This is a preview excerpt from ‘Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change’, recently published by Zed Books in the ‘African Arguments’ series. For more books in the series click here.
A screaming came across the sky, as MiG fighter jets buzzed the tops of Kampala’s green hills, leaving behind long trails of inexplicably orange smoke. “˜Perhaps they’re going to crash?’ one lecturer remarked, ducking as the jets zoomed down over Makerere University. Nothing of the sort – the government’s blatant display of power over the city’s two million inhabitants went off without a hitch, a capstone to the brutal military force used to crush the urban protests that had rocked the country for the previous month.
The fighters were a mocking display of state impunity. The government of President Yoweri Museveni had, without debate or approval, spent $740 million on the planes, a significant chunk of the entire yearly national budget. This in a country where hospitals and clinics are regularly without power or running water, let alone drugs or doctors, where youth unemployment is around 80 per cent, and where malnutrition stalks the expanding slums. While its people suffer under a breakdown of social services and livelihoods, the Museveni regime expands its military force – which the state then uses when the people rise up to protest their deprivation.
Indeed, it was another five years of Museveni’s rule that the MiGs’ maiden flight was celebrating. Uganda’s third multiparty presidential election had been held in February 2011, and 12 May was inauguration day. The ceremony itself was being put on at a cost of several million dollars – again over denunciations by activists and media – and a number of African state leaders were in town to congratulate Museveni on winning his fourth term as president. Added to his unelected time at the helm from 1986–96, it made a quarter-century in power and the promise of at least five more years.
In the midst of the state-orchestrated celebration, however, news started to filter up from Entebbe airport, twenty miles to the south. Kizza Besigye, the main opposition presidential candidate and catalysing figure of the recent protests, was on a flight back from Nairobi, where he had gone for medical treatment two weeks earlier after having a canister of pepper spray emptied into his eyes by a state security agent. Now he was making his return, and huge crowds came out to line the road between Entebbe and Kampala to welcome him back. After landing and struggling past airport security, Besigye set off for Kampala, and a one-hour drive stretched out to eleven as the jubilant crowds swelled and riot police and military tried to scatter them with tear gas, bullets, and armoured vehicles.
As Besigye’s car crept closer to Kampala and the roads filled with throngs of people, many of Kampala’s residents wondered aloud if the country would see a second inauguration that day. Would Besigye declare himself president in front of tens – or hundreds – of thousands of supporters? Would the government be able to crush an uprising that large? Would it be a Tahrir Square moment for Uganda, the overthrow of a dictator through peaceful mass action, the culmination of the urban uprising known as “˜Walk to Work’ that had shaken Uganda to its roots over the last month?
None of this was to be. Besigye finally made it to Kampala, only to give a speech and go home. The crowds dispersed, and Besigye’s return, instead of being the climax to what had perhaps been the most important unarmed opposition movement of post-independence Uganda, revealed only the movement’s political exhaustion. The large-scale protests were over, opposition leaders were arrested, and Kampala became a “˜garrison city’, in which an expansive network of informants and infiltrators represents the hidden side of a security regime whose visible side occupies every open space – parks, roundabouts, major roads – in a permanent deployment of riot police and armoured vehicles.
While it lasted, however, Walk to Work presented a fundamental challenge to understandings of politics in contemporary Uganda. The movement managed to achieve a unique, though tenuous, convergence between urban political society and civil society and between different ethnic groups and regions around a set of political and economic demands. Walk to Work had demonstrated the continued possibility of non-violent political change in Uganda while also illuminating the obstacles that any movement would have to overcome to realize that change. The protest movement had shown one way out of the dilemmas of national politics in Uganda, igniting imaginations as had not happened since the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power – before the uprising itself fell victim to those very dilemmas, fragmenting into particularized constituencies without a common vision for progressive political change in the country.
