Politics and Protest in Uganda
February 20, 2013
Uganda’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), marked 27 years in power on January 26. The focal point of the celebrations was a ceremony in Kasese district, in the west of the country, presided over by Yoweri Museveni, the man who led the National Resistance Army rebels into Kampala in 1986 and who remains at the helm of the party, and the country, today. The president lavished honors for national service on Uganda’s great and good who dutifully lined up to collect their medals and shake his hand. The 35,000 or so recipients included military veterans, religious leaders, and Uganda’s Olympic gold-winning marathon runner, Stephen Kiprotich. The all-inclusive spirit of the occasion even extended to former adversaries. Posthumous honors were bestowed on Uganda’s former presidents, with the notable exception of Idi Amin.
However, behind the outward show of harmony, all is not well. Ugandan political life has been through a rocky few months, with angry clashes in Parliament, veiled threats of a coup by senior military officials including the president himself, mounting public anger over rampant corruption in public life, an ongoing crackdown on civil society, and the apparently never-ending controversy over proposals to impose harsh criminal penalties on homosexual conduct. Most of all, the unresolved question of President Museveni’s succession looms over political life and presents a problem which the constitution, having removed term limits in 2005, is unable to resolve.
Uganda’s parliament has been at the center of the recent political tumult. President Museveni could have been forgiven for expecting an easy ride following his resounding, albeit controversial, victory in the 2011 elections, when the NRM took 295 of 365 parliamentary seats. But the new intake of young NRM MPs has been unexpectedly unruly. Concerns over the deteriorating state of public services and lack of government accountability have been focal points for dissent. Rebel NRM MPs helped Parliament stall the passage of Uganda’s budget in protest at deficient health care funding and temporarily halted the work of a commission of inquiry into the management of the education system, citing its lack of progress. The House also passed a resolution condemning the failure to remove the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister as part of an investigation into missing donor funds. The issuing of resolutions has been an increasingly popular means of protest by the legislature but has met with an uncompromising response from President Museveni who publicly and repeatedly declared his intention to ignore them. NRM stalwarts contend that the current session of parliament has generated more heat than light and argue that the resolutions passed by parliament have had little discernible impact other than to antagonize the president.
The most fractious debate of all during the preceding session of parliament was over a bill to manage Uganda’s oil industry, which although in its infancy has the potential to provide a big boost to the economy when production begins later this decade. MPs were furious that the final version of the Petroleum Bill proposed giving the oil minister sole authority to grant and revoke licenses and negotiate agreements, rather than sharing the responsibility with an independent petroleum authority. Proposed amendments were rejected and the bill was passed on December 7, 2012.
However, the issue was reignited following the mysterious death of a young NRM MP who had been a leading critic of the bill in the House. Cerinah Nebanda Arioru, who was 24, died of a suspected drug overdose. Attempts to conduct an independent assessment into the cause of her death were thwarted when a pathologist was detained at Entebbe airport as he tried to take samples from Ms. Nebanda’s body to South Africa for testing. The episode unleashed a flurry of colorful accusations and prompted concerned MPs to put together a petition, gathering enough signatures to trigger a recall of Parliament. An irate President Museveni responded by describing the MPs as “fools” and “idiots.”
These developments put Rebecca Kadaga, speaker of parliament, in a tight spot. Ms. Kadaga has been carefully cultivating her power base, establishing a reputation as a capable politician with reformist credentials while studiously avoiding overt opposition to the president. Her name frequently crops up in Kampala’s political circles when potential successors to President Museveni are discussed, along with the likes of Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, former vice president Gilbert Bukenya (now rebuilding his political career after being cleared of fraud), the first lady Janet Museveni, and Brigadier General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the president’s son. However, when presented with the choice of siding with the legislature or the executive, Ms. Kadaga caved in to the president. She rejected the recall petition on the questionable grounds that some of the signatures had been forged and some of the signatories had requested to withdraw their names.
For the time being, order appears to have been restored and the balance of power has shifted firmly back in favor of the president. The speaker has been chastened by the events of recent weeks, which have dented her reform credentials. Her decision to expel from Parliament two journalists whose stories she deemed damaging to her office suggest she is feeling the strain. Now the talk is whether President Museveni will force his advantage and engineer her removal.
The spat between the president and parliament continued into the new year, taking an ominous turn in January when President Museveni reportedly told delegates at an NRM retreat that the military would not stand aside if the current state of “confusion” in Parliament continued. His remarks were reiterated by Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga and the chief of defense forces, General Aronda Nyakairima, who said the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UDPF) would not allow “bad politics” to drag Uganda back into chaos. The comments caused a furor in the media, although many analysts noted that Museveni’s remarks were merely a statement of the obvious fact that the military is the real source of power in public life. Evidence of the UPDF’s influence in politics is not hard to find. For example, under Uganda’s constitution 10 military MPs sit in Parliament where they provide a solid bloc of support to the president.
