported 9.3 percent, despite the ongoing pandemic. The proposed cut is particularly harsh given that Uganda received almost $1 billion in Covid-19-related loans last year without the government unveiling any major economic stimulus programs to struggling citizens.

Already in recent weeks the finance ministry has been mulling over reaching out to creditors, including China, to negotiate possible postponement of loan repayments. As pressure grows on Museveni’s government to find money to clear debts, authorities may hike or impose new taxes on people whose incomes have already been worn thin. This could increase resentment in affected communities and spark unrest.

Lifeline in a Pipeline

The Ugandan government appears to be betting on the development of its oil reserves to reverse its economic woes. Last month, after many years of delays, the Ugandan and Tanzanian governments and oil companies Total (France) and CNOOC (China) signed a much-anticipated deal to construct the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world to bring Uganda’s oil to the world markets. Uganda’s reserves are estimated at six billion barrels but have remained stuck in the ground despite being discovered 15 years ago. Being landlocked, Uganda needed either a lengthy pipeline or a significant domestic refinery to adequately exploit the resource.

Disagreements between oil firms and the government over strategy and taxes meant valuable lost time, despite government promises that profits would soon flow and bring countless national benefits. Signing the $3.5 billion pipeline deal means a key hurdle has been cleared, but crude production will be delayed until at least 2025, just on the cusp of the next election.

Some analysts—and many in the Ugandan government—argue that Museveni’s government needs the petrodollars to resuscitate economic growth, pay off debts, and employ unemployed youth. But there is significant opposition to the project from human rights and environmental groups who argue it will lead to devastating physical and economic displacement in Uganda and Tanzania and put livelihoods, clean water, and biodiversity at risk. The advocacy groups are pressuring banks not to fund the pipeline construction.

If Uganda’s nascent oil industry is derailed, it’s hard to understate the potential economic blow and political fallout. Bereft of anticipated oil revenues and squirming under hefty debt and mass youth unemployment, sufficient opposition pressure could feed into other simmering criticisms of Museveni’s governance.

Breaking the Cycle

Uganda’s Western allies have been unwilling or unable to substantively alter their relationship with Museveni. There have been limited efforts at levying “consequences” for the recent flawed election, but no serious recalibrations of international assistance. Washington, Uganda’s single largest bilateral donor, agreed with many of Wine’s electoral criticisms, stating that the process was “fundamentally flawed” and later that it was “neither free nor fair.” The United States issued visa sanctions against “those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda” but names remain private so there is no explicit sidelining of abusers.

While Museveni’s government tolerates some condemnatory statements and pauses in aid, it remains extremely adept at ensuring Western countries get distracted and generally outmaneuvered. Ruling party insiders are quickly deployed to reassure and handhold Western diplomats and encourage more time-consuming dialogue. Before long, the aid money returns.

Following donor criticism of the government’s attacks on civil society during the elections, Museveni wrote to the finance minister in a letter “leaked” to social media that he was never consulted about the work of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF)—a long-established European-backed $100 million donor aid basket to support government and non-government democracy and good governance work—and accused the facility of “subverting government,” arguing that they must be suspended.

It was a bold red herring; the minister of finance had signed memoranda of understanding with the DGF twice and there were initially two members of the Ministry of Finance on the DGF Board. The prime minister has repeatedly praised DGF’s work and government officials attend DGF-sponsored events and benefit from DGF financial assistance for local government. The DGF board has announced they are in “constructive dialogue” with the Ugandan government, which now argues it wants a role in funding decisions. In turn, the public condemnations regarding the threats to civic space and the election-related abuses themselves have greatly reduced.  

While Museveni’s government tolerates some condemnatory statements and pauses in aid, it remains extremely adept at ensuring Western countries get distracted and generally outmaneuvered.

Museveni ultimately banks on his regional role to blunt criticism. Over 15 years, he has shrewdly consolidated Uganda’s strategic importance as a counterterrorism ally and negotiator in East Africa. Because of his commitments to provide (or threats to withdraw) peacekeeping and military presence in Somalia for counteroperations against the Lord’s Resistance Army and for regional counterterrorism operations, Western donors have appeared reluctant to fundamentally reprioritize significant financial assistance. There has been no shortage of threats to alter support, even as far back as 2012 when the European Union froze development assistance after massive corruption was discovered in Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister or in 2014 when then-U.S. secretary of state John Kerry announced there would be a “review” of U.S. assistance to Uganda in the wake of the passage of the notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Aligning Values to Action

Despite support from some Congressional offices, the Biden administration has yet to apply any new sanctions to Ugandans for human rights abuses and corruption under the Global Magnitsky Act. Similarly, the European Parliament passed a resolution arguing for sanctions under the EU Magnitsky Act against Ugandans responsible for abuses, but EU leadership has taken no action.

As important, no Western government appears to have taken serious steps to fundamentally alter support to Uganda’s security forces; rethink Uganda’s participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia; commit resources to an international investigation into the allegations of extrajudicial killings, torture, and forced disappearances during campaigns; or build multilateral support for an audit of public debt that could lead to some recovery of missing funds.

Museveni’s leadership style will no doubt be a challenge to the Biden administration’s stated foreign policy commitment to “pursue its interests and its values at the same time” but if it doesn’t act—ideally working in coordination with other countries—that commitment may increasingly ring hollow across the continent.

Maria Burnett is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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