The dilemmas of Ugandan politics
For the significance of the 2011 protests to be clear, they need to be framed within the broader and long-standing dilemmas structuring Ugandan politics over the previous decades. One place to start is with a brief account of the three national questions that have largely defined the context of post-colonial Ugandan politics: the Northern question, the Buganda question, and the Asian question. All three national questions are the legacy of colonial indirect rule and the politicization of ethnicity and race on which it was founded (see Mamdani 1976; Gingyera-Pinycwa 1989; Branch 2011; Golooba-Mutebi 2011). The sitting NRM government has built its power on managing these questions through a blend of co-optation and force. Together, they pose serious dilemmas for any effort to challenge the NRM’s hold on power.
The Northern question emerged from Uganda’s post-colonial regional politics. From independence in 1962 until 1986, Uganda was ruled by leaders from northern ethnic groups despite the fact that the south of the country, and in particular the Buganda region where Kampala is located, was the seat of economic and social power. Resentment by southerners against what they saw as a quarter-century of northern dictatorship gave rise to the Northern question: how to end northern domination and bring the north into a more inclusive national political arrangement. This resentment helped spur the southern-based National Resistance Army (NRA), led by Museveni, to victory in 1986 after a five-year guerrilla war.
Once in power, the NRM gave its answer as to how to deal with the north: crush its military power and eradicate its political capacity to mount a coherent challenge to the NRM state. In the north of the country, NRM power took the form of a counter-insurgency state, as a series of brutal civil wars erupted and the northern populations found themselves subject to social and economic devastation for over twenty years. The result is that today the Northern question has itself taken a new shape: how to deal with that legacy of state violence and how to reincorporate the north politically and economically into the country so as to prevent armed violence from being seen by northerners as the only route to political change.
The Northern question and the Buganda question were closely linked. Although the core of Museveni’s NRA came from the south-west of Uganda, it waged its guerrilla war in the central Buganda region and drew many of its rank-and-file fighters from there. The Baganda (the ethnic group that inhabits Buganda), though far from a majority, are the largest group in Uganda and had been privileged under British colonialism due to their centralized political organization under their “˜king’, the Kabaka. From the late colonial period onwards, therefore, the question of what Buganda’s place should be within a national political structure loomed large. So too did the problem of the role of the Kabaka in regional and national politics, as well as a set of historical grievances of the Baganda. With independence, the Buganda question was effectively answered in practice through the repression of the Baganda by the succession of militarized northern regimes. In 1986, however, with the ascension of the NRM to power, the terms of national politics were suddenly reversed. Political power was now based in the south, held by a government that depended on a strong relationship with the Baganda and that saw a need to guard that relationship into the future.
The NRM’s answer to the Buganda question thus was to manage the Baganda through a trickle of concessions – key among them the restoration of cultural kingdoms and the reinstatement of the Kabaka – and a delicate balancing act with the Baganda leadership. NRM power in the south was thus diametrically opposed to its long counter-insurgency in the north. In the south, the NRM built support through reconstruction, the guarantee of security, and the promise of future development. The NRM was able to expand its base and thus avoid having either to depend too much upon the Baganda or to capitulate to demands for Baganda privilege, which would have been deeply unpopular in the rest of the country. The challenge for any national opposition movement is to represent northern grievances and cultivate support in Buganda without alienating the rest of the country.
The third national question, the Asian question, originated in the economic privilege granted to the Asian population under colonialism, part of British efforts to prevent the emergence of an African nationalist bourgeoisie or cross-racial anti-colonial movements (Mamdani 1976). The result has been that, since colonialism, popular grievances over economic inequality have often been racialized, with the Uganda Asian community the scapegoat.
Most dramatically, this led to Idi Amin’s 1972 Asian expulsion. As Asians have been invited back by the NRM as part of the regime’s effort to attract foreign investment, they have had to depend upon the regime for security (Hundle 2013). Reports of Asian business leaders providing financial support or services (including money-laundering) to the regime are common. Today, Asians are again targets of popular economic grievances, especially as the regime presides over increasing inequality. Urban popular protest has a strong tendency to degenerate into anti-Asian violence, as it has since the colonial period and as was seen most recently in the Mabira riots and the 2009 Buganda riots, discussed below. As the NRM business-political-military elite profits from widespread state corruption, the urban population grows more frustrated and resentful. In this situation, a racialized scapegoat is useful to divert attention from the state’s role in economic deprivation. Any protest movement, therefore, would need to de-racialize and repoliticize economic grievances if it is to avoid another turn to anti-Asian violence.
