‘The problem of Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power,’ the young rebel Yoweri Museveni declared in 1986.
President Museveni, now 71 (though many believe he is older) and in power for 30 years, wrote this in his book What Is Africa’s Problem? Since then, like many of his fellow African leaders, Museveni had a change of heart once in office and rewrote the constitution in 2005 to scrap the two-term limit.
Now the veteran president has coasted through another disputed election to win a fifth term in office, shrugging off widespread opposition at home and trenchant criticism from abroad. According to the Ugandan Electoral Commission, Museveni garnered just over 60% of the votes, against nearly 36% for the main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, and just 1.39% for third-placed Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister. The BBC reported that Besigye, who was put under house arrest with his access to the internet blocked a day after the elections, said: ‘This has not been an electoral process. This is a creeping military coup.’
The European Union election observers said the ruling National Resistance Movement’s ‘domination of the political landscape distorted the fairness of the campaign and state actors were instrumental in creating an intimidating atmosphere for both voters and candidates.’ It condemned ‘intimidation and harassment of opposition’ by police, the electoral commission’s ‘lack of transparency and independence’, blocking access to social media on election day and the late delivery of voting material to opposition strongholds.
Commonwealth election observers also criticised the elections, castigating the ‘misuse of state resources, which led to significant advantages for the incumbent’, a political scene awash with money, inequitable media coverage, questionable ballot secrecy, and an incompetent electoral commission. The chair of the Commonwealth Observer Group, Olusegun Obasanjo, who should know something about electoral fraud as a former president of Nigeria (EU observers found ‘widespread electoral fraud’ in 2003, including a North Korean-style 99.2% of the vote in Obasanjo’s home state), said: ‘Once again these elections fell short of meeting key democratic benchmarks.’
The EU observer mission said the vote had been conducted in an ‘intimidating’ atmosphere—Besigye’s arrest was the fourth time in eight days. Police also stormed Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change party headquarters and detained activists.
On 9 March Reuters reported that lawyers for Mbabazi, who were preparing to challenge the election results, said thieves had broken into their offices and stolen 100 affidavits to be presented in court. ‘Only material concerning the petition was taken,’ one lawyer said. The government denied any role in the robberies, though Mbabazi said people wearing police uniforms took part in one break-in.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, expressed concern about Besigye’s detention and the harassment of opposition activists, urging Museveni to rein in the security forces. Last August Museveni rejected pointed remarks by Barack Obama about term limits, saying: ‘For us in Uganda, we rejected this business of term limits. If I am in power because I am voted by the people, then I am there by the will of the people.’
Museveni’s muzzling of the press has obscured the nepotism that surrounds him. Many believe his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who heads a praetorian guard of special forces, is being lined up as heir. But as the Economist noted in 2013, other relatives in powerful posts include Museveni’s wife (a cabinet minister), sister, brother, stepbrother and cousin.
Regional leaders generally back Museveni, perhaps mindful of democratic deficits closer to home and equally resistant to foreigners advising them to quit. Paul Kagame in Rwanda endorsed Museveni in December, saying: ‘I have been working well with the incumbent … I wish him well.’ After his neighbour was duly returned to State House, the Rwandan leader said Museveni’s victory was ‘certainly a reflection of the trust the Ugandan people have in your ability to lead them forward’.
Museveni, whose connection with Kagame goes back to the 1980s, sent Ugandan troops to fight with their Rwandan allies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (they were charged by the International Court of Justice with looting, killing and torturing, using child soldiers and razing villages but Uganda has ignored the court’s 2005 order to pay $10bn reparations). Ugandan forces were also instrumental in preventing a rebel takeover of the South Sudan capital, Juba, and shoring up Salva Kiir’s government after civil war began in 2013.
‘His actions may not always be approved, but he has made Uganda a serious player in the region,’ said Magnus Taylor, from the International Crisis Group thinktank, AFP reported. ‘While Uganda’s drift towards authoritarianism, coupled with the high-profile introduction of legislation to criminalise homosexuality and regulate the operational environment for NGOs, may not win approval from western actors, Museveni has embedded himself to the extent that the internationals accept his military contributions with one hand whilst wagging a censorious finger with the other.’
In a 2014 essay in the New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein said that while working as a public health consultant in Uganda over 20 years, development agencies such as the World Bank and USAid pumped $20bn into the country. ‘I’d looked on with dismay as the budgets of many of these projects were looted, elections were rigged, and innocent people who tried to draw attention to this were intimidated or worse.’ But, she lamented, because Museveni had long been an important US ally in the ‘war on terror’—with troops deployed in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq—‘so the money kept flowing anyway’. Museveni, she said in the New York Review of Books this year, had ‘overseen a feast of corruption remarkable even by African standards’.
As the Observer declared: ‘Museveni sets a poor example for African democracy and governance. By obstructing Uganda’s changing needs and aspirations with his grimly immovable presence, he does the nation a disservice.’