Uganda at 61: In his sunset years, Museveni tightens the noose
What does Museveni’s refusal to let go mean for the future of the country and region?
For weeks, Uganda’s political scene has been rocked by a scandal involving the country’s second-largest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Allegations have surfaced that key party leaders received campaign funds from President Museveni in 2021, purportedly to co-opt the FDC and thwart a potential alliance with the largest opposition party, Bobi Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP).
The accused leaders – FDC party president Patrick Amuriat and Secretary General Nandala Mafabi – have admitted to receiving the money but have declined to disclose its sources, purportedly to protect their donors’ security. This ambiguous stance and the NRM’s history of co-opting opposition figures lend significant plausibility to the claims that the funds originated from Museveni.
The apparent infiltration of the FDC highlights Museveni’s intensifying efforts to undermine political actors and institutions that challenge his regime, especially as its legitimacy wanes and as his advancing age signals the looming end of his tenure.
Power at any cost
At first glance, the recent crisis appears confined to the FDC — and indeed, local media has largely framed it as the internal wrangling typical of Ugandan opposition parties. However, it actually reflects the broader crisis of Ugandan politics in the twilight of Museveni’s rule.
As he clocks 79 – with some suggesting he might already be in his mid-eighties – Museveni likely has only a decade or so left at the helm before nature takes its course. Alarmingly, he has systematically weakened or co-opted virtually all key institutions to ensure no formidable rivals thrive.
While this approach has momentarily preserved the status quo and offered an illusion of peace, it foreshadows a tumultuous future. Without any political systems or institutions sufficiently equipped to take up the reins of the state, the country looks poised to descend into chaos upon his departure.
Museveni has always relentlessly sought to dismantle or neutralise opposition parties. His previous alliances with factions of the UPC and DP, where ‘alliance’ essentially translates to co-optation, serve as good examples. These factions abandoned their principles, aligning with the NRM in exchange for a handful of political positions and, quite plausibly, bribes.
The recent crisis in the FDC, and new allegations of infiltration in Bobi Wine’s NUP, suggest Museveni is intent on crippling any semblance of opposition by recruiting as puppets those of weak character. This approach is reminiscent of his Movement system in the 1990s, which decimated other parties and effectively established a single-party regime.
One man show
Surprisingly, his growing assault on political parties has not spared his own party, the ruling NRM. Throughout its history, he has dominated it so much that it appears unable to function independently of him.
In every election, he is endorsed as the party’s “sole candidate”, effectively blocking any internal challengers. And since the 2000s, he has been purging the regime of anyone rumoured to have presidential ambitions – from former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, to former Speaker Rebecca Kadaga.
Nowadays, his son, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, has been appearing at numerous rallies, sparking rumours of him succeeding his father. However, many view this as a diversion from the growing discussions about political transition, which are arising both within and outside the ruling party.
Having held onto power for four decades, it’s doubtful that Museveni would easily relinquish control, even to his own son. Instead, he is likely using him merely as a decoy, hoping to alleviate the popular pressure for change and to calm the nerves of panicky ruling crony elites concerned about the future of their wealth and power after his reign.
Strings of control
Yet, despite all these efforts, Museveni’s thirst for control appears insatiable. It is rooted in anxiety, not just about parties, but other pillars of Ugandan politics, notably the military. The army has been behind almost all changes of government in the country’s history, and the rising trend of coups across the continent appears to unsettle him.
So, Museveni has effectively divided the army into two: the Special Forces Command (SFC), tasked with presidential security, is widely believed to be better funded and equipped than the mainstream army, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).
Moreover, he is renowned for pitting military officials against one another, as in the well-known discord between former police chief General Kale Kayihura and former security minister General Henry Tumukunde.
Such divide-and-rule strategies likely breed resentment within military ranks. However, because of the atmosphere of fear he meticulously cultivates, such feelings remain suppressed – but only for as long as he’s in power.
Yet, Museveni’s manipulations are not confined to the military and parties. His intricate web has also ensnared the parliament. It is heavily bloated, with over 500 MPs, each drawing an average monthly salary of 35 million Uganda shillings (about $9,000), in an economy where 60% of Ugandans earn a paltry 200,000 shillings ($160) per month.
The financial barrier to entering parliament is also high, with campaigns reportedly requiring about 465 million Uganda shillings ($130,000). Consequently, it’s predominantly the wealthy who secure seats. Once in office, their primary concern becomes recouping campaign expenses. This ensures they are susceptible to bribery whenever Museveni needs a constitutional amendment to prolong his rule.
The parliament has thus become another pawn of the president, part of the extravagant political elite in a country brimming with poverty. The question is when – not if – popular anger will erupt against the political class, and Museveni’s fall could very well mark that moment.
Tightening the noose
The public has been deliberately suppressed and impoverished. Cooperatives and trade unions, once vital to the rural economy, virtually vanished as the government embraced neoliberal policies in the 1990s. Since the 2011 Walk to Work movement, freedoms of assembly have been significantly curtailed with draconian laws.
And since the rise of Bobi Wine in 2017, there has been an uptick in kidnappings and murders of opposition activists, intended to instil fear. Public trust in the police and courts long disappeared, due to frequent instances of fabricated charges – for instance, the recent murder charges against two opposition legislators, which many believe were contrived to intimidate Bobi Wine’s newly established NUP party.
His regular donations to religious institutions have gagged them from speaking out against state excesses. Indigenous kingdoms have been set against each other, often with violent outcomes. Local districts, originally designed to function as agents of service delivery, are now mere political gifts he doles out to curry favour.
Nearly every institution has felt the stifling chokehold of his control. Consequently, he has compromised the country’s structural integrity and endangered Uganda’s future stability. He stands as the linchpin of the organised chaos he has fostered. When he leaves, everything crumbles.
Shadows of turmoil
Western donors often view Museveni’s manoeuvres as evidence of his mastery in keeping things together. He has long been viewed as the guarantor of stability in the region, the steward of their security interests in the Great Lakes, the Sudans, and the Horn.
Disturbingly, these engagements have centred on him rather than the state and have prioritised military intervention, compounding the risk.
Without a clear contingency plan for his inevitable exit, the potential fallout from his departure could be catastrophic. The vacuum left could ignite numerous crises, from institutional failures and power struggles to violent conflicts and mass displacement, spilling over into the wider region.
The signs are clear.