Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, a Regional Heavyweight

Yoweri Museveni
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

AFRICANGLOBE – A diplomat for the region and an autocrat on the home front, President Yoweri Museveni seeks to burnish Uganda’s regional diplomatic credentials and carve out a larger role in East Africa.

As Uganda turns 50, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni will have been in power for close to 27 years. To most in Uganda, a country with a median age of 15 years, he is as permanent a fixture as it is possible to imagine. Memories of the civil wars and instability that blighted the post-independence years, together with the regimes of Milton Obote and Idi Amin Dada, are beginning to fade.

Now, especially in the cities, there is a growing impatience with President Museveni and his entrenched National Resistance Movement (NRM). But as dissent grows at home, Museveni is taking a more powerful role in the region.

Following the demise of Ethiopian premier Meles Zenawi, Museveni is now the most prominent of the pro-Western leaders in the region and backers of the United States’ counter-terrorism strategy. Uganda is instrumentalising a security agenda at a time when the entire region experiences the uncertainties that have come with jihadist militancy along the East Coast and resource conflicts around the Great Lakes.

“Museveni’s importance in the region is his capacity to deploy the military without real question from any authority. There is no other country in the region that is able to do that,” observes Prof. Golooba-Mutebi, a political scientist at the Makerere Institute in Uganda. “Even Kagame, for all the claims of him being a dictator, does not have the capacity to do that without institutional sanction.”

He is also a regional arbiter. As tensions mount in the Great Lakes, it is to Museveni that the antagonists are turning. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, with whom Museveni recently mended fences, increasingly relies on him as an intermediary with Washington and London. A senior European official described a meeting with Museveni about the Great Lakes as a “diplomatic master class”.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) president Joseph Kabila, whose government struggles to deal with Rwanda’s military manoeuvres, sees Museveni as some sort of father figure. As Kabila’s ministers accused Kagame of backing the M23 rebels marauding through the Kivu provinces, it was Museveni’s intervention in July that dampened down the crisis.

Museveni’s advisers worry about a chaotic Kenyan transition next March. In 2008, after botched elections turned violent in Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki was grateful for Museveni’s intervention.
As the grand mzee of East Africa, Museveni has invited at least five of Kenya’s presidential aspirants to Kampala for private talks. Kenya may have the biggest economy in the region, but it is Museveni’s Uganda that has become a guarantor of regional stability.

New governments in Ethiopia and Kenya will have to consolidate power over the next year, but Museveni will be a regional constant. His mooted ambition to become the first president of the East African Community is looking far less outlandish. Two decades ago Museveni suggested that the continent would need a Bismarck to realise the pan-African dream; today he looks a credible candidate for that role, in East Africa at least.

Tensions will simmer between the DRC and Rwanda, perhaps drawing in states from the Southern African Development Community. Again Museveni’s counsel will be in demand. Museveni’s long-term links with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, now in government in Juba, mean a role for Kampala in another key regional dispute. Recent elections in Mogadishu will do little to diminish security concerns, so Uganda’s troops are set to stay in Somalia for now.

Less happy at home

Museveni’s regional ascendancy contrasts sharply with the standing of his government at home. His ruling NRM has unprecedentedly lost eight by-elections over the past year. NRM loyalists say they are unfazed by these mid-term losses. “Democracy is taking root. The people are freely making their own decisions. That should be seen as a victory of our movement, not a loss,” says Ruhakana Rugunda, a founding member of the NRM and old Museveni ally.

For many, the vote signals a much deeper malaise. When Museveni swept back to power with a two-thirds majority for a fourth term last year, critics accused him of buying the elections. That seemed a reasonable charge, given that parliament’s public account committee chair Nathan Nandala-Mafabi said the government was taking funds from other budgets to finance the election.

Since then, Museveni has struggled to manage party dissenters and curb the opposition protests that swept across the country last year. Organised by the opposition Forum for Democratic Change and led by Kizza Besigye, the ‘Walk to Work’ demonstrators upset Museveni’s victory parade last May. Museveni’s response was to bring out the military. It was the third time in five years that he had resorted to force against mass demonstrations in areas where he had once enjoyed popular support.

At his inaugural speech on 26 January 1986, Museveni argued that “leaders who overstayed in power” were at the heart of Africa’s leadership crisis. Those long-term leaders bred impunity, corruption and patronage, he added. When, in 2006, Museveni used his party’s majority in parliament to override the constitution’s two-term limit and extend his reign, even his supporters struggled to justify the turnaround.

His words have returned to haunt him. Deserted by many of his old comrades with whom he launched the liberation struggle in the early 1970s, Museveni has increasingly turned to the old tricks of big-man rule: a combination of carrots and sticks in the form of personal handouts, official positions and development allocations to shore up support. Museveni now follows the autocrat’s script. Opposition activists face the growing use of vicious attacks from police and party goons.

For the many Ugandans who praised Museveni’s stabilisation of the country in the late 1980s, this violence points to a dangerous contradiction between his influential regional role and his increasingly desperate domestic tactics.


By; Parselelo Kantai