Stability, Security, and Uganda’s Ever-Elusive Leadership Transition

In recent months, Uganda analysts and pundits have been parsing the meaning of an avalanche of self-promoting tweets issued by General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son of President Yoweri Museveni and commander of Uganda’s land forces. The tweets, combined with various diplomatic trips to Rwanda, Kenya, Egypt and South Africa, as well as countrywide celebrations of his 48th birthday in April, resurrected long-circulating rumors of a secretive plan, known informally as the “Muhoozi project,” in which he succeeds his father as president.

Some of Muhoozi’s posts have touched on matters of regional security, which have become especially sensitive following a resurgence of conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) sparked by M23 rebel attacks and a palpable row between DRC and Rwanda. In June, regional leaders met in Nairobi allegedly to work out a solution. Muhoozi’s public commentary on these issues seems to have irked his father; reports emerged that President Museveni warned military officials to desist from commenting on foreign policy and security issues on social media.

Western countries have invested heavily in Uganda—despite mounting evidence of corruption, the military’s human rights abuses, and Museveni’s penchant for meddling in neighboring countries’ affairs—because of an entrenched perception that he is a lynchpin to regional security. After 36 years, Museveni has certainly been predictable, meticulously ensuring he remains in power through blatantly unfair elections and self-serving constitutional amendments, buttressed by well-worn tactics of using partisan law enforcement, the intimidation of critics, and lethal force against dissenters. But recent developments raise important questions regarding the direction of any potential leadership transition and the implications for Ugandan citizens and Uganda’s donors.

Messy Transition

It is improbable President Museveni plans to step aside for his son. Museveni’s death while in office is more likely, as he has shown a drive to remain in power at all costs. Schemes to prop up his son, therefore, exist largely as a contingency plan.

Even by his detractors, Museveni is admired for his political acuity; Muhoozi does not share in such admiration. As a child of immense privilege, he would likely struggle to mount an effective “popular” campaign and would revert to money and the army to deliver a win. Recently, his father has used him as a vessel of foreign policy, dispatching him to various African countries, a move which arguably seeks to bolster Muhoozi’s international standing in possible preparation for presidency.

At a domestic level, the focus on Muhoozi’s birthday celebrations was also, at least to some extent, intended to gauge public’s interest in a future Muhoozi campaign—even if it is years away. Social media was filled with obsequious messages of love and support. In a context in which public praise of a big man can be a pathway to money, however, it is not hard to decipher the motives behind the digital outpouring of support for the “#MKArmy.”

Social media can be deceiving. In the run-up to the 2021 elections, Facebook deleted accounts linked to Uganda’s Ministry of Information due to “fake and duplicate accounts to impersonate users and boost the popularity of posts.” The government response was to ban access to Facebook. In December 2021, Twitter removed a network of over 400 accounts “engaged in coordinated inauthentic activity” in support of President Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM). NRM machinery could clearly have ways to inauthentically amplify support for Muhoozi.

In the past, other NRM-affiliated candidates who tried to mount presidential campaigns, such as Amama Mbabazi, faced merciless humiliation when Museveni unleashed the police and army on their campaigns. In contrast, Muhoozi’s campaign, if it were to materialize, would be perceived as having Museveni’s blessing, but that support also means Muhoozi cannot step out of his father’s shadow, nor his increasingly problematic legacy.

Importantly, Muhoozi would need to retire from the military to be eligible under Uganda’s constitution. While he has floated the idea via Twitter previously, he remains commander of land forces, a title that brings him significant formal power. But even if he eventually retired, his influence in the military would likely persist. Given the violence Museveni has deployed in recent elections, one can only imagine that a Muhoozi campaign, run with the support of the army, would be truly brutal on citizens, potentially triggering significant public unrest.

More Constitutional Amendments?

In the next two years, the NRM is likely to table constitutional amendments because of the historical precedent set by previous efforts, the declining legitimacy of the NRM, and the financial calculations among NRM elites eyeing kickbacks.

Earlier amendments, notably the 2005 amendment to remove presidential term limits and the 2017 amendment that annulled presidential age limits, were widely unpopular but ultimately assured Museveni’s prolonged rule. Advocates argued the issues should have been put to a referendum, but the NRM opted for a parliamentary vote which—given the ruling party’s parliamentary majority—guaranteed victory. Yet bribes were also still paid to legislators in 2005 and 2017.

These amendments and related kickbacks significantly dented the credibility of the 1995 constitution, reducing it from a celebrated framework of national consensus to a battered instrument of NRM rule. Maneuvering the nation’s foundational text to benefit one person established a persisting culture of legal partisanship and commercialized politics.

The current context is ripe for yet another shifting of constitutional goalposts, perhaps to ease Muhoozi’s rise to power. Already, a pro-NRM group called the Transformer Cadres Association of Uganda is advocating for a new constitutional amendment that would empower the NRM-dominated parliament to vote for president, effectively sidestepping the current universal suffrage system in which Muhoozi’s prospects would be more uncertain and potentially require force. Such events bear striking resemblance to the past. In the run-up to the previous amendments, similarly shadowy groups bankrolled by the NRM floated early calls for the abolition of presidential term limits and age limits.

A recent deal between Museveni and Norbert Mao, leader of the opposition Democratic Party (DP) and newly appointed justice minister, suggests Mao will lead a future constitutional review process, a sign that plans are advancing.

New moves will likely follow old scripts. Museveni’s government often couples controversial laws with seemingly progressive ones to retain the appearance of constitutional governance, minimizing the risk of popular pushback. The contentious 2005 removal of presidential term limits went hand in hand with restoration of multipartyism after the dreaded no-party "Movement" system. The 2017 amendment to remove presidential age limits simultaneously annulled the lower limit of 35 years, ostensibly expanding youth political inclusion—a subject of much discussion given Uganda’s demographics, but with little tangible progress.