The coup talk that dominated political discussion at the start of 2013 has provoked a broader debate about the state of the UPDF and the extent to which it is speaking with one voice. Some figures close to the UPDF argue that older, more experienced officers from the resistance era are being sidelined and that the saber-rattling emanates from a younger clique of officers clustered around Muhoozi, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the rank of brigadier and commands the Special Forces Group which provides protection to the president and guards the country’s oil facilities. Splits between the older and younger generations are replicated in the ruling party to some extent, with the latter chafing at the lack of movement at the top and becoming braver in expressing their dissatisfaction in forthright terms.
What does all of this mean for President Museveni? There are those who argue that his powers are on the wane and the fractiousness of parliament, the UPDF, and the NRM reflect the fact that Ugandans realize his time is coming to an end. Certainly, his willingness to raise the specter of military intervention could be interpreted as a sign that he feels vulnerable. Another sign of the president’s weakness is that his main apparatus for exercising power, the operation of a vast and expensive patronage system, is coming under increasing strain. The price of loyalty is rising (the value of cash handouts has increased with each election), finances are tight, a succession of corruption scandals has caused donor funds to dry up, and oil production, although a potentially lucrative source of revenue, remains several years away.
At the same time, President Museveni’s abilities to coopt, cajole, and threaten those around him remain potent. These skills were used to maximum effect in the days following Ms. Nebanda’s death, when members of her family were among those who suggested that Museveni himself may have been involved. The president not only demanded and received an apology but also arranged a public reconciliation which has led to the MP’s sister winning a by-election for the vacated parliamentary seat and declaring her loyalty to the NRM. Furthermore, President Museveni shows no inclination whatsoever of stepping down and few would be surprised if he chose to contend the presidency once more in 2016.
Those who oppose Museveni face marginalization, harassment, and potential arrest for the most vocal critics. The formal political opposition is weak. The main threat to the NRM during the last three elections, the Forum for Democratic Change, has entered a period of consolidation following the resignation of its president Kizza Besigye and the petering out of his ‘Walk to Work’ protests in the face of considerable violence by the security forces. Its new leader Mugishu Muntu is widely seen as a more moderate but less charismatic personality than his predecessor. Instead, civil society is viewed as the main threat by the president and has therefore borne the brunt of recent crackdowns. A number of groups have latched onto seething public disquiet over spiraling corruption and are using the issue as a rallying cry for civic action. Led by an alliance of nongovernmental organizations, they have urged supporters to wear black clothing every Monday as a signal of their rejection of public graft. The response of the authorities to the so-called Black Monday Protests has been predictably heavy-handed. During a protest on February 4, activists were detained by the police as they handed out copies of their newsletter at Makerere University. Those arrested included Dr. Zac Niringiye, the former assistant archbishop of Kampala, who has become one of the most outspoken opponents of President Museveni. Police said they were held on suspicion of inciting violence against public officials.
So far, the international response to Uganda’s political unrest has been muted. The focal point of public engagement with the government on issues of political and civil liberties remains the proposed anti-homosexuality bill, which is slated for debate in the new session of Parliament. An earlier form of the bill would have introduced the death penalty for the offence of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ although that clause has since been dropped.
However, beyond the anticipated outcry over this legislation, there is little sense of an impending change in approach by the United States. U.S. embassy officials declare themselves generally satisfied with the direction the country is taking and praise the strength of the bilateral security relationship. They are particularly grateful for the role Ugandan troops have played in helping restore a degree of stability in Somalia. The Kampala bombings of July 2010, in which more than 70 people were killed by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab, further solidified the counterterrorism partnership. The UPDF is also the key military partner in the U.S. regional strategy to track down and eradicate the Lord’s Resistance Army. President Museveni has cleverly positioned himself as the United States’ ‘go-to guy’ in this troubled region. In its engagement with Uganda, the implicit message from the United States is that Museveni can count on support as long as he remains in charge. In part, this stems from an appreciation of what the president has achieved in the past. It is true that Museveni’s contribution to bringing peace and stability to Uganda is substantial but his legacy risks being sullied by his reluctance to relinquish power. The United States runs a risk by attaching itself too closely to the fortunes of an increasingly erratic and discredited individual.
While there is no sense that a crisis is imminent, the trajectory of Uganda is clearly downwards. Many analysts within the country have a sense of foreboding about the future and their sense of gloom is reinforced by their knowledge of history: Uganda has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power. The process of democratization has come unstuck, the standard of political and economic governance has declined, corruption is endemic, public services are crumbling, and the space for legitimate opposition and civil society activity has sharply contracted. Any further unraveling could lead to instability, which is not in the interests of either the United States or Uganda. The shortage of viable alternatives to Museveni should not be used as an excuse for U.S. inaction in the face of Uganda’s increasingly troubling abuse of democratic rights and civil liberties.
Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.