Unless President Yoweri Museveni breaks with the ways of his predecessors and the trend of his own lengthy rule, popular protests and discontent will grow in Uganda, warns the International Crisis Group.
Uganda : No Resolution to Growing Tensions, the latest International Crisis Group report, examines the increasing dissatisfaction with Museveni’s administration. The main cause of the social unrest is a slow and continuing shift from constitutional-style government to patronage-based, personal rule. In his two decades of power, the president has come to rely like his predecessors – though without their wanton brutality – increasingly on centralised power, patronage and coercion to maintain control.
“Democratic initiatives lost momentum after the first decade of Museveni’s rule”, says EJ Hogendoorn, Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director. “Instead of supporting the no-party system as the framework for unfettered participation, the president began using it to further his own objectives”.
The British Protectorate of Uganda merged a highly diverse region of competing kingdoms and more loosely organised pastoral societies into a single entity. Milton Obote, independent Uganda’s first president, and Idi Amin worsened those divisions. They entered office with broad coalitions that soon foundered over colonial cleavages and turned instead to patronage and coercion to remain in power.
After the National Resistance Movement (NRM) seized power in 1986, Museveni seemed at first to put the country on a more inclusive path in order to restore civilian control, rule of law and economic growth. He created a non-partisan “democratic” system that many enthusiastically embraced, and an elaborate consultative process led to a new constitution in 1995 with checks and balances. But after a decade in power the president began using the no-party system to further his own objectives. Over time, he replaced veteran politicians and longstanding NRM members who criticised his policies with trusted members of his inner circle. He also created a patronage network loyal to him.
Museveni was elected to a fourth term in February 2011. He injected huge amounts of official funds into his campaign, and the government and NRM harassed the opposition. While Museveni won majorities throughout the country, it is uncertain whether this reflected more his popularity or the power of his purse and other state resources.
The discovery of significant oil reserves is unlikely to reduce social and political tensions. The oil may ensure Museveni’s control by enabling him to consolidate his system of patronage, but it could also feed corruption and disrupt the steady growth produced by economic diversification. Five years after learning that the country will become a major oil producer, the government is just beginning to put a regulatory framework in place. Meanwhile, popular protests are increasing. “Walk to Work” demonstrations continue in Kampala and other urban centres despite a violent crackdown.
“The president’s re-election, access to material resources, tactical skill, ability to deflect international criticism and ambition to control the country’s transition to an oil exporter suggest that he will try to continue to consolidate his personal power and direct Uganda’s future for some time to come, despite the consequences this may have for long-term stability”, says Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director. “Unless he changes course, however, tension will grow. Considering Uganda’s violent past, conflict might then become more deadly”.