No doubt, maneuvers to entrench authoritarian rule will masquerade as efforts to strengthen checks and balances. In February, the Transformer Cadres called for the restoration of presidential term limits and the creation of a bicameral parliament, measures that seemingly seek to address longstanding grievances from 2005. The recent NRM-DP deal also repeatedly talks of “national dialogue” leading to a “new consensus,” likely referring to proposed amendments. Such moves will intentionally confuse public opinion, complicate opposition mobilization, and further befuddle international responses.

The continued constitutional degradation means that popular demands are likely to seek redress outside official systems—for instance, by attempting to upend formal structures that crush space for divergent views. Uganda’s “stability” may be precarious, as patterns of repression and manipulation become increasingly obvious to young generations.

The Pushback against Museveni’s Dynasty

Opposition to Museveni has always been complex. For two decades, the NRM banned parties under the so-called Movement system, and when it formally restored multipartyism in 2005, the older authoritarian system remained largely intact. The regime continues to stifle rival parties through curtailing access to funding, co-optation, as evidenced by the recent Mao-Museveni deal, and violence against the opposition, as most recently illustrated in the Soroti by-election.

Opposition parties remain in a delicate balance, harnessing the very limited available political space within the pseudo-multiparty system while, simultaneously, seeking to dismantle its authoritarian foundations—and trying to survive jail time and worse. Campaigns of civil disobedience occasionally gain traction as alternative checks on government excesses, but heavy state militarization renders such initiatives largely untenable, especially given increasing deaths in protests.

Thus, political parties stand at a crossroads; space to organize has shrunk significantly, yet institutional politics is hollowed out of meaning. Challenging new constitutional amendments, whether in parliament or in the streets, may prove messy and require stomaching fatalities.

Unsurprisingly, civic organizing is not faring better. Regime paranoia escalates each year and criticism of state policies is labeled “subversion.” In 2021, the government suspended more than 50 NGOs over alleged legal noncompliance. Some had touched topics deemed sensitive to ruling party interests and bank accounts: youth activism, human rights abuses, and advocacy to dissuade foreign investment in ecologically damaging projects.

Indigenous kingdoms that have attempted to challenge Museveni’s power have not been spared, as the state’s brutal responses to the 2009 Buganda protests and the 2016 Kasese incidents reveal. Over five years later, the king of those slaughtered by the military remains under house arrest, and many of the civilians arrested in 2016 remain detained without prospects of trial.

The government has closed virtually all formal outlets for dissent. Yet the sociopolitical and economic grievances that have accumulated—and which worsened during Covid-19—could erupt into mass uprisings at the slightest, if unpredictable, opportunity.

Therefore, while the “Muhoozi project” finds advantage in weakened formal structures, it faces a potent threat from the ever-growing popular frustration with NRM rule. And as inflation in the country soars, there is greater potential that unrest will ensue, and in turn, have grave repercussions for national and regional stability.

Finally, Time for a New Approach

Diplomatic engagement around questions of Uganda’s respect for fundamental freedoms has tended to escalate just before elections and die off shortly after, an approach that has largely failed to have impact, and often made such engagements appear superficial. As Uganda speeds towards its next election in 2026, the United States and others may need to proactively rethink if their security and development support is having the intended outcomes for either Uganda’s citizens or U.S. interests in “stability.”

Perhaps Museveni’s greatest feat has been his adept ability to make himself appear indispensable to U.S. interests, while ignoring the talking points of high-level visiting U.S. officials and deflecting pressure to democratize, curb corruption, end human rights abuses, and open political space. He plays the very long game, all while actively flaunting his rapport with Russia, China and other countries at clear odds with U.S. interests, including North Korea.

At the launch of the new U.S. Africa strategy recently, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken stated the United States will work “with African partners to fulfill the promise of democracy,” and prioritize a “focus on the connection between democracy and security” in Africa. Uganda will be a serious test case for this commitment.

The country is the 10th-largest recipient of U.S. development, humanitarian, and security assistance—particularly for health and refugee support—and continues to receive significant funding from the European Union and European countries. The United States and others have long engaged Uganda’s military, which has the largest troop deployment in Somalia, as a key component of their regional security strategy. Uganda also hosts a U.S. Cooperative Security Location at Entebbe airport, critical to evacuating U.S. citizens in a crisis.

The United States and other countries have an opportunity in the next two years to put the democratic aspirations of the Ugandan people above what has amounted to an untenable partnership with one man and his unaccountable inner circle—or at least get out of the way of those democratic aspirations. This requires some hard policy decisions. It means a review of the millions of dollars in annual U.S. assistance, an end to U.S. military support and exchanges, including for the African Union in Somalia, more concerted support for informal activism, pressure alongside other countries and Uganda’s democracy activists on the Independent Electoral Commission to live up to its name, and sanctions on inner circle leadership responsible for corruption or violations of human rights. Importantly, it requires that policy proclamations that promise principled partnership—such as the new U.S.-Africa policy—do not remain merely on paper.

Clearly, the United States and others cannot guarantee a credible or peaceful political transition in 2026 or ever. What they can do, however, is no longer act as if Uganda’s future or their interests are better served by the status quo that Museveni, or even his son, embodies.

Michael Mutyaba is a doctoral researcher in International Development at SOAS University of London. Maria E. Burnett is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program.

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).

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Michael Mutyaba

Doctoral Researcher in International Development, SOAS University of London