The NRM state and political opposition
Recognizing the many centrifugal forces at work in Ugandan politics, Museveni gave little room to opposition. Once in power, his “˜broad base’ strategy co-opted most armed and unarmed opposition leadership, while the “˜no-party’ Movement system allowed political parties to exist but not to compete in elections (Mugaju and Oloka-Onyango 2000). Rural areas were key to Museveni’s strategy as a bastion of votes and a counterweight to possible urban dissent. Under the NRM, customary rural authority was dismantled, and in its place a hierarchy of elected resistance councils was formed. The councils were soon transformed into components of the security apparatus, however, and a dense web of centrally appointed administrators and security personnel reached from the capital to the district headquarters down to the village. This rural administrative-security apparatus ensured that Museveni and the NRM continued to win the vote and prevented organized opposition. The “˜broad base’ was a powerful effort to forge support for the NRM throughout the country, whether by coercion, consent, or clientelism. Competing with that national structure presents a continuing challenge for any opposition force.
The political economy of the NRM state, as it was consolidated in the 1990s, was one of expansive corruption and donor dependence in the context of a neoliberal policy framework (Branch 2011: 80–7; Sjogren 2013). A military-political-business elite around Museveni emerged at the heart of the regime, which has held increasing power in the country ever since. Massive donor support, despite those donors’ constant refrains of “˜good governance’, has only further enabled and exacerbated corruption. Since the mid-1990s, despite the corruption and abuse, Uganda has been a donor favourite and has enjoyed an influx of foreign aid amounting to 80 per cent of its development expenditures (Reno 2002).The consistently high levels of donor support are the product of several factors. First, Uganda’s reputation is tied strongly to Museveni himself (Mwenda 2007; Tripp 2004). By the mid-1990s, he had been named by President Bill Clinton as one of the “˜new leaders of Africa’ who would lead the “˜new African renaissance’ that was dawning on the continent. Museveni has cultivated close personal relations with a number of European politicians and has managed to retain important political support from significant sections of the US establishment.
Uganda’s reputation among donors has also been ensured by its image as a success story of economic neoliberalism. But, as has been the case in other countries undergoing neoliberal restructuring, the consequence in Uganda has been strong economic growth numbers alongside weak social services and deepening poverty (Bibangambah 2001: 128–9). These changes hit the swelling urban population particularly hard, contributing to the conditions for protest.
Uganda’s willingness to engage in neoliberal reform played an important role in helping the government to ensure that any donor criticism of its human rights record or of its militarization would be short-lived. It has also ensured that Uganda would be able to continue to use donor funding at its own discretion, as donors are wary of doing anything that might threaten Uganda’s reputation and put the efficacy of their own policies into doubt. The military budget is itself key to the consolidation of power: while donors extended their sway over most of the national budget, they left military expenditure under Museveni’s discretionary control and thus available to the regime for its own ends. Despite donor complaints, in Mwenda’s words, “˜Museveni always won; the donors always lost’ (2010: 50–1). The defence budget has consistently increased under Museveni, from $42 million in 1992, to $110 million in 2001, to $260 million by the end of the decade (2010). Therefore, as Mwenda and Tangri conclude, “˜donor reforms have reinforced rather than reduced the propensity of political leaders to use the state and its resources to maintain themselves in power’ (2005: 451). Museveni’s enlistment in the war on terror, in particular his willingness to deploy Ugandan military in Somalia and to serve as the key regional security broker in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, has made him even more indispensable to the US government. A statement on the United States Agency for International Development website leaves no doubt about the relationship: “˜Uganda has been a model in the fight against HIV/AIDS, poverty reduction, and economic reform, and is a strong ally in the war against terrorism.’1
The year 1996 saw the first presidential elections under the NRM, which Museveni handily won. By the late 1990s, however, cracks were emerging in the NRM’s machine caused by Ugandan involvement in the Congo war and accusations by Besigye, Museveni’s former close ally from the guerrilla war, about NRM corruption. In the lead-up to 2001, Besigye broke with the regime and launched his own presidential campaign. Despite the significant support gained by Besigye, Museveni, with the state security apparatus at his disposal, again easily triumphed. In 2005, multiparty elections were reintroduced, and Besigye, whose brutal treatment after 2001 had forced him into exile, returned and stood for president under the Forum for Democratic Change banner. The 2006 election was marked by intense state violence against opposition supporters as well as the high-profile arrest and trial of Besigye on treason, terrorism, and rape charges. Besigye lost the election but garnered 37 per cent of the vote, winning Kampala and most of the north and east of the country, often by huge margins.
By the time of the 2011 elections, the Ugandan political landscape had taken on a distinctive hue. Museveni depended largely on rural areas for his votes, where opposition political parties were ineffective in organizing because of their own shortcomings and the state’s security apparatus, which kept them restricted to urban areas. Organized labour, which played an important role in politics elsewhere in the region, was almost entirely absent in Uganda, restricted largely to transport associations and teachers’ associations, which were subject to intense state control and intimidation. The main Kampala traders’ association would play only a limited role in the protests. A substantial donor-funded civil society had emerged in Uganda, but one that had little interest or capacity to engage in politics. Donor pressure combined with state repression to keep NGOs from taking overtly political positions. Their mandates focused more on depoliticized development and governance than explicitly political issues, and the class interests of urban NGO employees made employment in civil society an opportunity for a secure middle-class lifestyle instead of a commitment to an oppositional or even liberal politics.
By 2011, Besigye, once again the candidate of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), could count on an enthusiastic following in urban areas, in particular Kampala. Every arrest would provoke demonstrations or small riots, and his rallies produced huge crowds. As the elections drew near, the opposition had a firm grip on the urban centres and benefited from a visceral anti-Museveni protest vote in the north and east. However, the violence and bribery accompanying almost every Ugandan election, the opposition parties’ incapacity to build rural support, and the judiciary’s refusal to impugn government vote-rigging all left the opposition increasingly despondent about its chances of capturing power through elections. Meanwhile, conditions in urban areas were increasingly explosive, as unemployment and inequality became more glaring in the face of the disjuncture between the celebratory rhetoric of good governance and the sordid reality of state corruption, social service collapse, police brutality, and disintegrating infrastructure.
The dilemmas that faced any protest politics, therefore, were stark. Protest would have to deal with a continued rural–urban divide, a dearth of organized labour, poorly organized political parties whose support was limited to urban areas, and an urban political society that was ready to take to the streets but had little capacity for a sustained presence or strategic action. It would have to address a northern region that seemed on the verge of another bout of armed conflict. It would have to deal with a swelling population of poor, frustrated Baganda youth in Kampala and other urban areas who rallied around the Kabaka and had the potential for rapid and violent political mobilization along ethnically chauvinist lines (Golooba-Mutebi 2011). It would also have to deal with a largely non-political civil society, a state which had managed to build support through expansive webs of corruption in which almost all formal political and economic institutions were complicit, and an economy and politics dependent upon the support of donors who continued to champion Museveni. Most threateningly, protest politics would have to deal with a highly militarized regime, one that depended upon a militarized police force and, in the extreme, upon the military itself to maintain order – a regime that did not hesitate to use violence against the population.
The first urban explosion would come in September 2009, when days of violent protests by Baganda, in particular Baganda youth, gave Museveni, according to Kalinaki (2009a), “˜the biggest test of his career’. The 2009 Buganda riots demonstrated the fragility of the political settlement established by the NRM, but also revealed the need for political opposition to effectively address difficult national political questions in order to succeed.
Adam Branch is associate professor of political science at San Diego State University. From 2011 to 2014 he was research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Kampala.
Zachariah Mampilly is director of the programme in African studies and associate professor of political science and international studies at Vassar College. From 2012 to 2013 he was a Fulbright visiting professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Dar es Salaam.